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June 30, 2015 / Ciara Myers, Editor

Housing Affordability: It’s About Political Will

by Gretchen Greiner-Lott
Vice President
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

For over two years, I’ve been learning about affordable housing. I now understand some of the financing mechanisms, the developer’s need for bridge loans as they await certain approvals, and the often spoken NIMBY cry in some neighborhoods. But after last week’s HAND conference, I had an “aha” moment. The biggest challenge facing our region’s ability to address the housing crisis is none of these. The biggest challenge is the need for political will. This is not just about the desire and commitment of elected officials to meet this need. Political will is also about the necessary support of those officials by the people who elect them. The people – the constituencies of these elected officials – must understand and appreciate the need for affordable housing across our region. Political will must be deep and pervasive.

Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker said that, currently, the community’s political will is missing around the affordable housing conversation. Mary Hynes, Chair of the Arlington County Board, commented that it is important to build a case for affordable housing and that we have to win over the “heads, hearts, and wallets” of elected officials, as well as voters. They all need to understand that having housing that is affordable to everyone in our region positively affects the viability and sustainability of our region. These sentiments were echoed by Alexandria’s Mayor Bill Euille and Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett.

Josh Bernstein of Bernstein Management Corporation agreed that “the whole community needs to embrace this [issue].” But, the broader community doesn’t know the reality of the need. As Hynes suggested, and others underscored, we need a public service campaign on this issue. By educating the business community, as well as the broader community, on the impact of housing affordability on the economic competitiveness and quality of life for our region, we can generate critical movement on this issue.

These comments about the need for political will were made during a panel discussion at last week’s HAND annual meeting plenary session, “Regional Strategies to Increase Affordable Housing Development & Preservation in the Greater Washington Area.” The concept was presented in the companion report, “Call the Question: Will the Greater Washington Region Collaborate and Invest to Solve Its Affordable Housing Shortage?” In it, the author outlines the many available tools for increasing the availability of affordable housing, and observes that “it has been the willingness of multiple sectors to coalesce around the need and mobilize an effective constituency to promote affordable housing” that has actually made a difference in other regions.

HAND’s plenary session was designed and hosted by a number of groups, including WRAG, under the auspices of the Greater Washington Housing Leaders Group – a collection of more than a dozen public and private sector leaders concerned about housing affordability. In the coming months, this group will strategize on how to move forward on some of the ideas and recommendations raised at the plenary session, as well as in the report. I look forward to the challenge of working with this group to build this much needed political will.

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