How the Housing Alliance of Pa. built an advocacy powerhouse out of 'irrelevance' - Generocity Philly

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Jan. 19, 2016 8:49 am

How the Housing Alliance of Pa. built an advocacy powerhouse out of ‘irrelevance’

After 14 years nurturing a diverse statewide coalition from the ground up, Executive Director Liz Hersh is leaving to lead Philadelphia's Office of Supportive Housing.

South Philly rowhomes.

(Photo courtesy of Melody Joy Kramer, used under a Flickr Creative Commons license)

When Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania Executive Director Liz Hersh was handed the keys to the coalition 14 years ago, there wasn’t a lot of gas in the tank.

Back in 2002, the affordable housing advocacy organization didn’t have anything close to the legislative clout it now wields across the state: The tally for legislative victories was slim. The lack of diversity among members was blaring. The organization was taking on projects that didn’t directly align with its mission, just to make ends meet.

State politicians had labelled them “irrelevant.”

“The only people who wanted us to exist was us,” Hersh said. “We had to think, ‘What sources of power and influence did we have? How do we make ourselves relevant?’ We decided the way we would do that was by adding value.”

Hersh said that meant doing research, providing constituents with educational and informational resources and making a commitment to creating solutions. But first, leadership needed to reach a broader base of supporters.

“We figured if you have homelessness and blight and housing problems in your community, that’s everybody’s problem,” Hersh said. “How do we bring everybody together to try and figure out some solutions?”

The first step, Hersh said, was readjusting how the Alliance articulated its mission by whittling away the excess and emphasizing core values.

"If you work hard and play by the rules, you ought to afford a decent place to live, and no child should be homeless."
Liz Hersh

“If you work hard and play by the rules, you ought to afford a decent place to live, and no child should be homeless,” Hersh said of the group’s mission. “When we started with those values, everybody agreed. Then, we could talk to them about how there was a disconnect between those values and what was actually happening in reality.”

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Growth became unavoidable as the Alliance quickly nurtured a diverse membership roster composed of for-profit developers, homelessness providers, religious leaders, anti-blight advocates, senior citizens —  the list goes on.

The Alliance’s annual meetings, which typically garnered 15 to 20 people in the pre-2002 era, soon evolved into a conference that, in its first iteration, rallied 400 supporters and 43 sponsors.

Now, those annual conferences bring in over twice the amount of attendees and triple the sponsorship count, and the Alliance supplements those events with year-round webinars. Hersh said some of that success can be attributed to the coalition’s push for inclusivity.

“If you’re from a really small town up in rural Pennsylvania, you can be a presenter on a webinar or at a conference,” she said. “We’ve tried to lift up the talent and skills and expertise of our network and give people an opportunity to shine and teach as well as learn.”

That growth happened because of a very intentional transformation in organizational philosophy. Here’s Hersh advice for doing the same:

  • Build a broad-based coalition that crosses party lines — “If we can find ways to have everybody contribute, most people will want to,” she said.
  • Everything you do should be solutions-oriented — “When I first started out being a social worker in the late ’70s, we talked a lot about doing good. It’s no longer good enough to do good. You have to do well.”
  • Everything should be informed by data and evidence — “We have to be rigorous about holding ourselves accountable and using scarce resources as cost-effectively as possible.”
  • Articulate an inclusive, positive message — “Honor the different perspectives of all the different players and bring everybody together towards a common goal — in this case, making homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring. Then, we can make progress.”
  • Know and track your goals — “Don’t be afraid to say them out loud and be measured against your progress, even if it’s hard.”

Hersh will be tapping into those lessons when she steps into her new gig as director of the Office of Supportive Housing in March.

The timing couldn’t be better: After spending the past seven years with the Alliance campaigning for the state to establish and fund a statewide affordable housing fund, Hersh saw those efforts come to fruition this past November when Gov. Tom Wolf signed Act 58 into law. Now effectively loaded with $25 million, the Pennsylvania State Housing Trust Fund is another tally for the Alliance’s ever-growing victory count.

“I think the Housing Alliance is very strong,” Hersh said. “I think it’s a good thing to have a new vision and new leadership.”

Not so irrelevant anymore, huh?

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