Intentional community and resident engagement is an essential aspect of preserving small to medium multifamily (SMMF) properties and can be an effective tool to increase social equity in the process. Engagement focuses on building relationships, trust and, ultimately, partnership with residents and community members, and organizations in the surrounding neighborhood. This brief discusses some considerations for planning and undertaking these engagement activities.
The housing industry is heavily influenced by historic policies and practices that marginalized lower income and BIPOC communities in development decisions and continue to shape housing options in neighborhoods. Effective engagement practices can play a part in repairing some of these past and ongoing harms.
Well planned and executed community and resident engagement can also bring substantial benefits to owners and developers in helping to identify and understand properties, reducing the negative impacts of rehabilitation, and improving property operation. These are discussed in more detail below.
Defining Your Engagement Approach
In planning your approach to engagement, you can use the principals set forth in the International Association for Public Participation’s spectrum of public participation. This spectrum highlights the goals and promises on a range of engagement types.
PUBLIC PARTICIPATION GOAL
To provide the public with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the problem, alternatives, opportunities and/or solutions.
To obtain public feedback on analysis, alternatives and/or decisions.
To work directly with the public throughout the process to ensure that public concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered.
To partner with the public in each aspect of the decision including the development of alternatives and the identification of the preferred solution.
To place final decision making in the hands of the public.
PROMISE TO THE PUBLIC
We will keep you informed.
We will keep you informed, listen to and acknowledge concerns and aspirations, and provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision.
We will work with you to ensure that your concerns and aspirations are directly reflected in the alternatives developed and provide feedback on how public input influenced the decision.
We will look to you for advice and innovation in formulating solutions and incorporate your advice and recommendations into the decisions to the maximum extent possible.
We will implement what you decide.
The goal of the IAP2 spectrum is to define the various ways that stakeholders can be engaged to participate in a process. The spectrum ranges from informing the public of what is happening with limited room for input, to empowering, in which stakeholders become leading partners in the process.While increased levels of engagement can be valuable and should be explored, they are not always feasible or appropriate for every development or process. However, even in situations with limited opportunities for collaboration and empowerment, the development team can still work to establish an information sharing approach that cultivates relationships and trust with impacted residents or those within vicinity of development activities. To learn more about the IAP2 body of work, explore the Public Participation Pillars brochure here.
Defining a communication approach should be your first step in planning engagement. It is important to consider the following:
Transparency – Be as clear and forthcoming with stakeholders about the preservation process as possible. This assists with building trust and mitigating suspicions about your or others’ motivations and enables them to understand the implications and impacts the process may have on them.
Inclusivity – Approaching engagement with the goal of being as inclusive and accessible as possible will impact the number of folks ultimately reached.
Accessibility – This plan should ensure that the process is accessible to residents and community members by proactively addressing the needs of various populations that may not be readily apparent. Consider communication options for residents who may be differently abled, speak different languages or have limited access or knowledge of technology.
Follow-through – Ensure there is a plan to follow through on what is learned through engagement and/or that expectations are managed through engagement about what can be accomplished given the constraints in the process.
Engaging Residents for SMMF Preservation
Engaging existing residents of the property to be preserved is a key component of relationship and trust building. The preservation process can be a difficult time for residents, as they may be concerned about the future of their homes as well as the impact of construction on their lives.Developers and/or potential owners can foster a sense of stability and safety through thoughtful engagement. To effectively engage existing residents, clear messaging and ongoing communication will be critical, particularly for small-scale development focused on acquisition of at-risk properties. This includes unsubsidized affordable properties, which usually do not provide many opportunities for engagement.
Benefits of Resident Engagement
Engagement is the foundation for your relationship with the residents, providing the basis from which you will connect with one another both during the rehab process, as well as throughout ongoing building operations and management. As the new owner or developer, you can leverage the existing knowledge of residents to better understand your new property. Resident engagement prior to acquisition (where possible) helps a developer learn important information about current challenges, demographics, and priorities that impact the direction and feasibility of a project.While engagement prior to acquisition may not be possible unless working closely with local community organizers or other community stakeholders, after acquisition input can shape the project to be responsive to the current needs of the building’s residents, as well as to shape operations in a way that is responsive to their realities and addresses any previous challenges at improvements to consider.
Resident engagement also provides an opportunity to learn about otherwise unknown/unrecorded local, building and site history that could impact the project; including items such as environmental or health/safety concerns, operational concerns or successes with past owners, and broader community engagement history with the property.
Thoughtful engagement, and responsiveness to information learned, can also improve resident stewardship of the building. This stewardship supports a healthy and thriving home, creates an environment of quality affordable housing, and can have positive impacts on items such as maintenance issues for example. Key to this result, however, is acting upon information received from residents, and continuing two-way communication beyond acquisition and initial rehab. Strong relationship building also provides a foundation from which to respond to challenges, such as in the event of an emergency or disaster, which requires coordination with residents. For example, if emergency assistance is required, both the resident and owner must work together to apply. In the wake of an emergency, coordination with residents is crucial. Having an existing relationship with residents can ease the difficulties of that process. Resident partnership may also be needed for applications for public subsidies, or in the event of seeking public approvals.
Resident engagement can also minimize the negative impact on the community fabric, through supporting the strengthening and maintenance of social capital. Social Capital are the bonds of community that in myriad ways enrich the lives of its members. In preserving an affordable property with existing residents, care must be taken, especially when rehab requires relocation, to support relationships and support systems built. When social fabric starts to erode as a result of development and/or displacement, it puts a larger and increasing number of residents at risk. Residents not only loose access to reasonable housing, but also the social, economic and cultural institutions they rely on. Affordable housing can be one part of the stabilization of a community’s neighborhood and its members. Furthermore, thoughtful investment and/or partnership, can reinforce those existing systems that support residents.Preserving affordable housing, and stabilizing residents, can sustain the ecosystem of a place and the way it works. Through intentional resident engagement, you can gain insight and understand the larger impacts of your investment and provide residents a sense of control over their community.
Resident Engagement and Rehabilitation
As discussed in other sections of this toolkit, when acquiring and preserving an affordable, unsubsidized property, there is an increased likelihood that it will need rehabilitation. If a building does require rehab, the improvements can be as minor as finishes or as invasive as gut renovations. This level of work could require residents to be relocated for the duration of the work. Rehabilitation is an important aspect of Enterprise’s housing bundle framework, which captures the housing-related factors that impact residents. Quality improvements can make apartments not only aesthetically pleasing, but safer, healthier, and sustainable. It can also make apartments more suitable for aging in place for senior residents or ADA compatible.
Best practices for Rehabilitation
If your property needs rehabilitation here are a few things to consider:
When planning rehabilitation activities, think about ways to diminish impact on residents and neighbors. This can mean a rehabilitation plan that prioritizes stabilization, and therefore performs updates on a unit-by-unit basis to minimize disruption and relocation. Or perhaps a larger rehabilitation that is quicker and gets residents returned to their normal routine faster. Review the Rehabilitation brief for detailed guidance on these options and considerations.
Whichever route is chosen, the most important aspect of the rehabilitation process is communication with residents and community. Informing those impacted of the potential timeline and what to expect can help ease the tension around rehabilitation. It is also an opportunity to engage residents to understand their preferences and the potential impacts of the rehabilitation on their lives.
In addition to communicating with residents to keep them informed, another best practice is education.Educating residents regarding health and safety issues that rehab aims to address can assist in building trust through transparency. It is also an opportunity to inform residents of any signs they should be aware of, such as signs of mold or pest infestations, and when to report to management. As highlighted above, communication is a key aspect in helping residents feel supported. It is important to clearly communicate information around timelines and desired outcomes with rehabilitation. There are various approaches to communication with residents, and you must consider which approaches align with your project.
Resident Support during relocation
Critical during a relocation process is both minimizing impacts on residents’ lives, as well as providing support and access to services as needed throughout the process.Supporting residents in maintaining connection to their community may include schools, employment, food access, and other needed services.
Identifying alternate housing is a key aspect for resident relocation. There are various approaches to coordinating relocation. Whether you leverage units existing within your portfolio or coordinate with other owners, resident needs, and experience should be central to decision making. Once temporary housing is identified and secured, residents need support with moving and maintaining access to required services. While this may be the responsibility of the owner/ developer, partnering with an organization that specializes in this aspect may ensure the best outcome.
Under HUD’s Uniform Relocation Assistance law, residents displaced due to no fault of their own must be compensated and supported with moving. This law applies to most federally funded projects. Protections for residents include adequate notice, provision of relocation advisory services, reimbursement for moving expenses and providing payments for additional cost of replacement housing. To learn more about HUD’s requirements check out their overview located here. In addition to federal requirements, it is also important to understand the state and local policies that may require additional supports.
In some areas there may be opportunities to partner with the local government to set up a resident relocation fund.This option can further assist in easing the burden on the resident and may provide additional benefits including establishing trust and providing a sense of sovereignty.
If multiple housing options are available in the area, the owner should survey residents to understand their relocation needs and preferences. This will provide insight that will assist with placement for residents. It will also signal to residents that their needs and concerns are being considered.
Finally, leveraging your relationships in this process can be beneficial in numerous ways. First, it is an opportunity to build stronger bonds with other mission-minded affordable housing providers. Second, your organization can gain capacity through partnering and learn new approaches and best practices.
Resident engagement can be a nuanced process but is worth the investment of time and resources. If this is an area that your organization does not specialize in, it is an excellent opportunity to partner with a longstanding group that has ties within the community. Resident engagement is a pillar in creating equity in the preservation of affordable SMMF homes and should be considered essential to the process.
Engaging the Broader Community for SMMF Preservation
The stakeholders involved go beyond current and future residents of the development – they also include immediate neighbors and the broader community. These groups will be impacted by both the disruptions caused by construction and the benefits of the preserved SMMF property.
In addition, there have been many policy decisions and lending practices that have systemically neglected neighborhoods and led to disinvestment. Even today, the real estate development process often treats community engagement as an afterthought or checkbox item. Thoughtful community engagement practices in areas that show signs of institutional disinvestment allow mission-driven developers to gain a fuller understanding of needs, create a foundation for a positive relationship with neighborhood residents, and help build a reputation amongst community organizations and leaders. By leading with community engagement to guide investment, there is an opportunity to meaningfully support the community and ensure preservation advances racial and social equity.
Benefits and Risks of Community Engagement
Engagement can lead to many benefits in the preservation process including building trust with residents, learning unrecorded history that impacts the preservation site, and creating an inclusive vision for the site that aligns with the culture, values and aesthetics of the neighborhood. Through engagement you can:
Identify the character-defining aspects of the neighborhood and buildings to help inform design choices for your project.
Understand the relationship between local development standards [public and private enforcement] and their impacts on neighborhood conditions.
Gain a preliminary assessment of building code, health and safety, and energy standard considerations for your project.
Gain understanding of any past challenges related to the property that may need to be mitigated.
Build relationships with owners of existing, nearby housing developments, that may either ultimately seek a development partner or plan to sell their property.
Expand your network of local contractors and other building trades professionals that could become partners during construction and/or for ongoing maintenance needs. This can also help advance local and minority-owned contractor hiring goals.
Gain assistance in procuring public funding sources that require a certain level of engagement or benefit from community partners.
Build coalitions and support affordable preservation advocacy efforts.
While community engagement is generally beneficial, it is important to understand the role it plays in your particular project.There are potential tradeoffs, or even obstacles, involving community engagement that should be understood in advance.
For example, if engaging residents of a nearby neighborhood about the preservation is likely to result in opposition to the preservation and you are not well equipped to build buy-in with this group, engaging this group may present significant risks. However, this kind of opposition is more common with new construction. When preserving SMMF properties, it is more likely that you will encounter vocal support from neighbors who look forward to the improvements you will make to an existing neighborhood asset.
Another challenge that is more commonly encountered in preservation is failure to manage expectations about what can be accomplished, given limited time and budget. Learning that there will be a new investment in the property may generate a wide range of ideas about what improvements and repairs will be made. Inevitably, only some of these will be feasible. Thus, care must be taken in engagement to help stakeholders understand what is feasible so that the result is excitement about what can be done rather than disappointment with what can’t.
Key Considerations for Community Engagement in SMMF Preservation
Working directly with the community gives you an opportunity to expand your knowledge of building and community conditions, while also creating opportunities for those that are most impacted by the development process to voice their desires, concerns, and questions. Through intentional community engagement you can learn more about the qualities and quirks of the property being acquired, history of the property and engagement of the past owners, as well as the perspective of community members and residents in the surrounding area. This can help build a sense of mutual trust and respect, breaking the cycle of diminishing the value and voice of those who live in the neighborhood.
Community engagement is a first step in creating a people-centered approach to your preservation process. By working with community members as early in the process as possible, developers can demonstrate how they are prioritizing those that call the neighborhood home and bringing a human element to a process that can otherwise feel transactional and even anxiety-producing for the community. This also minimizes misinformation or assumptions by allowing a developer to communicate intentions and manage expectations up-front, while at the same time fostering creativity and supporting continual improvement.
Building trust and healthy communication with community members can also decrease the number of impediments to your development. Insights from residents and community members can help inform the prioritization and sequencing of repairs and improvements, while gaining community buy-in early on can help developers navigate the construction process more smoothly as noise, temporary relocations, disruptions to utility service, or other unforeseen disturbances impact the resident experience.
An important part of this process is understanding how community is locally understood. As the developer, you may have an idea of the neighborhood (a geographic place surrounding your development). Communities are better understood as self-identified groups connected by shared experiences and/or values, which can be elusive to identify for anyone outside of that community.Building relationships with those rooted locally can help map out the contours of the community, save you time in your engagement efforts, and clarify the correct next steps in your preservation process. It is also an important part of respecting the existing networks, culture, and institutions that make up the fabric of a neighborhood. As described earlier in this brief, social capital plays an important role of stabilizing community members that goes beyond the provision of affordable housing.
When to involve the community
A core consideration to community engagement with this type of development will be timing. As mentioned earlier, you must consider the details of your project to understand what a realistic, and beneficial, engagement plan should be. It’s never too early to start getting to know the local institutions, residents and community leaders near a potential preservation site; in addition, you may start engaging with community in areas you are seeking preservation opportunities before you have a site identified, as building relationships with existing owners is a key acquisition strategy.
Generally, engagement with the broader community begins in earnest after the building purchase is completed. This type of engagement is centered around rehabilitation and communicating impacts. While timelines can be fluid, it is essential to work with community stakeholders to help level set expectations with residents. It is important to provide realistic timelines for when things are going to happen and what is going to happen, remaining as transparent as possible without over-promising on potential community benefits of the project
When considering timing, it is an opportunity to think creatively around engagement. Community engagement can be approached from a general stance rather than on a project-by-project basis. If your development plan targets a specific neighborhood, community engagement can look like attending community events, meeting with community-based organizations and leaders, and other activities that will help you build relationships and learn more about the community prior to initiating a project. In order to secure an affordable property on the open market you may need to move quickly, which limits or prevents engagement. The need for confidentiality around negotiations can create barriers to engagement, as certain details about the property and transaction cannot be disclosed in detail. The goal of engagement is not to put your project at risk, but rather to be thoughtful in approach and execution. Whether it is prior to acquisition, or after rehabilitation is complete, the effort to engage the community complements your project and long-term viability within the community.
Who Should be Engaged?
Resident leaders and key stakeholders can provide additional context and/or resources for your preservation project. Resident leaders and community stakeholders can include representatives from community centers, schools, social service agencies, churches, resident organizations or other community institutions. These are groups that are embedded in the community and have longstanding relationships. They may have unique insights into local interpersonal and institutional dynamics, greater credibility as messengers, and interpretation skills and resources for reaching populations with diverse language needs. Therefore, they are uniquely positioned to help support meaningful communication with community members given limited opportunities for broad community involvement.
Building trust in relationships with stakeholders takes time and intention. Stakeholders may not be readily trusting due to previous experiences with developers and owners. Therefore, earnest and authentic relationship building must lead the way for genuine engagement and partnership. Also consider strategies that display your commitment to partnership and the value they bring. For example, a growing common practice is compensating community members for their time and insights. While this may not be feasible in every project, the cost is often modest.
The abovementioned groups can assist with the preservation process through leveraging their various strengths. These partners can assist with ensuring you reach your target audience to either share or receive information. They can also help you learn about and leverage existing government investment goals or initiatives within the community, such as corridor or neighborhood-scale grant and loan programs that could bring improvements that benefit residents at your preservation site. Preservation partners can assist with securing and sustaining community benefits that impact your project. For example, working with the local community board to ensure the maintenance of a local park or improving community infrastructure; or support your ability to co-locate amenities in or near your project. Community contacts may also have knowledge of nearby properties where residents and local businesses are at risk of displacement, helping guide the prioritization of subsequent preservation efforts. Finally, community partners can assist with connecting you to resources like potential funding sources or joint ventures. Altogether, these engagement efforts can help stabilize the community, increase the effectiveness of your development work, improve the lives of current residents, and secure new sources of funding.
The public sector
The public sector has been a longstanding stakeholder in affordable housing and has an important role to play in the preservation of affordable housing.Through policy, training and education, and providing land and resources, the public sector has shaped the affordable housing landscape. At the same time, affordable housing preservation – especially for unsubsidized and smaller properties – may not be a top priority or even on the radar of many local, state and federal public agencies. You can learn more about the role of the public sector in creating an environment to support SMMF preservation in the Enabling Environment and Public Sector Support brief in this toolkit.
Community Engagement can assist a developer in understanding the public sector’s involvement in the neighborhood, including information that may impact their proposed project. It’s also an opportunity to bring attention to the importance of preservation as an anti-displacement and affordable housing strategy, encouraging greater support and resources from public sector stakeholders.
[i] CivicMakers. (2018). Human-Centered Community Engagement TRaining. Retrieved from civicmakers.com: https://civicmakers.com/event/public-impact-design-for-impact-evaluation/