When I read the new report Closing the Divide: Creating Equitable, Inclusive, and Affordable Communities, I was impressed by the ambitious and comprehensive policy agenda it laid out for New York state. But I was equally impressed by the process by which it was generated. The Regional Affordable & Fair Housing Roundtable pulled off something that has often been elusive—building enough trust between fair housing advocates and place-based community developers to lead to their signing on to a joint agenda. I spoke with representatives of the two convening organizations—Lorraine Collins from Enterprise Community Partners and Fred Freiberg from the Fair Housing Justice Center—about how and why it worked, and what’s next.
Miriam Axel-Lute: Let’s start with the story about how the roundtable came together.
Fred Freiberg: About two years ago, Enterprise and the Fair Housing Justice Center had some meetings. And it became clear to us that there were a lot of areas of tension, let’s say, between fair housing [advocates] and some of the affordable housing providers and place-based community development organizations.
All of us had been involved in past efforts to do roundtables [involving these two kinds of groups] and so forth, but Enterprise and the Fair Housing Justice Center decided to embark on what proved to be a very interesting journey, and that was to do a regional roundtable on affordable and fair housing. It consisted of 30 organizations besides Enterprise and the Fair Housing Justice Center. There were affordable housing developers, other affordable housing advocates, community development groups, fair housing advocates, and groups working on school integration, disability rights, and so forth. We then embarked upon a process where we met monthly over a year.
Lorraine Collins: Because there hadn’t been a lot of examples of those two sectors coming together, we knew that we would have to go through a trust-building and cross-education phase, and so that’s really how we kicked off the 12 months. It was an opportunity for the affordable housers to really learn more about fair housing history and that process, and then vice-versa, the fair housers learning a bit more about the in-depth history of affordable housing and community development, including the financing process.
From there, we transitioned into a collaboration phase. OK, we’ve had an opportunity to start to learn more about where the other group is coming from. Now, let’s start to think about what are some potential common policy areas. Let’s not focus on those areas where we know we disagree, but on those common policy areas we could really dive into, get some agreement on, and move forward together in a united front.
Once we went through the deep dive and breaking off into different groups [around different topics], there were thoughts from the separate groups [brought back] to the larger group so we could get buy-in, get feedback, and fine-tune some of the policy recommendations that were being made.
Lastly was the summit that we held in November  to showcase what the process looked like; to give opportunities for the different groups, their partners, and other allies within the affordable housing/fair housing space to learn more about how the different topics came to be and what the process looked like; and also [discuss] some next steps. We had upwards of 400 individuals in attendance, from across the entire region (the five boroughs, Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties).
Freiberg: When we started out, we had confirmation of the tensions that existed. It was very apparent that there were some hostilities in the room and that the education phase was really essential. Over the course of the year, the people involved worked really hard. They showed up every month. During the summer months we thought, oh, well, there’s going to be a fall-off in attendance, and people kept showing up each time and doing the work. We did have a professional facilitator from the Community Building Institute, but it really is a tribute to everybody involved that we actually saw some minds change on certain issues and just a general thawing of the tensions between different groups.
Apart from the diversity of the organizations represented, the city/suburban representation was really important to having this discussion.
Can you call to mind any specific moments when something really made a difference in allowing the other sets of groups to understand something more deeply?
Freiberg: We dedicated an entire session just to discuss the Community Board Preference issues. [Editor’s note: Community Board Preference is a longstanding policy that sets aside 50 percent of city-supported affordable units for existing residents of the community board in which the housing is located. It has been the subject of fair housing lawsuits, while supporters see it as a way to limit displacement.] We knew we couldn’t avoid talking about it because we knew this was a source of great tension. We thought that we’d built up enough trust by this point that people would actually listen to each other and not just speak out of passion, but actually have a calm conversation about their differences. And we did. We had, I would say, a nothing less than intense discussion about this issue.
Some of the people who had harbored extremely strong support for the community or residency preferences actually changed their positions. Some who had even written op-eds in the past supporting community board preferences changed their view, and three people in our roundtable wrote another op-ed basically suggesting that groups need to take a second look at this policy.
We saw people give serious thought to everyone’s position. When we finally reached a point where everybody knew each other and felt a greater sense of trust, we started dealing more in facts and less in argument.
Collins: We kicked off the conversation in a really sensitive environment. And it wasn’t that we walked away with the answer. But I think everyone walked away with a greater understanding of the issues, the concerns that all were raising.
Were there any times before you got into that tough issue when there were light bulbs going off?
Collins: [We were] intentional on not only the geographic diversity, but representing as protected classes as possible and being mindful of the gender composition [and] racial/ethnic composition of those at the table. With everything that we were talking about, disparities, [especially] racial/ethnic disparities was a consistent theme. We [also] had one particular member of the roundtable who was a true advocate; there was never a time when we weren’t reminded of how inclusive the conversation should be as it related to the disability community. There was that constant theme of “think about these other disparities that exist as well.”
Freiberg: I think people also tend to work in silos on different issues, and everybody for the period of this roundtable had to venture out beyond their own silo and begin to consider other people’s positions. And so, it was more subtle [than] this person saying something or that person saying something. It was the fact that people genuinely were open to hearing other people’s priorities and agendas.
What do you think inspired so many groups to put that much work into this?
Freiberg: It’s hard to say. We do have, obviously, a major crisis here in New York with both housing affordability and housing opportunity. We’re still one of the most segregated metropolitan regions in the country, and we have an enormous problem in terms of housing affordability.
Those two issues are related. I don’t know that people often thought of them that way, but they are. I think the roundtable helped to bring that out.
Often in a situation like this, it seems like when you are trying to get many people to agree on things, what you come up with is basic, non-ambitious, the lowest common denominator stuff. And instead, you have what is really a very ambitious policy agenda, which includes introducing fair share housing requirements to the whole state and things like that. How did you pull that off?
Freiberg: Well, I know we did want people to think outside the box and not be constrained by limited resources or limited political will. We did want to have people think about if they could propose some change that would really make a difference, what would those changes be. And that’s where we ended up with this particular shared agenda.
Collins: I would just add to that, too, reminding folks as we kicked off what they really were signing up for. They weren’t signing up for a cookie-cutter process. They weren’t signing up for something where it would be the Fair Housing Justice Center and Enterprise deciding what the policy priorities should look like, and they were just signing off. [They needed to be] willing to put in the work, to have the tough conversations, and to come up with something that we could all be proud of at the end of 12 months.
What is the next steps in terms of advocating for this policy agenda?
Collins: Bringing folks together was really the beginning of the work. One of the things that we’re going to work on at Enterprise in collaboration with Fair Housing Justice Center is really start to drill down with the policy recommendations.
Some [recommendations have campaigns to pass them] already in place. For example, we have groups that are already working on advocacy related to rent regulation. We have our statewide coalition that’s working on source of income [protection]. [We want] to connect folks to those movements, but also for some of the ideas that really weren’t fleshed out completely, to engage the groups to also say, Did this resonate with someone? Are they willing to take the lead on this initiative? [We want to be] tracking our progress and hold not only our roundtable participants, but also our partners accountable in how we move this agenda forward.
Freiberg: We’re considering the possibility of quarterly meetings of the larger roundtable and maybe some additional stakeholders to keep tabs on what various sub-groups are doing to promote certain policies or legislation.
Would you have suggestions or recommendations for folks who might want to bring fair and affordable housing advocates together in another area?
Freiberg: I think sometimes, as advocates, we have to recognize that our rhetoric deepens divisions in the community. I think it’s a question of sort of toning down the rhetoric in some cases and getting people to figure out what’s important and what they value, and then, in that context, discuss the issues in a more collaborative fashion.
Collins: Starting off trying to have as inclusive as a group as possible is important to make sure that as many voices, particularly those who are impacted by an affordable housing crisis, by a fair housing crisis, and those related sectors are present and at the table.
Freiberg: I’m inclined to think, for this group and this time, it was better not to have government at the table. Part of the reason things don’t change very often in New York is because of the political system that we have here. So it was important for us to have people not bound to those limitations, and where they could really think more creatively about some of these issues and problems and not be constrained by their political positions or their status in government. But after the fact that we needed to swiftly talk with local officials about what the roundtable had accomplished and what those policies look like.
Were they surprised to see you all in the same room together?
Freiberg: Yes, I heard a recognition from a couple of the people that they thought this was a pretty big accomplishment just to get all the groups that we had involved to agree to a shared agenda.
They need housing for poor families in Newark