Contracting with the Community

To connect with hard-to-reach communities, a Twin Cities agency diverted some of its consulting budget away from national firms and to organizations that already had those relationships.

Photo shows a meeting of the Fair Housing Advisory Committee: three women are seated at a table; one is shaking hands with then-Secretary of HUD Julian Castro. Community engagement
Some Equity in Place partners in a meeting with then-HUD Secretary Julian Castro. Photo courtesy of the Alliance

Local government agencies often say they find it difficult to identify and reach marginalized populations and gain their trust or time to contribute to a planning process. During a typical municipal planning process, those agencies often hire an outside consultant to conduct community outreach and incorporate that feedback in a final report.

However, consultants from outside of the community tend to lack the historical context of the area as well as the kinds of relationships that are only built with trust. As a result, relying on them risks eliminating the perspective of a broad subset of community members, often people of color. Without the expertise and true lived experience of all residents informing the outcomes, plans are often based on skewed narratives that in turn accelerate inequitable housing practices.

‘When we asked community members in those cities what their biggest challenge was, it was access to housing.’

Over the last seven years, the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul learned firsthand that engaging communities most affected by fair housing proposals early in the planning process is a necessity—and they developed a way to go about doing it better.

Ringing the Alarm

Entities that receive federal funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are required to conduct a regional analysis of impediments to fair housing (AI), which is meant to serve two purposes: identify barriers that affect fair housing and serve as the basis for fair housing planning. This analysis provides information to policymakers regarding how barriers can be addressed. In the Twin Cities metro area, this analysis is conducted every five years by the Fair Housing Implementation Council (FHIC). Established in 2002, the FHIC includes members from several county and city governments, as well as various other agencies and organizations interested in furthering fair housing.

[Related Article: Community Engagement Can’t be a Checklist]

A year after the 2014 analysis was completed, three Hennepin County cities—Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, and Richfield—filed a complaint with HUD alleging an overconcentration of investment in affordable housing in their cities. Similarly, three Minneapolis neighborhood organizations from diverse neighborhoods, but with limited representation from renters and people of color, filed complaints alleging the same of public agencies. These complaints largely reflected the perspective of predominantly white organizations. The complaint omitted the perspective of Black and Brown populations in those cities who were grappling with gentrification and displacement pressures and did not feel at all like there was excess affordable housing available to them.

Equity in Place (EIP), a coalition of 15 place-based housing and advocacy organizations led largely by people of color, pushed back on the complaint, asserting that it was not representative of everyone, particularly people of color. The coalition also felt that the complaint was based on an integration-only approach that prioritized “proximity to whiteness.” Equity in Place members were wary of the possible outcome of the complaint because they expected it to influence where HUD distributed its funding.

“When we asked community members in those cities what their biggest challenge was, it was access to housing,” recalls Nelima Sitati-Munene of African Career, Education & Resource Inc. (ACER), an issue-focused community organization committed to creating access to education, jobs, health, housing, and wealth. “Low-income people are paying about 50 percent of their income on rent alone, and so this housing is not affordable. So who are you really speaking for?”

After Equity in Place demanded more BIPOC community and renter involvement in the resolution of the complaint, they were given seats on a fair housing advisory committee that was tasked with creating an addendum to the regional AI.

“We really pushed to say, if you’re going to identify housing issues in the region, you cannot let these complaints single-handedly define what you see [as] the fair housing issues,” says Owen Duckworth, director of organizing and policy for the Alliance, a coalition of community-based organizations and advocacy groups working at the intersections of racial, economic, environmental justice, and health equity. The Alliance was the co-convener of Equity in Place.

“You actually have to go into the community and recognize the lived expertise of people around what their fair housing issues are, not just what this complaint says, which is that there’s supposedly too much affordable housing in their neighborhoods,” adds Duckworth.

Issued in 2016, the HUD request for an addendum kicked off a yearlong process to update the fair housing plan. This time, several new players were brought to the table. HUD created a Fair Housing Advisory Committee (FHAC), facilitated by Minnesota Housing Partnership (MHP) and made up of 23 members including five FHIC representatives, an affordable housing developer, several advocates each for place-based and mobility-focused approaches to regional equity, and individuals from racial and ethnic groups that were not otherwise represented on the committee.

“We wanted the voices of the people who are impacted to be heard in all these plans and all this planning, because this is where the false and harmful narratives are coming from,” Sitati-Munene says.

Round Two

The FHAC started meeting in June 2016, and its first task was to support the FHIC in selecting a consultant to prepare the AI addendum. FIHC leaders noted that in their experience, consultants were rarely strong in data analysis and community engagement. Given the perspectives they had missed the first time around, advisory members decided the best approach would be to select a consultant that was strong in data and had the ability to build relationships with different cultural groups, but to have the direct community engagement piece handled by multiple local organizations that had built trust through established relationships.


“A really significant part [of this] was recentering whose expertise should matter and what narratives should be shaping the approach,” says Alyssa Wetzel-Moore, who joined FHIC as chair in 2016, following her work in fair housing education and enforcement as a human rights specialist for the St. Paul Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity. “Equity in Place raised this idea about opportunity—which communities have it? What is the racial composition of communities that are defined by opportunity? It’s often white communities, and when you define opportunity in that way, it was leading to disinvestment in low-income and communities predominately of color.”

[Related Article: What’s Different When the Community Collects the Data?]

During one of the initial advisory committee meetings, FHIC members proposed committing resources to encourage input from communities of color. The group eventually issued an RFP for $71,000 worth of consulting contracts for community organizations to take the lead on engaging with the populations affected by housing challenges. FHIC sought to bring their expertise on issues such as discrimination, housing choice, displacement, and segregation to bear on the AI addendum. Seventeen community organizations were selected, including ACER.

The RFP was open-ended, leaving it up to community groups how they used the funds to do engagement work and provide community feedback. Since ACER already did tenant organizing around fair housing issues and housing justice work, it already had an organized base of tenants to reach out to for focus groups. ACER had also hosted Know Your Rights trainings with tenants, facilitated conversations between its constituency and local council members and local county commissioners, and engaged community members to participate in other decision-making processes around housing in the region.

‘The narrative was that we need to move people of color to live next to white people. There was no conversation about disinvestment and discrimination.’

The addendum process concluded in May 2017. As a result of the community engagement, Wetzel-Moore says, displacement was identified “loud and clear as a fair housing issue.” In the 200-plus page report, there were nearly a dozen recommendations presented to the advisory committee, which included:

  • Improve opportunities for mobility within the region.
  • Reduce resident displacement.
  • Increase access to homeownership.
  • Expand funding and locations for affordable housing.

For Sitati-Munene, “one of the biggest successes that came out of this work was [the ability] to have grassroots organizations and people who are most impacted really challenge the narrative,” she says. “For the longest time in the Twin Cities, when it comes to affordable housing and fair housing, the narrative was that we need to move people of color to live next to white people. There was no conversation about disinvestment and discrimination.”

She adds, “It was the first time that there had been any real community engagement [in the AI process] and that the voices of the tenants and the people who are facing the housing challenges had been incorporated.”   

A New Way to Work

In 2018, FHIC began preparing for the next AI, while keeping in mind the lessons of 2014–2017. “I think the FHIC understood and recognized the value of investing in community expertise,” says Duckworth.

Sitati-Munene agrees. “In the second round, I think what happened is that FHIC really incorporated this idea of ‘where are we going to get the information to inform this report?’ So it was, yes, let’s go back to the community organizations. Let’s put out an RFP so that community organizations can lead on this work and can really engage the folks who are impacted.”

This time, the FHIC’s RFP called for suburban-specific community-based organizations to do engagement work. According to Tyler Moroles, a senior planning analyst at Hennepin County and FHIC chair, the intention was to supplement engagement in the suburbs since typically the AI does much of this in the central cities.

There are about 3.5 million people in the Twin Cities metro area, estimates Moroles. FHIC’s intention was to connect with communities that are dispersed and “kind of hard to get to and hard to hear from.”

“When we did the RFP, we were really hoping to get more connections to folks that really have not had their voices heard in the previous AIs, and were just data points,” he says. “The suburbs are getting way more diverse now. It’s not the same suburbs as the ‘60s when it was all Caucasian. The further out in the metro you go, the more difficult it is to connect with folks because communities of color, immigrant communities, the disabled community, they’re more dispersed. They’re more hidden from view, but they’re still there.”

For this round, five community-based organizations (CBOs) and members of Equity in Place received $40,000 in funding from FHIC to conduct outreach in seven counties in the Metro area around fair housing. Those five groups included ACER and Jewish Community Action (JCA), whose work focuses on issues such as voter engagement, economic justice, and housing justice.

“That project was really integrated into the work that JCA did as part of the EIP coalition and as the sort of convener of the suburban Hennepin housing coalition, which organizes local teams in suburban cities to advocate for affordable housing,” says Aaron Berc, a community organizer with JCA. “The FHIC had goals of awareness around fair housing; we have goals that are largely aligned and a little bit more applicable to how these [issues] play out in the real world. It seemed like a win-win for both of us to collaborate on the project.”

Sitati-Munene describes the work ACER and the other four CBOs did for the AI as a continuation of what they already do. “Our work wasn’t just focused on the analysis, but housing justice is part of what we do,” she explains. “We were able to incorporate what we know from our housing justice work and share what they should be looking at.”

The JCA used strategies such as holding quarterly housing forums, preforming outreach, and hosting workshops. In addition to conducting similar engagement and activities from the AI addendum, ACER also created outreach materials and flyers about tenant and landlord responsibilities and tenant education.   

The top findings from this round included:

  • A scarcity of affordable options and rental subsidies (JCA specifically found that tenants in Richfield, a city in Hennepin County, spent an average of 81 percent of their monthly income on rent and utilities).
  • A lack of support for tenants to be informed and empowered residents.
  • A lack of maintenance.
  • Rampant and aggressive eviction practices.
  • Tenant abuse.

Lessons Learned

Essentially, the Twin Cities can serve as a model for a new approach to regional planning for fair housing, whereby governments align with new community voices to facilitate a deeper conversation about racial and economic equity in the development of a just housing plan.

Both rounds of the fair housing regional analysis offer important takeaways for government agencies to consider when partnering with community-based organizations and integrating resident voices.

Sitati-Munene notes the real value from such an effort is implementing the recommendations out of the analysis. For example, ACER leveraged the recommendations It received to push Brooklyn Park city to pass ordinances around tenants’ rights and protections.

Working with community organizations also requires providing a budget for them to carry out the work, which strongly indicates “we value community voice,” adds Sitati-Munene.

An adequate budget is key, agrees Berc, who felt the amount disbursed for the 2018-2019 work was not enough.

“[The amount] was not close to hiring a full-time staff member to work at a nonprofit and pay them a dignified wage to do the amount of work we were asked to do for an entire year,” he explains. “We had maybe one-fourth or one-fifth of our time that we could dedicate to [that work].”

“If you want grassroots community engagement—people knocking on doors, making one-on-one connections, planning events to educate and train people on what fair housing is—you’re asking for a lot of results,” he continues. “I don’t think the FHIC was necessarily resourced by their constituent organizations in a way to really do justice to what community engagement could and should look like. I think that’s part of the growing pains, which is understandable.”

Ultimately, Sitati-Munene says, doing an analysis should not be about checking off a box, but being intentionally engaged with the communities that are affected. “It’s about co-working with [the] community. It’s not like, go to your focus groups, send us the notes and then we’ll draft the report. No, we were continually submitting reports and sitting at meetings as the analysis was being done.”

Brittany Hutson is a freelance writer and editor based in the Detroit metropolitan area.

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