National Low Income Housing Coalition conference focuses on finding “political will” to fix US housing crisis

National Low Income Housing Coalition President and CEO Diane Yentel shares her closing remarks.

Diane Yentel opened this year’s National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) policy forum with a reminder to the audience that attendees already had several ideas about how to end homelessness and improve low-income housing — they just needed to get politicians on board. 

“The only thing we lack to end homelessness and achieve housing justice is the political will to do it,” said Yentel, the president and CEO of the NLIHC. “When [politicians] have that will, they can absolutely act to get people in our country stably housed.”

NLIHC, a national nonprofit organization that focuses on expanding affordable housing, hosted its annual housing policy forum March 19 and 20 at the Capitol Hill Hilton. Speakers and breakout sessions focused on solutions to housing-related issues, including racial and disability-based discrimination, gentrification and displacement, and anti-homelessness laws local governments are passing nationwide. As elected officials push to reduce the visibility of homelessness through such laws, NLIHC hopes the policies they offer will bring about more permanent solutions to the affordable housing crisis.

“Elected officials are feeling this pressure to respond to unsheltered homelessness. But instead of investing in what we know actually works, they’re turning to these politically expedient but really harmful measures instead, like criminalization,” Sarah Saadian, NLIHC’s senior vice president of public policy and field organizing, said in an interview with Street Sense. “So it was really important for us to share with them what’s ahead and what can be done.” 

Speakers offered solutions ranging from building community groups, to focusing on political mobilization, to challenging stereotypes about homelessness through storytelling. The day after the conference, many participants also attended a “Capitol Hill Day” and lobbied for improved access to affordable housing.

As part of NLIHC’s efforts to connect advocates with policymakers already pushing for legislation to reduce housing costs, three members of Congress spoke at the event: Maxwell Frost (D-FL), Cori Bush (D-MO) and Jimmy Gomez (D-CA). Each spoke about personally experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity, as well as legislation they’ve proposed to address housing-related issues.

Frost, the youngest member of Congress and the first member of Gen Z to be elected, spoke about experiencing homelessness during his 2022 campaign for Congress. He said that after his landlord raised his rent by 30% during the campaign, he lived in his car, on friends’ couches, and with his sister’s ex-boyfriend. When Frost moved to D.C. as a newly elected congressperson, he struggled to find housing due to a low credit rating. 

“Often, the vast majority of the people who are homeless in this country are unseen,” he said of Americans who have experienced homelessness in a similar way. Living with friends or family due to housing insecurity — often called “doubling up” or “hidden homelessness” — is not counted as experiencing homelessness according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development definitions.

Frost also spoke about a piece of legislation he sponsored, the “End Junk Fees for Renters Act,” which prohibits landlords from charging application and screening fees, and from using credit scores to deny potential tenants. These fees and extra steps are often not initially disclosed to renters and can act as barriers to stable housing, according to Frost and confirmed by research from the National Consumer Law Center. 

Bush condemned laws that criminalize homelessness — like those that ban sleeping in cars — and advocated for the creation of public spaces to support those experiencing homelessness, like comfortable benches and public drinking fountains.

“Were my children and I criminals for sleeping in our car? Should I have been arrested for mixing up formula in a McDonald’s bathroom?” she asked the audience. “One could say that McDonalds has done more to support the needs of our unhoused population than any of our federal and local governments. And that’s not right.”

Bush highlighted the “Unhoused Bill of Rights,” which she introduced in July, which seeks to end homelessness by 2027 by expanding funding for low income housing, as well as officially declaring homelessness to be a public health emergency.

Another possible response to the housing crisis is the Rent Relief Act, which Gomez spoke about, remembering when redevelopment displaced his family while he was grwoing up. The bill would tackle the lack of affordable housing in the United States by providing a monthly tax credit to renters who spend more than 30% of their income on rent — a credit that would benefit half of all U.S. renters. 

Gomez also noted that the price of housing has increased much more quickly than the minimum wage. “The average renter now is considered rent-burdened,” he said. “It is an issue that now touches almost every part of our country.”

“Unless we do something, this is just going to get worse and worse and worse,” Gomez added. 

While the conference’s main discussions touched on a broad range of policy issues, the smaller sessions zeroed in on housing costs. Two focused on the links between homelessness and low-income housing.

During a session on emergency-induced homelessness, speakers discussed strategies to quickly house victims of environmental disasters, borrowing from methods that homeless outreach groups already use. Such solutions include rapid rehousing, which temporarily subsidizes housing for people experiencing homelessness, and the use of technology like phone apps to quickly process requests for housing assistance.

However, speakers pointed out emergency-response efforts often focus on those who had housing prior to the disaster, neglecting those who experienced housing insecurity both before and after the event. When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2018, NLIHC critiqued the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for failing to provide survivors with safe, long-term, and affordable housing options.

In another session, attendees discussed how to tell stories about homelessness while advocating for housing policies. Speakers said telling personal stories to politicians, community members, and via movies and TV is essential to change misconceptions and stereotypes about people experiencing homelessness. A shift in how homelessness appears in the media, they hoped, would lead to more compassionate treatment of people without permanent homes. 

“Storytelling is the strongest tool we have in our advocacy work,” Marisol Bello, the executive director of the Housing Narrative Lab, said.

“We have to break all these negative stigmas about being homeless, being low-income,” Miracle Fletcher, a member of NLIHC who has experienced homelessness, added.

Fletcher was one of many conference participants and attendees who had experienced low-income housing, housing insecurity, or homelessness firsthand.

“About half of the folks who are attending are people with lived experience — renters who live in subsidized housing, or who are tenant leaders in their communities, or people who are on the ground doing the really important work of organizing their neighborhoods,” Saadian said in an interview. The other half of forum participants tended to be members of larger advocacy organizations, she added.

During closing speeches, Jelani Cobb, a journalist who has written extensively about police brutality, noted a connection between housing inequality and police brutality and mistreatment. He said many types of inequality — including economic, housing, and racial inequality — are connected due to the U.S.’s history of housing discrimination based on race, and the lack of economic opportunities available in many majority Black neighborhoods as a result.

“I had been reporting on all of these police stories, but I was really reporting housing stories,” Cobb said.

Looming over the conference was an impending Supreme Court decision, Johnson v. Grants Pass, which will decide whether the enforcement of no-camping laws is unconstitutional. Such laws prohibit people from sleeping in public spaces using a pillow, blanket, or forms of makeshift shelter. The case will determine if states can make it a crime for those experiencing homelessness to sleep outside when no shelter beds are available. 

Yentel and others encouraged conference attendees to attend a rally at the Supreme Court on April 22, the day justices will hear the case, to advocate for a decision that would not criminalize sleeping in public areas.

The focus on political activism continued after the conference had concluded. Over 170 members of Congress met with conference attendees advocating for policies that meet the needs of low-income people. Compared to past years’ forums, the number of meetings with senators and House representatives was “record breaking,” Saadian said.

“This movement,” Frost said, referring to the low-income housing rights movement, “it’s about looking every person in the eyes and saying ‘you deserve housing by virtue of being a human and nothing else.”

Issues |Housing|Nonprofits

Region |National

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