Six Tips for Housing Advocates From a State Lawmaker

Rep. June Robinson (right) talks with the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance’s Director of Policy and Advocacy, Michele Thomas. Image from the Housing Alliance.

Written by Denise Miller, Firesteel Advocacy Coordinator

Today the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance hosted a conference call to debrief the 2014 state legislative session and share a lawmaker’s perspective on housing advocacy. The legislator on the call, Rep. June Robinson of the 38th District, is a freshman lawmaker but a longtime champion of policies that will help end homelessness.

Rep. Robinson gave great advice for communicating with legislators. If you have time, we recommend listening to the audio recording of the whole hour-long call. If you need the CliffsNotes version, then check out these takeaways:

Tip #1: Communicate often.

Lawmakers are bombarded with information; to make sure your issue isn’t forgotten, you need to put it in front of your elected officials frequently. Rep. Robinson says there is “no such thing as over-communication.”

When I started engaging in housing advocacy, I wondered if lawmakers would be put off if they heard from me more than once or twice in a session. Would they just tune me out? Rep. Robinson says the answer is no, and getting in touch with elected officials weekly is effective.

Tip #2: Let lawmakers know how legislation will affect their constituents.

Legislators work for the people in their home districts, and they always keep them in mind. Rep. Robinson says that advocates should “provide local data, local stories, anything that connects” their cause to the legislator’s district.

Tip #3: If you’re advocating for specific legislation, give lawmakers detailed information about how they can help.

Rep. Robinson found it useful when advocates came to her with bill numbers and the status of the legislation they wanted her to take action on.

“Please vote for House Bill 1234 to move out of your committee tomorrow morning” is more immediately actionable than “Please do what you can to make sure our local shelters are fully funded.”

Of course it’s not always easy for advocates to keep up with bills as they move through the legislature. The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, Firesteel, and other advocacy organizations provide timely information and calls to action so that you can keep your messages to your legislators pertinent.

Tip #4: Share both personal stories and data.

Rep. Robinson says she is persuaded by both solid numbers and heart-touching stories, particularly those that explain how issues affect her district. She notes that some colleagues changed their votes after being moved by personal stories shared in hearing testimonies. The impact of stories versus data varies by lawmaker and issue, and presenting a combination of the two is advocates’ best bet.

Tip #5: Keep advocating year-round.

Rep. Robinson suggests meeting with legislators in their home districts to help them understand housing and homelessness issues. For example, you can offer a tour of a local affordable housing community and invite residents to share their stories. Then, when you contact lawmakers during the legislative session, you can effectively connect your message back to what’s happening at home.

Note: Next month the Housing Alliance will release a guide for interim advocacy that will include advice for meeting with lawmakers. Keep an eye out for it!

Tip #6: Don’t give up.

It’s easy to feel like you can’t make a difference, and that lawmakers will just vote the way their caucus wants them to. Robinson says that’s not true. The amazing rescue of funding for housing and homelessness services this session demonstrated just how effective strategic advocacy can be. Even if your legislator doesn’t respond to your messages, every email and call is being registered.

“Don’t ever feel like it’s not worth it, because it really does change minds, hearts, and—most importantly in Olympia—votes,” Robinson says.

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