Partners (Number 1, 2007)

Vol. 17, No. 1, 2007


Innovative Approaches Help Solve N.O.'s Housing Woes

Achieving the American Dream: Are We There Yet?

Courting the Creative Class: New Strategies for Urban Revival

GO Zone Tax Credits and Incentives

The Subprime Mortgage Market

Case Making: Building a Pathway to Implementation

Spotlight on the District—Florida



Case Making: Building a Pathway to Implementation

In the following article, M. von Nkosi, former director of the Mixed Income Communities Initiative (MICI) at the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership (ANDP), shares his recent experience as a case study of how to move an agenda forward—whether it involves housing, transportation or health issues—by leading from a place of shared vision.

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How do you move an agenda? How do you get people to buy in and support your cause so you can have an impact on regional change?

Combining a dedicated staff, volunteers from grassroots to Fortune 500, topflight consultants and strong financial support from philanthropic organizations and corporations, MICI has worked tirelessly to provide solid facts and figures about the need for more affordable housing in the Atlanta region. Over the past 10 years the organization has presented its findings to the business community, policy makers and the public at large. The discussion that follows presents some of the tools we used to help persuade our audience that this issue needs their immediate attention.

Funding and synergistic circumstances
MICI grew out of a solid, nonprofit organization, ANDP. Led by charismatic founder, president and CEO Hattie B. Dorsey (recently retired), ANDP supports affordable housing through real estate development, lending and advocacy. ANDP provided long-term resources for MICI totaling about $800,000. Additional funds, including an initial kick-off of $150,000 from the Terwilliger Family foundation in 1998 along with planning and matching grants from the Ford Foundation, have helped sustain and advance the work over time.

Several additional circumstances contributed to the synergy: A post-Olympic "bounce" in 1996 gave momentum to our efforts. The region's negative EPA designation brought attention to the need for change. In addition, other housing advocates and nonprofits were working on the issue of affordable housing, such as community development corporations (CDCs) and the Atlanta Community Food Bank, which for more than 10 years has hosted a monthly forum on housing affordability. Strong, charismatic, visionary leadership inside and outside of ANDP, supported by internal and external funds, helped foster a collaborative process. These foundational underpinnings lent added credibility to the housing affordability movement and allowed for strong buy-in by partners, volunteers and consultants.

Recruiting and keeping stakeholders at the table: building an atmosphere of safe space
Recognizing that the uneven growth of Atlanta profoundly affects the quality of life for all of the region's residents, ANDP established MICI in 1998 to focus attention on and promote dialogue about the connections between affordable housing and quality-of-life issues. It was clear from the very beginning that to move the agenda forward, it would be necessary to convene key economic and political stakeholders, as well as other advocacy groups, around the table to make sure that mixed-income housing became a basic component of regional planning.

By February of 2007, the network of individuals who comprised the MICI Committee had grown from about 5 people in 1998 to about 70, representing nearly as many organizations. The goal of the MICI committee was not to get everyone to agree about every decision, but to encourage people with different points of view to discuss the issues and come up with solutions to be considered by a wider audience. It was tantamount to MICI's success to make sure that major employers, planners, developers, environmental groups and others understood how affordable housing affected their concerns so they could take the message to their constituencies and make their own arguments.

Throughout the process, MICI committee members became our ambassadors and spokespersons by presenting reliable data to support their positions on the need for mixed-income and affordable housing. They spoke to people who trusted and liked them, and this created instant credibility. By 2005, the MICI committee had taken ownership of the work and ANDP became mainly a facilitator of the MICI process.

Making the case: securing the facts
In 2003 after several years of discussing, fact-finding, committee building and developing case studies, members of the MICI committee decided that it was essential to make a "business case" for affordable housing in metro Atlanta. Although advocates in the region had done a great job for over a decade raising awareness about the need for affordable housing in our region, a gap persisted between the advocate's message and the audience that could influence major change.

The first item on the agenda was to obtain solid empirical data to support the need for additional affordable housing in our region.

The MICI staff was directed to help close this gap. The first item on the agenda was to obtain solid empirical data to support the need for additional affordable housing in our region as well as analysis of the barriers that prevented the region from achieving its housing goals. MICI engaged some of the best researchers in the country, including the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) in Chicago; Georgia Institute of Technology's Planning and GIS Departments; PolicyLink in Oakland, Ca. and New York City; and the Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development (CQGRD). These organizations and others were instrumental in providing convincing data about the lack of affordable housing and its impact on other quality-of-life indicators.

In mid-2004, MICI released a landmark study, "Making the Case for Mixed Income and Mixed Use Communities," which not only described the problem but also offered workable solutions. The document became a focal point for affordable housing advocacy, not only for ANDP but for many other organizations as well. (Visit to read the study or download the executive summary.)

Meeting people where they are (instead of where we want them to be)
Figuring out how to move different audiences toward action means learning how to "meet people where they are versus where we think they should be." For example, ANDP has been working with homebuilders for years to help foster an understanding of the critical need for more affordable housing in the region. In MICI's public policy work, the committee recommended pushing for mandatory inclusionary zoning, which requires developers to include affordable housing in projects above a certain size, as a way to get more affordable housing built. Developers often object to this strategy. However, through conversations we found that their opposition was not really an opposition to providing affordable housing; in fact many builders wanted to be able to meet housing needs. What they really objected to was governmental regulations and unfunded mandates that seemed intrusive.

In an effort to "meet the homebuilders where they are," MICI agreed to help the homebuilders reduce regulatory barriers that thwart building a diversity of housing types. From the builders' perspective, regulations at the municipal level inhibit their ability to produce affordable housing through exclusionary zoning practices. Requirements for large minimum lot sizes, large minimum house sizes, mandated exterior finishes and excessive parking requirements force construction cost up, which in turn raises the final sales price or rental rate for apartments. Here is the common ground that we found: by helping to eliminate exclusionary zoning practices, we could help to open up housing markets for the builders. MICI also works to ensure that inclusionary zoning ordinances feature incentives to make it more profitable for builders and developers to include below-market-rate units. An example of an incentive could be a density bonus to allow more units on a parcel than might other wise be permitted.

Communicating key messages
Communicating key messages effectively to targeted audiences calls for a fundamental position statement that provides a framework to keep the communications plan focused on the core issue. This statement includes a primary message that defines community impact, supporting messages that show results, and customized messaging for different audiences.

Affordable housing issues are closely connected to other concerns such as transportation, health, quality of life and economic development.

For MICI, the business case for mixed-income and mixed-use housing was central and consisted of three broad categories that reflected the interests of the MICI committee members: data, policy and communications. A structure was established around these three categories and ultimately research was carried out to address these areas of interest. Delivery of these messages was based on a plan crafted by MICI's communications subcommittee, which included professional public relations and communications input from Porter Novelli of Atlanta and PolicyLink of New York City. Messages were condensed, crafted and repackaged for the Case Executive Summary by a professional writer, David Goldberg of Smart Growth America.

Connecting the dots: land use, economics, transportation, housing and health
The next step in MICI's housing work is to make one of its underlying principles explicit: namely, that affordable housing issues are closely connected to other concerns such as transportation, health, quality of life and economic development. The most recent version of MICI's "Making the Case" document, available from ANDP in April 2007, addresses the connection between housing and healthy environments as an economic development, business case.

Health issues are a perfect demonstration of the connections that link land use, economics, transportation, housing and a lack of social equity. Land use planning cases in which lower income housing is located in the least attractive areas of cities are all too common. Some of these locations may seem innocuous but really prove to be quite problematic.

For example, locating affordable housing near highway interchanges can have health implications. Recent studies have shown that children with asthma and the elderly are especially susceptible to particulate matter that exists in the air in extremely high concentrations near interstates and on/off ramps. This is an issue of social equity, but the implications for business development help to make the connection from highway design to city/regional planning, to business and to public policy.

This method of land use planning, which may seem cost-effective on the surface, can actually cost constituents more. For example, city residents may face higher taxes for public health care services because of increased emergency room visits, as lower income residents who cannot afford the high cost of health insurance tend to use the emergency room as their primary means of health care. From a more long-term perspective, affordable housing solutions that ignore healthcare issues can cost a municipality jobs. Companies won't want to locate people in cities deemed unhealthy.

Those concerned about public health can learn from the strategies that have helped the "green building" movement, which is starting to catch on because advocates have been presenting the issue from an economic, business point of view. Environmental organizations have understood this strategy of making a business case for ecologically sound decisions. Green building, once seen as a fringe issue, is now entering mainstream corporate culture.

To move an agenda effectively, it's important to help people look beyond their own professional expertise or life experiences to a bigger picture—a picture that enables them to see ways to make their job and lives easier. Organizations and research think tanks like SMARTRAQ, CQGRD, Southface Energy Institute, the Georgia Conservancy through their BluePrints process, and the Health Policy Institute at the Joint Center for Political & Economic Studies in Washington, D.C., are all supporting similar cases. ANDP/MICI is pursuing its goals with the support of all of these other entities which have worked with MICI and helped us to operate from that place of a shared vision.

MICI moved its agenda through five key methods: building a good financial base, making the case, meeting people where they are, communicating key messages and connecting the dots. Leading an agenda, whether large or small, requires an understanding of these methods.

It is also important to convey how one concern ultimately affects others and that problems cannot be solved as separate issues but rather require a collective effort. In the MICI case study, analysis of land use, economics, transportation, housing and health were all shaped by concerns about the lack of social equity. MICI's role has been to help foster this understanding of connections and demonstrate those linkages to the community at large.

This article was written by M. von Nkosi, president and CEO with The MXD Collaborative, Inc. in Atlanta. Mr. Nkosi is an architect and returned to private practice in February 2007 after leading the Mixed income Communities Initiative (MICI) at ANDP since 1998.