To our newly elected municipal leaders, from mayors and town managers to city councilors and alderpeople:
Congratulations on your victory at the polls! You must be excited about the future. We are too. That’s why we’ve taken the liberty of compiling a wishlist, which we hope will help guide your preparatory work before inauguration day and after you take office.
We humbly propose that you:
- Be bold when it comes to housing policy and innovation. The lack of affordable housing became even more visible during the pandemic when people experienced great financial stress. It’s time to do something substantive about this problem so that both renters and owners can weather future downturns. Affordable housing will also make our society more equitable and help our communities thrive. Therefore, it’s time to establish new policies on the local level that incentivize construction of affordable units, improve the quality and accessibility of existing units (e.g., through regular maintenance and expansion of transit services), and consider conversions of other building types (e.g., hotels, malls, offices) into affordable housing.
- Don’t be dissuaded by pushback. We know NIMBYism still exists. That became clear in a recent survey we conducted. But that survey also revealed significant growth in public support for real estate development during the pandemic. When people have a say in what gets built in their communities, it’s easier to head off misunderstandings and generate support. There’s also ample evidence that affordable housing improves communities. Franco Faraudo of Propmodo points out that affordable housing can “reduce blight, stabilize local economies, and contribute to more vibrant communities.” These are the kinds of outcomes that appeal to constituents once they have a full understanding of the “why” and the “how” behind the “what.”
- Increase community engagement. One of the ways to effectively relay the “why” and the “how” for any kind of program is to get more people involved in conversations about the future of your municipality. At coUrbanize, we focus on development and planning. But the same technologies and methods we use to solicit feedback and engage community members can easily be applied to any initiative. For example, you could start a conversation about how your municipality should spend its funds from the American Rescue Plan. Many municipalities to date have not made these determinations. Why not involve your constituents in the decision-making process?
Another way to increase community engagement is to rethink language-translation requirements for written and oral communications from your office. More than 20% of U.S. residents speak a language other than English at home. If this applies to your community, then translation services will enable you to reach a wider group of stakeholders, whose participation may have been limited in the past because of language barriers.
Finally, we recommend that you make virtual meetings a permanent addition to local government. The Boston Globe calls remote access to public meetings “a post-pandemic must,” explaining that it removes barriers of distance, disability, or lack of childcare from political participation. Remote access, like translation services, enables you to interact with a wider group of stakeholders who are more representative of the community at large than typical meeting attendees. According to data from Boston University, 95% of public meeting participants are whiter, richer, and older than their neighbors.
We hope you’ll consider this wishlist as you plan for 2022 and beyond. Now that you’ve been elected, we hope you’ll make an election yourself – to support the development of much-needed affordable housing and engage your community in planning efforts more broadly. The result, we predict, will be a term of endearment.