As it turns out, everything.
As we build brands for affordable housing organizations, one of the first steps is a series of interviews with their internal teams and the residents they serve. Whether we’re chatting with long-time or first-time residents, grizzled maintenance techs or fresh-faced navigators — the word most often used to describe interactions between residents and housing professionals is love.
Not efficiency. Not expertise. Not thoroughness.
The more we thought about it, the more it made perfect sense. Our housing clients love helping people. Residents love their communities. Now, there will always be concerns and complaints. The squeaky wheels squeak, and they get their grease: No one loves a leaky toilet or filling out HUD forms. But look past the impersonal elements of the institution, and there are millions of one-on-one interactions between humans who are looking out for each other and the community. Love.
Housing agencies absolutely operate with love as a guiding principle — we see it all the time. Love is what you do. But it can’t be what you say you do. That would be wrong, right?
Love is what you do. But it can’t be what you say you do, can it?
A month ago, I might have agreed. But as providence would have it, a podcast changed my mind: a conversation between OnBeing’s Krista Tippett and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, an official so official he wears a military-style uniform and commands a force of 6,000 health service officers. Murthy didn’t talk about smoking, or gun violence, or cholesterol. Instead, he spoke of loneliness and love — loneliness as a contributor to illness and love as a path to healing.
With nary a pinch of schmaltz, America’s doctor makes a case for love as a national strength, as an organizational and operational principle: “We’ve got to be a nation that fundamentally recognizes what strength really is. Because strength is not just about how much money we have in the economy or about the might of our military. Those are important. But our greatest source of strength comes from, I believe, our fundamental ability to give and receive love.”
Love, actually …
Love is a many-splendored thing. Love is a battlefield. Love is a trusted construct for telling stories and singing songs. Love is not how we’re conditioned to talk about the work we do, especially when that work is the efficient stewardship of municipal housing dollars. Compassion, dedication, care and courtesy all get the job done. But love?
When we see love primarily through the rose-colored glasses of romance, it’s inappropriate for the workplace. A violation of professional boundaries. A liability. The hour-plus dialog identifies our preoccupation with romantic love as a barrier to the advancement of love as public policy.
On the need to de-romanticize love, Tippett posits, “The way love actually works, very often in the course of a day, has nothing to do with how you feel. It’s what you do. And it’s daily giving, and it’s what you do sometimes in spite of how you feel, but you do it because you care about that relationship. You’re invested in that relationship.”
Housing + love = public health
The connection between housing and public health is well-researched and well-articulated by affordable housing advocates. The Surgeon General makes a convincing case for an equally critical connection between public health and love: “We have to give people the permission and the encouragement to feel love, to cultivate it, to prioritize it, because, to me, it is a backbone of good policies, good programs and a strong society.”
When we look at love the way Murthy frames it — fidelity to principles, looking out for one another, doing the right thing when it’s the hard thing — it pretty perfectly describes why housing professionals do what they do and what holds our communities together.
Lean toward love
In the communities we’ve visited, we’ve seen the opposite of loneliness and isolation. We’ve seen neighbors helping neighbors find what they need to lead happy, healthy, fulfilling lives. You could call that a committed group of human service professionals endeavoring to enhance the quality of life for all residents. Or you could call it love.
Am I calling on housing agencies to declare (right on their home page in big blue type) that they operate from a guiding principle of love? In some cases — and you know who you are — I absolutely am. But more importantly, I’m challenging housing agencies to look at the work you do and the language and imagery you use to communicate through a spectrum. On one side is administration. On the other side is love.
Bend the spectrum
A spectrum is not a straight line. It’s not binary. Love isn’t the opposite of administration. Love makes administration more effective.
Love isn’t the opposite of administration.
Love makes administration more effective.
Think about what part of the spectrum a particular piece of communication passes through. Can you nudge it closer to love?
Shifting language (even slightly) from a place of administration to a place of love can reduce stigma and increase engagement. The fine folks at The People Lab tested some small but powerful changes in language on postcards for the Denver County Department of Housing Stability and Office of Social Equity and Inclusion, promoting their temporary rental assistance program. Group A (25,000 Denver renters) received postcards with the same kind of language the organization had used in the past.
- You’re not alone.
- The City and County of Denver has many programs to support residents in need.
The language is not impersonal. But the positioning is organization-out, a familiar framework for affordable housing professionals. The organization is the subject of the second sentence: we do this for you.
Group B (25,000 demographically identical Denver renters) received postcards with alternate language.
- You’re not alone and it’s not your fault.
- Because of COVID-19, many Denver residents need a little extra help right now.
The language is more personal, destigmatizing and comes from a place of love. The positioning is resident-in: you might need a little extra help (and it’s not your fault). Design elements were identical for both postcards: heavy on text, light on imagery, and not much visual appeal. The results were impressive, with postcard B the clear winner. More emotional, less stigmatizing language netted:
- 18% more requests for applications
- 11% more program applications
Name it and proclaim it
No one loves a broken appliance. But maintenance folks love helping people. And people love living in a community where we look out for each other. Those little acts of love beget more acts of love, and that love threads the fabric of a healthy community together.
Love is as powerful as it is immeasurable. But when we name it, proclaim it and embrace it as a guiding principle, we can start to see it as the best force — perhaps the only force — strong enough to take on the housing crisis.