Spotlight Exclusives

New Playbook Presents Housing as a Fundamental Right

Lynn M. Ross Lynn M. Ross, posted on

The need for safe and affordable housing has emerged as one of the crucial crises of the coronavirus pandemic, and the Ford Foundation and Community Change have joined forces to offer policymakers a comprehensive set of potential solutions. As part of its Housing Playbook Project, Community Change recently released A New Deal for Housing Justice, more than 100 policy recommendations rooted in more than 400 ideas shared by grassroots leaders and advocates and drawing from more than 100 interviews. The work was led by Community Change Senior Fellow Lynn M. Ross, the founder and principal of Spirit for Change Consulting, LLC where she works nationally and across sectors with organizations on a mission to create and sustain equitable policies, practices and places. Ross has over 18 years of multi-sector experience including past senior leadership roles as Vice President, Community and National Initiatives at the Knight Foundation and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development in the Office of Policy Development and Research at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ross spoke with Spotlight recently about the housing playbook; the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Give us some of the background on how the New Deal for Housing Justice came about?

A New Deal has been an eight-month labor of love on the part of many people. The idea came from the Ford Foundation, which did a lot of groundwork in thinking about how best to catalyze the housing field leading up to the 2020 election and one thing they settled on was having a really robust and actionable housing playbook for the next administration. They partnered with Community Change to launch the Housing Playbook Project and I was brought on board as a senior fellow last June to lead the project. A New Deal for Housing Justice is a result of that effort and we’re delighted to be able to share it publicly. We’ve been sharing it since November with agency review teams and congressional leaders but it was always our intent to turn this back over to the people, because we’ve always viewed this as the peoples’ housing playbook.

So, the idea came even before the pandemic?

Yes, but I think the urgency of it became more apparent as the pandemic began to unfold. And we really began our work to develop content for the playbook well into the pandemic. We really began our work with the advisory committee and ultimately with the contributing authors very much aware of how dire the pandemic is and would still be post-election and well into the new year.

There’s an enormous amount of great material in the playbook. What are a few of the foundational concepts and key building blocks?

There are over 100 specific recommendations but I think what I’d like to drive home is the big idea behind New Deal for Housing Justice. One of the most important points to make about this work is that this is really about elevating the idea that housing is central, that housing is a right and really taking a whole government approach to housing justice policy. We were very intentional about that was bold, actionable, and understood that housing is not a singular issue. Working with the project co-chairs and advisory committee, we developed a set of guiding principles that are not just meant to be adopted by HUD. I think a lot of people will look at this playbook and think, this is only for HUD, and while it is for HUD, it is also for the White House, for Treasury, for the Department of Transportation and many other agencies. Housing policy is health policy. It is a transportation policy. It is a climate change policy. And we really wanted to drive that home in the way that the playbook was framed both with the guiding principles as well as the 11 policy questions the playbook explores. We really can’t make progress in other policy areas unless housing is addressed.

I’m sure racial equity was already an important frame, but how did the past year’s events in our country impact that part of your work?

The racial equity lens was something I came into the project knowing would be critical. It had already been identified by both Ford and Community Change as a central focus and in my own practice, as I only do work that is about advancing equity. There can’t be housing justice without racial justice and vice versa. So, we really knew that would be foundational to the playbook. When we selected our advisory committee members, when we selected our contributing authors and most importantly, when we put out a call for ideas to the public, to grassroots leaders, it was with this idea that we even wanted to be equitable in making the playbook. We really wanted to reflect on the experiences of those who are living with housing insecurity.

Are there a couple of recommendations that you might use as examples for our readers?

We’re already seeing movement on some of the key recommendations. COVID relief is something we called for in the playbook and we’re already starting to see movement on that in the first few days and weeks of the Biden-Harris administration. I think the press conference President Biden had recently that was really focused just on racial equity and directing agencies to just not address that but address their own culpability, that’s a key piece of what we suggest in this playbook – really acknowledging the harm that’s been caused, not creating new harm and making equity at the center of national policy. We have a series of recommendations for a number of agencies that call for things like guaranteed income, like reparations. We think these are important conversations that need to happen.

And have you had a specific reaction from the Biden-Harris administration to the playbook yet?

We shared an early version of this playbook with multiple agency review teams as well as several congressional leaders in November. I can’t speak to the specifics of those conversations, but what I can say is the reaction has been positive. To me, the proof is in the pudding. I think if you look at who is being selected for roles in agencies, if you look at some of the early actions the administration is taking, I see the playbook and the ideas in the playbook situated very clearly in that work. That’s what we’re going to be looking for in the next 100 to 200 days and throughout the administration. But I’m encouraged by what we’ve seen put forward so far.

What are your continuing plans for spreading the gospel of the playbook?

Community Change has a set of plans for continuing to talk about the playbook and socialize the playbook. One of the reasons that we wanted to release this to the public was we really wanted to get this out to as many people as possible. There are so many folks who are fighting day in and day out for housing justice and we wanted to give them this playbook as an additional backup for those ideas, to elevate those ideas and also to give them some political cover. What we really wanted to have happened is for many organizations and individuals to take up the ideas in the housing playbook, and not just at the federal level but also for action at the state and local level. There are ideas in here that come from state and local activities and can model other state and local activities. That’s really the outcome that we want – to inspire and to inform work at all levels of government. The housing crisis is really a perfect storm; it is so urgent right now and we need to be speaking out as a field, with a common language and with a common goal that everyone should have a safe, decent and affordable place to live. It is essential for everyone to have that. And we have a lot of work to do at the state, national and local levels to ensure that that can happen.

And if anything, you may be more likely to see interesting, bipartisan ideas getting traction at the local level. We’ve seen cities taking action on zoning changes and even universal basic income, for instance.

That’s exactly right. Some of the ideas that are in the playbook, like universal basic income, are great examples of that. That is happening already. The recommendations that we have in the playbook are to draw on and learn from those activities and try to take it to scale. I think it’s been true for many, many years that the most innovation we’re seeing on housing policy has been happening at the local level. That’s where the rubber meets the road.

Are there specific responses or innovations that have happened in response to the pandemic that are reflected in the playbook? Are there things that came out of the pandemic response that you’d like to see enlarged or increased?

One of the things that we heard about quite a bit, particularly in response to our open call, was the need to transform how we respond to disaster, because that’s what the pandemic is. In terms of things like rental assistance and cash payments, we have many specific ideas in the playbook, but also just an overall need to overhaul how we respond to disasters of this type. Economic disasters, health disasters, climate disasters – these are the things that are happening to us now and they are the things we expect to continue happening. We need to have disaster response that actually responds to the real needs in a community and responds much more quickly and nimbly. One example is we heard from a number of folks about how valuable it was for them when the pandemic hit to get cash – to not jump through a lot of hoops, but to get cash quickly. And if it was food that they needed, they bought food, or it was housing, they got housing. But to empower people to make decisions for themselves about what they need. We need to have much more of that and I hope that is one of the key lessons learned as we emerge from the pandemic.

Has the pandemic caused people to look at these issues in a different light as a result of seeing how fragile housing stability is for so many Americans?

I hope so. I think back to the Great Recession, which was driven by housing, and how it seemed then that surely people would understand how critical housing is and we would take significant action. But it didn’t happen. The economy recovered, people have short memories and they moved on. We didn’t make the kind of lasting changes that we needed. I hope we don’t fall into that again. Because this time, truly, everyone was impacted and everyone had to grapple, no matter where they were, with what it meant to be home, whether that meant being home all of the time, to be unhoused, to have a home that you might potentially be forced out of. Everybody had to think about it and the importance of it. So, I really hope that as we eventually emerge from this and we have this new administration and we have a lot of new leaders at the state and local level, that people are asking some different questions about the kind of communities they want to live in and the kind of policies that will support livability, housing justice and the access to opportunity that everyone deserves. This about agreeing that housing is a right. That’s the game-changer.

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