Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Doing the Heavy Lifting on Affordability

This past Sunday I spent the day with Jamaica Plain Cohousing in Boston, helping them try to untangle a skein of questions about how best to use their Affordability Fund. Over several years the community has gradually capitalized this Fund by siphoning off five percent of HOA dues. They have now accumulated an impressive amount of money and they're itching to start putting this money to use—they just want to do it well.

The community is located in a well-established neighborhood with a mixed race and mixed income profile—features that the founding group intentionally sought. The community has a core commitment to being multicultural and multi-generational, and has demonstrated that commitment by setting aside hard cash to finance their dedication to diversity. For my money, this is damn important work, which is my motivation to tell this story.

Early in the day, we were able to establish that folks want to use the Fund in such a way that they'll take into account the impact on the surrounding neighborhood, as well as on the intentional community. They see themselves as a stakeholder in the future of their corner of Jamaica Plain, and need to be vigilant about not inadvertently contributing to gentrification, which could price out the multicultural mix they now enjoy.

We also identified that they'll need to explicitly identify which population segments they want to track in their quest for diversity (while they probably don't care how many seven-footers are in residence, they do care about having a representative ethnic mix; while they can safely ignore how many members have belly button piercings, they desire a mix of families with young children relative to empty nesters). They'll also have to define what it means that an identified target population segment is under-represented as well as how much preference a prospective might get by virtue of wearing that label. in short, it's complicated.

After making a pass at laying out the complete laundry list of questions that the community will have to address before they have a complete affordability package (we were able to name about 20 and I'm certain more will surface as the work continues), we rolled up our sleeves and started tackling the strands, one at a time.

Three Ring Circus
The highlight of the day, for me, was the rich complexity that emerged when we looked at the question: "To what extent do we want to emphasize using the Fund to support current residents relative to supporting suitable prospective members that come from under-represented target populations?"

After hearing from several people on this, some themes emerged:
a) There was a clear preference that more money go to supporting prospective members than to supporting current residents.

b) There was the expectation that prospective members were most likely to need a loan in order to come up with the down payment (which was likely to be five figures), while current residents were more likely to need a short-term loan to cover unexpected expenses or the temporary loss of employment (where loan size was likely to be an order of magnitude lower).

c) There was overwhelming support for the notion that the Fund should be used to make loans, not grants, and that it was to be seen as a bridge, not an artificial leg. Recipients needed to be able show that they had reasonable prospects for repaying the loan and that there was adequate collateral in the event of default. The group wanted to able to use the money over and over.

When we were able to tease out this clarity we moved in the direction of establishing percentage guidelines for how the Fund could be used: 50% for prospective members; 25% for current residents; and 25% at the discretion of the Affordability Fund Management Committee (the group that would be receiving applications and making decisions about who would get loans based on the guidance developed by the plenary).

Just when it appeared we were closing in on an agreement, a third idea entered the field: how about using the money to buy a housing unit that the community would permanently own and could rent to low-income folks from one of the targeted populations? Suddenly we had three worms crawling around on the floor instead of two. The conversation started to mushroom instead of converge, and people were started getting anxious about how we were going to get all of the worms back in the can.

After allowing a certain amount of open discussion—mainly to flesh out the ideas—I asked folks to stand in a line, representing with their feet where they stood (literally) on this matter. We had those wanting to go all in to buy a unit position themselves at one end of the room; those wanting to restrict Fund use to supporting prospectives and/or current residents stood at the other end; those with mixed preferences, or undecided, placed themselves somewhere in the middle. We knew we had a good question because folks were spread out all along the line, with small clumps at either end. Now what?

Folks at one end argued in favor of this new idea because it was bold, and a surer way (in their eyes) to actually put low-income people into residence in the community. They tried to make the case that the amount of money available in the Fund was too small to make that much difference to prospective buyers.

Going the other way, people liked the idea of helping prospective owners and/or creating a financial safety net for current residents, and they felt that the Fund was too small to be buying units with it—it would only be enough for a down payment and all the rental income would go into debt service, leaving nothing for helping others.

The Magic of Consensus
We reached this point with about 20 minutes left in the day, and it appeared on the surface that the differences were so great that the meeting was headed toward a hung jury—and very meager product after five hours together. Uh oh.

Fortunately, we were in better shape than people could see at first. By listening closely to the undercurrents, we were able to articulate a productive direction:

a) There was broad-based support for seriously considering the community buying a unit and using that to breathe life into the community's affordability commitment.

At the same time, there was nowhere near solid support for taking all of the current money in the Fund and devoting it to buying a unit, leaving nothing for supporting the affordability needs of current residents or those of propsectives trying to purchase units.

The idea of buying a unit had never been chewed on before in plenary and it stirred up a lot of serious questions (notably about marketing and property management). Recognizing that it would take a while to both flesh out and address these questions, it seemed reasonable to uncouple this idea from the Affordability Fund—at least for now.

d) Because the community also had another pot of money in hand (from a Brownfield settlement for remediation of the soil on the property), it seemed much more comfortable to most people to consider the idea of buying a unit in the context of using these funds, for which a conversation about was in the plenary queue.

As this summary worked well for folks (that is, everyone felt included), we were able to lay down the idea of using the Fund to buy a unit, with the understanding that it would get serious consideration when the Brownfield money got looked at. Then we were able to approve the suggested percentages for how the Fund would be apportioned between prospectives and current residents.

In the evaluation at the end of the meeting, some members felt we'd spun our wheels in trying to reach the above agreement, pointing out that we had that proposal on the table at 2:45 pm yet weren't able to close the deal until 3:45 pm, after we'd opened up Pandora's Box on the question of buying a unit.

While it was true that the hour devoted to exploring the idea of buying a unit did not, ultimately, change the final agreement at all, it provided a much richer context for that decision (which translates to much more solid buy in) and set the table for how the group would begin the conversation about how to use the Brownfield money. I thought the hour was well spent and demonstrated the payout for all the work done in the first half of the meeting to clear the air and lay out a road map for how to proceed.

It was the earlier work that made it possible for people to be brave enough in the afternoon to add complications to the conversation and still have confidence that we could find our way through the ticket of divergent ideas and the thorniness of dear-to-the-heart opinions. And it was the authenticity and completeness of the conversation that will sustain the community through the messy days of implementation ahead.

To me, this was a terrific demonstration of the magic of consensus, where a group becomes fluid and creative once it's done sufficient spadework to pull the fangs on unresolved tensions and created a container of safety and caring sufficient for participants to bring what they have on the topic at hand and to trust that no one will be blown off. I never get tired of seeing the magic unfold.

• • •
Here is a community doing brave and important work, pushing past the relative ease of their immediate lives to insist that their community be a building block of a just and sustainable future. Wow. What a great way to spend a Sunday.

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