Housing needs

By Ret Boney

Over the past two years, the Fannie Mae Foundation has been studying perceptions, message strategies and solutions around affordable housing and plans to launch a nonprofit to carry on the work early next year.

The foundation, which has assets of $333 million and granted more than $45 million last year, was started in 1979 with a contribution from Fannie Mae to promote affordable housing and community revitalization.

The group undertook the project at the urging of its CEO as a way to create or preserve more affordable homes for low and moderate-income families at a greater scale, says Beverly Barnes, senior vice president for communications at the foundation.

“As we make donations to, and investments in, organizations that do this, even with their best efforts and lots of money, the problem is bigger than that,” she says.

Since 2002, the foundation has funded polling and focus-group research in more than a dozen U.S. to better understand perceptions of affordable housing and determine how to improve communication around the issue.

The foundation began by conducting research to identify innovative solutions and approaches, and to understand the links between the lack of affordable housing and other social issues such as health care and education.

Early research showed working families see the lack of affordable housing as a significant problem, on par with the lack of affordable health care, says Barnes, yet the issue had not bubbled up as a major public-policy concern.

Based on its findings, the foundation decided to create a separate organization to continue the work throughout the U.S., with “its mission to elevate the issue of the lack of affordable homes,” says Barnes, “to make the public aware of the problems and solutions.”

The proposed nonprofit, yet to be named, would make available research and public affairs, communications and policy strategies that are being undertaken throughout the country, highlighting solutions that have worked, Barnes says.

Without espousing any particular legislation or agenda, the organization would work to persuade the public and policymakers to find ways to create more affordable homes.

“In any number of states, there may be efforts like this going on that this organization, because of its national view, can help to provide some strategy, tactics, research, public opinion, that would be helpful in moving the ball forward in those states and communities,” she says.

The foundation is looking for a broad group of funders to help create and support the new group.

The results of the research are already being put to use in North Carolina, says Chris Estes, executive director of the North Carolina Housing Coalition, which has been working with the foundation on the project since March.

“One of the major barriers to production of affordable housing is a lack of understanding on the public’s part,” say Estes.  “So they are funding polling and research data and are working with states to figure out how to better communicate with people.”

The Housing Coalition plans to use the research results to inform and shape a major push for increasing the state’s Housing Trust Fund, a source of money available for building or rehabilitating affordable homes, to $50 million from $3 million, says Estes.

The results will also be incorporated into the coalition’s housing resource manual, a document sent to local communities to aid in their affordable housing efforts.

But Estes says additional funding from some external source will be required to disseminate the information broadly enough to affect public perception on a scale large enough to drive public policy.

“The challenge will be figuring out what you have to do to get that work to the state level,” he says, “and making the impact you want to make.”

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