You know how you behave differently when you go to someone else home? The same thing is true with community meetings. If you are invited by the government everyone behaves differently than if the government had been invited by you.
I just attended a meeting that the DC government called about their ‘Request for Expressions of Interest’ to develop on the piece of land that is known as ‘Parcel 42’ (an area with quite a history).
It was a classic government arranged community meeting. It felt like being in someone else’s flat. Or, more accurately, like being in someone else’s meeting.
Ivan Matthews, the Project Manager, presented a very brief PowerPoint presentation to the audience (which was half developers and half local residents). He didn’t even read off all the points from the slides (which I could not read from the back). Perhaps that was a good thing as reading off slides is pretty boring for the audience.
He then proposed to take questions solely in written form. Rebel that I am, I asked a question anyway. The expression of interest says they want a developer that will ‘maximise affordable housing’ but the meaning of this phrase is a bit ambiguous. What is affordable for one family will not be for another. So I asked; “What type of families does the city have in mind when they say affordable?”
I didn’t really get a good answer. According to the bid a 2 person unit would count as affordable if a family on $60,000 per year can afford it (worked out as 80% of the ‘Area Median Income’. On a side note, it’s interesting to note the the Coalition government in the UK has introduced a new model which allows social landlords to rent units at 80% of the market rent). Remember that the average income for a Black household in DC is just under $40,000. This means that so-called ‘affordable’ housing units would not be affordable for most Black households in DC.
Although my question did not get a good response from Ivan, who was keen to stress the need for flexibility, it did get some of the audience interested. One woman made a short speech passionately explaining how tough it is to find affordable housing in the city, when you are on a low wage or a fixed income. (A recent report from DCFPI shows quite how right she is).
I think the passionate tone she used took back the city officials. At that point they thanked us for coming and said they would get back to us via email.
The whole meeting couldn’t have lasted for 30 minutes.
They were in and out.
It was like being chucked out of a boring house party that you had been invited to.
I cannot stress quite how different this meeting was when compared with a meeting on affordable housing organized by a local church or community organization. These meetings are long, argumentative, passionate things. The meeting I just attended was short and perfunctionary.
The lesson I take from this is that is would be cheaper and better if governments paid local community organizations to arrange their community meetings. I think we all know why that is unlikely to happen…