Growing Up With and Without Housing Assistance: The Backstory Behind Rachel Robinson’s Advocacy

By Rachel Robinson, Neighbors United for Progress Social Media Director & Housing Advocate Advisor

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When you live in low income housing or communities, sometimes you get lucky but sometimes you don’t. Growing up poor, my family moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, from hotel to motel like it was normal. My siblings and I felt like Child Protective Services (CPS) were our friend when we knew they were not. My neighborhoods had a lot of drama, gun and other violence, and drug activity. We resorted to handling issues in the ‘hood or within the projects because police would most likely treat us like suspects. These and other conditions of my experiences with low income housing are why I became a housing advocate.

Living with my brothers and grandmother on the outskirts of Austin, Texas was a blessing. Oak Hill, the family-oriented neighborhood we called home, was beautiful, full of playgrounds, schools, and stores. The community had plenty of resources and families had back yards. Oak Hill was a low income community at its finest: the crime rate was low and use of drugs was rare there.

In the 1990s, my grandmother decided she wanted to move into public housing in Bouldin Creek, a neighborhood closer to the inner city. While we didn’t have much privacy due to monthly check-ins from the housing authority, we did have access to the city and to bus routes. Bouldin Creek turned out to be very different from Oak Hill: it was in one of the most violent neighborhoods in south Austin. Rapes, gang activity, drunk driving, and fights were common. However, there was a bright side: with our new address I was able to enroll in a prestigious school where I flourished as a competitive student.

Winter brought tough times for my family. My grandma couldn’t take care of us anymore due to losing her job, so my siblings and I went to live with my mom, who struggled with drug problems. She lived in an abandoned hotel without lights, water, or working toilets. Worried for my brothers, I did everything under the sun to make money to provide school clothes, hot food, and other necessities. My mother is beautiful and smart, but drugs took over her life. CPS interviewed us constantly but never removed us from our mother. While we did not want to be taken away, what we were going through was not right.

My mother eventually ended up in jail, so my family was separated and displaced once again. My aunt took me into her home in a trailer park that felt like the projects.  I attended the poorest and most embarrassing school I have ever been in: it had bugs, holes in the walls, and textbooks in dire condition. In the ninth grade, I ended up getting pregnant. Teen mom was added to the list of labels already applied to me:  black, woman, crack baby, welfare and food-stamp user, a prostitute. I felt like these titles would never change unless I changed them, so I did. I got an apartment, won custody of my child, and eventually graduated with two kids.

Later, I moved to Mason Manor, one of the most dangerous and violent projects in Texas. The living conditions weren’t great: there was a lot of rust, roaches, maintenance issues, faulty air conditioning, and a host of other problems. We lived there for three weeks before moving to live with family. Eventually, we moved into a market-rate apartment in another poor area. This apartment was infested with centipedes, roaches, bees, and other critters. While I didn’t want to live there, we stayed for two years.

We moved to a duplex run by a slumlord, where roaches were embedded into the closets, doors, and any opening or cracks. The windows lacked screens and didn’t lock; the driveway was in awful shape. The tub filled with backflow from the sewer and toilet, so some days we couldn’t take a bath. One day, the breaker caught fire and we lost power in half the house for about two months.

At 28 years old, I was homeless. My entire family of six was living in my suburban and on couches for nine months before finding help from the Foundation for the Homeless. They found a three-bedroom, one and a half bath home with utilities paid for and rent of $1,350 a month. It didn’t matter if we were in market-rate or public housing, we always felt like being low income was the issue. Sometimes we got lucky, sometimes we didn’t. The neighborhoods I lived in were usually drug infested and prone to violence. I was too scared to let my kids play outside and I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Our landlords rarely treated us with respect, convinced that they were giving us a hand out so we should pay our rent and be quiet.

At age 14, I learned that where I live is important. Escaping poverty would be hard, but I knew I had to try. I went to school and got a certification in Medical Billing & Coding.  I’m also a licensed hair stylist. Even so, people assume things because of my address in a low income neighborhood. I want more for my kids: I do not want them to live my childhood realities. They are why I am a housing advocate: I push for better affordable housing in hopes of changing their futures.


Rachel is now the social media director and housing advocate advisor of Neighbors United for Progress (NUP). NUP is a group of neighbors who came together to focus on the betterment of their community and to raise awareness in the areas of affordable housing, crime and safety, and youth development.

Read about NUP’s 2017 NLIHC Organizer Award nomination at: https://hfront.org/category/organizer-awards/ 

Housing Advocates Gather in D.C. to Protest Trump’s Budget

By Benjamin Miller, NLIHC field intern

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NAHT protesters in front of Trump International Hotel

Housing advocates from around the country gathered outside of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. on June 27 to protest President Trump’s proposed FY’18 budget. The budget includes a $7.7 billion or 15% cut to HUD and a complete elimination of the national Housing Trust Fund, the Community Development Block Grant program, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, among others. The rally was coordinated by the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT) and co-sponsored by Empower D.C. Most at the rally were also attendees at NAHT’s annual conference in Washington, and many are themselves public housing residents or recipients of other federal housing assistance programs, in addition to other federal safety net programs that the president’s budget proposes slashing.

The budget proposal would be devastating to the millions of many low income households who benefit from HUD-administered housing programs. Megan Hustings, interim director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, spoke at the rally and expressed agitation by the budget proposal. Pointing to the history of this moment, Hustings noted that the proposed slashing of the HUD budget has not happened since 1981, with the first federal budget implemented by former President Ronald Reagan—and the clear and immediate impact of that budget was a nationwide surge in homelessness.

Many of the day’s speakers shared the belief that housing is an essential human right. Charlotte Delgado, a board member of NAHT said in her speech, “Donald Trump has demolished the right to have a decent life…Housing is a basic human right.” Speakers also addressed the fact that the U.S. is the wealthiest country in the world, yet our federal budgets year after year still do not make housing accessible and available to all of our nation’s most vulnerable families.

Another spokesperson for NAHT said “You can’t get rid of poor people, you have to make poor people equal people…you can’t trap people in poverty, you have to give us a path out.” The same NAHT representative stated that all of the paths out of poverty starts with a stable home.

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Another point that was echoed in speeches and protest signs was that our multimillionaire president is himself a public housing resident. In fact, he does not pay any portion of his income toward the cost of living in the White House—an ironic observation, given the protest’s location in front of the gilded-sign reading “Trump International Hotel.” This point was intended to highlight that one piece of the president’s budget proposal includes a policy change whereby public housing residents would move from paying 30% to 35% of their already limited monthly income rent. In total, approximately 50 attended Tuesday morning’s rally, after which NAHT conference attendees traveled up Pennsylvania Avenue for an afternoon of lobby meetings on Capitol Hill with Members of Congress.

My Time as an Intern with NLIHC

By Hannah Keith, former communications & graphic design intern

I admit before I joined NLIHC I knew little about the housing crisis in American and how serious it is. As both of my parents work for the government they have always told me the importance of being socially responsible. Being able to be a part of NLIHC has been an eye-opening experience for me. One morning while I was on the way to work I saw a lady upset as someone had stolen her metro card. As she looked flustered I asked her if she needed help, but there wasn’t anything we could do about the situation.  She would find a way to get to work.  Then I thought back to what NLIHC’s President & CEO Diane Yentel said, that many people are “one emergency, one broken-down car, one illness, one missed day of work away from not being able to pay their rent.” As I hopped on the metro car I thought about that and the daily struggle so many others face each day.

One of the most memorable experiences I encountered in my time with NLIHC was being able to be a part of the 2017 Housing Policy Forum. Everything from preparing for it and seeing the time and effort my coworkers put into it really showed me how much each and everyone cares about the cause.  I enjoyed most importantly having the opportunity to hear the voices of those who live in low-income housing and how the housing crisis affects them.

NLIHC Staff at 2017 Housing Policy Forum

Hannah (far right) & staff at 2017 NLIHC Housing Policy Forum

I graduated from High Point University with a degree in communications and a minor in graphic design. Being a part of the Communications team has taught me many skills that I can carry along with me in my career path as I learn how to better create digital media. It only took me a few days though, working with such great NLIHC staff, listening in on meetings and, it seemed, everything they talked about, for me to also become a passionate low-income housing advocate – and I will always be one.

Making a Splash in Policy: A Policy Intern during the Trump Administration

May 19, 2017
By Natalie Brown, former NLIHC policy intern

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Natalie Brown, policy intern with Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL)

Being at NLIHC has been one of the most immersive and incredible experiences a policy intern could ever ask for. Not kidding. Because I know with twisted absolute certainty that I would not trade my first time working in Washington D.C. for any other time than now. Why? Because I have learned more while fighting against majority interests than I could have while comfortably defending them.

I applied to be a policy intern at NLIHC for a variety of reasons, but one of my biggest aims was to explore a policy realm I had less experience in. During my coursework at Cornell, I had studied a variety of entitlement programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and SNAP which made my belief in their importance resolute. A piece felt missing, and that piece was an understanding of the importance of housing, which could fairly be considered the most important part in the security of low-income families. NLIHC’s mission of supporting socially just policy that promotes access to housing to those with the greatest needs greatly appealed to me, and I was blessed with the opportunity to hit the floor running this January.

The facts I learned about the affordable housing crisis were staggering. Nationwide there are 35 units affordable and available for every 100 extremely low income Americans. Waitlists to receive help are in the thousands in many cities. Only one-quarter of those who qualify for housing assistance receives aid. And so our job was to spread the message. Attending meetings on Capitol Hill with the Policy Team to talk with Congressional staff about these issues was invigorating: I had never imagined I would be this close to the people crafting policies changing the lives of everyday Americans. I learned more than I ever thought I would, and I am confident I will use it in future work and advocacy.

To conclude, I’d like to talk about the three most poignant truths about policy during my time interning in D.C.

  1. Change is less like water being poured out a pitcher and more like miraculous tiny drips and splashes. Every optimistic and starry-eyed Political Science major wants to come to Washington to see the curtains drawn back on what our government does. To watch big changes pour out of the doors of the Congressional chambers and to bask in the glow of them. I was no exception. Peculiarly, being here has shown me that big changes take time. Even though the idea of quick solutions is encouraging, there is no doubt that Congressional staffers and members put so much time and effort into the work they do in order to craft the solutions they believe in. For the job to be done right, quick-fixes just are not good enough. If for example, Congress allocated one trillion dollars in a block grant to a good cause (affordable housing, to be especially pertinent) with no mechanisms for oversight or no thought about what the disbursement guidelines will be, funds could easily be misused in a variety of different ways that could not only not solve the problem but exacerbate it. Policy, though expansive, should be carefully crafted and not taken lightly in order to be effective.
  2. Do your homework. Knowledge is power! Understanding the issues is the first step in solving them. When I first stepped into the office, the first thing I was instructed to do was to read up on housing programs, and I could not believe how large the issues are. As an advocacy organization, we strive to provide facts and data to offices so they can make the most informed policies and decisions. So even someone who is not an advocate but just wants to have a policy position should search for facts far and wide in order to come to a decision.
  3. Compromise is inescapable. If the government was about always getting what you want, life would be simple (and would lose almost all of its intrigue). Compromise is inevitable, and a big part of a long term strategy. In today’s climate, it may be tempting to retreat to one side of the aisle and not entertain the idea of a middle ground. But that gives up the fight entirely! Find middle ground when possible while still fighting for what’s right. This doesn’t work when an issue is black-and-white, but in many cases having support on both sides is better than fighting alone.

Throughout my time as an intern at NLIHC, I have had the opportunity to delve into affordable housing policy. It’s been a better primer than I ever could have asked for. Being here when tax reform has reemerged onto center stage and in the midst budget battles has been incredible. Being here when the fight is just beginning has been amazing and I cannot thank NLIHC enough for the opportunity to fight alongside you.

5 things I heard Secretary Carson say at the NLIHC 2017 Housing Policy Forum

By Sharon Cornu

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Housing and Urban Development Secretary Dr. Ben Carson spoke at the National Low Income Housing Coalition conference in Washington, DC on April 3 as part of his listening tour. Here are five things he said and actions housing advocates can take to ensure that everyone has a place to call home.

  1. “Home is a place where you can feel secure. Housing is an integral part of well-being mentally and physically. There are three to four times as many people who need affordable housing as we can provide. Millions are paying 50% of their income for housing.”
    • That’s absolutely right – why, it reads almost like housing advocates’ talking points.
  1. “Healthcare is important. The emergency room costs three times as much as the clinic and doesn’t do preventive care. Exposure to lead hurts kids permanently.”
    • Again, we agree, and that’s why so many people worked hard for health care reform and especially the expansion of Medicaid to America’s lowest income families. We see the connection to housing as so many medical experts do, and we’re glad Secretary Carson supports this view. Unfortunately, he is part of an administration that may try again to take healthcare away from 24 million people.
  1. He proposed “Housing Savings Accounts” for unit-by-unit maintenance of public housing, where the individual resident is incentivized not to report common structural conditions or simple repair needs.
    • This is bad policy and disastrous property management. A spate of fires – and related deaths — in my community in Oakland, CA recently has reminded all of us that code compliance and regular maintenance protects human life.
  1. “The Low Income Housing Tax Credit is effective.”
    • We agree, and that’s why we are working at the state level to expand it, and at the federal level to preserve it. We encourage Secretary Carson to share this non-alternative fact with his administration and to join housing advocates in supporting affordable homes for everyone.
  1. “People are concerned about this new budget like it’s a crisis and the end of the world.”
    • We hope you are, too!  According to NLIHC, the budget “proposes to zero out HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods grants, cut the Community Development Block Grant in half, and eliminate the Self-help Homeownership Opportunity Program and NeighborWorks grants.” The budget has its values upside down and redirects investment to the wealthiest 1%.

He closed with, “As Jesus said, a house divided against itself cannot stand.” (Actually, Dr. Carson, that was a man named Abraham Lincoln.)

During the Q&A portion, NLIHC’s President & CEO Diane Yentel pushed back with the diplomatic skills Washington has forgotten.  She pressed, “These budget cuts are real and immediate. People will be losing their homes. What assurances are you offering?” Carson answered that only waste and inefficiency will be cut – fueling the fears of people like me, who feel he is one of the cabinet officials dedicated to closing the Department whose critical mission he was entrusted to serve.

HUD programs have great consequences for millions of Americans in cities, suburbs and rural communities across the country. The essential investments offer families, seniors, veterans and people with disabilities the security and opportunity of stable housing and a place to call home.

To learn more about why we need serious talk and legislative action to support housing, visit the Non-Profit Housing Association website for California issues and NLIHC for federal. You’ll find urgent and important actions to take to defend our communities and support affordable housing.

Join us on calling on Secretary Dr. Carson to first, do no harm.


Sharon Cornu is political director for the Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH) and adjunct professor at Mills College.