This guest post comes from Chris Donnely, Director of Community Relations, of the Champlain Housing Trust (CHT). In this post, Chris pens the story about a series of five white papers CHT published this year to advocate for affordable homeownership in the state of Vermont.
- We have a growing need in Vermont for housing, with a 9% increase in homelessness in 2013 and a 1% rental vacancy rate in our largest market, Chittenden County;
- Declining federal resources and funding on the State level could not address the existing need for more production of either affordable rented or owned homes;
- And – perhaps most alarming – we saw a tsunami of existing affordable housing that was at risk of being lost or that needed reinvestment.
Under this backdrop – perhaps a familiar one to others around the country – CHT and Housing Vermont convened a handful of allies to discuss how to tackle this challenge. What resulted was a two-part approach. We would initially reaffirm the value of affordable housing not just for the people who live in the homes but also for the rest of us. The second part would be a concerted, targeted advocacy effort to build and secure additional State of Vermont resources to provide housing for those who need it most.
The plan we hatched was to tell our story through the lens of the public policy priorities that thought leaders and public officials held. We developed five white papers dedicated to a five different topics: education, health, jobs and the workforce, homelessness, and the economy. We could have chosen a dozen or even more, but we wanted to keep the number manageable and not create fatigue in our target audience.
One of the most important decisions we made was hiring a researcher/writer to pull together the pieces. She left our housing jargon in the trashcan, used our leads for existing research and interview subjects, and wrote compelling drafts that needed little editing. We used our statewide network of allies and our own relationships to identify “experts” in the field (a first grade teacher, a human resources director, and a construction firm owner) to tell their story . These expert voices were interwoven with data to make the case that housing has become a linchpin in much of what is valued in our communities: effective schools, our health, and our economic well-being.
The white papers were released by email approximately every two weeks through the fall of 2014. We had a standard group of about 700 people that we sent them to, including all legislators, over 100 reporters or news outlets, administration officials, and housing leaders and advocates. Each release also offered an opportunity for organizing. Before each release, we asked professionals in our housing network to share the white papers with their boards, local contacts, and anywhere else they deemed fit. Lastly, organizations representing the constituencies highlighted were contacted and asked to disseminate the white papers through their networks. The result had the effect of an echo chamber. For example, the teachers’ union and principals’ association shared the paper on education, hospital officials circulated the health paper amongst their senior staff, and local chambers of commerce shared the workforce piece.
The media picked up on the white papers too, and even ran some white papers verbatim on their op-ed pages. One white paper became a feature news story in the State’s largest paper. An unanticipated audience was found beyond our borders – national organizations like the Center for Community Change’s Housing Trust Fund Project picked up on the papers, and we presented on the project via video for leaders of six southern states at a conference in New Orleans.
The next step is our advocacy for funding. As we begin these conversations, we’re starting in a much better place: both lawmakers and Administration officials have a rediscovered appreciation and understanding of the benefits we, as housing organizations, offer towards their larger agendas.