In 2020, organizer Nikil Saval ran for office on a platform that included housing rights and a Green New Deal for Pennsylvania, and defeated a powerful Democratic State Senator.
Less than two years later, Sen. Saval seized on the opening created by the American Rescue Plan to win $125 million for a Whole-Home Repairs program that would support housing affordability while taking steps to combat climate change. By building a large grassroots coalition and focusing squarely on the material benefits the program will provide for renters and homeowners, Saval garnered the bipartisan support for the program needed to pass it through the Republican-dominated state legislature.
Convergence editor Jacob Swenson-Lengyel spoke to Sen. Saval about the lessons the Pennsylvania campaign may hold for other organizers looking to win fights at the state level that can pave the way for even more transformative victories in the years to come.
Jacob Swenson-Lengyel: You’ve spent much of this year advocating for the Whole-Home Repairs Program, and won $125 million for it in July. What is the Whole-Home Repairs Program? How will it help working-class families?
Nikil Saval: The Whole-Home Repairs program establishes a one-stop shop for home repairs and weatherization while building out our local workforce and adding new family-sustaining jobs in a growing field. This program is the first of its kind in the nation, making it so that Pennsylvanians can stay warm, safe, and dry in homes they can afford.
This program works by doing three things: First, it provides up to $50,000 to repair, update, and adapt homes throughout Pennsylvania. Next, it allocates support staff to help people access the assistance they need in the order they need it. And finally, it funds training programs and provides stipends to trainees to build up the local workforce needed to meet the demand.
This is a program for homeowners and renters alike—homeowners can apply for grants of up to $50,000, and small landlords with affordability restrictions can apply for the same amount in forgivable loans for each unit they rent.
The Whole-Home Repairs program is a housing security initiative, an energy initiative (and thus, a climate initiative), an anti-blight initiative, a jobs initiative, a community safety initiative, and an anti-gentrification initiative. The cumulative effect of all of these things means that this program can tackle many of the root causes of community instability by keeping people in their homes and keeping these homes safe and healthy.
The Whole-Home Repairs Program meets the real, material needs of our constituents. This is a direct investment in our people, in our homes, and in our communities.
JSL: You openly identify as a democratic socialist — and yet you built a bipartisan coalition of legislators to win the Whole-Home Repairs Program. How did you win Republican support for the proposal? What challenges did you face along the way?
NS: When my office first opened in December 2020, we knew that some of the first work we needed to do was to move the needle on Pennsylvania’s ongoing housing crisis.
We hosted three separate policy hearings in which we worked to ensure the voices and experiences of Pennsylvania residents were centered. Underlying so many of the testimonies that Pennsylvanians shared was the fact that their homes—regardless of whether they rented or owned—were unsafe. Residents shared that their children were sickened with lead poisoning. Their families were exposed to dangerous temperatures in the winter and in the summer despite exorbitant utility burdens. Their homes had mold from water damage caused by burst pipes and leaky roofs and windows. They couldn’t access parts of their homes because of a change in their physical needs and abilities. In many instances, residents shared that they had nowhere to turn because their family members were dealing with those same issues, too.
We knew that this issue was not an urban issue or a suburban issue or a rural issue. With hundreds of thousands of homes across the state in need of a critical repair, this is an issue that transcends geography, and, of course, that transcends political affiliation.
We also knew that to win the bill, it was imperative that we have the support of Republican legislators. When we began to have these conversations with legislators interested in housing, we learned that they were aware of this issue, were concerned about its effects on their constituents, and, in some instances, had been working on it for years. We realized there were grounds to collaborate.
In my urban district in Philadelphia, communities are concerned about displacement and gentrification. In more rural districts, communities are concerned about blight and abandonment. The trigger for all these problems is a lack of ability to repair and maintain one’s home. All of us were focused on different stages of the same sweeping cyclical problem, and to address it, we needed to create a shared language with which we could talk about our shared crisis.
JSL: Progressives have faced major setbacks at the federal level when it comes to winning elements of a Green New Deal. Even the Inflation Reduction Act, the climate and health package that recently passed after major compromises, falls short of what many of us hoped for. What lessons do you think the Whole-Home Repairs fight holds for progressives looking to win ambitious programs at the federal level? What advice do you have for local organizers looking to craft state- or municipal-level Green New Deal policies?
NS: In reflecting recently on the strategies that were effective in winning the Whole-Home Repairs Program, we identified several themes from our discussion of what was most effective for us:
We practiced very deliberate, very principled organizing at each step of the way. The primary goal of my office has always been to improve the lives of families and working people throughout my district and throughout Pennsylvania. My roots are in labor and community organizing, and when we were beginning to assemble our staff, we wanted to ensure that the principles and practices of organizing were guiding our strategy. Many members of my team have direct organizing experience, and even those without specific organizing backgrounds have used the methods and tactics of it to be effective in their work. We anticipated that our office structure would be unique, but we didn’t anticipate how singular this would be in the legislature.
We created a power map that we updated constantly. We adhered to a strategy that led our messaging and day-to-day outreach decisions. We had hundreds of 1:1 conversations to understand the needs of residents, the demands on housing and energy advocates, and the interests of other members of the Pennsylvania legislature. We worked to earn the trust of the community organizations that we were asking to join us in the fight. We kept solidarity as our north star to guide us when we anticipated tension, and we constantly looked for ways to work with others and build a larger coalition.
We identified an issue that activated and excited our base while simultaneously being a winnable policy idea. There’s a traditional narrative that you can’t have both an exciting policy and a passable one, that you must choose one or the other. But the Whole-Home Repairs Program was designed to solve a very tangible and material need. Our homes are where we base our lives, and once this base is destabilized, everything else is at risk. We’re living in a very specific moment in which we’re seeing the fragility of the systems we depend on, and this is terrifying regardless of whether you are an experienced organizer or simply trying to build your life in a world that grows increasingly more difficult. By focusing on the relatively specific issue of home repairs and weatherization, we were also able to zoom out and talk about housing security, community investment, neighborhood stability, community safety, and energy burdens, all while supporting apprenticeships and job training to make this vision possible.
We practiced organizational and messaging discipline. Because our intention was always to have this program pass, we knew that we would need to have legislators in both parties champion it. We made a deliberate decision to talk about what the program would do and how it would do it.
JSL: Grassroots organizations and labor unions played a key role in propelling you to office in 2020. What role did those organizations and unions play in the fight to win the Whole-Homes Repair Fund? What did you learn from this project about how movement politicians and progressive organizations can best work together after the election is over?
NS: The success of the campaign to pass the Whole-Home Repairs Program was a direct result of the tireless organizing of a coalition of housing and energy advocates and community organizations committed to housing and energy justice. The support of this coalition was absolutely vital to this victory.
My office was designed to be an organizing hub embedded within the structure of the Pennsylvania Senate, and on staff, I have an outreach director and a labor liaison. My outreach director built trust with the organizations and advocates who would become our coalition. We worked with core members of this coalition (including Make the Road, Pennsylvania Stands Up, DSA, CASA, Power Interfaith, and Sunrise Movement) to hold a week of action to raise the alarm on the state of Pennsylvania’s housing. During this week, we traveled to different parts of the state to hold actions. We provided support for local groups to create visuals, recruit speakers, and do press outreach. This created a flurry of news stories in local papers and ushered in a feeling of momentum. In the run-up to the passage of the Whole-Home Repairs Program in our state’s budget, coalition members were meeting weekly and communicating even more frequently. This was a collective victory in the truest sense.
We also spoke about Whole-Home Repairs in meetings with labor unions, many of which subsequently submitted letters of support for the program.
The trusting relationships that my staff organizers were able to foster were the backbone of the campaign.
JSL: Based on your experiences, what lessons do you think other socialists might draw about building coalitions to win on our issues? How did you balance your aspirational vision with the concessions that were necessary to win?
NS: The version of the Whole-Home Repairs Program that we ultimately won and that has passed into law is virtually the same as the initial version that we introduced. We did not modify the core functions of the program or make any concessions to it. The program was ultimately created in Pennsylvania’s 2022–2023 state budget. We secured the $125-million appropriation in the budget bill itself, and the program language was written into Pennsylvania’s fiscal code.
All along the way, internally with my team, and externally with our partners, we discussed different scenarios to build consensus around what we would consider a victory, and whether there would be a change large enough so that we wouldn’t consider it “Whole-Home Repairs.” This was both clarifying and crucial: we needed to be laser-focused on what it was that we were fighting to win, and nimble, if need be, to adapt so that we were ready to negotiate and recalibrate. But it so happens that the strength of the campaign—and the resulting support from other legislators and from our Governor—was such that we were able to remain uncompromising in advancing what we had built.
It’s important to note that this is the largest investment in housing that the legislature has made in recent history, and at the same time, after decades of disinvestment, we know that the need is immense. One in four Pennsylvania voters lives in a home that needs a critical repair. One in three Pennsylvania voters can’t afford their utility bills. The money we won allows us to seed the program and show proof of concept. Going forward, we’ll need to fight each budget cycle to scale up this program so that we can meet the enormity of the need statewide. This is a fight to which we’re committed, and to which our coalition is committed, too.
Featured image: Senator Nikil Saval at a Whole-Home Repairs Act demonstration in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.