Humanizing the Housing Message

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Real Estate Investors Still on the Sidelines

I'm the CEO of a REIT that invests to create social justice. In partnership with strong non-profit housing providers, we invest in the acquisition and maintenance of affordable rental apartments for families with modest means.

In April, I was the keynote speaker at the Ackman Lecture on Real Estate Ethics and Leadership, a program founded by the Schack Institute and hosted by New York University. The biannual program focuses on leadership in serving 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 all the relevant statistics and data points: The number of Americans living from paycheck to paycheck. The lack of housing, especially affordable housing. The stagnation and the decline in incomes. The cost of building materials and regulatory barriers. Shortage of skilled workers in the construction industry. Effects of housing on the health and prospects of families and children. The speech was a compilation of topics of conversation that each of us could find useful to use in our advocacy.

The group was excited to see the case for affordable housing. I did what the old show business axiom says, "give them what they want." But it wasn't enough. I had to talk about the human component of housing policy, which has become even more apparent in the pandemic.

I am a housekeeper but also trained as a lawyer and come from generations of progressive southern attorneys, teachers, ministers and politicians. People like us tell stories in the hope of helping those around us better understand the complex world we live in. When speaking to an audience of academics and investors, I had to go beyond abstract numbers.

We all struggle with this in the housing ecosystem. Our advocacy can sometimes be too abstract to move those we need to influence most. With this in mind, I asked the group to reflect on the people in their own lives that they rely on. The people so many of us needed – or suddenly missed – when the pandemic hit. The grocery, restaurant and hotel workers. The employees of the district parks. The trainers at the YMCA gym in the neighborhood. The guys from the local hardware store who might be able to help you figure out how to fix something.

I asked the group, "Who were you particularly grateful to during the pandemic?" The answer was obvious. The nurses, lab technicians, and orderlies who kept the hospitals and clinics going. The delivery drivers who delivered essential items so you can stay home safe. The teachers who figured out how to juggle in-person and distance learning. The people in the delis and grills who figured out the logistics of disrupted supply chains, varying staffing needs, and outdoor pickup windows.

Finally, I asked, “In the event of a major emergency or natural disaster, who do you need first?” Rescue workers, public safety officers, transport workers, construction workers, and plumbing workers.

These are the people who worry that they will not be able to stay in the communities they love and serve because they can no longer afford it. These are the people who are forced to double and triple in apartments because there are no affordable options in their area. If we want to have communities that are filled with the vital things we all want and need, we must have homes that meet the needs of all these important workers. We need to recruit influencers who can see the human side of affordable housing. Our job is to win hearts, not just minds. The better we can do that, the more effectively we can show why the need for affordable housing is real and urgent.

The essay, adapted for print, was originally published on the Our American Home blog, edited by the National Housing Conference.

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