What is a deliberative forum? Professor of government Stephen Medvic described it in formal terms Friday as “a process of public reason formation” that is “rooted in theories of deliberative democracy.”
More colloquially, he said, “It’s a fancy way to say, ‘we think together.'”
Medvic is the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. In August, the center and Hourglass Foundation brought together a demographically representative group of 48 individuals for a day-long deliberative forum on the topic of housing in Lancaster County.
At the foundation’s October First Friday forum, Medvic and Hourglass Executive Director Diana Martin briefed their audience on the results.
A housing crisis
Deliberative forums, also known as “mini-publics,” are increasingly being used around the world, Medvic said. The center has been involved in at least two others: One on climate change in partnership with WITF and another in partnership with Lancaster city for its comprehensive plan.
The county has an urgent need to find solutions on housing, Martin said. The population is increasing, and while many people assume that’s due to in-migration, much of it is organic: Local families having children. Vacancies are exceptionally low and large percentages of local renters and homeowners are cost-burdened.
All those factors point to the need for more supply. However, if future development isn’t denser than that of recent decades, the county risks letting sprawl overrun its celebrated landscape, the richest non-irrigated farmland in the world.
Hourglass and the center at F&M recruited participants with help from F&M’s Center for Opinion Research, which sent out several thousand invitations to county households, accompanied by survey forms. A sample of 50 individuals was drawn from those who responded, along with six alternates. Collectively, the group’s age, racial and educational makeup roughly matched that of the county as a whole.
Forty-eight of the 56 showed up to take part on Saturday, Aug. 19. The day ran from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and consisted of four sessions:
- The State of County Housing
- Increasing Housing Supply
- Affordable Housing
- Priorities, Strategies & Benchmarks
To level the playing field and remove barriers to participation, attendees were paid a $250 stipend and offered support upon request, including transportation, childcare and language interpretation.
They received briefing books and heard background presentations from local housing experts. Trained facilitators moderated their discussions, which were recorded by dedicated notetakers.
Forum participants immediately and overwhelmingly identified affordable housing as an urgent need, Medvic and Martin said. They expressed concerns about increased demand and rising prices displacing long-term county residents and apprehension about traffic and about Lancaster County losing its distinctive character.
They agreed on the need for increased supply, and endorsed streamlining regulations and approvals, but opposed moving decisions outside of local control. They liked the idea of walkable “village” style development and preserving community character.
They expressed support for allowing more buildings that mix ground-floor retail with upstairs apartments and for revitalizing underused buildings (adaptive reuse) and underused sites in urban areas (infill development).
They were against allowing buildings that are overly tall. The issue of bikeability and bike safety came up “surprisingly often.”
Encouragingly, the forum appeared to increase trust and willingness to engage in debate and hear diverse perspectives, as measured by polls taken immediately before and after the event. Similar attitudinal shifts were seen in the two previous deliberative forms the center helped coordinate, Medvic said.
A deliberative forum isn’t a “silver bullet,” he said, but people overwhelmingly report positive experiences and a rekindling of confidence in their fellow community members.
In the third session, participants were offered a menu of public policy strategies for encouraging affordable housing: Developer tax incentives, fees on development (to fund affordable projects), inclusionary zoning mandates and rent control. Of those, tax incentives were the most popular, Medvic said. Participants said fees sounded like “nickel and diming” the industry. They were intrigued but unsure about inclusionary zoning. Rent control was the most controversial, he said, arousing both strong support and strong opposition.
“Safe, accessible, and fair” housing topped participants’ list of priorities, followed by environmental protection and maintaining community character. There was less consensus on how to achieve those ends and how to measure progress, with a wide variety of options proposed. Two tables suggested having municipal leaders participate in their own forum on housing, Medvic said.
Hourglass Foundation is planning to publicize the report and share it with elected officials, including state legislators, the county and all 60 municipal governments. Martin noted Lancaster County’s strong presence on the state House’s Committee on Housing & Community Development: It has three of the 25 seats, including the chairman’s, occupied by Rep. Mike Sturla.
Lancaster embrace of deliberative forums has made it something of a leader among communities of its size, Medvic said. One obstacle to rolling out more is the expense, which for the Aug. 19 event was around $50,000. The Lancaster County Community Foundation, High Foundation and Steinman Foundation provided the necessary funding.
When people come together in a setting conducive to problem-solving, Medvic said, “They’re pretty smart, they’re pretty creative … and they’re civil. It’s really refreshing to see.”