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Could “just the facts” be just a failure?

In briefs published last month in partnership with Enterprise Community Partners, the FrameWorks Institute investigates public perception of healthy housing issues and examines media and organizational narratives about affordable housing. The briefs reinforce much of what we already know about public perception of housing and related issues, highlight important gaps in understanding for further investigation and ask the affordable housing community to reconsider some of our core approaches to educating the public.

First, it won’t come as a surprise that those of us in the housing field perceive housing affordability issues very differently than most of the general public. Housers are focused on public-private partnerships, the role of policy, and structural impacts on communities and individuals. The general public, on the other hand, has little trust in or respect for government, understands housing issues as being about individual choice (if your apartment is unhealthy, then you should move elsewhere) and individual action (if you can’t afford a good place to live, work harder to earn it), and sees housing as a consumer good, which inhabits an economy we can control about as well as we can the weather.

Second, it’s not all bleak. There are promising areas for additional research. FrameWorks identifies several models and narratives which are understood by the public and useful to the housing community. Integration of social services, government as protector and the impact of place on wellbeing seem to have particularly great potential and are all things we can start doing today to communicate more effectively. I recommend taking a look at NHC’s Framing and Messaging Toolkit, particularly the guides “Aspirations and Solutions” and “The Role of Government” while you wait for the coming round of recommendations from FrameWorks.

Finally, FrameWorks gives those of us in the advocacy side of housing some particularly toothsome food for thought. The researchers note that housing organizations have a tendency to present research on housing affordability decontextualized; that is, we often share data on the scarcity of affordable housing without explaining how things got this way, why it matters and what can be done to change it.

I think many organizations take this approach because we believe it gives the numbers more legitimacy. After all, we’re not trying to score points, we’re just telling it like it is. But according to cognitive and social scientific research, what FrameWorks calls the “just the facts” approach is likely to backfire with the very people we aim to convince through our research. Science tells us that when any of us encounter new evidence, if we are not cued by the information source to interpret the evidence in a particular way, we will automatically interpret it using our pre-existing dominant frames of thinking.

Knowing that the general public believes housing quality issues are the fault of individuals, that we’re helpless to manage affordability in our communities and that government is at best bumbling and at worst corrupt, I don’t think we want to leave our research up for interpretation. While it may seem counterintuitive to those of us who are invested in the idea that the evidence speaks for itself, we need to let go of our “just the facts” approach. Let’s give our research, and our proven solutions, a real chance by framing them in a way that helps them be understood, accepted and put to work.

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