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A significant part of Mayor Murray’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA) was a community-based focus group process consisting of 170 members selected from over 800 applicants from all areas of the city (http://www.seattle.gov/hala/focus-groups). Wallingford had five residents participate in the focus group process. The stated goal of the HALA focus group process was “to elicit constructive dialogue about affordable housing programs and other HALA recommendations. Specifically, we need your help to shape the land use changes required to implement the Mandatory Housing Program (MHA) also known as The Grand Bargain.” The meetings commenced in April 2016 and ended with the last meeting in February 2017. I attended several of the focus group meetings as an “Observer”.
So how successful or unsuccessful was the focus group process? For the answer let’s look at the wrap-up meeting that was held on February 7, 2017. The attendance was about 25-30 people, which is about 15-20% of the original 170 participants. Doesn’t look too successful so far. One focus group participant told me that most people’s concerns were over the miscommunication of what the group’s purpose was. Most thought it was a focus group on HALA principles and elements, not just the MHA program. Most focus group members thought the process was educational, although many felt it was overwhelming and lacked the basic fundamental teachings of land use and zoning which often intimidated many from speaking up.
So, why did the attendance drop so drastically? Were participants overwhelmed with the subject matter? Were there too many lectures by the city? Were participants intimidated and/or confused? Did the program run too long (10 months)? Was there a lack of meaningful content? Was the city trying to “sell” MHA too hard? A focus group member indicated that there were too many lectures and too little time spent on land use and zoning changes. It is also curious to note that the proposed zoning maps weren’t presented to the groups until the last two meetings and one was an online meeting during the holiday season. I have to wonder why it took so long for the city to expose the groups to the proposed zoning changes.
As I mentioned, I did attend several meetings and wasn’t overly impressed with what I observed. I heard two lectures on “The Equity Lens,” which was a presentation on racial inclusion, learned about some existing city housing programs, and got exposed to what the Mayor wanted to accomplish. During these meetings, participants were asked how they wanted the proposed new zoning to be implemented, not whether the new zoning was necessary.
So, at the end of the day the question is “Was the HALA focus group effort successful? Based on the dramatic decline in attendance and my personal observation, I would say “No”! But perhaps the city could say “Yes” because one could ask, did the city really want meaningful input or did they just want to say “The MHA initiative is broadly based on input from the HALA focus groups which consisted of 170 city residents”? What do you think?