Monday, August 26, 2013

How do we improve community engagement in affordable housing?

The process of community engagement as I have experienced it since the beginning of my career has always seemed to have more promise than follow through.  Yes we hold public hearings on every federally and state funded project so that neighbors, stakeholders and advocates can come out to speak their minds. We accept emails and phone calls with complaints, save them and respond in the most “even and fair” manner that we think we’re allowed to. We even hold stakeholders meetings and create commissions and advisory committees so that “representatives” of different populations and groups can tell anecdotal stories about their needs and wants.

But do we really ever listen? Do we create an atmosphere where the public, advocates and developers can talk about their ideas and differences in an open manner? Do we even care?

I’ll start by saying that many of us in community development really do care. We are in this business not because of lush salaries or the hope of obtaining public adoration (at least I don’t think we are). I think that most of us really do want to change the way things are done. To create opportunities for the public, neighborhors, stakeholders and advocates to share their ideas and effect change. Unfortunately, I think that many of the systems for generating discussion and engagement are fatally flawed.

The two largest public finance programs for affordable housing are driven by federal regulations that ensure a public hearing is held for every housing tax credit and tax exempt bond project proposed. The agencies that manage these programs schedule hearings (at least the really good ones) near their development site and on days and times that neighbors can come by and share their ideas. The public can air any grievances they have over the proposed projects and impacts to their community, ask questions or just state that they don’t really know what’s going on and need some type of information.

In nearly every public hearing that I have been involved in the staff person in attendance reads into the public record a set speech that they may not waiver from. They ask anyone who wants to speak to come forward, provide their comments and then sit down. There is no dialogue. The staff person has been informed that they may not provide a response to any questions or comments on anything said. And so they sit calmly (smile or not) and “listen” to the public air their ideas.

But is this really all that the public gets or deserves? It often feels to me that we are short changing the public’s role in the process and providing only a placative avenue for them to speak, without much opportunity to really effect change. Does this really have to be the case? I don’t think so.

A recent article at Next American City by Neeraj Mehta touches on many of these same concerns and issues I’ve pointed out above. Mr. Mehta also goes on to provide some meaningful responses to the “how can we make things better” question. Specifically, he notes three steps or considerations that would at least begin to move us in the right direction.

  • Acknowledge our interdependence and need for increased diversity.
  • Be honest with the complexity.
  • Be comfortable with uncertainty and controversy.

Within his analysis he notes that every project is different and that each will possibly need a unique process or approach to gain meaningful input from stakeholders and decision makers. I recommend that you read the article in full, if you care at all about this topic, and look into Mr. Mehta’s other works.

The better news is that public engagement is something that a lot of people have been thinking, writing and teaching about for decades. It may not all be focused on housing or community development, but there is one really great resource out there with a vast collection of resources. The National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation (NCDD) not only produces ongoing research about better avenues for community engagement, but has several easy to use tools for people like me, to help improve procedures and use new strategies that might be better suited to the kinds of inputs and feedback that I need and our communities deserve.

I’ll be starting a process over the next few months to research better strategies and I’ll provide updates on anything I try out in my programs. I hope some of you will share your thoughts and ideas, too.



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