The Virginia Housing Coalition: 
a Lesson From Twenty Years Experience

Larry Yates, Executive Director of the VHC, 1981-1983
Field Director, National Low Income Housing Coalition, 1991-1995

Background

In Virginia, as in most states of the U.S.A., concerned nonprofit housing professionals and activists developed a state housing coalition in response to the federal government's retreat from its housing responsibilities in the early 1980s.

The purpose of the Virginia Housing Coalition, and of its sister organizations, then, has been to obtain resources -- essentially money, but also technical assistance and enabling legislation -- that would enable housing nonprofits and community groups to meet local housing needs. Here, I take a look at what has and hasn't worked to do this in Virginia. I think it's likely that the lessons apply to other states.

At this point, I should make clear that this is not an objective and disinterested document. This is my personal view, and it is the view of a participant. I was deeply involved in the first ten years of the Virginia Housing Coalition, and only peripherally involved in the second ten years. I am writing this piece because while I am proud that the VHC has survived and continues to meet some needs, I am afraidsome of the main lessons of the first ten years have been lost, and thus the Virginia Housing Coalition is not in some ways as effective as it could be.

Two Versions of the Story

There are, I believe, two main ways of looking at the history of the Virginia Housing Coalition. Here's what I hear as the conventional story . My view is different.

I believe that the VHC and its close allies consciously took on the task of changing housing policy in Virginia in the 1980s, when necessary by challenging the practices of the existing housing agencies, which all had dismal track records for serving low income people. I believe that the VHC brought together housing nonprofits from around the state, especially critically linking Northern Virginia with the rest of the state, and through political pressure created a situation where state government took nonprofits seriously -- a radical change from the hostility towards and dismissal of most nonprofits that existed in 1981.

While I believe that who sat in the Governor's seat made some difference, I certainly don't take a partisan view, as some do. I can remember that under Governor Robb, housing policy was essentially unchanged from prior conservative administrations, and that Governor Baliles did not come into office with any intention of making the housing breakthroughs that his administration ultimately did. I believe that the decline of housing resources in Virginia since the early 1990s has at least as much to with a lack of political power on the part of housing groups as it does with the political complexion of those in power.
 

Does it matter whose view of history is right at this point?

It might, if there are lessons to be learned from it for the next decade or two. Most of the VHC's work in the last decade has revolved around trying to preserve, revive or replace the VA Housing Partnership Fund, as well as maintaining access to state agencies. Yet, in my opinion, the process through which that Fund came about, and through which nonprofits gained any access to state government, is no longer much discussed, and for many VHC members, is completely unknown or even misunderstood.

I will "out" myself here. I believe that political decisions are made based on political power, not simplyon networking or good ideas or the kindness of politicians. I believe that, in most cases, to get decision-makers to make good decisions, you have to be able to apply pressure on them. This doesn't mean that politicians are evil or that all political conversations must be ideological and rude. It does mean that, over time, entities that don't have any power don't get much in the way of benefits. And it means that entities that have political power and don't use it lose the benefits they have. Using political power means being ready to embarrass decision makers in the media, mobilize voters and others to pressure them, and confront them with explicit demands and hold them accountable for not meeting those demands. In other words, it means treating politicians the way they treat each other -- as serious people whose actions matter, not as either wise demigods or contemptible villains.
 

How the VHC Was Launched

When I became the first staffperson for the VHC in 1981, I knew almost nothing about housing policy. At my interview, I let slip that I was not familiar with the Section 8 program, the largest housing subsidy program for low income people in the U.S.  I don't know who else applied for the job, but I imagine that if someone who knew housing programs had wanted that $12,500 a year job, I wouldn't have gotten it. But I did know something about building political networks, and I did know something about power.

The people who designed the VHC and put together the original proposal for it did also.  They saw that housing "got no respect" in Virginia government, and that that had to change. They believed that that would not change unless there was a housing network in existence that had credibility in Richmond. And so they took a chance on me to staff it.

During the 20 months or so that I staffed the coalition, the following things happened:
 

(It shouldn't need saying that I didn't "do" these things. I facilitated and staffed them, but if I had bounced all over Richmond and the state by myself with such an agenda, I would just have been a joke. I never thought for a moment that I was making these things happen single-handedly, and I certainly don't mean to say that now.)
 

A Second Stage

In other words, by the spring of 1983, when the second Executive Director for the VHC, Veronica Templeton, came on board, the VHC was a political force, and there were at least ripples of change in the Richmond housing pond, and there was a force in place that could do more.

At the same time, I moved to the DHCD. I suppose by now, 15 years after I left the agency, I can publicly share the ill-kept secret that my loyalty continued to be to the VHC. That's not to say I did anything illegal or wrong. But from my point of view, I was being paid by the taxpayers of Virginia to help meet housing needs, and the network of nonprofits out there in the VHC were the best vehicle for doing so that I saw. (I don't want to put down the Redevelopment and Housing Authorities, which then and now house thousands of Virginians, or the strong housing agencies that are part of a few local governments. But the nonprofits were the new and growing factor in housing in Virginia, and seemed to me, then and now, to have the greatest potential to meet housing needs flexibly in a way that engaged communities, congregations, and Virginians in general.)
 

A Plan Goes Awry

As the Robb Administration came to an end, there was a strong possibility that Lieutenant Governor Dick Davis would be the next governor. For housing folks, this was an exciting possibility. Davis had been an urban mayor with an excellent reputation, and was a mortgage banker by trade. He cared about and understood housing. The VHC had gotten him to attend a housing event in far Southwest Virginia, and had a more than cordial relationship with him. Some of us began to prepare for a Davis administration by developing a detailed housing program, a wish list for housing nonprofits and community people. We saw this as a responsibility of the housing network that VHC had become.

This plan, however, went awry. Attorney General Gerald Baliles "jumped the line" and got the gubernatorial nomination, and was elected Governor.
 

Taking Advantage of New Opportunities

At this point, we could have given up, or set aside our plans for another day. Instead, we did not lose sight of our goal. We just sought new opportunities to reach it -- and we found them.

One such opportunity was the placement of Karl Bren in the DHCD, with a somewhat unclear portfolio related to housing. Karl's grasp of housing issues, his talents for outreach and networking, and his warm-hearted commitment, gave us a friend with contacts in the Baliles Administration, as Karl became connected to the network of housing nonprofits that the VHC had brought together. Karl has continued to serve housing nonprofits ever since.

Locally and around the state, housing folks learned to use the media, and a spate of stories showed up that revealed how serious Virginia's housing problems were. When housing emergencies arose, they were not allowed to disappear from memory, but instead were pressed on the media, and the public -- and elected officials -- as arguments for a commitment to housing by the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Then VHC staff and volunteers created an opportunity -- a statewide housing conference that brought housing issues to the fore, and that had such an impact that it spawned an annual Governor's Housing Conference.

The Baliles administration had no intention of making housing a priority. And the Baliles administration was a highly disciplined operation, determined to stay "on message." But the continued pressure of local and statewide media, active VHC members, and the Conference made housing concerns less and less avoidable. In its last two years, the Baliles administration, working with the Va. Housing Study Commission and others, championed the Virginia Housing Partnership Fund. Real money, albeit from a legal windfall and from VHDA reserves and not from a dedicated revenue source, was applied to Virginia housing needs. One immediate result was a proliferation of new nonprofits -- some of which saw their funding stream as a result of the generosity of state government, not aware of the political history behind that generosity.
 

VHC Since Then

Funding for VHC staff ran out in the mid-1980s, ironically at a time when housing nonprofits in Virginia were soon to be  healthier than ever. Since that time, there have been intermittent periods of staffing for the VHC, but there has not been a concerted effort to build a network to apply political pressure to revive the Fund or to otherwise advance housing interests in Virginia. Instead, the VHC has been presented as a networking body for nonprofits, a professional association, which makes its wishes known to the General Assembly on an annual basis, but which has not confronted state government or built a significant public constituency.  Of course, during this time it was difficult just to maintain the organization, and it would be wrong not to honor the hard work done by people like Lou Ann Frederick to keep the organization going. If it wasn't for her and a few others, the VHC undoubtedly would have ceased to exist, and there would be no twentieth anniversary for any of us to speculate about.

During the 1990s, of course, Governor George Allen stood out as being profoundly hostile to housing, as he was to the environment. In both cases, he put leadership in place at the key state agencies whose agenda was to weaken, if not destroy, the agencies dealing with those issues. From one point of view, this was a bad time for housing, a time at which retreat was certain. But 1981 was also a bad time for housing, indeed a frightening time, and in 1981 housing activists in Virginia responded by beginning to build a political force -- a force that within a few years put housing on Virginia's agenda. From my point of view, the Allen administration represented an opportunity for housing professionals to stand with their colleagues within DHCD, and to insist that Virginia not only not give up, but renew, its housing commitment.
 

Looking Forward at Twenty

As VHC turns twenty, I am of course at one level just pleased that it still exists. Many organizations that began with greater funding and more fanfare are long gone. The VHC is still here. I am proud of my part in that.

But just existing is not enough. The VHC has a purpose, and it is a purpose that cannot be carried out by an organization that doesn't have political respect. (I know that state officials praise the VHC, and enjoy being associated with it. I also know that none of them feel substantial pressure to do what it asks.)

It is my fond twentieth anniversary hope that the VHC will find some money -- a tiny amount, given the total budgets of housing nonprofits and responsible local housing agencies in the state -- and hire a young activist. Someone who can learn housing on the job, who may not even know Virginia very well. But who understands one thing -- that Virginia needs an organized network that is strategically applying pressure to get housing needs met. And who knows  - from experience with labor, or defending affirmative action, or fighting for a living wage ordinance -- something about how to organize such a network. Hire her or him, and work with her or him. And this state can be changed again, as it was before.

When I came to the VHC, I certainly did not have the political understanding that I do now. Much of the time, I hardly realized that I was doing all the things I now know I did. But I clung to two truths. The first was that we could build a statewide network with a shared agenda. The second was that, whatever anyone thought was realistic or reasonable, I believed we could get that agenda respected and to some extent adopted by state government. Thanks to a wonderful collection of people and to some luck, both of those things turned out to be true. I am still foolish enough, and if no longer young, young at heart enough, to believe they can be true again. There could be no better twentieth anniversary present for the VHC than to find out if they can be.



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Social Justice Connections
Larry Yates
in the Shenandoah Valley of VA
e-mail: lamaryates@igc.org

Copyright 2006, Social Justice Connections. Latest Revision Date: January 2006
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