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Strategic Action for Affordable Housing: How Advocacy Organizations Accomplish Policy Change

Anaid Yerena of the University of Washington, Tacoma writes about a recent article she authored in the Journal of Planning Education and Research.
JPER | January 10, 2020, 5am PST
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Several planners have found that advocacy organizations (AOs) influence local housing policy decisions (Basolo, 1997; Goetz, 1997; Lucio & Ramirez de la Cruz, 2012; Yerena, 2015). To do so, they have used several methods, from directly asking planners to assess AOs influence, to looking at quantifiable outcomes of AOs’ work (local spending on housing).

Through this research, I contribute to planners understanding of this issue by answering how AOs go about deciding the strategies they use to exert their influence. This study looks at AOs at four Los Angeles County cities. Using data from interviews with AO leaders and city officials, document review of AO materials (e.g., IRS 990 forms, AO websites), and content analysis of the cities’ most recent Housing Elements. I categorize the tactics AOs used based on the goal of the effort as: insider and outsider strategies. Insider strategies aim to reach (and influence) decision makers, for example: testifying/speaking at a city council meeting. Outsider strategies, on the other hand, target the broader public in the hope of mobilizing their support; examples of these strategies include publishing an OpEd or leading a letter writing campaign. I look at the selection of strategies by large and small AOS (according to their resources–number of employees, years of existence and assets) and according to the political context (opportunity) in which the AOs are acting.

In the study I find that the range of tactics large and small AOs use depends on both the political context and organizational resources. What was evident from the cases was the approach AOs are willing to take depending on the political context. When the political context is closed (e.g., low support among residents and decision-makers around affordable housing), AOs take on a reactive role (as they await the political context to shift); they make sure to fund and create reports to raise awareness on the facts among the general public and decision-makers. While AOs in more open political contexts (e.g., supportive city council), are able to be proactive and propose ideas for discussion in the interest of moving the housing policy agenda forward. As members of city staff, planners work in support of city council’s interests and if affordable housing policy is not (or low) on councilmembers’ priority list, planners can call on AOs use their tactics to ensure housing makes its way up policymakers’ priority list.

To be sure, the solution to the current affordable housing crisis does not rest solely on the shoulders of affordable housing AOs, yet their continuous work and understanding of the housing issues can play a large role in cities’ policy and implementation responses to this pervasive issue. AOs provide planners and local policymakers with on-the-ground, up-to-date information and are able to mobilize their constituent base in support of innovative solutions. Whether the solution involves tenant protections, reducing the amount of single-family zoning, or changing state regulation, AOs are always thinking about housing policy solutions.

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