2003 Advocates' Guide to Housing
& Community Development Policy


Lobbying and Advocacy Tips

The word "lobby" has an air of mystique about it, but it all comes down to this: Talking to your Member of Congress or a staff person about an issue of concern to you. As a housing advocate, you can - and should - lobby your Congressional delegation. It is important to remember that you do not have to be an expert on housing policy to lobby. The experience and information you can provide on the housing situation in your member’s district is very valuable to him or her. It is the responsibility of Members of Congress and their staffers to be responsive to the concerns of their constituents.

Three of the most popular and effective ways to elicit support for your issues with your Congressional delegation are through visits, letters and phone calls.

If you've never lobbied before, it may help to think of the visit as a 20-minute conversation that will give both your organization and your Member added insight on where you are each coming from on a given topic.

A face-to-face meeting with a Senator or Congressperson is often the most effective way to get your voice heard. However, given the schedule of most Members, you will most likely meet with the staff person who deals with housing issues. Staffers have significant input into many policy decisions, so getting to know the staff person and building a relationship with him or her is crucial.

Setting the meeting

·        If you know you will be visiting D.C., call in advance for an appointment. If you do not know your Member's phone number, call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to be transferred.

·        Ask to meet with your Member or his or her staff person who works on housing issues. Tell the person who sets up your appointment: l) Where you are from and what organization you represent; 2) The purpose of the meeting; and 3) The number of people who will be attending the meeting.

·        Write a short note to the staff person you will meet with to confirm the meeting date, time and purpose. The day before the visit, call to confirm the appointment.

Planning the meeting

·        A planned meeting will be a more relaxed and productive. Before you go, set an agenda based on how much time you have-usually no more than 20 minutes or half an hour. Decide what issues you'd like to discuss (usually no more than two or three), how to frame your message positively, and what specific action or actions you would like your Member to take.   Unless you have met with them before, do not assume that Members and staff understand the problem. It is best to start with a description of the problem in your community, and then move on to solutions.

·        Know your Member. In deciding how to frame your message, it helps to know your Member's professional interests and. personal concerns, including Congressional committee assignments, memberships and affiliations (often listed on a Member's website). This may help you gauge what your Member's priorities are and why he or she should be interested in what you have to say.

·        It also helps to know how your member voted on housing issues. You can review roll call votes on key bills at http://thomas.loc.gov. If the Member's record is favorable, remember to acknowledge his or her past support during the meeting. If a record is unfavorable, remember that today's opponent may be tomorrow's ally.

·        Gather written materials to leave with the staff person. . To remind Members and staff of the extent of the housing crisis in their districts, photocopy pages from Out of Reach (or download data from www.nlihnc.org). For information on the National Housing Trust Fund as part of the solution, download a copy of the policy proposal and a list of endorsers from your state at http://www.nhtf.org.

·        Finally, decide who from the group will lead the meeting and what everyone else's roles will be.

National Low Income Housing Coalition   171


2003 Advocates' Guide to Housing
& Community Development Policy


The meeting

·        Be on time!

·        Begin the meeting by introducing the attendees and stating the purpose of the meeting.

·        As you raise your first issue, state your views clearly. Remember to start with the problem and then to move on to solutions. Include personal stories and experiences to make key points. Have concrete and specific suggestions for action, such as supporting, sponsoring, cosponsoring or opposing a bill.

·        Be honest. If you are asked a question to which you don't know the answer, tell your Member or staff person you will find out the answer and get back to him or her soon.

·        Do not make a scapegoat of other programs in making your point. If the Member or staff person suggests that you engage in a discussion of another program, do not get off point. Come back to your agenda

·        Keep in mind that the Member or the staff person may have to cut the meeting short, so stick carefully to your agenda.

·        Do not do all of the talking. Listen; get a sense of your Member's views on the issue. The Member might have legitimate concerns about the issue that your group should address. 

·        Before closing the meeting, summarize any agreements reached and any follow up that must be done. Leave the relevant materials. Thank the Member or the staff person for his or her time.

·         Keep the door open for further discussion and lay the foundation for future contact. Even if your Member seems to be leaning against your position, do not write him or her off. Consider your meeting an opportunity to build your relationship with the staff person and to educate the office about your organization's work. Every meeting is an investment that will pay off in the future.

Following your visit

·        Send a letter to your Member and his or her staff thanking them for their time and reaffirming your views and any agreements made in the meeting. Send any information or materials you agreed to provide.

·        If you lobbied on an issue being tracked by your state coalition or NLIHC, report the results of the meeting to them. This is especially crucial on an issue such as the National Housing Trust Fund.

·        Monitor your Member's actions on your issue. Continue to communicate with him or her as the issue advances.

Meetings in your home district are also effective. You may have a better chance of meeting with the Member in person if you call the district office and request a meeting when Congress is not in session. The summer month and the weeks at the end of the year after Congress has adjourned are especially good times to find your Congressional delegation in their districts.

To make it more likely that your Member will attend in person, you may want to arrange a press opportunity for him or her (a tour of a neighborhood, for example). A larger number of planned attendees will also make it more likely that the Member will attend, and will show that many constituents are concerned about housing.

Letters can also be effective in letting your Congressperson or Senator know how you feel about issues; some offices have said that a letter from a constituent is viewed as representing 100 to 200 voters from the Member's district! When writing, make sure you state the issue concisely and specifically, using bill numbers where applicable: To make sure the correct person receives your letter, address it to the attention of the housing staffer. Because security concerns mean that letters are significantly delayed in reaching Congress, it is a good idea to fax as well as mail your letter. Call your Member's office to get his or her fax number.

Handwritten letters can be especially effective. If you are having a meeting of agency staff, board members, clients, etc., start the meeting by handing out blank paper and having everyone take 10 minutes to handwrite a letter to his or her Member. You can provide a sample letter, (available at http://www.nhtf.org ) but encourage people to describe the problem as they see it. Collect the letters, and then fax and mail them over the course of a few days.


177                          National Low Income Housing Coalition


2003 Advocates’ Guide to Housing
& Community Development Policy


Address letters as follows:

Senate:            The Honorable (full name)                                                                          House:          The Honorable (full name)
Attn: Housing Staffer                                                                                                      Attn: Housing Staffer
United States Senate                                                                                                     United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20510                                                                                                   Washington, DC 20515


If a letter represents 100 voters, a call from a constituent may be considered as representing as many as 10. Calls can be especially effective if a staff person receives several calls on the same topic within a few days of each other, so you may want to encourage others in your district to call at the same time you do. When you call, ask to speak to the staff person who deals with housing issues. Be sure to say who you are, where you are from and what organization or constituency you represent. When possible, have names and numbers of bills you are calling about. The days before a key vote or hearing are critical decision times and an especially effective time to call.

A Member of Congress may be contacted through the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 2243121.

Unless you are using an email service like the one on the NLIHC website, it is generally not a good idea to attempt to correspond with your Member using email. Members can receive upwards of 50,000 emails a month, and many of these messages will never be read by the appropriate staff. Use email only once you have established a relationship with a staff person and have that person's direct email address.

Visits, letters and calls are not the only ways to communicate your positions to Congress. You can also:

·        Organize a tour for your Member of your organization's projects that feature real people telling their success stories.

·        Get media coverage. Organize a tour for a local reporter, or set up a press conference to tie your issue into a local event. You can also call in to radio talk shows and write letters to the editor of your local paper. Or call your newspaper's editorial page editor and set up a meeting to discuss the possibility of the paper's support for your issue. If you get an editorial or other press coverage, be sure to send the clippings to your Member's office.

·        Elicit the support of potential allies who are influential with your Member - your city council, mayor, local business or religious leaders.

Finally, be creative. How else can you build a relationship with your Member and increase public support for your issues?



Notional Low Income Housing Coalition   173