In America, we have a serious problem: we don’t have enough housing. Cities nationwide are struggling to provide affordable housing while home prices skyrocket and new developments get wrapped up in red tape. For decades now, we haven’t built enough new housing units, severely limiting supply and creating intense competition for the existing stock. In the state of California, which has the fewest homes per person outside of Utah, the median price recently broke $800,000.
The obvious solution, then, is to build a bunch of new housing. But that hasn’t been easy, particularly in the metro areas that need it the most. Ideally, much of this new development would be centered in the high-opportunity areas, but those neighborhoods are the least likely to be on board. As one city official told me, for wealthy homeowners, “There’s no incentive to stand up and say, ‘new neighbors, new development is good, we need that in our community.’”
This means the only places that see any new developments are lower-income areas that already have dense housing. One of the problems with this is that long-time renters often see these new projects as ‘gentrification buildings,’ adding a new dynamic to the greedy developer trope in pop-culture. The feeling is understandable: historic underdevelopment in minority and working-class neighborhoods left those areas behind while the lack of housing in high-opportunity areas keeps prices high for everybody. When we don’t build enough housing, prices increase exponentially, and wealthier people move into the underdeveloped areas looking for (relatively) cheaper rents which displaces existing, less wealthy residents. The Urban Displacement Project covers this in more detail, but, essentially, the underbuilding of our past is coming back to bite us today.
This has left housing developers struggling to find support for their projects and fighting uphill battles against apathetic city officials. New developments are demonized by rich and poor alike, and, without community support, housing just doesn’t get built. Without new housing, prices continue to rise. The Bay Area showed us what happens when you add close to ten times as many jobs as housing units in a decade; in that time, housing prices have increased eighty-eight percent.
The housing market has been so broken for so long, nobody trusts developers and new buildings to actually make a difference. Building that trust will take time, but also effort and outreach to the community. Unfortunately, community outreach has been similarly bogged down in antiquated processes mainly organized around public meetings. Anybody who has been to one knows this, but people at public meetings are unlikely to represent the community at large. Plus, making decisions about housing and development based on who is the loudest in the room might not be the best idea; neighborhood input is crucial but it has to come from the whole neighborhood, not just those who have the time to show up to meetings.
One company trying to bridge the gap between those building new housing and those that need it is a group called coUrbanize. They are using technology to help developers interact with the local community and build trust among residents and neighbors. Their mission to democratize (and digitize) public engagement helps build support for new projects, gives far more people a voice, and opens up the process to those who are left out at traditional public meetings.
“The reality is that it seems the majority of people who show up at a community meeting don’t want change to happen,” said coUrbanize founder and CEO, Karin Brandt. “It was really frustrating…So I thought, ‘How can we actually make it easier for all the people who want to make change happen but might not have the privilege of time or resources to take three hours out of their Tuesday evening and show up at a community meeting?’”
Researchers at Boston University have found that whiter, older, and wealthier people are massively overrepresented at traditional meetings. By providing different platforms for public comment through various methods like text, voicemail, and online they’re able to reach more people in the community than ever before. As a result, public comments are coming in from younger, more diverse, and multilingual neighbors compared to traditional meetings. This means developers hear from the whole community, not just the loudest in the group.
“Right now, it’s a big investment of time and resources to show up, to track this process, to know when the meetings are happening and what to say at the meetings,” says Brandt. “It’s certainly not easy if this is your first foray into the public process, and if English is not your first language. What we focus on is lowering those barriers.”
One of those barriers, of course, can be language. So far coUrbanize has facilitated comment in at least fifteen languages besides English, the most common being Spanish, Mandarin, and Arabic. Voices that almost certainly wouldn’t be heard at a meeting were able to be part of the process and the inclusion this fosters has a huge impact on the development process. People want to have a say in what goes in their neighborhood and providing a better forum for that input lets everybody feel involved. “When we work on these projects, the first question a real estate team might put out to the community is, ‘What do you love about your community, and what could be better?’” Karin told me. The simple act of posing that question to the people can change the way they see development from a big corporation imposing their will to a real investment in the community.
It isn’t just the communities that benefit: gathering that community support is also how developments are approved, particularly in exclusive, wealthier neighborhoods lacking affordable housing. The imbalance of representation at community meetings, of course, is a big reason these neighborhoods have chosen not to build enough, and why prices keep going up. Technology can provide tools to show public officials the support for these projects, who they’ll impact, and how many people, outside the vocal few, really want new housing and investment in their community, making it easier and faster for a developer to get projects entitled.
“What real estate teams do is take that data report to a hearing and they can say, ‘here are all of the comments, here’s all of the engagement,’” said Brandt. This means that even if there are only five people who show up at every single meeting who are opposed to housing development, the projects developers have a list of data that they can point to about how that small sample is not representative of the larger population. When it comes to housing developments in particular, this can make all the difference.
Of those projects, affordable housing can be the most contentious, yet coUrbanize has successfully built support for affordable housing in Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Partnering with Mercy Housing, one of the nation’s largest affordable housing organizations, they have helped build support for Burbank Boulevard Senior Housing, from plan to approval in only six months. In Chicago, they worked with Preservation of Affordable Housing to redevelop two vacant lots into mixed-use affordable housing communities, gathering over 600 public comments–the majority of which were in favor of the project. When they actually reach out to the community, affordable housing projects are finding more public support than ever before.
It’s unbelievably hard to build new developments in America, especially in the major metro areas that need it the most. It’s true that new developments can be done wrong, and contribute to displacement in underserved communities. These developments can also help revitalize a neighborhood that was left behind, when done right. By listening to the community and using that input to build what the people need, real estate companies can navigate the minefield that is urban development and we can start to rebuild our urban space in a way that benefits everybody. People like to have a say in what’s built in their neighborhood but it hasn’t always been easy for them to do so. Technology is now helping developers hear from the people and gather support for the projects that, ultimately, are the only way to fix our housing crisis.