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.
For twenty years the VHC has been a professionally-oriented association of housing nonprofits around the Commonwealth of Virginia, which has worked in cooperation with state government to represent the interests of housing nonprofits and those they serve. The VHC, according to this view, has played a role, along with the Virginia Housing Study Commission and the leadership of state agencies -- the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and the Virginia Housing Development Authority (VHDA) - and to some extent local government, in developing housing policies. These housing policies, according to this conventional view, fluctuated pretty much in accordance with the Governor in power, reaching an acknowledged low point with the Allen administration. According to this view, it is the VHC's responsibility to continue to speak up, serve on committees of the Housing Study Commission, and lobby during the General Assembly, and to hope for better times -- to do what it has been doing for the last decade, albeit perhaps with greater efficiency and more funding.
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.
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
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:
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.)
This plan, however, went awry. Attorney General Gerald
Baliles "jumped the line" and got the gubernatorial nomination, and was
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.
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.
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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