chapter 4: Engaging the Community
Learning Objective: Users will understand the importance of different community stakeholders to the success of an affordable housing development and gain practical tips for engaging them.
Who are community stakeholders?
There are many types of community stakeholders that could be relevant to engage as part of your development process. You will want to consider who and how to engage to best achieve all parties’ goals. The process of making this decision is described in more detail below, but your list will likely include some combination of the following community stakeholders.
Your target population(s). Depending on where you are in your development process, you may have already identified specific populations whose housing needs you hope to meet. For example, this could include people earning a certain income, older adults, and/or people with disabilities. Any populations you hope your development will serve should form a component of your stakeholder engagement approach, either through direct engagement of individuals and/or organizations that represent their interests. For example, a local organization that advocates on behalf of people living with disabilities may have great insight on related housing needs. These stakeholders will provide important insight to inform your development design, location, connection to services, target rent levels, and many other aspects. They may also be an important ally in helping you make the case for your development to other community stakeholders.
Current tenants. If you are rehabilitating or redeveloping an existing property, the building’s current occupants should be engaged to determine if and how they will be impacted by construction activities and the vision for the completed development. This could include both individual residents and organizations if the building contains commercial space. Current tenants have unique knowledge of the building’s current condition and functions since they experience it daily. This may inform their ideas or preferences for modifications you are considering.
Neighborhood residents. Neighborhood residents are those who live near your intended development site. They may be engaged as individuals or through groups, or individuals who represent local interests such as neighborhood associations, community champions, or elected officials. Opinions on development, and affordable housing development, can vary substantially from person to person and neighborhood to neighborhood. Some neighborhoods may welcome housing development because they understand the value and view it as a way to help their community grow. Some may view it as a threat to their community or property interests. Others may not have specific opinions but will instead have questions for you about construction implications or what the resulting development will mean for them and their neighborhood. In preparing to engage residents, research the neighborhood’s history to understand any community goals, strengths, concerns, and accomplishments. Have there been previous engagement efforts where resident trust was violated? If so, there may be mistrust of future engagement efforts to overcome.
Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) objections to development
Neighborhood residents can be one of the most important and most challenging groups to engage, since they may wield considerable power to slow or even prevent your development from proceeding. Some may also struggle to see the value in your development, depending on the local political structures and approval processes. The development represents change for their neighborhood, and change can be threatening for many people.
Some may see the value in affordable housing development for the community as a whole, but do not want it in their neighborhood. These “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) concerns are a common barrier that affordable housing developers encounter. NIMBY arguments can take many forms but range from concerns about homeowners’ property values, traffic, safety, environmental quality, community architectural character, and/or residents who are expected to live at the development. In some cases, there might be legitimate concerns about a particular issue, such as traffic, which you can work on in concert with the community and any relevant public agencies to solve. In others, neighborhood residents may simply replace one objection with another because they don’t want the development to occur at all. In these cases, it could be less a matter of addressing arguments and more about helping them understand the value and importance of providing more affordable housing options in the community. Encouraging neighbors to consider current costs of housing relative to qualifying working wages can go a long way to undermine the stereotypes and preconceptions they have about affordable housing and its residents.
Identifying and lifting up the voices of supporters of your development can also help to make your case against a NIMBY mindset. In most cases, some residents in the neighborhood will be in support of your development, even if they are not as vocal as those speaking up against it. Local public agency staff and officials who represent the interest of the broader community may also be important champions for your development. Regardless of the specifics of the situation, the best approach to combatting NIMBY arguments is to engage in dialogue throughout the process, strive to bring residents along in their thinking and seek compromise where possible. Engaging stakeholders early in the process when there is the greatest potential for collaboration and compromise is best. If vocal opponents cannot be won over and effectively wield the power to obstruct your development, you may have to consider formal negotiation as a solution.
For more information on dealing with NIMBY concerns, see HUD’s NIMBY Risk Assessment and Decision Tree Tool.
Public sector stakeholders
City/County staff. Staff from city and county agencies can be significant resources, helping you understand the development approval process, others in the stakeholder landscape, the community’s housing needs, and a variety of other conditions. Because they are charged with supporting the interests of the community as a whole, they will often have a good foundation for understanding the need for affordable housing and the value that your development will bring to the community. They may also be allies in convincing other community stakeholders of your development’s value. A good practice would be to engage with planning departments very early in the process. The planners will be able to share if the housing development concept is compliant with local land use and zoning requirements. Also, be sure to keep this group updated throughout development.
Local elected officials. Local elected officials will have varied positions on affordable housing and the development needs of particular neighborhoods. They may have a good sense of the community’s overall needs. Those who represent specific districts or wards, such as city council members, work to ensure healthy balance between the needs of the broader community with the needs of their constituents. Some elected officials may have issues they have established stances on and others that are open to discussion. Thus, understanding where local elected officials stand on affordable housing and development will be important in engaging them. If they have been involved in prior efforts in the neighborhood you’re planning to develop in, what was their role? Because elected officials are community leaders who represent public opinion and wield power through their office, they can be important allies in helping you make the case and obtain approvals to proceed with your development. You should keep them engaged and updated throughout the development process.
Staff from state agencies. Although not necessarily members of the community in which you are developing, staff from CHFA, DOH, or other state agencies want to see your affordable housing development succeed and can be helpful allies in your community engagement process. Having their buy-in and support can help convince local stakeholders that your development is important and in the community’s best interest.
Nonprofit and advocacy organizations. These organizations represent the interests of a particular population or issue. Examples include disability rights advocates, fair housing organizations, and environmental stewards and advocacy groups. Organizations whose mission or agenda includes increasing the availability of affordable housing can be helpful to engage in supporting your development. They may provide materials and data to help you overcome neighborhood opposition to development. They may provide connections to political or financial resources or have helpful information to inform the vision and plan for your development. They may be interested in partnering with you on development or service provision. Other organizations may raise concerns about your development and make suggestions to help you address them. For example, an environmental group may raise concerns about the impacts of your development on a local watershed and have ideas about how to improve stormwater management. Which organizations you engage, if any, will depend on the community you are in, what organizations exist, and which have interests that are aligned with yours.
Community-based philanthropic and/or financial institutions. In addition to potentially providing financial resources for development, community-based funders may take a more direct interest in your development project than those based outside the community. Because they have a focus on serving the community, they typically have valuable networks, local support and awareness, and may function as trusted community leaders. Thus, engaging them during your development process may mean not only exploring how your development may fit their investment and giving priorities, but also help you access their influence and existing community support.
Nearby businesses and landowners. These stakeholders are typically those located near the site who may be directly impacted by the construction and eventual occupation of the building. This includes those who may be impacted by temporary road closures during construction, those who could benefit from changes in roads or sidewalks in the completed development, or those whose business may benefit from the proximity to your residents. City staff can help you determine who is likely to be impacted by activities and contact the owners of these businesses. Engaging these businesses will typically involve some process of defining the impacts on them and determining whether there are solutions to mitigate negative impacts or increase positive impacts on their business.
Local employers. In addition to nearby businesses, major employers in the area generally benefit from the increased affordable housing options for their workforce that you will be creating. Especially in communities where affordable housing shortages are viewed as a key employee attraction and retention concern, these organizations can be champions of your development, helping you make the case to elected officials and community members that your development is in the community’s best interest due to its potential to support local economic development. Examples include businesses, hospitals, universities, school districts, and other institutions.
Why does engagement matter?
Successfully engaging members of the community where you plan to develop will be necessary for the success of both for the development you are considering now and those you may pursue in the future. Successful engagement may result in political support and could make room for additional resources for your development. It may also substantively inform your development plans, since engaging stakeholders will help you better understand the housing needs, challenges, and opportunities in the community. Failing to engage the community may result in costly delays or cause you to abandon your development plan altogether. In addition, inclusive engagement is important to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion considerations in your development process.
Community engagement is not a single step in the development process but something you will want to do throughout, although the activities tend to be most intensive and important during your concept development and predevelopment/feasibility phases. Some of the key ways that community engagement can be helpful to you include:
Advising on local context and joint problem solving. Local stakeholders can help you understand the existing conditions, history, trends, and priorities of the community. They can help you understand how the community has changed over time as well as the change they would like to see happen. They can help you identify populations in particular need of affordable housing and where there are the greatest disparities in housing outcomes. They may point you to neighborhoods or specific sites that could affect—or be affected by—the development process. They can help you understand how the community’s history, experience, and culture can be accounted for in the development. All of these factors can help you understand what kind of development will best meet the community’s needs and the relationship to the community’s and your organization’s priorities.
Creating a more equitable development. Having an inclusive engagement process that incorporates and responds to diverse perspectives is critical to understanding how your development can create more equitable outcomes for the population you will serve and/or the community in which you are developing. The engagement process can also empower community members by enabling direct participation in the development planning and design process. For more information on this, see the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Self-Assessment Tool.
Accessing funding. Local stakeholders can also help you identify and secure financing for your project, including through locally administered public resources, local philanthropic organizations, or individual donors. The Bridge Shelter case study, for example, highlights an example of the potential of individual donations in achieving the project’s success. Demonstrating that community engagement and partnership are key parts of your development process may also make you more competitive for state and national funding sources. Some funding sources even specify minimum requirements for community engagement.
Accessing land. Local stakeholders, including both individuals and institutions, who own land may be more willing to commit this resource if they understand there is alignment between affordable housing and their and/or the community’s goals. This could mean the difference between land being available or not. For example, a landowner who was not planning to sell their property may decide to sell it to you because you have helped them understand the importance of the outcome. It may also create opportunities for an institutional partnership in which land is donated or offered at a lower cost for development. This was the case in the Basalt Vista Affordable Housing Community case study.
Getting public support and approvals. As discussed in more detail in Chapter 5: Predevelopment, the approval process is a key point when the community can formally exercise its voice to shape the development. Having the support of the community can mean the difference between getting the approvals you need to proceed, being required to make revisions to your development plan, or having your development rejected altogether. Engaging the community to help you and local stakeholders understand how your development can best address local priorities will increase the likelihood of getting the community’s formal approval to proceed.
Improving understanding of the need for affordable housing and benefits of development. This can be a necessary precursor to gaining stakeholder support for your development. It can also be helpful in building general support for affordable housing in the community, which may serve your organization’s goals and mission beyond a single development. Topics that may be helpful to improve stakeholder understanding include:
who in the community the development will serve;
the factors that contribute to local needs;
the positive impacts of affordable housing, such as economic growth, public spending on other needs, etc.;
the benefits of different housing types (see Chapter 3: Housing Development Models, Team, and Roles for more detail); and
the process for developing housing and the potential impacts.
For support in understanding how to make the case that affordable housing is an important issue and needed in the community, see the Casemaking Tool.
Local labor. Your development will create employment opportunities, both temporary jobs during the construction phase and potentially permanent jobs for ongoing property management and service provision. When they see the importance of your development for their community, local contractors, laborers, and other businesses may be more likely to work with you, move past perceived risks, and help you achieve a better outcome. The Bridge Shelter case study in this guide provides an example of how working with local contractors who believed in the project was a key contributor to the project’s success.
Finding tenants or buyers. Once construction is complete, your development will need to be rented or sold. Engaging the community throughout the development process can help you raise awareness and interest by prospective renters or buyers. Understanding the community’s needs and priorities can also inform your marketing strategy. This is described in more detail in the Marketing and Lease-up section of Chapter 8: Project Construction.
Long-term relationship building. Ensuring that you are working with community stakeholders and partners will help you build the long-term relationships that may lead to future opportunities in housing development and beyond. Providing a good experience to those you work with may strengthen relationships for the future when they recognize opportunities for your organization’s mission, skills, and expertise to be leveraged.
Planning your engagement
Thoughtful planning of your approach is key to developing your community engagement process. Like many things in the development process, you will likely need to adjust over time, but it is a good idea to start planning your engagement as early as possible.
Planning your engagement
Step 1: Define your engagement goals
The community engagement goals for your project will vary depending on the nature of your development and the community in which you are working. Creating affordable housing through rehabilitating and preserving existing housing, for example, may not impact the surrounding neighborhood as significantly as a new construction development where the use of a vacant site is changing. Developing for a population or in a neighborhood with a history of significant trauma may require a more thoughtful approach to account for this. The planning and approval processes in a jurisdiction may also influence who has power and influence that can inform engagement. You will have multiple goals in your engagement process, but some combination of the benefits listed in the previous section will likely be incorporated.
Step 2: Identify community stakeholders
To start planning your engagement, make a list of the stakeholders you plan to engage. Given different types of stakeholders discussed in the previous section and/or others you feel are important to your project, consider these questions:
What individuals or organizations have a stake in your development? For example, who will be impacted, directly or indirectly, by the affordable housing you will develop, the populations you plan to serve, and the changes in the use of the site or construction activities?
Are there any community organizations, leaders, service providers, faith institutions, or others who may not have a significant stake themselves, but are trusted by community members and can help to engage those with a more direct stake?
What individuals or organizations have insight, experience, influence, authority, and/or funding that could benefit your project and therefore should be engaged?
How does your team’s lived experience relate to those you plan to engage? Are there others you could partner with to ensure you have a good starting point for engaging and understanding key issues, populations, and geographies? See Figure 2.
Answering each of these questions will help you create an effective list of community stakeholders to engage. Your answers to these questions may also change as you move through the development process and some aspects may become more specific. For example, before you have identified a site, you may not know what neighborhoods are relevant to engage.
Applying a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) lens is helpful and important in the stakeholder identification step. This means ensuring that individuals and organizations included in your engagement represent the key demographics you intend to serve. It also means ensuring there are varied perspectives represented from the community, especially those whose voices have not historically been heard in decision-making processes. Consider DEI across a broad range of perspectives, including but not limited to, race and ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, mental and physical ability, and geography. Also, consider your team’s relationship to the above factors. Do you feel you have the experience for effective engagement (as outlined in Figure 2)? For more information on considering a DEI lens in your work, see the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Self-Assessment tool.
Step 3: Stakeholder analysis
Once you have your list of potential stakeholders, conduct a stakeholder analysis by considering what you know about them. You can also use additional supplementary research, including reviewing organizational websites, asking colleagues or board members who have worked with them, and reading press coverage involving these stakeholders. You may also be able to sit in on convenings of these stakeholders to listen to their perspectives prior to your engagement. Public meetings happening as part of public planning processes, for example, can be a good place to hear what issues are top of mind for a neighborhood or population group. The following considerations can help guide your thinking.
- Who at the organization might be a good point of contact? Do you already know them?
- Are you aware of any existing initiatives, forums, organizations, such as a local business owners group, or engagement processes in which these stakeholders already convene that might provide a convenient entry point for engagement?
- Are there particular development phases where engaging them will matter more?
- Are there any meeting or planning process timelines that should inform your engagement timing?
- Are there logistical issues you should anticipate in engagement, such as digital capabilities, childcare needs, translation needs, etc.?
- Would compensating individuals for their time enable them to participate?
- What are their interests, priorities, organizational missions, and values?
- What are their stated views on affordable housing development? Do you expect them to support or be resistant to the idea that affordable housing is needed or that your development is important for them and their community?
- What information might support your case and help you convince them?
- What other challenges or opportunities do you envision when engaging this person or group?
- What stake do they have in your development and its success?
- How will they benefit from participating in engagement?
- What influence and resources do they have that could support your development, including influence with other stakeholders on your list?
- What power do they have to directly impact your development?
- What aspects of your development will be important for them to understand or have input on?
- What expertise, experience, or information do they have that would be helpful for you to understand?
Experience and Interactions
- Has anyone in your organization had experience engaging or working with these groups previously? If so, what did you learn?
- Do you know of historical engagement processes they have been involved in? If so, did it build or hinder trust for housing developers and engagement processes more generally?
- Is the community where you will develop likely to be suffering from planning or engagement fatigue due to previous engagement processes?
- •Are there alliances or a history of antagonism between stakeholders that you have identified?
Step 4: Plan your approach
Once you have a clear sense of who you seek to engage and the consideration for doing so, you can plan your approach. Some stakeholders may need to be engaged in one-on-one conversations, while this may be infeasible for others. Consider the notes you made in your stakeholder analysis to determine the format, timing, and design of your approach for engaging each. Which stakeholders can you effectively engage as a group? Which should you engage first? Are there groups that you need to spend more time understanding before you begin direct engagement? Will you need to account for language or cultural awareness in your efforts?
A common framework used for thinking about engagement approach is the International Association for Public Participation’s Public Participation Spectrum (Figure 3). This spectrum captures the degree of involvement you plan for stakeholders to have in your process. You will likely want to involve different stakeholders in different ways: some you may want to engage as collaborators in your development process, helping you solve problems and supporting your success; others may be relatively less involved but want to stay informed. Thinking about your engagement goals and approach in these terms can help you decide how to engage each type of community stakeholder.
There are many forms and models of engagement that you can consider using, including those below. You will likely need some combination of these approaches to achieve your engagement goals.
Individual interviews or conversations. Perhaps the simplest form of engagement to plan and implement is an individual interview or conversation with a stakeholder. This allows you to focus your attention and information on the perspective and role of that stakeholder. This is also a very time-intensive form of engagement and is not feasible when you are trying to engage large numbers of people. This is most commonly done with key stakeholders such as community leaders or points of contact at organizations who represent a broader set of stakeholders.
Community meetings and listening sessions. At the other end of the spectrum are larger group events with open invitations where many stakeholders can engage at the same time. The clear advantages of this are reaching many people at one time and allowing for diverse perspectives. However, while these can be efficient from an engagement time perspective, they can also be difficult spaces to engage in meaningful dialogue. Depending on the design of the meeting and the stakeholders in the room, you may struggle to capture the diversity of perspectives you are hoping for. A skilled independent facilitator can help address these challenges by creating an environment that welcomes diverse perspectives, gives everyone a chance to engage, and addresses conflicts that may arise. When planning sessions like these, consider the accessibility and relevance of the location to your audience, the transportation access, and whether childcare or language interpreters will need to be provided for stakeholders to participate. This will help ensure that you are not inadvertently excluding anyone.
Focus groups and group interviews. As a middle ground between engaging one-on-one and engaging a large group, small-group discussions and interviews can be an effective and relatively time-efficient engagement. The small-group setting makes people more comfortable to share their perspectives and you can better anticipate who is participating to help you achieve your engagement goals. For example, you may decide it makes sense to convene a group of representatives from multiple organizations who have a similar stake in your development so that you can discuss issues together. As with broader community meetings, a skilled facilitator can help you design and conduct these sessions. This may be particularly helpful if you have specific concerns or sensitive goals.
Written materials. You may choose to do some level of engagement through surveys, online outreach, web-based content, or printed materials. While these can be helpful approaches, they are not generally sufficient on their own and instead should be thought of as a complement to other engagement. Materials may need to be provided in languages additional to English. These tools can help you reach audiences who you might not otherwise engage and help stakeholders learn more or explore issues in more detail.
Digital engagement platforms. There are increasing varieties of digital platforms that are specifically designed for stakeholder engagement. They each function differently, so explore to find one that matches your engagement goals. CoUrbanize, Bangthetable, and Crowdbrite are examples, but there are a growing number of platforms that provide this kind of service. Like written materials, these platforms are generally used as a supplement to more direct forms of engagement to reach a broader audience. Some also have tools that can be used during in-person engagements to collect feedback. For example, collaborative digital mapping is often used to identify community assets.
Engagement via champions. As discussed above, you may find other organizations that are willing to engage stakeholders on your behalf and champion affordable housing needs and the value of your development. Although this would still require you to remain engaged in some way, this can save you time, create entry points with communities and populations you might not otherwise have, and help you leverage the trust that the champion has already built. Local or state government staff, community organizations, local leaders, and local employers are examples of groups that may potentially champion your work.
Leveraging existing engagement. In many cases, there will already be engagement activities occurring in your community. The city or county may be holding public meetings related to a local planning process. There may be organizations holding discussions of affordable housing needs. Identifying these opportunities can save you time in planning your own meetings, while providing space to engage the assembled group. The downside of this approach is having no management over who will attend or the timing of the engagement. Therefore, leveraging existing engagement is something to consider as an opportunity, but cannot be relied on as a primary strategy.
Step 5: Engage and adapt
Once you have defined your engagement approach and timeline, you can begin your engagement process. Although who and how you engage will vary based on the specifics of your development and location, there are a few key principles to keep in mind:
Keep an open line of communication by being easily accessible and listening. Treat engagement as open and ongoing rather than confined to one meeting.
Recognize the wisdom, voice, and experience of community stakeholders.
Reach out to marginalized communities and create a safe space for participants who may be hesitant to express their opinions.
Treat all stakeholders with integrity and respect, even when they do not agree with you.
Be transparent about your motives and relevant power dynamics.
Share decision-making and leadership when possible.
Engage in continuous reflection and be willing to change course.
Follow through with commitments you make to stakeholders.
When things change, follow up to keep key stakeholders informed.
See engagement as an opportunity to build long-term relationships with the community.
Provide written materials (hard copy or virtual) to provide greater transparency and clarity.
For more information and tools to help you begin facilitation and engagement activities, see Collective Impact Forum’s Community Engagement Toolkit. Warm Cookies of the Revolution, based in Denver, also has many innovative models for engagement and provides videos and other media showcasing how facilitation style and engagement design can impact engagement outcomes.
With thoughtful planning and the above-listed principles in mind, engaging and building relationships with community stakeholders can be one of the most rewarding aspects of development and will contribute to the success of this development and the next.
Source: Collective Impact Forum. “Community Engagement Toolkit,” 2017 https://www.collectiveimpactforum.org/sites/default/files/Community%20Engagement%20Toolkit.pdf
Source: International Association for Public Participation: “IAP2 Spectrum.” Accessed: August 1, 2021 https://www.iap2canada.ca/resources/Documents/IAP2%20Canada-Foundations-Spectrum_revised_june_orange.pdf
City of Denver. “Supportive Housing Neighborhood Engagement Guide.” February 2020. https://www.denvergov.org/content/dam/denvergov/Portals/695/2020/misc-2020/kniech-supportive-housing/SupportiveHousing_NeighborhoodEngagementGuide.pdf
Collective Impact Forum. “Community Engagement Toolkit,” 2017 https://www.collectiveimpactforum.org/sites/default/files/Community%20Engagement%20Toolkit.pdf
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