I am the CEO of a REIT that invests to create social equity. In partnership with strong nonprofit housing providers, we invest to acquire and maintain affordable rental apartments that serve families of modest means.
In April, I was the featured speaker at the Ackman Lecture in Real Estate Ethics and Leadership, a program founded by the Schack Institute and hosted by New York University. The semiannual program focuses on leadership in service to underserved communities. My presentation was to an audience of real estate and finance professionals, academics, and students on why the nation continues to face a housing affordability crisis and what we can do about it.
I presented every relevant statistic and data point: The number of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck. The shortage of housing, particularly affordable housing. The stagnation and decline in incomes. The cost of construction materials and regulatory barriers. The shortage of skilled labor in the construction trades. Housing’s effect on the health and prospects of families and children. The speech was a compilation of talking points that would be handy for any of us to use in our advocacy.
The group was eager to hear the case for affordable housing. I did as the old show-business axiom says, “Give ’em what they want.” But it wasn’t enough. I needed to talk about the human element of housing policy that has become even more evident in the pandemic.
I’m a houser, but I’m also trained as a lawyer and come from generations of progressive Southern lawyers, teachers, ministers, and politicians. What people like us do is tell stories in hopes of helping the people around us better understand this complex world we live in. Speaking to an audience of academics and investors, I felt I had to go beyond abstract numbers.
All of us in the housing ecosystem struggle to do that. Our advocacy can sometimes be too abstract to move those whom we need to affect the most. With that in mind, I asked the group to think about the people in their own lives they rely on. The people that so many of us needed—or suddenly missed—once the pandemic took hold. The grocery, restaurant, and hospitality workers. The staff at the county parks. The trainers at the neighborhood YMCA gym. The guys at the local hardware store who could help you figure out how to fix anything.
I asked the group, “Who have you been particularly grateful for during the pandemic?” The answer was obvious. The nurses, lab techs, and orderlies who kept the hospitals and health clinics going. The delivery drivers who delivered essential items so you could stay safe at home. The teachers who figured out how to juggle in-person and remote learning. The folks at the delis and barbecue joints who figured out the logistics of interrupted supply chains, varying staff needs, and outdoor pickup windows.
Finally, I asked, “In the case of any major emergency or natural disaster, who will you need first?” Emergency workers, public safety officers, transportation workers, construction workers, and sanitation workers.
These are the folks who worry that they won’t be able to remain in the communities they love and serve because they can’t afford it anymore. These are the folks who are forced to double and triple up in apartments because there aren’t any affordable options in their areas. If we are going to have communities filled with the vital things we all want and need, we must have housing that meets the needs of all these essential workers. We must recruit influencers who can see the human side of affordable housing. Our job is to win hearts, not just minds. The better we are at doing that, the more effective we will be at showing why the need for affordable housing is real and urgent.
The essay, adapted for print, was originally published in the Our American Home Blog, published by the National Housing Conference.