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Driving Change in Housing Policies With Advocacy and Organizing

By Amy Gillman, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; Liz Ryan Murray, Alliance for Housing Justice; and Mike Koprowski, Opportunity Starts at Home

The following us an excerpt from the article "Driving Change in Housing Policies With Advocacy and Organizing," 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

Advocacy and organizing for racially equitable housing policies is a cornerstone of building a just housing system in the United States.

Since 2017, Funders for Housing and Opportunity (FHO), a funder collaborative that believes a stable, affordable home is the foundation for health, opportunity, and justice, has directed about a third of its $17 million in grants to policy advocacy and organizing. This strand of FHO’s work has advanced 103 housing policies (with 52 enacted) and although FHO funds aren’t used for lobbying, helped to preserve and leverage more than $124 billion in public investments. 

We asked FHO member Amy Gillman of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) to set the context for interviews with Liz Ryan Murray of the Alliance for Housing Justice (AHJ) and Mike Koprowski of Opportunity Starts at Home (OSAH) who offer insights into national and local policy advocacy and organizing efforts that are changing the housing system. Responses have been edited and combined for length and continuity.


FHO: Alliance for Housing Justice (AHJ) and Opportunity Starts at Home (OSAH) represent two different approaches to policy change. How would each of you describe your approach?

Liz Ryan Murray, project director, Alliance for Housing Justice: AHJ is a movement of tenants, homeowners, and allies formed to address the nation’s affordable housing and displacement crisis, advance tenants’ rights, respond to harmful public policy actions, and shift the narrative from housing being seen as a commodity to housing as a human right. Our main strategy is to build and support the infrastructure needed for a powerful, grassroots-led housing justice movement.

FHO’s support enables us to staff the National Housing Justice Grassroots Table, which brings key actors in housing organizing together to build relationships, share perspectives and expertise, and plan strategies. The Table includes regional coalitions and national networks. For the past year, the Table has been working on aligning strategies around tenants’ rights, corporate accountability, and displacement. We gather research and analysis and create publications, letters, fact sheets, social media, and videos informed by folks who have deep technical knowledge along with organizers on the ground who are seeing the impacts of policy decisions.

Mike Koprowski, national director, Opportunity Starts at Home: OSAH is a campaign of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), launched with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Children’s HealthWatch, and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, to mobilize multi-sector national organizations and coalitions to build political will and federal resources on behalf of national housing policy solutions.

FHO’s support helped us bring diverse constituencies—housing groups as well as those that are not explicitly about housing: educators, health professionals, civil rights and anti-poverty advocates, and members of faith-based communities—together to prioritize affordable housing for the lowest-income people and to increase awareness of how important stable housing is, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re helping coalitions in 21 states broaden and diversify their membership and engage national policy makers and elected officials to advocate for more robust and equitable federal housing policies.

FHO: How do national policy advocacy and grassroots organizing complement each other, and why are both important for changing the housing system?

Liz Ryan Murray: Grassroots organizers’ message tends to be more about overhauling systems to achieve long-term change, while policy advocacy is more about changes we can make right now. I think we need both. You cannot move the policy reforms without actually building the power of a tenant movement and of those who are most seriously impacted by the housing crisis. And just building power alone isn’t enough; it has to be directed toward changing how housing is delivered.

Mike Koprowski: I agree. Our fates are linked in all of this.

FHO: Low-income people and communities of color have been excluded from decision-making on housing policies and practices through generations of systemic exclusion and disinvestment. How are you engaging these key partners in anti-racist policy advocacy and organizing? What have you learned about partnering in authentic ways?

Liz Ryan Murray: It’s a really critical component. Not only do the folks who are experiencing displacement, eviction, housing instability, and the destruction of communities understand the issues and solutions firsthand, their numbers are large. When they’re organized and have tools, we can really impact policy.

So, although Alliance for Housing Justice does proactively identify some issues to address, a lot of what we do is work through national and regional networks and tables of organizing groups—folks who are out there listening to people in communities and building individual relationships across racial lines—to ask people what they need. Then we help them find levers for change through research and policy advocacy. For example, the White House put out a series of proposals for what to do about housing costs. Our folks said that people in communities weren’t clear about how it tied into their work, so our legal and policy staff quickly got out a memo on the implications. Local organizers used the memo in meetings with members to explain what was being proposed and how it could bolster or impede local work.

Mike Koprowski: OSAH supports people who have lived with housing instability to develop specific skills or advocacy projects. For example, our national partner, RESULTS, has a fellowship program for people with lived experience, which takes them through a robust process of sharpening their advocacy and organizing skills. Their fellows engaged with our campaign by writing local op-eds urging members of Congress to address rental assistance and the affordable housing supply. The Minnesota OSAH chapter provides subgrants to groups of people with lived experience that participate in federal advocacy, such as a Somali social service association that organized to advocate for a tiny home community.

FHO: What constitutes success in reshaping the policies that leave people vulnerable to racist and inequitable housing?

Liz Ryan Murray: Part of what we’re doing is changing the narrative so housing truly is seen as a human right. For instance, there’s a growing theme now in public discourse that the housing system shouldn’t be primarily an investment vehicle, it should be about housing people. Helping to move the needle on that is one type of success. For instance, we’re seeing a lot of press about the damage being done by corporate and private equity firms buying up neighborhoods, jacking up rents, and outbidding owner-occupants, resulting in a House hearing on the issue; and we’re starting to see stories on rent stabilization as well. We’re also seeing successful movement in passing federal legislation with significant investments in housing, and seeing the tenant organizing movement grow in size and power.

Mike Koprowski: Success will be when race no longer predicts one’s likelihood of experiencing unaffordable rent, homelessness, and living in areas of concentrated poverty—when we have eliminated those things altogether for all people.


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