From her early work operating a shelter in Richmond, Va., to her current role as president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), Sheila Crowley has spent her career being an advocate for extremely low-income households.
Growing up in a family of liberal Democrats during the civil rights movement, she says she always knew she wanted to do something in the public service arena.
“My interest has always been poverty issues,” says Crowley.
A high school guidance counselor steered her in the direction of social work. She pursued that path and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the late 1970s from Virginia Commonwealth University’s (VCU’s) School of Social Work.
Her interest in housing paired with supportive services stemmed from her first internship at a community mental health center when deinstitutionalization was in full swing in Virginia. Many people with mental illnesses were being sent to live in group homes run by mom-and-pop operators. None of the homes were particularly good, she says. “That was my first experience, seeing the poor housing circumstances of people who were poor.”
After earning her master’s, she went on to open the first shelter for battered women and their children in Richmond. And from 1984 to 1992, she served as executive director of The Daily Planet, a Richmond nonprofit focused on providing an array of services for the homeless.
Here she saw the firsthand effects of the shortage of affordable housing on individuals and decided to return to VCU’s School of Social Work to get her doctorate so she could figure out what was causing the increase in homeless numbers.
"I never studied tax policy and housing finance," she says. "But if you want to change housing policy, you have to understand those things."
After serving as the 1996-97 social work congressional fellow on the Democratic staff of the Housing Subcommittee of the Senate Banking Committee, she joined the NLIHC in 1998 to take on housing policy at the national level.
"The NLIHC board sets the policy agenda that the staff works to carry out, " she says. "My responsibility has been to advance our core mission, which has always been focused on the people with the lowest incomes."
For Crowley and the NLIHC, key to the mission of helping expand and preserve the supply of affordable housing for extremely low-income households has been the efforts to protect existing financing tools and find new funding sources.
Most notable has been the years-long battle to get the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF) enacted into law and then get it funded.
The discussion of the NHTF, which would provide new money for rental housing production for extremely low-income households, re-emerged toward the end of the Clinton administration and became the rallying cry for the NLIHC for more than a decade.
The coalition’s NHTF Campaign, which received support from the Melville Charitable Trust until this past year, worked to build on the existing concept of housing trust funds on the local level.
"It was never that people objected to the concept of a NHTF," she says. "It's just the funding sources that someone will object to, which is still the case today. But we cannot generate new revenue without somebody having to pay more, so there's always somebody that's going to object. The NHTF has become our signature issue."
The NHTF was finally enacted into law as part of the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 and was supposed to be capitalized with contributions from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But shortly after, the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs) were placed into conservatorship and their contributions suspended.
At the end of last year, the NLIHC’s and Crowley’s hard work paid off. Federal Housing Finance Agency director Mel Watt lifted the suspensions and directed the GSEs to make payments to the NHTF.
"We expect that there will be more money than originally predicted in the president's budget, which we think was extremely conservative," says Crowley. "It's still not nearly enough money."
Crowley will continue to push for more funds. "One thing we're still holding on to very tightly is the progress that we made in the GSE legislation in the Senate last year to wind down Fannie and Freddie and put billions of dollars into the NHTF," she says. "My expectation is when Congress takes up housing finance reform again that that will continue to be a core principal and that the trust fund will receive significant funding."
In addition to the NHTF, the NLIHC received a grant from U.K.-based Oak Foundation to develop expertise around the mortgage interest deduction (MID). "It's clear to me the MID as it currently exists won't survive the next round of comprehensive tax reform," she says. "The question will be if the housing world is capable of coalescing around some part of the money raised be used for affordable housing and be used to solve the housing problems that our existing programs cannot address."
Crowley says getting GSE money for the trust fund and getting new funding directed from the MID seem to be the two most lucrative routes for solving the housing problem for extremely low-income individuals and families.
"Sheila is a tireless advocate for people in great need, and her commitment to creating policy that will serve the affordable housing needs of very low-income people is unwavering," said Terri Ludwig, president and CEO of Enterprise Community Partners. "Enterprise is so inspired by her work, and we look forward to working closely with her to help end housing insecurity in our country."
Other highlights for Crowley during her tenure at the NLIHC have been the rebuilding of the organization from a staff of five when she started to almost 20 now as well as the campaign in 2002 to establish an endowment in honor of founder Cushing Dolbeare, which is still going strong.
"No matter what happens in the foundation world with funding that comes and goes, we will always have enough to maintain our policy program," Crowley says.
She also helped to expand the organization’s signature Out of Reach report, which examines the gaps between wages and rents, to cover every county in the country.
"In 1999, for the first time, Out of Reach gave you housing data about every jurisdiction," she says. "That year, media attention really took off. The research that had been around for 10 years finally got noticed. Since then, it's a story that gets massive coverage and puts the coalition on the map.
Crowley announced in September that she will be retiring from the NLIHC in 2016. She and her husband, Kent Willis, who retired as executive director of the ACLU of Virginia in 2012, have two daughters and six grandchildren.