PHOTO: Risdon Photography

Meet Chris Estes, president and CEO of the National Housing Conference (NHC), a longtime advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Estes stepped into the NHC’s top post in 2012 after eight years leading one of the country’s best-known state housing groups, the North Carolina Housing Coalition. AHF recently caught up with him to discuss the road ahead for the NHC and housing advocacy.

What are the NHC’s priorities this year?
Legislatively, there’s work [to be done] on HUD and USDA funding and protecting the housing credit in any sort of tax reform. We’re also making a major push around mortgage finance reform. We brought together a broad coalition of organizations across the housing spectrum to help us develop a set of principles for that reform that the NHC endorsed back in the fall. Now, we’re moving to get as many organizations [as we can] to endorse it so we can bring it, as a collective, to Congress and try to influence the final legislation.

How is housing advocacy changing?
We have to be more thoughtful about how we link housing to other beneficial issues like education, health care, and economic opportunity. For a long time, we focused on how housing looked and how energy efficient it was or how many units got built. Now, in a period of austere budgets, the housing community will have to think more about outcomes for people. How are people who live in our multifamily developments doing? What are the benefits they’re experiencing? It helps us justify why these programs are so important.
I also think the housing community has thought of itself too much as an industry. I think it’s done so out of an idea that we’re an important economic force and this is a business. All of that is very true, but affordable housing is really a movement. It was created by people who advocated for these programs. That sort of movement thinking calls us to think more about how our work fits together.

You can still be a for-profit developer building with the low-income housing tax credit. But if you’re not thinking about how your piece fits into the community’s well being, or how you’re connecting with schools, we’re not moving our field as far forward as we can.

Share with us an interesting housing fact or statistic.
What matters most to people is what the housing need is locally. People want to know what it’s like in their town. I use our Housing Landscape report to show people that a quarter of all renters who work in their community are paying more than 50 percent of their income for housing and utilities. This isn’t something that’s about other people. It affects them.

Best advice you can share with others in affordable housing?
Our tag line is, “We’re All Stronger Together.” I’m much more hopeful and excited about work when I can bring other folks together to work with us. You can be very successful in a competitive environment but still have a very collaborative and supportive approach to understanding the value partners bring to your work.

What’s next for the NHC?
Trying to grow the NHC beyond its D.C.-centric world. I want the NHC and our research arm, the Center for Housing Policy, to be even more relevant and helpful to how housing gets done on the ground. We’re obviously focused on federal housing policy, but there’s real innovation and opportunity at the local and regional levels. We want a better connection to the housing development field as a whole.