When it comes to providing information on complex issues, such as housing, it can be hard to know where to begin. Some people seem to know a lot, some not very much and confusion feels prevalent.

Click the image above to see a larger version of Half Moon Bay’s housing background handout.

For the past four years, Common Knowledge has been engaged in ongoing research about how people from different life stages and life experiences learn about the issue of housing. We support communities in developing some baseline reference points that are then accompanied by constructive dialogue about options for moving forward. An initial pilot in Marin County supported by the Kettering Foundation led to an extensive project with seven cities, so far, in San Mateo County, sponsored by Home for All.

Our approach is anchored in interactive outreach to a broad cross section of each community, including those who have not been involved in past discussions about housing, as well as those who have been highly engaged. Throughout, we use open-ended questions and are attentive to people’s starting points on the issue. We also listen closely for the prevailing narratives and the stories people tell about the issue. What types of information or perspectives might be missing from their working model of the situation?

We have conducted trainings on this topic for Home for All and other organizations.  You can see some of the training materials on this topic at our sample presentations page. The following are some highlights of our findings.

Community Information Needs

Before engaging people around any of the policy aspects of the housing issue, we’ve found that first it helps to assess what members of a given neighborhood or community need to know about  housing at the personal, community and system levels. Attending to information across these levels is an important way to address diverse community needs and to meet people where they are.

For example, the Redwood City housing department provides lots of information about housing resources, several of which were funded by the city. Yet, during interactive outreach and dialogues last spring, they heard that many in the community were not aware of these resources. In response, they developed a bilingual, community-friendly Resource Guide, which is also available in print.

Housing Policies or Projects

Once people’s personal and neighborhood information needs are satisfied, they are better prepared to focus on what is happening in the civic arena. Based on our research in two Bay Area counties, we’ve found that information about housing policies or projects should address four central objectives:

  • Where are we now?
  • How did we get here?
  • What can we do together?
  • How can I learn more?

This type of introductory background information helps community members deepen their understanding of the current housing context and enables them to talk more freely from a common set of facts. Background information can include basic demographic data, information about who lives and works in the community and current housing costs.

To see an example of the range of information presented, see the presentation and background handout from Half Moon Bay’s first community conversation. Meeting materials from each of the seven participating cities in San Mateo County can be viewed on the Home for All website.

In addition to facts about the current housing situation, sharing qualitative information gathered through prior outreach, such as commonly held hopes for the future and shared concerns, also helps to reinforce that past input was considered and valued. Acknowledging broadly values and interests in the language used by community members helps develop a cumulative sense of shared understanding, while also creating space for concerns that residents may bring into the room during a community meeting.

This type of background information is purposefully not exhaustive, but instead a pen and ink sketch that community members then color in through dialogue with one another. We have learned how most adults make sense of complex issues like housing by talking with each other, rather than through statistics or opinion pieces. In fact, it is the intentional combination of baseline facts and dialogue, guided by thoughtful questions, that draws out people’s lived experiences and helps people grow into a richer understanding of the multidimensional issue of housing. We’ve observed repeatedly that the most progress in learning happens when people sit and talk side by side with those they do not know well – e.g., longtime residents next to new arrivals, renters next to landlords, people from different occupations and income levels. Together, they make sense of what is happening, making them more likely to trust the broader, shared narrative that they help shape.

Community Curiosity & Energy

Over the past few years, we have designed , helped facilitate and analyzed informal outreach, surveys and over twenty large dialogues about housing. In these contacts with about 3,000 diverse community members, some patterns have emerged. People most frequently express interest in learning more about:

  • Current Actions on Housing: What are local governments, nonprofits, businesses and other community members already doing right now to address the community’s housing needs?
  • Innovative Solutions: How are cities thinking creatively about housing? What new approaches are being considered?
  • Community Partnerships: How are public agencies, employers, organizations and local groups working together to address the community’s housing needs? How have other cities formed creative partnerships to address land use or funding needs?
  • Related & Overlapping Issues: How is housing being addressed alongside related complex challenges, such as traffic, transportation or climate resilience? What is being done to ensure new developments address the community’s shared challenges?
  • Ways to Get Involved: In addition to staying involved with the civic process, people appreciate knowing about concrete actions they can take to enhance housing options, such as home sharing, helping to refurbish housing stock and other volunteer opportunities. People want to be able to share information about resources with others.

Accessible & Responsive Information Design

In addition to addressing the topics listed above, we’re also helping cities to be more inclusive, engaging new community members, particularly those who may have been less likely to participate in formal “civic process.” At Common Knowledge, one of our guiding principles is that information should be accessible and responsive, meaning we design for the broadest audience possible and iterate based on community member feedback.

Through interviews, surveys and feedback forms, we continually assess how well information is meeting community member needs. We ask people to identify the things they want to know more about and to reflect on what the broader community needs to know. We ask them to think about what might be missing or what can be simplified. This process of testing information with community members and refining content based on their feedback are essential parts of the community-based design process.

Ultimately, each interaction with the public is an opportunity to learn more about their information needs. By listening first, designing information with community input and iterating based on community feedback, we’re able to more effectively build shared understanding and encourage healthy, productive dialogue – even when it comes to a multidimensional issue, such as housing.