What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.

There is nothing that derails a good conversation faster and more effectively than data and jargon — a fact that makes my job a bit difficult at times. Navigating the language of housing is a challenge I’ve learned to embrace as an exercise in creative problem solving. 

Take a look at this list of words and phrases that I try to avoid when I am talking about workforce housing: workforce housing, affordable housing, housing, homes, and literally any and all legalese, jargon, and acronyms. Yes, I could recite the definition of workforce housing per NH RSA 674:58-61, but do you really want me to?

Framing is a hot topic for those who work in the world of housing advocacy, but what exactly is framing? According to good ole Wikipedia, “framing comprises a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how individuals, groups, and societies organize, perceive, and communicate about reality.” The list of naughty words above scare people not because they’re opposed to creating places for people to live, but because the jargon doesn’t conjure an image of regular homes for them. The audience doesn’t see themselves in workforce housing – in their mind, workforce housing is housing for someone else

Framing comprises a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how individuals, groups, and societies organize, perceive, and communicate about reality.

When it comes to framing, I rely on the work of FrameWorks Institute for guidance. Back in October, I was lucky enough to hear Moira O’Neil, Vice President of Research Interpretation at FrameWorks, speak at a conference. She summed it up perfectly, “framing matters because what the experts say and what the public hears are not the same.” When I am talking about workforce housing, what exactly am I talking about? What’s in a name? 

Framing matters because what the experts say and what the public hears are not the same.

Workforce housing isn’t mysterious or complicated — it’s just places where regular people live. Workforce housing isn’t subsidized; it is rarely income restricted; and it is often financed using only conventional financing. It is regular housing that happens to be more affordable than luxury housing. In some communities, workforce housing costs the same as market rate housing. Workforce housing is just housing.

It isn’t the walls and the roofs that make up our communities, it is the people who live between the walls and under those roofs. This is why I work to shift conversations about housing to conversations about people. Remember when I flipped the question around and asked not what, but who, is workforce housing? When we focus on the people who live in workforce housing, the idea becomes clearer. That which we call workforce housing, by any other name would still be places where people live. 

Whether or not “workforce housing” is a concept that resonates with you, the state’s housing crisis impacts all of us. Every single one of us has a housing story because all of us are affected or knows someone who is. Take my friend Sara, for example, she and her husband would really like to downsize into something smaller now that they’re children have grown and moved out. Or, a large employer in the seacoast that is struggling to hire qualified employees so they’ve resorted to busing temporary staffers from Massachusetts. Or, the young couple who both work in Portsmouth, but couldn’t afford a home there, so now they’re commuting from Farmington. 

No matter what your housing story is — it has power because you, the storyteller, are an authentic messenger. Your story has the power to change perceptions, so your local leaders, elected officials, and neighbors need to hear your housing story. 

The Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast is collecting housing stories for a future blog post, so tell us your housing story

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