Two rows of small blue house icons, some filled in and some on the edges are outlines.

Strategies for housing advocates
to effect policy change

In 2019, Habitat for Humanity launched Cost of Home, a five-year home affordability advocacy campaign in the U.S., that sought to cultivate, inspire and educate housing advocates to influence policy and re-shape systems to increase access to affordable homes.

In the first four years, the campaign supported Habitat’s local and state organizations to effectively help change over 300 policies, unlock more than $21 billion in government funding and increase access to affordable homes for an estimated 6.6 million people.

How did Cost of Home successfully change policies to increase access to affordable homes? 

Habitat funded the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization that provides data and evidence to help advance upward mobility and equity, to assess eight policy changes and conduct interviews with various stakeholders to distill factors critical to Cost of Home campaign’s success in impacting home affordability. Based on their findings, Urban Institute researchers found six key strategies for change.  

Strategies for change

Delivering policy and systems change at local, state and federal levels. 

Graphic: 1. Develop national strategy for local action; 2. build capacity and community advocating power; 3. engage communities and assess needs on the ground; 4. form coalitions with other local orgs; 5. leverage small wins to build relationships with policymakers; 6. scale solutions to deliver real change for a diversity of stakeholders

1 Develop a national strategy for local action. 

The Cost of Home policy platform, consisting of four areas of policy focus, provided a foundational national vision and strategy for local action to address home affordability across the country.

Advocates describe the importance of a national strategy in driving effective local action: 

  • Provided clearly articulated priorities: Clearly articulated priorities both motivated and empowered local and state Habitat organizations to act. Areas of policy focus provided essential guardrails, equipping advocates with the tools to identify and prioritize specific policy opportunities at all levels. 

 “We thought, if we can cut the cost of land by adding density, that directly translates to more opportunities for affordable homeownership. So, realizing how this fit in so directly with those four pillars ... was a big benefit of the campaign.”

— Habitat Charlotte Region representative

  • Provided a common platform for collective strategizing and coordinated efforts: A common policy platform with shared goals and language made it easier for local and state Habitat organizations to collaborate on a policy focus area and coordinate advocacy efforts. Affiliates benefitted from exploring policy solutions that were being utilized or advanced in other localities, ensuring that lessons learned in one context could be applied in others. The Habitat Charlotte representative noted that the “diversity of thought” and collective strategizing was crucial in identifying promising solutions to common issues.

“We knew that Twin Cities Habitat in Minnesota was also supporting [legalizing middle housing types] ... We were able to learn from them how it had worked because the whole network, the whole Habitat network, is speaking the same language. Everybody within the network says, OK, if this is going to optimize land use for more affordable housing, we should be a part of it.’ So, we’re all aligning our efforts.

— Habitat Charlotte Region representative

  • Provided a national context to inform local action and messaging: Concretely, Cost of Home’s national vision translated to local and state organizations understanding the priorities of regional and federal agencies and other national actors and their impact on local housing. Wichita Habitat referred to being more aware of HUD budget priorities due to the campaign.  

    Further, the campaign materials shared national and regional statistics, background on why homeownership matters and what the Habitat network sought to accomplish. These resources were critical in helping local organizations craft targeted messaging.

2 Build capacity and community advocating power

Building advocacy capacity within local and state Habitat organizations was key to the success of the Cost of Home campaign and will be essential in future efforts beyond the campaign. Habitat organizations spoke of ways that the Cost of Home campaign encourages advocacy capacity-building:  

  • Builds community advocating power: Advocacy capacity flows from local Habitat organizations to other stakeholders and community members. The Cost of Home campaign inspired Wichita Habitat to create a class that they now offer to homeowners on advocacy. Central Berkshire Habitat has created a similar process. 

“We have organized residents to really know when something needs to change. How to … have meetings with policymakers ... show up at the city council meetings ... overcoming barriers of misunderstanding of how the [public] money could be used.”

— Central Berkshire Habitat representative

This places power into the hands of community members, giving them tools to advocate on behalf of themselves and their community. They can then use their foundation of advocacy power for future efforts as well.

  • Leverages the expertise across the Habitat network: Habitat Charlotte mentioned multiple instances where they connected with other Habitat organizations in Oregon, Atlanta and Los Angeles to compare issues and discuss solutions. Wichita Habitat created an advocacy committee, which meets monthly to discuss ways to leverage their local partnerships and identify promising solutions to common issues.
  • Uses data to build capacity and empower community members: Local and state organizations strengthened their advocacy by using data to inform their efforts. Sharing data with community members is an effective way to raise public concern around a cause and empowers community members to speak to the issue in other settings.

3 Engage communities and assess needs on the ground. 

All the interviewed Habitat organizations shared that, in addition to empowering residents to advocate for themselves and their communities, a community-led approach was important for both identifying issues and solutions. 

  • Takes a bottom-up approach: The Urban Institute heard from multiple organizations about community engagement and a bottom-up strategy to identify both community needs and solutions. This ensured that community needs were accurately assessed. Putting communities at the center of the design and implementation of advocacy solutions is crucial to real change.

Stories gathered from those who are most impacted on the ground help drive successful policy and systems change. To achieve this, some affiliates were working on building partnerships directly with community members, while others were partnering with community-based organizations that center community voices as part of their work.

 “We wanted to engage our homeowners, future homeowners . . . who can tell the story better than somebody who’s living in unaffordable, unsafe housing?”

Habitat Wichita representative

4 Form coalitions with other local organizations

Habitat organizations engaged with other local and state nonprofits aligned with their mission to build coalitions and partnerships that would outlast the specific policy advocacy effort.   

  • Coalitions help amplify the vision: Coalitions and partnerships are powerful strategic tools in advocacy — having different entities involved with pushing a shared vision is critical. 

During efforts to increase density in the Charlotte area, Habitat Charlotte Region brought together Neighbors for More Neighbors, a coalition of like-minded nonprofits and community members. They leveraged the 40+ partnerships within N4MN, including during events, where other organizations joined as speakers to reinforce the message.

“All of the other organizations would amplify that message by sharing and reposting what [HFH Charlotte Region] posted … [It was a] coordinated effort.

— Habitat Charlotte Region representative

A strong coalition of diverse organizations including veteran groups, a faith-based organization and another local nonprofit organization is a critical force in Habitat Indiana’s continuing advocacy against aggressive pay-day lending.

As the interviewee reflected:

“I think the huge numbers of various agencies in our coalition are also why we’ve been absolutely a force to be reckoned with.”  

— Habitat Charlotte Region representative

5 Leverage small policy wins to help build relationships with policymakers and lay the foundation for major policy and systems change

Within the scope of policies and initiatives supported by Cost of Home, the Urban Institute identified two main types:  

  • One-time policy wins, such as securing one time funding from a city government. 
  • Systems changes, such as reforming the tax code to raise revenues for affordable housing.  

Systems changes have a more lasting effect. While these types of policies might be more desired considering a potentially larger scope of impact, the process to pass even small policy wins can serve as a foundation for broader and long-lasting policy changes. 

  • Starts with small wins as a key first step: One-off policy wins can become building blocks for greater change, not just because of the learning process but because of the relationships that get built when working toward small policy wins. Relationships with policymakers are very important, and they take time.

“I think the beauty of us being successful in [passing Charlotte’s} Unified Development Ordinance (urban development plan) is that we early on began to have connection with our elected officials through other initiatives ... really educating them over the years. This didn’t start, you know, two or three weeks ago. When understanding the [UDO], they already understood the needs of Habitat as an affordable homeownership provider, a nonprofit and a developer. ... They think about us when they’re making these decisions.”

— Habitat Charlotte Region representative 

  • Cultivates long-term relationships with policymakers: Advocacy and systems change is a long game — it’s important to understand the value of fostering relationships with policymakers over time. Long-term relationship building is necessary to successfully influence and create the kind of policy and systems change at the scale Habitat seeks — and at the scale the nation’s housing challenges require. Within the context of Cost of Home, Wichita Habitat proactively established and cultivated connections with policymakers. 

“Thanks to Cost of Home we started ‘Legislative Build,’ and we invite legislators to the sites … it’s one of those things where you need long-term relationship building to accomplish things and we’ve been able to do that. ... Advocacy is a long-range game and if it weren’t for Cost of Home, those things wouldn’t have happened.

— Habitat Wichita representative


6 Scale solutions to deliver real change for a diversity of stakeholders 

Notably, the Cost of Home campaign was a force to drive real change for a diverse range of stakeholders. By offering a platform and a vision, the campaign enabled local and state Habitat organizations to address housing challenges at scale, leading to meaningful impact on communities nationwide.  

  • Improves opportunities for community residents to give input: Habitat Wichita saw firsthand the impact of their advocacy in partnership with impacted homeowners and their local elected officials to have power poles removed from residents’ yards. Getting community residents input into decision making that affected their housing situation also led to legislation for better communication from the city to the residents. 

“When we advocated for [the power poles] to be removed, we also advocated for better communication ... with people. And out of that was created a better communication legislation.”

— Habitat Wichita representative

  • Increases the supply of affordable homes at scale: Increasing the funding capacity for affordable home development and construction is critical to increased access. Buncombe County substantially increased their funding capacity for affordable housing projects, and in just the first round of solicitation for proposals from affordable housing developers they received an outstanding group of proposals.

“Many groups were involved in supporting that effort, but Habitat was definitely one of the leaders in the affordable housing community that recognized the benefit not just to their own organization’s work, but to the broader effort to support affordable housing development and construction.”

— Buncombe County Commissioner Chairman 

  • Supports neighborhood development through preservation of homes: Habitat of Central Berkshire successfully advocated for the At-Home Pittsfield program that helps residents make costly, and sometimes preventative, repairs. This has had an especially big impact on homeowners at risk of having their insurance canceled due to lack of critical repairs, for example a bad roof. The renovations also help support and maintain the neighborhood development.

 “The ability to get a repair done at a reasonable cost ... is really critical to maintaining an entire neighborhood. Because if your neighborhood isn’t looking good, no business wants to come and invest here. And you also cannot attract people to want to work in those businesses when the housing stock is poor quality.”

— Habitat Central Berkshire representative