Four words housing agencies need to stop using
Housing agencies are reinventing how they serve our communities. In that effort, policy matters. Process matters. Addressing inequity matters. And words matter. Here are four words that should be shown the door.
For people over 40 and/or from larger metropolitan areas, the word Project conjures up the worst possible image of housing agencies: crime, drugs, crumbling buildings. Few “Projects” remain. And housing agencies have earned the right to change the conversation. Nevertheless, the stigma surrounding this word has outlasted the buildings themselves.
As housing agencies become increasingly involved in building affordable communities, it’s natural to adopt real estate parlance, like new construction projects. There’s no intent to invoke the stigma attached to the word, but intent doesn’t combat stigma. A simple, intentional shift in your internal and external language can go a long way toward putting this particular semantic stigma to bed.
An otherwise awesome article gets cut off at the knees by one word in the headline.
As words go, Landlord is just the worst. It carries with it millennia of medieval and patriarchal baggage. And it’s challenging to replace thanks to its ubiquity in both legal and casual communication.
Let your lawyers say whatever they want. Your external communication can do better. Agencies are successfully replacing Landlord with Rental Manager or Property Manager. You can add clarity (and make your lawyers happy) by saying, “Your Rental Manager, sometimes called a Landlord.”
The term Housing Voucher appears seven times in Section 8 of the U.S. Housing Act of 1937. So why do people still look for Section 8 housing and not Housing Vouchers? That’s the power of marketing. Or, more aptly, the lack thereof. Imagine if Oreos were called Cookie Product 37. You’d say, “I love dunking my Cookie Product 37 into a cold glass of milk.” That sounds funny, but it’s deeply, institutionally unfunny. Section 8 is how a thing gets branded when no one thinks it’s worth branding.
You can employ best SEO practices to keep attracting searches for Section 8. Otherwise, eradicate it from your language. The term Housing Choice Voucher is human-centered language that says what it is and that you care. The distinction between Tenant-Based Vouchers and (screaming into my coffee mug) Project-Based Vouchers does not matter to folks searching for an affordable place to live. Keep that internal or find a different way to frame it externally.
This is also a carryover from real estate. It’s a convenient single word to describe all types of residences. But people don’t live in units; they live in homes.
It might seem benign, but it’s endemic of the most significant communication challenge housing agencies face — how to reframe longstanding internal terminology into external language that reduces stigma, makes an emotional connection with your audience and positions you for the future.
Housing agencies have a unique opportunity to use collective power to improve collective impact. And it starts with words.
See what a big difference using the right words makes in the Housing Choice Voucher onboarding video we created with Boulder Housing Partners.
About Tom Campbell:
Tom is Toolbox’s co-founder and creative director. When he’s not kicking rocks, Tom can be found daydreaming about when he can return to his beer league hockey team or playing drums for local bar bands. He’s also a founder and fairy godfather of Art Lab Fort Collins and keeper of TomLovesTheLibertyBell.com, a quirky repository of stories and stats on Liberty Bell replicas around the world.
About Toolbox Creative:
Toolbox Creative is a creative agency for technology companies, helping innovators assess their brand equity, clarify their positioning and amplify their voices — creating lasting impact and building brand love.