I am the CEO of a REIT that invests to create social equity. In partnership with strong nonprofit housing providers, we invest to acquire and maintain the affordability of rental apartment communities that serve families of modest means.
This week, I was honored to be the featured speaker of the Ackman Lecture in Real Estate Ethics and Leadership, a program founded by the Schack Institute, and hosted by New York University. The semi-annual program focuses on leadership in service to 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 what might seem like every relevant statistic and data point – drawn from many sources, including several organizations that are NHC members.
It is material we all are familiar with. You know the litany: The number of Americans who live paycheck to paycheck. The shortage of housing, particularly affordable housing. The stagnation and decline in incomes. The cost of construction materials and regulatory barriers. The shortage of skilled labor in the construction trades. Housing’s effect on the health and prospects of families and children. The speech was a compilation of talking points that would be handy for any of us to use in our advocacy.
The educated group I was speaking to was eager to hear the case for affordable housing vigorously supported by the data. I did as the old show business axiom says: “Give ‘em what they want.” But I felt it wasn’t enough. I needed to talk about the human element of housing policy that has become even more evident in the pandemic. So, this is what I did.
I turned attention toward the very folks whom my firm seeks to serve, as do NHC and its members. Look, I’m a houser. As I say in the speech, I’ve spent my career applying different tools to the challenge of delivering affordable housing to the people who need it the most. Further, I’m trained as a lawyer and come from generations of progressive Southern lawyers, teachers, ministers, and politicians. What people like us do is tell stories, in hopes of helping us, and the people around us better understand this complex world we live in.
When I spoke this week to an audience comprised primarily of academics and investors, I felt I had to go beyond abstract numbers and try to touch them at the everyday level. Quite frankly, all of us in the housing ecosystem struggle sometimes to do that. It’s an occupational hazard of working in a field that is full of smart, committed people who want to make sure that we speak in a substantive way about housing. But as a result, our advocacy can sometimes be too abstract to actually move those whom we need to affect the most.
With that in mind, I asked the group to think about the people in their own lives they rely on. The people that so many of us suddenly missed once the pandemic took hold. The grocery, restaurant and hospitality workers. The staff at the county parks and rec department’s senior exercise program your mother-in-law used to do.
The trainers at the neighborhood YMCA gym. The guys at the local hardware store who could help you figure out how to fix anything.
And I asked the group, who have we been particularly grateful for during the pandemic? The answer was obvious. The nurses, lab techs and orderlies who kept the hospitals and doctors’ offices and health clinics going. The delivery drivers who delivered essential items so you could stay safe at home.
The teachers who figured out how to juggle in-person and remote learning on an on-again/off-again schedule. The folks at the delis and barbecue joints who figured out the new logistics of interrupted supply chains, varying staff needs, and outdoor pickup windows.
And in the case of any major emergency or natural disaster, who will you need first? Emergency workers, public safety officers, transportation workers, construction workers, and sanitation workers.
These are the folks who are affected by the housing crisis, who worry that they won’t be able to remain in the communities they love and serve because they simply can’t afford it anymore. The folks who are forced to double and triple up in apartments because there aren’t any affordable options in their areas. These are the folks that we serve because we know that if we are going to have communities that provide vital things we all want and need, we need housing that meets their needs.
We also know that to recruit influencers to our cause, we need to paint a clear picture of the people in their own lives they depend on, and who require better and more affordable places to live. Our job is to win hearts, not just minds. The better we are at doing that, the more effective we will be at showing why the need for affordable housing is real and urgent.
McCulloch is chair of NHC’s Board of Governors and president and CEO of the Housing Partnership Equity Trust.