Alliance Leader Q&A: Margaret Kaplan, New President of Housing Justice Center

From organizing in manufactured home parks to leading community engagement efforts with the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, Margaret Kaplan has dedicated the past 20 years to affordable housing advocacy. In 2018, she returned to the Housing Justice Center — where she had her first job out of law school back in 2003 — and as of July 1 stepped into a new leadership role as the organization’s President.

We sat down with her for a quick Q&A to get her take on the changing advocacy landscape, what excites her about the work of HJC and some fun facts about her musical talents and traveling adventures. Read the full announcement about HJC’s leadership transition on their new website!

What inspired you to get into housing advocacy?

I lived in different types of housing growing up, from a single family home to my grandmother’s senior apartment to a manufactured home, so I always had this idea that there are many different places that can be called home. In 1999, I decided to do the VISTA program, and the work at APAC [All Parks Alliance for Change] seemed interesting, like it would have great impact. In manufactured home communities, the homes and families are so frequently discounted in a variety of ways and experience so much of a stigma, and being part of the conversation trying to shift that dynamic was pretty powerful. It developed my understanding of how we think about the connection between communities and the people making decisions — and how disconnected that is. In my time there, I also saw the power of the law as a tool for social justice and social good and decided to go get my law degree. I started at Housing Preservation Project [now Housing Justice Center] right out of law school.

What’s a campaign win or organizing success that stands out in your mind as memorable or particularly impactful?

One thing that always strikes me is that the success or failure of an organizing campaign or policy push or legal case plays out over a much longer timeframe than we think. There are simple things where you know if you won or lost — someone is evicted or not, we passed a law or we didn’t — but a lot of the time there are ripple effects that happen over a longer term that tell you if something was successful. One recent example is looking back at few years ago, nobody was doing inclusionary housing in Minnesota. Nobody was really looking at the tenant protection side of what has increasingly become the major issue in our region, which is the loss of affordable housing without subsidy – what some folks call NOAH housing. It was at that time that HJC put together a significant list of policy options, a menu to think about these types of protections. It took a while for policy makers to start thinking about it and implementing it, but here we are a few years later and it’s become an important part of the overall conversation to talk about tenant protection ordinances. The arc of that is really long, so we need to think about what’s the next big issue, the next big idea that we need to start planting the seeds of today to come to fruition in the future. At HJC, we’ve been vocal as an organization about the importance of thinking about deep affordability and putting forward better strategies for housing at 30% AMI [area median income] and below.  I think that this will emerge as the critical fair housing issue of the next few years.

You’ve been in this work for 20 years; how has the landscape evolved? 

Overall the level of awareness of housing as an issue is pretty elevated right now. People are getting how important it is, and there’s cross-sector thinking about how it ties to other issues like job, education, health, and transportation in a way that is much more prominent than it used to be. There’s also many more voices and efforts today to center community in that discussion, emphasizing that you can’t talk about the future of communities without community being part of defining that future. But, on the negative side, there’s been a decline in federal resources and a shifting away from thinking about public ownership as an important part of housing affordability. Now public private partnership is a buzzword without really defining the roles of the public and private in that dynamic and how it can lead to meaningful investment in a way that the community is defining its own needs. I also really worry about the smaller organizations that are doing very deep community work because it’s sometimes harder for folks to see the incredible value they’re bringing when that relational work doesn’t match up with the typical way of thinking about deliverables and metrics of success. I think we need to strive for more accountability in who defines what [those benchmarks of success] look like.

What most excites you about the work of HJC now — and over the next 5 years? What do you hope to move or accomplish?

I think we’re in a really strong position to support the work of community-based organizations as they’re pushing for changes to embedded systems and structures. I’m excited to think about what people need in order to do their policy work well, and supporting those efforts in the community with the specialized insight and skills that come knowing the law and policy in a very technical and analytical way. I’m also really excited about the way we can use the legal system itself as a very important tool. When we think about impact litigation, how do we push in places to have these massive ripple effects that redefine our expectations when we think about rights? I think of rights as the floor and justice as the ceiling and right now so many people are living in the sub-basement. So part of our work is access, both in our ability to support legal services and folks doing policy work by providing technical assistance, and also our ability to proactively bring cases to make sure folks’ rights are honored and we’re pushing that floor up a little bit.

What’s something people don’t know about you?

I play the banjo. I’m a fairly good singer but a terrible banjo player. My dad is a folk musician and he was teacher so during the summer he would play county fairs and state parks. So I was singing all the time when I was a kid and took up the banjo maybe 10 years ago. It’s a lot of fun, and I do it to bother the cat — who is now deaf so remains unbothered.

You’re a traveller; what’s one of your favorite places you’ve visited? 

I love traveling. About 12 years ago, we did the Trans-Siberian Railroad and did a lot of stopping along the way. We went across Russia and into Mongolia and ended in China. It was really cool and we met a bunch of people along the way. Sometimes taking the slow route lets you see a lot more. A couple years ago, I was able to go to Bhutan and we went trekking in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was so gorgeous and amazingly difficult. We were on the trail at high altitude for about a week and I felt like I might not make it going over the high passes in the snow but it was such an amazing experience.

Stay tuned for our next Leader Q&A with Ashwat Narayanan, new Executive Director of Our Streets MPLS in coming weeks!