Dr. T: Helping Affordable Housing Advocates with Strategic CaseMaking™

Tiffany Manuel has been working on affordable housing her entire career, and she wants people to know, “Everybody should be involved in this conversation. [Advocates] can’t solve affordable housing on their own. They’ve got to work with nonprofits, government agencies, community residents, labor leaders. They’ve got to be united in purpose, working on the same issue.” In the past, advocates have just worked with like-minded people, and that’s not enough for lasting change.

The work of Dr. T, as she likes to be called, is to make the case for affordable housing. Her background, which includes a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts Boston and two master’s degrees, is grounded in data-driven social science. At her organization TheCaseMade, she and her colleagues use a variety of methods to work with different stakeholders in fair housing and racial equity, which she says are closely linked.

Exploring Strategic CaseMaking™

To describe her work, Manuel coined the term strategic CaseMaking, ™ which she described as “a framework for helping change leaders make a strong case for the work they’re doing in their communities.” What’s different about it, she said, is that it anticipates objections and impediments to action.

In many cases, “it’s not that [community residents are] afraid of fair housing,” said Manuel. “They’re afraid of change. There are lots of ways you can help people make the transition out.

“You can position change as inevitable. If you don’t participate in the process about the direction of change, you will be left out of the conversation.”

Rather than advocacy, Manuel described her work as “adaptive leadership. We need a different kind of leadership to address the large-scale problems that require collective action. It only works if you get all those stakeholders involved. That is a leadership question.”

Communications vs. CaseMaking

For advocates to achieve their goals, Manuel has written, they must distinguish between communications and CaseMaking. Communications “raises awareness, conveys a perspective and tries to convince others to take up that perspective,” she wrote in “To Catalyze System Change, Become a Better Casemaker,” in RethinkHealth.org with Bobby Milstein, a health policy expert at RethinkHealth.

CaseMaking, on the other hand, “builds political and public will around specific solutions by strategically addressing the issues that are impediments to action.” Manuel believes strongly that to achieve lasting change, broad system change must occur. That involves more than having a few interested citizens push for a zoning change in one neighborhood.

“To create true justice,” she has written, “we must take a step back and examine the systems that make unjust conditions a reality for so many communities.”

The values on TheCaseMade.com are broad, going beyond affordable housing: “We believe we will achieve a more just future together,” it says. “We believe leaders are everywhere, and equipped with the right tools, will change the world…. We believe understanding is an ongoing journey that requires seeking the expertise of all people, and especially those most affected by injustice” — who are often left out of the conversation.

Counter Narratives on Affordable Housing

Manuel and her team travel the country to work with communities and listen to Americans of different political stripes, different races and ethnic groups, retired people, white collar, blue collar. They try to find out what’s keeping people from supporting affordable housing, the basic right of everyone to have a place to live.

“One of the most pernicious narratives is that housing is a commodity and you’ve got to pay for it,” said Manuel. “If you can’t afford to live in Denver or New York or Chicago, you’ve got to move.

“That’s very toxic, very strong,” she said. “It’s the notion of mobility. It’s an American narrative. We have a folklore, you’re in a place, you just pick up and move. With a mortgage, it’s ‘Drive until you qualify.’

“If you’re going to move the housing conversation forward, you have to address that.”

How? One way is to talk about why displaced people should stay in the community. And one reason is the environmental benefits of denser housing.

“They [residents displaced by gentrifying neighborhoods] have to drive by your house to get to their suburb since there’s no transit to farther suburbs,” Manuel said.

A second reason that low- and moderate-income residents should not be displaced goes to the heart of why everyone benefits from more affordable housing.

“We helped develop a campaign in Chicago, ‘We need the people who need affordable housing,’” said Manuel.

“I heard from people all the time that they can’t find plumbers or folks to work on their homes.” As the price of housing in urban areas rises, people of more modest incomes have to move farther out.

Child care workers are another example.

“The last thing you want is for the person who’s watching your kid all day to have to drive an hour and a half to get to your house so she’s already tired when she gets there,” said Manuel.

Helping REALTORS® See Their Implicit Bias

Manuel has worked with several local REALTOR® associations who have invited her to speak to members.

“I say to them, ‘You are the front line of the housing sector … Everybody knows a REALTOR®.’”

If REALTORS® need to be convinced that affordable housing is important, she tells them, “It’s in your best interest, making sure you’ve got housing across the income spectrum. [If not,] those areas become less attractive for newcomers.”

The Long Island Board of REALTORS® invited Manuel to present a workshop on implicit bias to its 2021 board of directors. Implicit bias occurs when individuals have unconsciously absorbed the prejudices of their community toward a particular group. They continue the cycle by applying that bias when making decisions or interacting with people.

“They [members of the board] understand it is important for leaders to recognize that we all have implicit biases,” said Tessa Hultz, the Long Island group’s CEO. Manuel talked to the group about how implicit bias can affect decision-making.

“We have unequal treatment systemically,” said Hultz. “It would be odd if REALTORS® were an exception.” When Manuel talks to REALTORS® or other groups, it’s not just to educate them about the problem of affordable housing. She wants them to acknowledge “what can happen in the community to have things get this bad [and] how we got here,” she said. “If you don’t know that, you might make the same mistakes.”

REALTORS®’ Role in Local Housing Policy

How can REALTORS® help with affordable housing in their communities?

One way, said Manuel, is to sit on the local housing task force and advocate for low- and moderate-income buyers. When REALTOR® groups come to her, she helps them address racial equity and encourages them to ask other parts of the housing industry to do the same.

She referenced Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book “The Color of Law,” which details government policies that have created segregation. Advocates for racial equity and affordable housing need to understand that history before they can begin to undo it, Manuel said.

Sometimes REALTORS® discover that the deed for a property says it may not be sold to a Black or other person of color.

“It brings to light the policies,” Manuel said. “People don’t realize. Then they say, ‘What can we do to redress that?’” They can go to the recorder of deeds to have that restriction removed.

On a broader level, advocates can say, “How do we open the market so people have more access — down payment assistance, funds to do more rehab for properties.”

Need to Discuss Structural Causes

Many people’s entrenched beliefs about the housing market make it hard to talk about the need for policy solutions, as Manuel discussed in an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review co-authored with Nat Kendall- Taylor.

Kendall-Taylor is CEO of FrameWorks Institute, a research organization that helps organizations communicate about social issues to support change.

If “people see differences in housing quality as an inherent feature of this market,” they wrote, “[it’s easy] to rationalize disparities in housing quality.”

People also “see housing affordability in terms of wildly rising costs,” wrote Manuel and Kendall-Taylor. That makes lack of affordability seem inevitable and impossible to fight.

The solution is to “explain the structural causes and consequences of a lack of affordable housing.” To that end, Manuel advised “On Common Ground” readers, “Make sure it’s about race, not just affordable housing. People of color are priced out first. Don’t be shy of that conversation because then you look disingenuous.”

Racial Protests Bring Optimism

Manuel does feel more optimistic about the prospects for affordable housing and racial equity in the wake of the social unrest of the past two years.

“We’ve seen widening conversations about racial equity and the racial wealth gap,” she said. “It’s pulling people in, in a way we haven’t seen in a long time.”

“Second, so many people now are finding themselves in the grip of a housing market that is so unaffordable,” Manuel said. “In Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Denver, it’s not just janitors and domestic workers struggling to afford a house. It’s doctors and professors. There’s very little supply and all this capital, but not in the hands of an average consumer.”

“Now we have to have a bigger conversation about affordable housing because something is clearly wrong,” she added. “We have a widening array of Americans facing this. It means the face of the movement is not relegated to low-income people.”

“When it’s just ‘those people,’ it’s easy to ‘otherize’ them,” said Manuel. “‘They didn’t manage their money right; they didn’t get an education.’ When it’s you and you have done all the things you think are right and you still can’t afford a house, it’s different.

“So, the face of the movement is bigger. In San Francisco, young white millennials have graduate degrees and they’re living on top of each other.”

Manuel has propelled several successful campaigns to drive policy change in different communities. She worked with advocates on an affordable housing campaign after the 2017 wildfires in Sonoma, California.

“We were helping put together a campaign to have people understand why [affordable housing] was in the best interest of everybody,” she said. Wealthy homeowners could rebuild, but farmworkers — whose industry was needed for the region’s economy — could not. The advocates worked successfully to drive municipal investment in low- and moderate-income workers.

In Fairfield County, Affordable Housing Could Benefit Everyone

Often, the work of Manuel and her team is to create an effective messaging strategy for a group of advocates. The Fairfield County (Conn.) Center for Housing Opportunity partnered with Manuel in 2020 to understand residents’ attitudes toward affordable housing. She and her team were able to “reframe affordable housing as a critical community asset and investment that benefits everyone,” says the resulting report, “The Way Forward: A New Narrative for Housing in Fairfield County.”

First, Manuel’s team spent six months conducting a series of “community voice sessions,” talking to residents throughout the county from all walks of life. Their research showed that Fairfield residents value diversity but don’t connect it with housing affordability.

The resulting report offers recommendations for a new type of messaging that would resonate with residents.

One recommendation is to shift county residents into an investment mode and out of a charity mindset for affordable housing: “An investment in housing that more people can afford is an investment in OUR future!” Another messaging recommendation is to position equity and equitable housing as a sign of the county’s success.

The recommendations’ overarching theme is the benefit for all residents: “We must demonstrate that housing opportunity will improve schools, improve access to opportunity, reduce traffic, reduce pollution, make communities more desirable, more economically vibrant, and most importantly more equitable.”

What’s Next?

Still to be determined is how the long-term effects of the pandemic and changes in where people choose to live and work might shift the housing market.

For many jobs, “people can live where they want,” said Manuel. “That’s going to shake up the housing space. It may relieve some of the pressure on the market. Where that settles, nobody knows.”

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