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Housing affordability is important. So how do we get the message across?

In this climate of uncertainty in the midst of a federal government shutdown and constrained government resources, it is difficult, and yet more important than ever, to call attention to the need for more action to provide decent and affordable housing to all Americans. As Dave Brown of National NeighborWorks Association wrote in his August Open House Blog guest post on the Home Matters initiative, this is “a crucial time to expand the public discussion of housing as a national priority.” But how do we talk about housing in a way that makes it a priority to those outside our field?

When participating in this public discussion, it is important for those of us in the housing community to understand public opinion on housing affordability issues in order to frame housing issues in ways that resonate best with people. Leading public opinion firms, like Hart Research Associates and Belden Russonello Strategists, have conducted numerous surveys on behalf of housing advocacy groups around the country to gauge public opinion regarding housing affordability. Understanding what people think when asked about housing affordability in different ways is critical information that can influence the development of messages about housing affordability issues that help the public better understand housing affordability needs and solutions. Several lessons can be drawn from this body of research and they are summarized in the latest Center Insights report, which I authored with former Center researcher Rebecca Cohen, Building Support for Affordable Homeownership and Rental Choices: A Summary of Research Findings on Public Opinion and Messaging on Affordable Housing.

The main findings of research assessing public opinion on the perceived importance of, and need for, affordable housing are that:

• Housing cost issues have the most traction in high-cost areas

• Housing cost concerns are often passive and do not translate into political support

• Homeownership solutions are more attractive to the public than rental solutions

• Personal familiarity with housing challenges has increased

In terms of language and framing, the research shows that most effective messages:

• Focus on specific beneficiaries

• Describe programs in terms that affirm the beneficiaries deserve assistance

• Make clear that the whole community benefits

• Appeal to core values such as choice, hard work, balance, fairness and opportunity

This research on public opinion and messaging should be treated as a starting point. More research is needed to fully understand the post-housing crisis landscape of public opinion and messaging. In the meantime, however, these findings can help housing advocates and practitioners shape their messages to have the greatest impact.

In addition to learning from research, that is a great deal that those in the housing community can learn from each other and from successful campaigns that have put the research findings into action. Go to the newly launched Housing Communications HUB to catch up on the latest housing communications research and, more importantly, share your successes, resources that others can benefit from and lessons learned with other housing researchers, advocates and practitioners from around the country.

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