Across the United States, affordable housing has become a top priority for local governments as the housing crisis continues to place economic and social strain on communities. With the infusion of funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), Wichita, Kansas – which has a population of about 400,000 – jumped at the opportunity to address housing issues in their city through public participation.
Wichita’s team started with the creation of their Affordable Housing Fund (AHF), which is $5 million allocated to improving the quality of the existing affordable housing stock (rental and for-sale), while expanding quality affordable housing options and promoting neighborhood stability in the city’s core areas. After evaluating how far $5 million could go, they turned to their residents to help define where housing is most needed and what type of housing people want.
Using their public participation platform, Forum, Wichita heard directly from residents on affordable housing needs in their community.
Confronting the growing affordable housing crisis
As a large and ever-growing city, Wichita is faced with tension to maintain both the nostalgic and traditional culture of the city while also looking to keep and attract younger generations to spur economic and social growth. With quickly increasing housing prices, Wichita is having a hard time with both. Working on the Kansas minimum wage, a household would have to work 118 hours a week to be able to afford the average rent in Wichita, around $850 a month. This is making it increasingly difficult to attract people to the city, and to get people to stay.
The best way to address housing needs and take advantage of the federal funding opportunities is to hear directly from residents, as these changes will have long lasting impacts on them and their neighborhoods. But the Wichita government notoriously hears from the same cohort of people, making it difficult to develop truly inclusive and representative policies.
So Wichita’s team asked themselves: how can we make sure that we make the best use of our funding to include a diverse and wide range of the population, and hear representative input on what community members need to keep Wichita affordable and vibrant?
Enter: CitizenLab’s community engagement solution
Spearheaded by Cory Buchta (Community Service Representative), Naomi Shapiro (Communications Specialist), and Logan Bradshaw (Program Coordinator), Wichita used Forum to collect community feedback on what they would like to see in the plan. They then used that feedback to develop the plan and then put the plan back out for additional comments, questions, and feedback.
To kick off the project, they shared essential background information on the Affordable Housing Fund and then broke down the process into four main stages:
- Comment/idea generation
- Analysis of resident contributions
- Develop final AHF proposal
- Council action and continuous project communication
Each step of the process, residents were invited to engage. Even if their ideas were out of scope, the Wichita team was able to get checks on what is important to their community as a whole. Using CitizenLab’s Reports tool and tags, the Wichita team then analyzed and compiled resident feedback and shared a full report that showed how ideas had been reflected in their AHF proposal.
The team used a hybrid approach to promote the platform, attending about 15 in-person meetings and using Forum to guide the meetings, encouraging residents to sign up for and chime in on Forum. This allowed the team to build initial buy-in from both internal and external stakeholders as they rolled out the platform, and helped them meet residents where they are.
Next steps for Forum
As the AHF comes to fruition, they are also using the platform to educate the public about next steps. By consistently sharing video updates and resources, the communications team is building an extra layer of transparency into their activities and policies, which they hope will improve points of contact between the government and the community.
“We would like to see Forum as something that department heads use when coming up with projects. So that you’re building community engagement into projects from the get go, as opposed to waiting until the project is already developed. If we are transparent intentionally, we can better communicate to the public what we are doing and why we are doing it from the outset.” – Naomi Shapiro – Communications Specialist
Local priorities implemented into proposals and policy
The feedback the Wichita team gathered related to the importance and prioritization of home repair programming. As such, home repair programming became an integral part of the AHF, to help existing low- to middle-income homeowners stabilize their homes so they could remain in them and continue to be a part of the Wichita community.
Participants are already consistently returning to the platform, with an average of 3 visits per user, to check back for project updates. Housing projects can take many years, and Forum has become Wichita’s centralized hub for trusted and up-to-date information.
“Overall, with Forum being such a new platform, we were impressed with the amount of engagement on the platform. We had 26 subscribers to the project and had the opportunity to engage in dialogue with these residents, even providing them information related to other resources and City services.”
Logan Bradshaw – Program Coordinator
Improving internal interdepartmental communication
Not only does Forum improve communication with their residents, it has also become an internal tool that has improved cross-departmental visibility and knowledge sharing. As a collaboration of members from across departments, from communications to housing, this initiative has successfully brought together members of the Wichita government all working towards the same goal – community engagement. At council meetings, this engagement team presents Forum to colleagues to provide other departments with a consolidated view of what they are working on and share data and ideas on topics that residents care about across multiple departments.
Today, the Forum platform has around 500 registered participants, representing ages spanning from 20 to 89 and districts all around Wichita. This initial level of engagement shows how much residents want to be involved in their community, and Forum provides both the government and the community a place to stay informed and provide key feedback to shape a better future for Wichita.