Bringing New Voices to the Table
Broadening the Community Planning Conversation Around Housing
When it comes to local government, we’d all like to have a voice. Too often, some of our most vulnerable neighbors get left out of that conversation.
In this episode of Community Voices, we hear how one Colorado city, with the help of some skilled community partners from CSU, is bringing new voices to the planning table as it works to address long-term housing and community health challenges.
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Broadening Community Planning Conversation with a Focus on Housing
A Growing Community Problem
Like most cities, Fort Collins has faced challenges related to housing availability and community health. As City Housing Manager Meaghan Overton points out, these challenges not only have the potential to affect how and where residents live, but they also impact community health, productivity and overall quality of life.
“Many of us have experienced how rapidly housing prices have increased,” Meaghan Overton, Housing Manager for the City of Fort Collins, noted. “With this very basic need becoming more out of reach or able to achieve in a stable way, that brings with it a whole host of other challenges in terms of how people can really achieve their full potential or ensure community well-being.”
Fort Collins resident Tony Lynch has experienced first-hand the critical link between stable housing and personal health and wellness.
“When your housing is unstable or unknown or in some cases both, it affects your health because there is a sense of uncertainty,” Lynch said. “And most people who get into those situations, they become stuck because they feel there’s no way out, or there’s no help out there.”
Bringing All Voices to the Table
In 2020, the City of Fort Collins launched an effort to update city policies, codes and regulations to help improve housing affordability in conjunction with health equity. The Home2Health program was geared toward engaging directly with those most affected by community housing and health challenges.
“Home2Health really grew out of partnerships we built during the city’s update to its comprehensive plan,” Overton said. “When that plan was adopted, not surprisingly, we heard over and over again how important affordable housing was when we were doing community engagement for that plan.”
Overton said the support of community partners was key as Home2Health sought input from community members heavily affected by housing and health problems, but not often heard from in the planning process.
One of those partners was the Family Leadership Training Institute (FLTI) at CSU’s Office of Extension & Engagement. Since 2009, FLTI has partnered with communities throughout the state to implement a training program designed to increase civic participation and promote greater collaboration between individuals, families, institutions, public administrators and elected officials as they seek strategies to respond to emerging issues in their communities.
“Affordable housing and health equity are huge issues and challenges facing communities across the country,” FLTI Director Patti Schmitt said. “We knew it was really important to get folks who are most impacted by those issues to the table as the city was looking to update their housing plan and identify ways and strategies that they could work together to support more housing and address the health equity needs in the community.”
In addition to the FLTI, another key avenue of engagement in the Home2Health effort came via CSU’s Center for Public Deliberation, which serves an impartial resource in assisting local governments, schools, and community organizations in problem-solving key issues.
“The Center for Public Deliberation was really instrumental in the Community Guide program,” Overton said. “This is something that started years prior and evolved over time to adapt to different kinds of city projects. But the basic premise is you provide a framework and train people to lead conversations in their communities — whatever those communities are.”
With key support resources in place, Home2Health partners and staff worked to engage more than 450 Fort Collins community members, asking them to reflect on whether the city’s vision matched their experience, and what they would like to see change to achieve that vision. In the end, the effort drove a more participative planning process, as well as a more complete and representative view of the city’s housing and health challenges.
“I think the approach was really successful, not only in getting the kind of information that we needed, but in helping people feel as though they were involved in creating this policy – and they really were,” Overton said.
“It Requires Us to Show Up”
Overton stressed that engaging a broader representation of the community in civic planning requires added time, resources and planning effort – not only on the part of city officials, but also for community members. But the added value this extra effort brings is vital to creating strong communities, according to Dr. Katie Knobloch, Associate Director of CSU’s Center for Public Deliberation.
“Democracy and self-government are hard work,” Knobloch said. “The first step towards doing those things better – towards creating more empowerment – is to acknowledge it as work and to value it. We need to value community members’ time and understand that they’re juggling a lot of things, and this might not be the easiest thing for them to do. And at the same time, self-governance requires us to express our needs and concerns. It requires us to show up, and it requires us to listen and learn from others in our community. And if we do those things, we really can create decisions and structures and institutions that bring out the best in us and that better meet our needs and that better meet our community goals.”
For Tony Lynch, getting involved in his community meant gaining new skills as a graduate of the FLTI training program and serving as a facilitator as part of the Home2Health project. His advice to others looking to drive positive change in their world: Take that first step.
“Just take a deep breath and step forward,” Lynch said. “Because if you step forward, we step forward. If we spend our time butting heads with each other, we’re never going to get anywhere. So look at the person next to you. You don’t know what that person is going through neither, so it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Take the step and come join us. Help us help you to be better. Help us to be better for you.”
“We need to shift away from thinking that we have all the answers and towards trying to learn from and understand our community so that we can collectively reach the best decision possible,” Knobloch added. “All of us can practice that by being a better listener, asking questions, really trying to understand why someone who’s different than us might feel that way. Just practicing those skills, finding your own voice and really trying to listen to others when you disagree with them are something that we all can do better.”
Overton said she encourages anyone embarking on a community planning effort to start with a couple basic questions: ‘Who’s out there that I want to work with who seems like they understand the needs of community members, and how can I connect with people that I don’t know how to connect with?”
“I think everybody wants to feel like they can influence the community they live in,” she said. “We want to be able to do something. We want to feel empowered. One of the best ways we can do that is really talking to each other about the kind of community we want to build together.”
How You Can Get Involved
- Connect with CSU to learn more about CSU around the state and opportunities to work together.
Build Bridges: Connect with your Community
- CSU’s Center for Public Deliberation aims to improve the way our community is able to talk through complex issues so that we can arrive at better decisions. Learn more about their events and community projects.