Neighborhood conflicts concerning housing, construction, and land use are some of the most contested areas of public life and law. Disputes can clog city offices and state courts. Solutions through mediation and ADR can clear backlogs, create healthier communities, create jobs and save the state millions of dollars.
The American Bar Association hosted a webinar last week on affordable housing solutions and ADR, particularly in conjunction with community mediation centers. Community Mediation Centers came out of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, when the Community Relations Service was created within the Department of Justice. Originally called Neighborhood Justice Centers, these mediation centers allowed communities to address conflict effectively and strengthen the capacity of the neighborhoods.
For affordable housing organizations, developers, and planners looking to build new units, whether workforce housing or supportive housing, ADR can assuage community fears and expedite the approval process. By turning to these centers, or to law professionals with ADR experience, these groups can find solutions to public complaints and create community alliances.
The first step in any mediation is to listen. One of the reoccurring experiences the housing panelist related was the coded language used when neighbors voiced their complaints to the proposed units. Many communities hear ‘affordable’ and think section 8, when in fact it is often teachers, fire fighters, and other civil workers who will access the housing. Clearing up misconceptions by asking clarifying questions creates trust. As with any mediation, don’t shy away from or negate what is being said. Name and address misconceptions.
Another mediation hallmark is providing solutions-oriented approaches to move people from ‘that’s impossible’ to ‘let’s do this.’ Two real world examples from the ABA webinar looked at problems communities were already facing, and then illustrated how their proposed affordable housing developments could solve these problems. In the conservative and wealthy Hamptons, the small city increasingly struggled with traffic congestion. Commuters who could not afford to live in the area accounted for a large portion of that congestion. Yet, there weren’t even enough commuters to staff the local business, forcing some owners to shutter. It didn’t take much work to illustrate how the creation of workplace housing would alleviate both those problems. Now, the community applauds and welcomes the new housing.
The second example comes from the Midwest. One city was considerably resistance to new multifamily housing. The biggest complaint? Trash wasn’t getting picked up as it was, the influx of population would exasperate this. The planners took this problem to the city and helped create expanded trash collection services, addressing the neighborhood’s need before even breaking ground.
After listening, clarifying misconceptions, and offering solutions to proposed hurdles, the last step in successful alternative dispute resolution is to make sure the appropriate decision makers are in the room. Legally, residents don’t control the neighborhood or who can live there, but as constituents they can exert their control on local government and elected officials. The solution is to bring those officials in early. Really get to know the area. Councilpersons are great resources and community mediation centers are a neutral place for them to talk safely about their concerns before they meet with the public. This is an opportunity to educate the officials, gain an ally, and get access to other community leaders. Once a public meeting is set, or a suit is filed, people get dug in. Get to the decision makers before that to keep the momentum forward moving.
By offering collaborative approaches to housing problems before units are built, solutions to conflicts can be addressed more efficiently and neighbors can retain a sense of control and involvement in their communities. Effective and economical methods of dispute resolution happen through listening, education, and solutions-oriented service. ADR professionals are poised to offer these services, whether through their own private practice or through a community mediation center.