Last week our CEO Maureen Fife, Director of Government Affairs Jason Gauthier, Chief Development Officer Sherrana Kildun, and myself joined with more than 700 colleagues from Habitat for Humanity affiliates throughout the country. We came together to advocate for affordable housing in our nation’s Capitol. For the first time ever this annual event, “Habitat on the Hill,” was held virtually.
Before our team broke away to meet with regional partners and locally elected representatives, keynote speaker and White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor shared a moment of sobering reflection with us all. She spoke about Emmett Till, the young Black boy whose brutal murder catalyzed the Civil Rights movement in 1955. Reflecting on the systemic racism and injustice Till’s murder brought to light, Alcindor described being called to her work as a journalist: “I knew I wanted to be a professional witness,” she said.
Alcindor’s words cut right to the root of our advocacy: at Habitat, we’re in the privileged position to bear witness. We witness the struggles of families who may work multiple jobs, but still cannot afford both a roof overhead and groceries on the table. We witness the profound process by which individuals transform not just their own lives, but the lives of their family and neighbors. Since the onset of the pandemic in Pierce County, we’ve borne witness as hundreds of families look to their government leaders for help, many of them seeking assistance for the first time in their lives.
Our goal in meeting with lawmakers “in” Washington, D.C. was to share what we have witnessed, and to provide concrete recommendations for ways we can improve access to affordable housing in our communities. Our staff met with the offices of Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, as well as Representatives Derek Kilmer and Marilyn Strickland.
We were fortunate to be joined in our meetings by homeowner Deb Baker, who built her house in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of East Jefferson County. Deb spoke to our elected officials and their staff about how the Habitat journey to homeownership has been “not just a gamechanger, but a life changer.” After being pushed out of five different rental units, the stability of homeownership offered life-changing relief not just to Deb, but her children and grandchildren. She described how, even two years later, she still wakes up in the morning and admires the wood floors she laid with her own hands.
The testimonies of Habitat homeowners like Deb ground all of us in the personal realities of an often-volatile housing market. As we continued our conversations with legislators, we asked them to support affordable homeownership in four key ways:
- Invest in mortgage assistance for low-income homeowners at risk of foreclosure due to the pandemic in any future recovery package.
- Join as a co-sponsor of the Neighborhood Homes Investment Act (NHIA). This bipartisan legislation will revitalize distressed neighborhoods by using federal income tax credits to mobilize private investment to build and substantially rehabilitate homes for moderate- income homeowners.
- Increase federal funding for affordable homeownership. Public sector investment is often the first source of funding for a Habitat project and leverages a significant return on investment through private support from donors, churches, and foundations. Specifically, we asked lawmakers to:
- Fund the Self-Help Homeownership Program (SHOP) at $20 million in the FY2022 Transportation–HUD appropriations bill.
- Fund HOME with at least $1.7 billion in the FY2022 Transportation–HUD appropriations bill.
Habitat on the Hill is an important opportunity to serve as professional witnesses. In our work, we deal every day with the realities of affordable housing, or lack thereof. We have watched as ever-increasing housing costs force families to make impossible tradeoffs between a home, food, transportation, and medical care.
Bonded by our shared experiences, our 700+ affiliate members came together able to amplify a common message: every person deserves a safe, affordable home – and with increased public investment, we can make this dream a tangible reality for families throughout Tacoma/Pierce County, and across our nation.
Photo courtesy of Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity, March 2020
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