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Changing the Housing Narrative by Talking About Race and Values

By Glenn Harris, Race Forward; Michael McAfee, PolicyLink; and Dorian Warren, Community Change


The following us an excerpt from the article "Changing the Housing Narrative by Talking About Race and Values," and is a part of FHO's Collaboration for Housing Justice series originally published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. In the series, we share ideas, observations, and lessons from our housing justice efforts, including how and why the work will only move forward if it is systemic, anti-racist, and bridges sectors.


Illustration by Raffi Marhaba, The Dream Collective

“If we want a change, we have to be quite intentional. We’ve got to tell the damn truth that the system we currently have is oppressive.” That’s how Michael McAfee, president and CEO of PolicyLink, describes the centrality of narrative change to the cause of housing justice. In 2020, Funders for Housing and Opportunity (FHO) gave Community Change, PolicyLink, and Race Forward an $800,000 grant to analyze the dominant housing narrative, design and test new messages, and train housing leaders to use a new narrative centered on racial justice and housing security in their organizing and advocacy efforts. In 2021, FHO gave these organizations a $1 million, three-year grant to encourage broad adoption of the new housing justice narrative, in part by working with artists and creators to shift the cultural landscape. Individual FHO members also gave a total of $7.3 million in aligned funding, over three years, to support this work.


More than 1,500 housing leaders have been trained in the new narrative, and 24 fellows (most of whom have experienced housing instability) practiced the new narrative in community actions and national forums, spurring concrete policy wins across the country, such as changes to restrictive zoning in Denver. This unusual collaboration among three very different organizations reflects FHO’s emphasis on silo-spanning efforts that use narrative change, policy advocacy and organizing, and local collaboration to make the housing system more racially equitable and economically just. FHO interviewed the organizations’ leaders, Dorian Warren, Michael McAfee, and Glenn Harris, respectively, about lessons on narrative change from this experience. Their responses have been combined and edited for length and continuity.


 

FHO: What is narrative, in the context of housing justice?


Michael McAfee, president and CEO of PolicyLink: Narrative about housing is the dominant logic held by citizens about who belongs in a community and who does not, who is worthy to have places designed for them and who is not.


Dorian Warren, president of Community Change: Narrative is a dimension of power. It shapes what is seen as normal, or status quo. In terms of housing narratives, the dominant narrative is one of neoliberalism, in the sense of all risks and outcomes being based on individual behaviors and actions. This narrative doesn’t address systems and rules or what we know, from social science, to be the actual causes of housing injustice and housing insecurity, especially for Black and Brown folks. In the dominant narrative, you’re on your own and any failings are your own fault.


FHO: How do race and poverty enter into the narrative on housing?


Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward: Housing is a core way in which we see structural racism manifest that limits the potential of people’s lives.


Michael McAfee: Housing in America is about race, and it always has been. We know that housing is fundamental because housing is a prerequisite to everything: health, safety, education, well-being. But the dominant narrative overrides that knowledge with anti-Black racism—the desire not to be associated with blackness and to be as far away from poor people as possible. Entire cities were designed with those goals in mind.

The American dream plays out in the most hostile ways in housing. The American dream says that you buy a house and keep on moving up, and your generation will be better off than the last. But that often happens by displacing or removing the people who built those areas and the culture of vibrant life in them. We push them out and never worry about where they go. Meanwhile, if you get Covid and can’t work, so you can’t pay the mortgage or rent, you discover that America’s social safety net sees the average person as a lazy, shiftless being who is not worthy of support, who should just get the bare minimum so they can get back to work.


FHO: What would it look like to have a more honest, more just narrative about housing?


Michael McAfee: If our answer every time someone pushes back is to avoid talking about race, we will never have a narrative powerful enough to win, because even the people we’re trying to serve will see the disingenuousness and won’t stand with us. If we want to win on our issues we need to stop being afraid, straighten our damn spines up, and fight for it. We’ve got to build the muscle up to do that.


Glenn Harris: People want to imagine better futures for themselves, their families, and their neighbors. So, we’ve learned to talk about housing with messages that are values-based. This helps people understand housing as a fundamental right and need. Housing represents stability, the possibility of a quality education, of a meaningful democracy. In that way, safe, reliable housing is a core part of what it would mean for us to be living in a just, multiracial democracy in which we’re all thriving.

We need to underscore the collective benefit of all of us being housed. We’ve seen that sort of narrative shift succeed with other issues, such as smoking. The argument for smoking used to be completely rooted in rugged individualism and personal expression, as epitomized by the Marlboro Man. That narrative held sway not just in policy but in public opinion until the 1980s. The shift came about by creating a new narrative centered around the importance of our collective health and how secondhand smoke impacts all of us.


Another narrative we’ve been fighting is that market solutions are fundamentally fair and are the best way to ensure fairness, neutrality, and objectivity. Structural racism tells us that isn’t really the case. Private solutions to things like housing need to be regulated to ensure we collectively benefit from them and to undo the harms done to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). So, we need to underscore the role of government in making housing justice real.


Michael McAfee: Unfortunately, most narrative work in America has become like snake oil: It’s designed to make white people feel comfortable with the racist reality of the world. That’s not good narrative work to me. Good narrative work is about getting America to be comfortable facing the problems we are confronting, and inspiring people to envision a thriving and shared future and to do something about it.

I don’t believe there are any fancy slogans or magic language that will make people who’ve bought into the old narrative give it up. We also know from research that talking about a housing crisis or eviction crisis no longer resonates with folks, first because these are not new crises. People are numb to this reality, it happened by design, and now, the oppressive nature of our housing economy is negatively impacting a large portion of white America, therefore people are more concerned with desperately clinging to their tiny portion of the so-called American dream.


Dorian Warren: There are several other key components of a better narrative. One is that this is a systemic problem that is the result of multiple kinds of choices, particularly policy choices by policy makers and other elites with power. The rules that govern the housing sector either enable discrimination and injustice or combat it. Those who benefit from the system as it’s been designed and constructed are wealthy people, particularly investors and investment institutions, private developers, landlords, and large property owners, to the detriment of the vast majority of people struggling to get housing.


Glenn Harris: In terms of specific language, “affordable” housing is not an effective way to describe what we’re asking for, because it’s too contextual. Plus, when we start with an affordability frame we’re entering the issue with a policy prescription rather than emphasizing the value that’s really at stake. That narrative is about competition, and if someone doesn’t understand the history of institutional racism and how it’s impacted Black and Brown people I could see them saying, “We just need to work harder, get a better job, stop being poor so we can move to a better place.” Whereas if we talk about the importance of “guaranteed” housing, it’s a narrative of responsibility to one another and the value of interconnectedness. The underlying notion is that anyone should be able to access housing if housing costs are tiered to what people can afford.


FHO: Who should we be trying to reach with the new narrative?


Dorian Warren: The first audience is those directly impacted by housing injustice. They need a story that helps them understand it’s not their fault that they’re in this situation, and they need to see themselves in the solutions. The next layer would be our base of low-income Black and Brown people across the country who may not be suffering housing insecurity right now but maybe they have in the past, or for sure they know someone who has, and may experience it in the future. Then there’s an audience of persuadables—people who might have an interest in housing justice but don’t have tools to incorporate a racial justice analysis in their work. They are movable if we can make the case and show the evidence.


FHO: In this initiative, you’ve looked at ways to use arts and culture as vehicles for a housing justice narrative. Why is that an important connection to make?


Glenn Harris: Sometimes we think the only way we can make political change is by talking to elected officials. But culture is the way people create meaning in so many different facets of life. When we introduce cultural organizing into conversations about housing justice, we bring core values back to the center. Arts and culture are spaces that invite us to wrestle with ideas, so they’re one of few places you can grapple honestly with the contradiction between whether housing is a commodity or something fundamental that everybody just deserves. People are much more likely to engage in that discussion around art or music or creative spaces.


It's also important to have consistent messaging, at scale, to shape a narrative, and that can happen when messages are reinforced in movies, music, art, poems, television, and so on. Big shifts in our collective consciousness, such as support for marriage equality, happen because there are people and organizations working across sectors who are getting at the same narrative and creating immersive experiences that are likely to reach a broad audience.




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