Fay Darmawi
Fay Darmawi

Affordable housing needs to make a name for itself. A self-regulating industry consisting of public agencies, nonprofit organizations, and for-profit private companies (including the nation’s largest financial institutions), who in partnerships have created more than 2 million new rental housing units for low- and moderate-income people in the United States, is virtually unknown to most Americans. Our obscurity has created the context in which important, if not crucial, financial and regulatory tools have been, or are at risk of being, abolished in my home state of California.

Within a span of only eight months in 2011, current Gov. Jerry Brown dissolved approximately 400 redevelopment agencies (RDAs) and absorbed their funds into the state’s general fund for other uses. The dissolution of RDAs created a $1 billion gap statewide in local housing subsidy. The same governor has now refused to back a new state law that will serve to clarify the legality of local inclusionary zoning ordinances, another crucial tool in building affordable housing.

With the new law, housing advocates tried unsuccessfully to overturn a 2009 court decision known as the “Palmer decision” that prohibits municipalities from placing inclusionary housing requirements on new rental housing development. Gov. Brown vetoed it stating that in his experience as mayor of Oakland, “Requiring developers to include below-market units in their projects can exacerbate these challenges, even while not meaningfully increasing the amount of affordable housing in a given community.”

Housing advocates contend that their new bill clarifies that the Palmer decision had always allowed municipalities the discretion to pass inclusionary housing ordinances. Thus if the city of San Francisco elects to have an inclusionary housing ordinance, it would not be in violation of Palmer. Indeed the city of San Francisco has such an ordinance. In the context of the recent veto, one can see how precarious the San Francisco ordinance is. To keep inclusionary housing in place, we will need more than lawyers fighting in the courtroom. We will need groundswell support. And to build support for crucial affordable housing regulatory and financial tools, we need to explain them better.

We Are All in This Together

One way we can message affordable housing is to make people understand that in the housing market, we are all in this together. Although at first blush the legal framework of inclusionary housing seems too complex to create a sound bite, it is actually a perfect entree into the basic tenets of affordable housing. The idea behind inclusionary housing is that the creation of market-rate housing creates demand for affordable housing because the existence of high-income wage earners creates a demand for services of people working in the moderate- and low-wage sectors of the economy. Local municipalities have an affirmative obligation to meet the needs of not only high-wage earners, but also those of moderate and low incomes, because the existence of one causes the existence of the other, and cities cannot discriminate in meeting the needs of one without also meeting the needs of the other.

Furthermore, recently, Princeton University studied the effect of inclusionary housing on the town of Mount Laurel, N.J., the birthplace of this concept (ironically also currently under attack by the state of New Jersey), and found that low-income families who lived in economically integrated communities had children who did better in schools and lower rates of welfare dependency than those who lived in economically segregated communities. Thus, when we are all in this together, we do much better together.

How to Make Affordable Housing Relevant and Relatable

Many of us in the affordable housing industry are reluctant to toot our own horns. However, we must create a new vocabulary and imagery that appeal to the general public so that the public will support our work, or we will not be able to continue to create affordable, thriving, and diverse communities.

Below are a few recommendations that every organization related to the affordable housing field should consider for keeping the industry strong by making affordable housing relatable and relevant to all.

Public Relations Campaign: Convene a roundtable of housing and marketing professionals and make its primary goal the creation of a full-blown public relations campaign with messaging that is forward-looking and lighthearted.

Recently, the city of San Francisco Public Utilities Commission ran ads on public buses and on Twitter with humorous slogans meant to elicit public’s support and patience as it upgrades the citywide sewer system. Examples of the humorous ads include, “Your #2 is my #1,” “You can’t live a day without me,” and “No one deals with more crap than I do.” I may not look at a sewer line the same way again, which is precisely the reaction we should be aiming at when we create a new message about affordable housing.

Public Bus Banner Ad Idea: Place four photos next to each other, three of market-rate housing and one of affordable housing, and ask the question: “Can you guess which one is affordable housing?” I bet most people can’t. The quality of architecture and construction of affordable housing matches that of market-rate development.

Social Media: Take advantage of social media, an inexpensive and democratic mode of messaging. The abbreviated postings on Facebook and Twitter are conducive to distilling ideas into one sentence or partial phrases, even a single word. Instead of viewing social media as a dumbing down of complex concepts, it should be viewed as an exercise in shaping myriad facts and theories into one high concept that is accessible and memorable. Another useful aspect of social media is that it creates buzz. A recent experiment in a housing-focused public engagement campaign built with social media in mind is Home Matters. Created and run by NeighborWorks America (a national nonprofit that helps build the capacity of housing nonprofits), it tries to send a message that stable housing is the foundation of individual success, strong families, and thriving communities. While it’s a great start, the posts are not frequent enough and when they arrive in my feed, the issues are framed without a hook to incite discussion, missing the buzz engine advantage of social media.

Twitter Hashtags for Affordable Housing: I’m going to try my hand at a few Twitter hashtags to show how a few words can quickly illuminate complex ideas about affordable housing: #affordrent, #inclusionary, #StartWithHousing …

Press: Establish a regular standing column on “Housing” in The New York Times, a perfect fit for the Sunday Real Estate section. While Terri Ludwig, president and CEO of Enterprise Community Partners (a nonprofit started by Baltimore-based developer James Rouse), is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post Impact blog, my recommendation is for her to go bigger.

We need to target newspapers and magazines with the largest circulation that have in the past consistently shown interest in affordable housing to create a column just on housing. During November 2013 alone when I started writing this essay, affordable housing articles appeared in both The New Yorker and The New York Times. And indeed “Housing” received its own category “tag” in The Wall Street Journal’s Real Times Economics blog, so that’s a good start.

Blog Network: Create a blog network. Because housing issues are generated under a patchwork of local regulations and conditions, perhaps a national column is short of the best answer. The more innovative idea would be to create a network of local blogs on housing. The content would be more place-based instead of policy-based like the existing Shelterforce community development magazine. We can model it on the network of local blogs that focuses on making streets car-less, the Streetsblog. The Streetsblog is an online blog with “channels” representing various large cities, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, to name a few. Writers live in these cities and write localized blogs that get aggregated into one “network” to cross-pollinate ideas and strategies across cities. In addition, Streetsblog has an offshoot called Streetfilms, but I am getting ahead of myself, or maybe not!

Multimedia Storytelling: Create an online series of short documentaries about affordable housing efforts around the country. A promising new documentary production company called Micro-Documentaries creates “personal and powerful stories and original content in a way that is authentic, affordable, and actionable.”

It produced a two-minute documentary on a small rural credit union to showcase its founder and winner of the John P. McNulty Prize awarded yearly to very best in high-impact leadership. But why stop at documentaries? Why not a talk show, a comedy hour, a reality show? My point is we need to embrace all media platforms, many of which are very inexpensive to produce, to get the message out about the value affordable housing.

HousingWiki: Before we get fancy with multimedia storytelling, maybe we should start with basics. Establish a crowdsourced Wikipedia that defines housing-related terms, with lots of photos, maps, and diagrams, like a regular wiki. A HousingWiki would establish a common language for those of us in the industry, but more importantly for those who are NOT in the industry, to use when talking about affordable housing.

Our industry has done a great job connecting agencies within the field to one another. We have professional associations that represent nonprofit housing developers, social service providers, financial institutions, and public-sector agencies, and for the most part we also network with one another.

It’s now time to reach out to the general public who I believe is ripe to embrace affordable housing as way to address many of our systemic social and economic issues, but it’s up to us in the affordable housing industry to show everyone how.

Fay Darmawi is an urban planner and 20-year veteran of the affordable housing industry. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her teenage twin boys.