Last week, I was fortunate to be the facilitator for one of five breakout tracks at a full-day housing summit hosted by the City and County of Denver. The summit, titled Bridging the Gap: A Solutions Forum on Housing, brought together 300+ multi-disciplinary leaders from across the Metro to spend the day tackling region’s critical housing challenges. The track I worked with was “Complete Communities: Access to Opportunities in and Around Affordable Housing.” Participants in this track represented almost every sector and constituent group, including resident activists and leaders, institutional partners, government employees, nonprofit professionals, and private sector real estate developers. Because of this incredible mix of interests, expertise, and perspectives, we were able to get to deep and productive conversations about key challenges.
We started by establishing a shared understanding of what we meant by “complete communities” and why they matter. We defined “complete communities” as those neighborhoods that provide reliable, quality access to housing, jobs, education, health, and transportation. Further, the room of nearly 100 participants emphasized that this reliable, quality access needs to be available to everyone, regardless of age, income, or race. Housing alone, while a huge piece of the puzzle needed for individuals and families to thrive, is not enough. Truly vibrant neighborhoods provide all residents with access to the full range of supports, amenities, and opportunities
Following this context-setting, we explored challenges and innovative solutions through panel conversations – one each session. After the panels came the really juicy part – small group problem solving, allowing participants to dig deeper into the specific challenges identified through the panel conversations. In small groups, participant teams focused on addressing the road blocks our region faces in creating and maintaining complete communities.
While DSS isn’t specifically focused on the issue of housing access, I found so many places throughout the day where our work intersects with these concepts. The community-minded businesses and nonprofits that form our constituent base are key players in providing those things that make a community “complete”. Furthermore, we are actively piloting services that help affordable housing developers and owners effectively connect with nonprofits and businesses that support their residents.
So, it wasn’t totally out of left-field to have me in the room. And I learned a ton from my facilitator vantage point. As I’ve been reflecting on my top three “ah ha moments”, I’ve realized that these can be applied to all kinds of the complex, multi-disciplinary social challenges we’re tackling in our region. Let me know how these relate to your work!
Look for champions in unusual places. One of the lessons I heard loud and clear, both from the panelists in the room and the participants, is that the right champion is critical for an effort to succeed – someone in the right place, right time, and with the right set of connections. The day started with many of us initially bemoaning the dearth of champions in the arena of equitable community development. Champions of our causes can be found in an increasing array of places. Christopher Smith with the Colorado Health Foundation shared with us how the Foundation is stepping into the role of “champion” when it comes to viewing the built environment as integral to positive health outcomes. And not only are they championing the connection, they are “putting their money where their mouth is” – increasingly funding capital projects that are aimed at increasing positive health outcomes. Christopher shared that, if you had told Foundation leaders 4 years ago that they’d be featured at the Mayor’s summit on affordable housing they probably wouldn’t have believed you.
We’re playing a long-game, folks. Another critical reminder that wound throughout the conversation is that equitable, inclusive, quality development is a long-game. While we can’t overlook the immediacy of people being priced out of their homes or of businesses getting pushed out of neighborhoods, the reality is that we are working on solutions that will be years coming to fruition. In this historically boom-and-bust town, true sustainability can only be achieved by taking a long-view of our needs and our communities.
Think both big and small. Our panelists included developers who worked on scales both large and small. Kimball Crangle and Chuck Perry shared their experiences working with complex, multi-phase redevelopments that allowed plenty of room for creative partnerships. On the other side of the coin, George Thorn shared his experiences “thinking small” – creating high-quality affordable apartments on small parcels where most people only saw retention ponds. While adding to the difficulty of the process, all of the examples highlighted on the panels demonstrate how partnerships, patience, and creativity on both the big and the small scale can create dynamic, multi-use projects in the region.
This is emotional work. Don’t get stuck in your head. At the start of the session, I asked for input from the group on the ideas, data, information, or perspectives they felt were critical to keep top-of-mind as we got into the conversation. Participants offered up a range of perspectives. One person shared his assumption that the room – and the event more broadly – excluded resident advocates and people who were experiencing the direct impacts of the housing crisis. While largely true of the 350+ attendees, this assumption was countered by a woman who shared that she’d been homeless, and was now participating as an advocate for her affordable housing community.
This exchange highlighted the value of both naming one’s assumptions and being open to correction. Others shared how their participation in the Summit was motivated by professional role as well as personal passion for change. Data points like the rate of homelessness among DPS students or the health impacts of displacement helped ground us in both the intellectual challenge we were grappling with as well as the emotional importance of working for change.
The challenge of creating meaningful, complete communities for all people is one that is going to take unusual suspects, working together in big and small ways, over the long-term, and bringing their whole selves into the work. I came away from the day’s conversations with the conviction that I want to be one of those “unusual suspects”.
Big thanks to the production team for the “Complete Communities” track – Angela Nelson with Denver’s Road Home, Blake Angelo with the Office of Economic Development, and Jay Salas with the Office of Financial Empowerment.
A few additional photos from the event.