Tackling Tough Issues with Civic Engagement: Affordable Housing
Involving the public in local decision-making may be more comfortable for local officials when addressing small or noncontroversial issues, but what happens when community leaders face a deeply divided community and anticipate many tense and difficult discussions? This is precisely the kind of situation where civic engagement strategies can make the largest contribution – in terms of exercising leadership and also in achieving community consensus and making wise decisions.
The key is to design an effective community engagement strategy, given the policy question at hand. When it comes to community engagement strategies, one size definitely does not fit all.
Affordable Housing: The Challenge
Planning for affordable housing can present difficult issues for local officials. Neighborhood residents often have concerns about such housing. Left unaddressed, these concerns can result in deep-seated opposition to a project.
This situation puts local officials between the proverbial rock and a hard place. State law imposes a number of requirements designed to make sure communities offer housing to meet a range of income levels, and many local officials have a personal commitment to making sure their community has housing options for people of all ages and incomes.
Options to Consider
An Institute for Local Government publication, Building Public Support for Affordable Housing: A Toolbox for California Officials (online at www.ca-ilg.org/YIMBY), lays out a comprehensive approach to the process of addressing public concerns related to an affordable housing project. As the Toolbox notes, identifying a specific strategy for involving residents is just one of six steps to successfully and constructively engage the public in the decision-making process. The steps involve:
1. Conducting an initial assessment to understand the context of the proposal, its impacts, the stakeholders who may be affected and their concerns;
2. Understanding the legal underpinnings and parameters of the decision-making process;
3. Understanding and addressing the public’s concerns;
4. Designing an appropriate public participation process with clearly articulated goals;
5. Using specific techniques and formats for discussions; and
6. Following up on commitments made to the community.
It’s critically important to clearly understand the goals of the public participation process, referenced in step 4, and to use an approach that supports achieving the goal.
Possible goals and strategies include:
• Promoting a certain project or policy (an informational approach);
• Seeking input to inform decision-making and enhance public understanding (a consultation approach);
• Helping the public come to an informed judgment about the project that will influence the ultimate policy or decision (an engagement approach); and
• Resolving conflicts among competing interests (a conflict resolution approach).
The public’s trust and confidence in the local agency is influenced by whether the agency is forthright about the objective. There’s nothing more damaging than asking people for input that the agency has no intention of considering when it makes a final decision.
What about the usual approach of having a public hearing? Public hearings typically occur late in the process, after doubts and opposition have had an opportunity to build and solidify. Moreover, legal requirements related to due process and other fairness considerations can result in public hearings that are more about articulating concerns and opposition and less about finding areas of shared values and concerns.
For this reason, ILG encourages local agencies to consider using additional civic engagement techniques in advance of public hearing processes. The desired result is projects that move forward to meet the area’s needs for affordable housing and address the community’s concerns about those projects.
This article originally ran in the October issue of Western City magazine. This column is a service of the Institute for Local Government’s Land Use and Housing Program and Public Engagement Initiative, which offer resources for local officials. For more information, visit www.ca-ilg.org.