At Avesta, we pride ourselves on being active and engaged advocates for safe, decent, affordable housing. We know we need to speak up and explain the cause we work tirelessly on each and every day. The hundreds of people who call and visit our offices every week seeking a roof over their heads are both sobering and motivating.
Our expertise is cobbling together an array of financial resources, which leads to the construction of new housing, preservation of existing housing, new senior living options or guidance to those just seeking information. It is common for a new development to have five to 10 layers of financing, each critical to the project’s completion. Our new HomeOwnership Center and its services are made possible by a wide variety of small grants and bank contributions.
In recent weeks, as Congress works on a federal budget, we have been called on repeatedly to advocate for funding of many specific federal housing programs. These calls are often requests that we advocate for one specific program that may well represent one of the layers of financing in a recent development. We are asked to call or write our Congressional delegation to remind them how important this program is.
And while we recognize the importance of advocacy for housing programs, these requests raise for us a critical question: How do we decide which program to advocate for the most? We struggle to decide which is more important: the federal home block grant program that helps us build new housing, the continuum of care funding for homeless people or the housing counseling funds for those dealing with foreclosures. We can’t pick one program over another when we know the impact that each has on people in need.
Do we turn our backs and instead just leave it to the whims of the administration, Congress and the Washington insiders? Do we claim to be advocates but hide when hard decisions need to be made? We can’t do that either. We are, to our core, to our mission and to our hearts, advocates. We created the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, we serve on the board of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition and we actively participate in many state and federal groups whose aim is to ensure everyone has a place to call home.
Instead, we prefer to advocate for a more holistic approach that recognizes that — while the vast majority of housing programs are effective and important — the overall housing budget is woefully inadequate to meet the needs of low- and moderate-income people in Maine and across the nation. We call for broader discussions on reforming tax policy and examining a redirection of the mortgage interest deduction to better target those who need assistance. We ask that our government step back and figure out what seniors really need for housing so they can live independently as long as possible. We ask that the recommendations of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Housing Commission be considered and not shelved, as is often the fate of reports such as these.
We believe in the power of advocacy, but also in being thoughtful in how we use that power, so that when we lend our voice it can be the most effective instead of getting lost in the din. Deciding when and how to speak up isn’t easy, but for us, the question that guides our actions is: What do we really need to do to help the hundreds who come to us this week in search of affordable homes with little hope?
To fight for one program without acknowledging the value of the others is contributing to the balkanization of housing efforts that ultimately undermines the true intent of advocacy work, which is to improve the lives of people in need of housing. It is important that as advocates we not lose sight of broader housing policy by focusing only on the tiny slivers of specific programs.
By Dana Totman, President and CEO