Diminishing Returns at Housing Focus Groups

by Erica C. Barnett

When the city’s Department of Neighborhoods (DON) first put out the call for citizens to apply as neighborhood representatives serving on one of four new community focus groups that would advise the city’s Office of Planning and Community Development on the mayor’s proposed Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), residents of mostly white North End neighborhoods—many of them vocal opponents of the plan—applied en masse. With just two weeks before the application deadline, fully half of the applicants came from only three North Seattle neighborhoods.

DON staffers, sensing that without more geographically diverse neighborhood representation, the focus groups would be dominated by white, north-end homeowners, put out a second call. DON solicited applications from other parts of the city, including West and Southeast Seattle, and got them—eventually, after I published a story on the demographic disparity and DON ramped up its outreach to community organizations, 661 applications poured in from across the city.

Of that initial group, 181 applicants, many of them renters, people of color, community activists, and members of other groups that have traditionally been excluded from city planning processes, were chosen to serve on the four HALA focus groups that have been meeting monthly since last April. The focus groups are organized based not on geography, but by type of neighborhood—low-density urban villages, medium-density urban villages, hub urban villages, and urban villages expansion areas. According to DON Director Kathy Nyland, the idea was to bring together “folks who are going to be experiencing like changes, though not necessarily in like parts of the city”. At the meetings, the groups typically have received a presentation on some aspect of the HALA plan, followed by opportunities to ask questions, provide input, and engage in small-group discussions. The goal is to use feedback from the focus groups to help shape the zoning legislation that is the heart of HALA.

Attendance logs, obtained from OPCD through a records request, show that 137 focus group members showed up for that first meeting in April—a not-bad 76 percent attendance rate. Since then, though, attendance has curved downward sharply: from 60 percent in May to just 41 percent in September. The numbers for October aren’t available yet, but based on anecdotal reports from group members and my observations at the medium-density focus group I attended near the end of the month, with only 15 of 40 original members present, October attendance was probably lower still.

As important as the sheer numbers is who is no longer showing up. Although the city hasn’t taken any demographic surveys, anecdotal accounts from participants and city staffers, as well as a survey of monthly attendance sheets, indicate that many of the no-shows seem to be people of color, immigrants, and residents of South Seattle  neighborhoods—the exact folks DON had hoped would help bring some new perspectives to the planning process. The one clear exception to this rule is eight focus group members who were recruited by Puget Sound Sage, which provided them with ongoing technical support and follow-up meetings on the fundamentals of zoning and land use law.

Laura Bernstein, a University District community activist who resigned from her focus group in September, says she got discouraged when she saw her group being dominated by the “observers” who were supposed to watch quietly and not participate (Observers are members of the public who watch the meetings and receive a block of time to comment at the end; their names are recorded and included in official meeting attendance records).  She says, “there were a lot of really angry outbursts and a lot of whispering form the observers. So you’re trying to get OPCD to answer your question and there’s someone whispering behind you. It was very disruptive and intimidating.” Bernstein’s resignation letter concluded: “What was the point of getting such a diverse group of people if the people with power weren’t going to do more to foster an inclusive environment to retain them at the table[?] This is what fake equity looks like.”

Observers at an October focus group meeting. [Photo: Erica C. Barnett]
The medium-density focus group meeting I attended in late October ostensibly included multiple representatives from the Central Area and North Rainier neighborhoods, two areas that are generally more diverse than, say, Phinney Ridge. Nonetheless, for the first half-hour, there was just one person of color, David Osaki from Aurora-Licton Springs, in the meeting room in the basement of city hall.When Rokea Jones, from the Central District, arrived after finishing a meeting of the Seattle Women’s Commission upstairs, she noticed immediately that the wall-size map of her neighborhood had no “dots” (green stickers representing areas or spots participants wanted the full group to discuss further) in her neighborhood. Jones slapped one down on 23rd Ave. S and waited to speak.

Waited, that is, for longtime Fremont neighborhood activist Toby Thaler–a homeowner steeped for decades in the jargon and minutia of land-use decisions—to finish delivering a lengthy jeremiad about how the city “has abandoned neighborhood planning.” Standing up and jabbing his finger down at the seated audience, Thaler denounced the whole focus group process, suggested that the city chose people for the focus groups based on “some other criteria” than aptitude to serve, and lamented how far neighborhood planning had fallen since the 1980s, allowing “horrendous…ugly crap” in once-protected single-family neighborhoods.

Toby Thaler passionately voices his opinion about the focus group process during an October meeting. [Photo: Erica C. Barnett]
When Jones finally got a word in edgewise (thanks in large part to aggressive hand-waving by OPCD senior planner Geoff Wendlandt, who struggled to get the attention of facilitator Susan Hayman, a consultant for EnviroIssues hired by the city), she talked about the need to prevent displacement in the Central Area. One way to do that, Jones, suggested, was by increasing the amount developers have to pay into an affordable housing fund before they can to build in gentrifying areas. “There’s a vast amount of displacement with this neighborhood,” Jones said. “I understand that there’s developers and a great deal of concern about them losing money, but frankly, I don’t give a shit about them losing money.” It was the first time the issue of displacement had come up all night.

After Jones spoke, Lynn Sereda, a Seattle Housing Authority resident and tenant activist, chimed in that the jargon of zoning and planning regulations could be especially intimidating to immigrants who speak English as a second language, and wondered whether the city had proactively offered interpreters to focus group members from immigrant and refugee communities.

“I’m wondering how many immigrants are in these focus groups, because they are going to be primary people who are affected by displacement,” Sereda said. “I’m not an immigrant myself and I don’t speak for immigrant communities, but it’s one thing to get in the mail a flyer that says, ‘If you want interpretation, call the city,’ but through my observations what works the best is finding the leaders in those communities and reaching out into those communities”.

“If you looked at the [unused] nametags [on the table outside the meeting] so many people were missing that night,” Jones said this week. “And even if they were there, there would have only been three to four people saying what I was saying. We were still really outnumbered, and that came from the application process.”

She added, “in my meeting, the people that come, the observers, they didn’t have to say shit, because we have some very, very vocal people in our focus group”— white homeowners and longtime neighborhood activists like Toby Thaler. “They’ve been part of this since, like, the early ’90s, and then there’s younger cats like me that are fresh in the game.”

Jesseca Brand, the DON staffer who headed the city’s outreach and recruitment for the focus groups, says she thinks the city’s facilitators “just did not do a good job of challenging people when they said things like, ‘You don’t know about this, I’ve been here forever’. There’s a sense that we never did get the right dynamic in the room.”  She says she “assumed we’d lose a percentage of [the focus group members], because you do in every process, but I was hoping that we would have close to the same demographic split that we started with and we wouldn’t be losing any one set of people … but the numbers tell me that I was not totally correct in that [hope].”

Giulia Pasciuto, a research and policy analyst at Puget Sound Sage, says all eight of Sage’s recruits have stuck with the focus group process, but she makes it clear that sustaining long-term commitments has required some long-term investment from her organization and DON, which provided small stipends for people who couldn’t otherwise afford to spend two hours a month at nighttime meetings. “This is like a part-time, part-time job. We can’t just expect that folks will participate [for free],” Pasciuto says. “What we saw before we had a stipend opportunity is that the people who did apply [tended to be] older homeowners.”

Sage doesn’t just make sure their members can afford to attend the focus groups; they also hold a “meeting after the meeting” each month, at which “we review some of the things folks have learned and answer any questions about the technical side of things.”

“This is really complicated, and this is why people go to planning school. You can spend years learning about the intricacies of land use decisions, and it’s hard to mash it all into a six-meeting process where you’re meeting once a month,” Pasciuto says.

Rokea Jones says she was initially confounded by all the jargon, and felt frustrated that the city didn’t make more of an effort to get people new to the process up to speed before dropping them into the deep end. “I knew that we would be talking about planning, but … there was no, ‘We’re going to do workshops on city planning real quick so you can understand the language.’ It was like, ‘boom, this is what we’re talking about’ and … some of us needed some more support.”

Pasciuto also says she’s heard complaints about the facilitation—specifically, that the city’s facilitators have often failed to recognize group dynamics in which homeowners serving on their tenth or fortieth city panel are able to totally dominate discussions and assert their authority as “experts” at the expense of people new to the process. “There are definitely group dynamics that need to be addressed by a facilitator who’s aware of who is historically marginalized in these spaces,” she says. (Susan Hayman, the facilitator at the October meeting I attended, did not respond to a call for comment.)

In a survey of 46 focus group members conducted in August, 34.9 percent of respondents said they were “dissatisfied” or “very dissatisfied” with the process. About 20 percent said it was too soon to say. In written comments, many participants said they were “confused” by the process and the content of the presentations (“so much is above my head,” one complained; another wrote, “Unfortunately, I feel like what I do most of the time is just try to keep up with the conversation”) or, conversely, that the city was providing too much basic information that they already knew (“It is an extreme amount of BACKGROUND knowledge,” one said.)

Wendlandt, the OPCD senior planner, seemed visibly frustrated at last week’s meeting, telling the group, “We did try to do something different with this process, which is to try to get a cross-section of a lot of different folks in the room at the same time. It’s had its pluses and minus and it could have been done better, but that was one of the goals.”

Contacted after the meeting, Wendlandt said his “main takeaway” from the process has been that “we need to provide more meaningful supports for the people that don’t have the necessary background if we’re going to ask them to participate in the same venue with those who do have more background.” Wendlandt says city planners also learned that “the focus on the land use and zoning topics, at times, just wasn’t as meaningful for [members of marginalized communities] as bigger questions of income inequality, displacement, and small business loss that they’re experiencing firsthand.” 

Jones says she hopes the city will learn from the focus group experiment that “outreaching to communities of color is not easy work. The city likes to be able to check the box, [but] to get into a process and really connect with communities of color or low-income communities–it might take you years.”

14 thoughts on “Diminishing Returns at Housing Focus Groups”

  1. Toby Thaler is to be commended for standing up for the rights of North Seattle homeowners. HALA ignored us to prioritize transients, and this is our last chance to preserve our way of life and prevent influx of transients into our cherished neighborhoods. We need council representatives like him, not Sawant.

    1. I think you’d be much more comfortable in a suburban gated community. Urban diversity can be more challenging but also far more healthy for our society, both economically and socially.

  2. Actually I was impressed by how much the proceedings were not dominated by the NYMBY types. Many people were not just welcoming more affordably housing but asking for it – people from all neighborhoods who are serious about addressing our housing crisis. But I think that the scale of the problem versus limited government resources still eludes many people.

    As I see it we need vastly more housing of all types, though especially for our burgeoning low income population. But even for more affluent people, because if they can’t find sufficient housing, they buy up and refurbish cheaper housing, driving up prices and removing that housing from the affordable stock, as is happening right now. I’d like to see the “residential small lot” zoning (or something similar) extended city wide, combined with city efforts to prevent displacement by helping people become landlords in their own homes – remodeling and renting out rooms or small apartments. Then takeover the state and national governments so that we can do it the right way – like the Scandinavian countries.

  3. Erica,

    I am a member of this Medium Density group and I wish I could have attended and given you some information regarding this process. I wasn’t able to attend this meeting, which was my first absence in this entire process. This was the first scheduling conflict I’ve had. At the same token, my urban village (Aurora Licton Springs) was utilized as one of the 5 example maps presented in September and I felt I had said enough regarding our changes and have been pleased with the feedback HALA has given me and my Community Council Group (ALUV).

    Yes, I’m a white home owner (as of 2015). HALA selected me and I’m pleased about this. I know the land use code well and work in the industry professionally. I was able to not only educate people in land use basics, I was able to clarify things that changed or realities of development outside of basic examples. If you had asked that group, my guess is my name would have had positive feedback in an educational process on land use zoning code HALA never provided the group. Rather than spending several meetings on the basics, definitions, and examples, we instead focused much of our time on logistics of MHA and affordable housing, something ALL of the Medium Density group agreed with. In fact, I, and other members both white / non white, both home owners / renters, ALL agreed that the performance only approach was the way to go, rather than offering payment in lieu.

    I was an advocate for changes to commercial zoning along Aurora that was previously never on HALAs radar. I was active in suggesting family sized units be required in areas where single family was transitioning to LR1 or more, meaning we don’t lose a family size unit while increasing density. All of these items were well received by all community members and HALA. HALA even met with our community council to go over the zoning map prior to the meeting and solicit feedback / suggestions because they believed the communities voice was valuable.

    I’m sorry it hasn’t fed your agenda and you are disappointed in who is and isn’t participating. But you should do a better job of soliciting feedback from members who can discuss the productivity of the meetings, similar to my experience, rather than the divisive nature of NIMBYs vs soft spoken YIMBYs.

    That is unfair.

    I welcome you to attend any of our monthly ALUV meetings at Lantern Brewery if it interests you and I would gladly give you a detailed download of my experience in this focus group from both a positive and negative perspective for your own analysis. We meet the 2nd Thursday of each month at Lantern, since my community doesn’t have a community center… Our next meeting is 11/10/2016 7pm. Please attend if interested.

  4. “A I was able to not only educate people in land use basics, I was able to clarify things that changed or realities of development outside of basic examples.”

    And there’s the problem. Not what these focus groups are for.

  5. Land use regulations are an arcane area of law that have traditionally been used to create different standards of fairness between the communities which make up a municipality. Local residents are wise to advocate for land use regulations that prohibit unwanted land uses in their area, because this locks in those prohibitions for years, decades, or even forever. Land use regulations, no matter how short-sighted, become institutionalized policy. And land use prohibitions prevent any opportunity for even reasonable variances to be approved without completely revisiting the land use code.

    You only need to look to King County marijuana zoning for one example of this. It turns out that retail marijuana stores are now prohibited, through zoning, in the areas of unincorporated King County where the vast majority of its residents live. And that’s the way that the council members that represent those residents want it. The impact has been that all the pot stores now open in unincorporated King County are now concentrated in Skyway and White Center. Communities like Redmond Ridge, where these businesses are now prohibited, have much stronger footing in law to continue to keep them out, while the communities of Skyway and White Center don’t have any justification to get the county’s support in reducing the insane concentration of these stores open in their communities.

    I say this as a note of caution to the City of Seattle that the Land Use process itself needs to be examined, if the city is truly serious about fairness to and the representation of all citizen’s voices in the process perhaps reforming the whole system of land use would be the first place to start.

    On the other hand, my sense from how the process has unfolded in Seattle is that the city, and particularly the mayor’s office, is really seeking to use the existing land use system to grant the favors they wish and continue the system of unequal fairness between communities …

  6. Erica: I am disappointed at your repeated vilification of my perspective on City land use issues. “lengthy jeremiad,” “Thaler denounced the whole focus group process,” “allowing ‘horrendous…ugly crap’ in once-protected single-family neighborhoods.”

    The last is a particularly egregious misstatement. Rather, I have frequently noted on the record that during the land use fights of the 1980s—which led into the neighborhood planning of the 1990s—Fremont agreed to significant up zones in multi-family zoned areas. In exchange we did not get affordable housing. Market rate developers build to make profits, and in many cases, yes, they built “ugly crap” because it is cheaper to build. But none of this was in “once-protected single-family neighborhoods.” Please do not put words into peoples’ mouths when you don’t know the facts.

    Your implication seems to be that I am oblivious to displacement issues. At previous focus group sessions, I have consistently brought up displacement as a major ongoing problem, including referring to the seminal study of how the Black community in the Central District was largely displaced starting in the 1980s. As the author of that study (Seattle University Law Professor Emeritus Henry McGee) states, the main reason for displacement is clear: “Follow the money.”

    In the 1990s, in good part as a result of political activism by North End homeowners, along with a push by the Growth Management Act, the City instituted a planning process that was far more inclusive of all communities of interest than the HALA focus groups. Neighborhood plans were prepared over a multi-year period, with broad community engagement on specific desired land use changes and capital investments needed to accommodate increased density. Each plan included extensive “validation” to ensure that diverse community voices had not only been heard, but accommodated as much as possible.

    Almost none of that 1990s inclusiveness is happening under HALA. The HALA focus group process is a failure because it is the opposite of what happened then: HALA is a top down process—initiated by the Mayor behind closed doors—designed to achieve up zones City wide, with little real say in how, let alone whether, it should occur. And forget about capital investments needed to maintain “livability.”

    Yes, I have criticized the focus group process, with good reason. Like all the others, the Fremont urban village had only five people selected to represent a neighborhood of thousands. One, an Amazon employee who expressed “YIMBY”ish sentiments a year ago, is now on the Fremont Neighborhood Council board—and expresses far more nuanced opinions about the City’s proposals as a result of being open minded and willing to listen and learn. The other three Fremont UV focus group representatives disappeared: one moved out of Fremont shortly after being selected, and the other two simply stopped coming to focus group meetings early on. These facts, along with similar diminishing participation by many other UV representatives, and the copious amount of time wasted on delaying and irrelevant presentations by OPCD, are key reasons for my criticism of the City’s HALA focus group process.

    Here are a few more facts I bring up at many meetings, including at the HALA focus group:

    • HALA was initiated purportedly to solve the City’s housing affordability crisis brought on by rapid economic growth. It is admirable that the City intends to construct more affordable housing for low income households; this is an essential need. Nevertheless, as the City acknowledges, displacement is inevitable when the economy brings in so many new jobs that pay substantially more than the AMI (area medium income).

    • MHA (“inclusionary” housing fees) cannot solve the displacement problem because MHA relies on the private market to provide a public good. Not only is the amount of revenue produced for low income housing woefully inadequate for that need, but it does nothing for the middle class. Or for the many people and small businesses displaced from rapidly gentrifying communities.

    • Many “urbanists” claim that increasing density through market mechanisms can solve housing affordability and environmental problems. Increasing density does neither—no one has yet produced evidence that facilitating more profit taking and inequity in our capitalist political-economy can do so.

    Erica, it’s bad enough that you (and the trolls your writing encourages) appear to desire to maintain a studied ignorance of all of the above. It’s worse that you repeatedly descend into personal insult and inaccuracies to make your points. Please stop. Our challenges cannot be reduced to a simplistic and artificially imposed “us versus them” plot line. We all need to work together to have any chance of real solutions.