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Making the Case for Affordable Housing: A Conversation with Dr. Tiffany Manuel

08 Dec 2020

Making the Case for Affordable Housing: A Conversation with Dr. Tiffany Manuel

January is Poverty Awareness Month, an initiative to raise awareness and call attention to the growth of poverty in America. For more than 130 years we’ve been fighting to end poverty by creating equity and opportunity. Housing, one of the social determinants of health, is fundamental to exiting poverty.  Without the safety, stability and comfort of a home, obtaining access to healthcare & education and thus a thriving society, is much more difficult to achieve.

As President and CEO of TheCaseMade, Dr. Tiffany Manuel (Dr. T) is a dynamic speaker, thought leader and writer on the issues of community development, social change and cross-sector partnerships. Dr. T has been dedicated to helping leaders make the case for systems change. Trained as a social scientist, she is committed to building the capacity of changemakers and leaders to grow their social impact. Dr. T has worked to expand opportunity for low-income workers, families and communities through 25+ years of professional and volunteer experience spanning the private and non-profit sectors, government and academia. Her presentations and keynotes include the advantages affordable housing has to our local and state economies, innovative financing solutions used by developers and local governments, the link between homes, employment and transportation, and shares ideas and resources for creating more homes that are affordable in communities that are diverse.

Tyler, Senior Corporate Agent at APB: Dr. T - Thank you for speaking with me today. While we know that the housing market was under pressure before COVID-19 due to inventory supply and affordability, the global pandemic has only amplified those challenges. What makes a community livable? There should be good jobs, quality schools and health care, reliable transportation, accessible social services, and other civic amenities. But what about decent housing for people at all income levels?

Dr. T: Absolutely, our communities only function well to the extent that we make decent, quality homes available to the people who live, work and play there. Now more than ever we need strong adaptive leaders in our communities to focus on how we address the issues of housing and its link to broader social health, wellbeing and community development.

Tyler: You have been challenging society to make a strategic case for why we are all part of this work. Why do developers need to connect with other entities in the community, such as school systems and health care providers? Why are partnerships between communities and real estate organizations mutually beneficial and how can these groups come together help build support for affordable housing projects?

Dr. T: In the context of all that is happening in our world today, policymakers and people in our communities are struggling to address a series of looming challenges – housing is only one of those challenges and it is often at the bottom of that long list, even in the midst of wide spread acknowledgement that housing is a basic need. Too many of us who are involved in housing, community planning, development, and real estate markets make the assumption that ordinary people and policymakers clearly understand what we do and why it matters – but that’s not always the case. In fact, because housing and development sounds “technical” to most people, they don’t prioritize it as an issue that needs or requires their acknowledgement, input and support. If we don’t make a strong case now, we will lose the moment to position the work we do for broader support and long-term sustainability. So, the opportunity here in this moment, is to make the strongest possible case that we can about why housing matters, why it requires all of us leaning forward and benefits all of us when we work together.

Tyler: You have worked with hundreds of social changemakers, innovators and adaptive leaders around building better, stronger communities that are diverse, equitable and inclusive. By aligning their community stakeholders around the kind of deep system changes that can improve population outcomes, these leaders are able to grow their impact and harness the investments they need to improve their communities’ economies. Can you share a couple of successful strategies to engage people in conversations about the need for adequate housing for all - the importance of affordable, available housing and the advantages to our local economies? What do leaders and communities need to understand about the value of supporting housing for all incomes?

Dr. T: To integrate innovative and inclusive housing solutions in a community takes long-term commitment from a LOT of community stakeholders – not only developers, realtors and policymakers. It takes coordination of epic proportion and for a variety of reasons, we have been losing the ability to harness the power of that kind of coordination and alignment. Ask any developer what he or she fears most when they start a project – it’s not the financing! A good developer can get a good project to pencil out. What they fear most are unnecessary slow downs caused by regulations and/or NIMBY (not in my backyard) opposition. Project slowdowns (especially those caused because local regulations are unclear or neighbors are opposed), are costly and they reduce the ability of localities to grow the availability of homes – ultimately hurting all of us! With a national shortage as wide as exists today, we have to be laser focused on how we unleash the power of our housing systems for good.

Tyler: We are seeing the impact with younger generations as well. For instance, millennials carrying debt from student loans, credit card charges etc., it certainly makes it even more difficult to qualify for a mortgage - Affordable housing isn’t just about home ownership and younger generations want more flexibility in their living options. You once said, “Being tied down to a 15- or a 30-year mortgage feels like an anchor that is too heavy, rather than something that allows them to build wealth.” Can you talk more about housing for future generations?

Dr. T: As our cities, communities and towns become more expensive, housing has gotten out of reach even for many middle-class Americans and especially for people who are just starting their careers. If we don’t act now to intervene – figuring out how to finance, build, preserve and protect housing at all levels of income, we will have essentially closed the door of opportunity for millions of Americans who work every day and who need a reason to believe that this is a country that can support their aspirations for success. To do the latter, it takes deep system change work of a lot of community stakeholders working in alignment and united purpose. The work that I do helps to make sure that alignment happens.

Dr. T on Fair Housing and Racial Justice: There has been a long-standing acknowledgement that we need to do more to address fair housing, racial equity and housing justice. The work by Richard Rothstein and others about racial segregation and its negative long-term consequences on the racial wealth gap and the health/wellbeing of many groups, really requires more of our time, talent, and attention at this moment. I work with a lot of dedicated and committed communities who have renewed their commitment to making sure that housing is available to all people – no matter their background or where they come from. In my keynotes, I talk about the strategies for doing so and for making the case that we all have a role to play in those efforts.

Tyler: When you are out there speaking, giving keynote presentations and consulting about the case for affordable housing, how do you make organizations understand the positive impact this has on local and state economies? '

Dr. T: Early in my career, I thought that research and data would be the evidence that we needed to make the case. Having 25+ years’ experience in this sector has taught me that research and data are important, but they cannot make that case on their own. The most powerful case is built by speaking to the aspirations of the stakeholders in your community, listening carefully to what they value and connect that to housing. When we do that, people are able to draw the connections they see between housing and the impacts on their lives, local and state economies.

+Learn More About Tiffany Manuel, PhD