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Community Dialogue is Essential for Affordable Housing

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

During the Spring Quarter of 2020, a team of four PDI researchers (Isabella Faro, Xavior Lewis, Emily Young, and Project Lead Rory Gates) produced original research on dialogue between affordable housing advocates and the communities in which they organize. Their findings were published in the paper Breaking Down Barriers to Affordable Housing Through Dialogue. This qualitative study of two cases in Chicago outlines a framework for understanding how activists counter opposition narratives around property values and crime, and suggests ways that housing advocates may use existing community institutions to combat anti-integration sentiment.

Bringing to the Table

Chicago remains one of the nation’s most segregated cities, in no small part due to aldermanic prerogative over affordable housing. However, political will follows community consensus so while successful case studies may be (as the research team noted) “very much the exception,” they offer insight into shifting the needle on Chicago’s increasing unaffordability, which has been a factor in the Black Exodus. To that end, Breaking Down Barriers sheds light on two rare cases of community activism that may hold the seeds to a more affordable Chicago.

One of the studied cases was Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who modeled a different approach to development: Community-Driven Zoning and Development. By centering community input and involvement, Alderman Rosa was able to successfully ease opposition groups in the 35th Ward. By analyzing a different approach to aldermanic control over land use, Breaking Down Barriers shows that affordable housing can still be developed under a political structure that rewards short-term, hyperlocal thinking.

Finally, Breaking Down Barriers contains some generalizable insights about successful community dialogue with opposition groups. While successfully overcoming resistance to affordable housing is highly dependent on each community, Breaking Down Barriers highlights the importance of acknowledging community buy-in and the role that both organizers and electeds may play in reframing affordable housing as beneficial to the opposition.

Key Takeaways

  • Preface housing development with plentiful community engagement opportunities, such as public meetings

  • Ensure engagement opportunities are inclusive, accessible, and diverse. Ideally, organizers would be proactive in creating spaces that are more representative than they have been in the past

  • Identify and use narratives that will realign affordable housing with stakeholders’ self-interest. This may mean broadening the issue scope beyond housing, such as drawing connections to issues of healthcare, school access, and transport

  • Show genuine interest in having participation from the entire community through consistently building relationships and seeking input over time

Where to Go From Here

Patterns in success: Can we see common threads between these cases and successful cases in other cities?

Identifying past mistakes: How do unsuccessful cases, whether in Chicago or elsewhere, differ from these two cases?

Building a strategy for affordable housing: If other housing advocates implement these takeaways, will they be successful? What other supports or barriers might exist?

Reforming the land use process: More alderpeople could follow the lead of Alderman Rosa and pioneer an actively inclusive, participatory process that might end up demonstrating that more community groups are in favor of affordable housing than previously thought.

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