Posted by: Ken Homer | March 19, 2008

My experience with Deliberative Polling

Note: In yesterday’s post, I repeated a statistic quoted by a panelist at the Deliberative Polling weekend on the housing issues facing San Mateo county. He or she (I only took note of the words not the speaker) claims that HUD is working from a model that states that 50% of the built environment needed to meet housing and urban development needs in the year 2050 does not yet exist. While I was not able to verify that claim, in an article appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle this past Sunday a similar statistic appears that says 30% of the housing stock needed in 2030 does not yet exist. Clearly the next few decades will be among the most important ones in the history of humanity if we are to provide needed shelter while reclaiming and restoring the ecosystems that make our lives possible.

Back to my experience with Deliberative Polling…

I could write a lot about the mechanics of the process, but I would like to share instead a few moments from it. I was in the position of being the facilitator for a group of nine. My job was to ensure that people stayed mostly focused on the issues of housing, that each person had a chance to contribute and that no one dominated the conversation. It was permissible for me to stir the conversation when necessary by pointing out the pros and cons of the alternatives posed in the participant guide, but that was not really necessary in my group. Mostly I made it my job to stay out of the way, give plenty of space to the diversity of opinions and occasionally step in to create an opening for something larger to show up.

Most of the people in my group were senior citizens and home owners. We had a man who is an apartment building owner, a woman in real estate, another whose husband was an economist, a retired aircraft engine mechanic and a woman who was also retired from the airline industry who I think had been in management. There was a woman who never disclosed what she had done, but whose information and intelligence indicated that she was most likely  a home owner. One man was a computer engineer turned sax player. The youngest member of our group, probably in his late 20s or so, seemed to make most of these older folks slightly nervous. He was physically imposing – as in huge – turns out he is of Tongan Island ancestry –  wore clothing that would allow him to blend into any of the street scenes on The Wire, and sported several tattoos. It was no surprise to learn that he lives in the financially challenged city of East Palo Alto. He was very quiet but very present. Rounding things out was a woman in her mid forties who had been born and raised in San Mateo. She is, what in some parts, of the country, we’d call a “townie.” Someone who has watched the working class neighborhood she grew up in become more and more gentrified, and who because of her disability was watching her chances for a senior citizenship that would grant her dignity and treat her with kindness and respect recede further and further away with each passing day. We would come to learn a lot about her in our conversations and she would teach us all about both the system and ourselves.

It was quite revealing to sit back and notice the patterns of conversation that kept popping up. I lost track of  how often the phrase “The problem with that is…”  prefaced a reply to an idea put forth by someone else. Also, the idea of what is affordable housing was a major source of confusion. We kept coming back to it repeatedly and trying to figure out how much affordable housing was needed was never clear. Some of the assumptions people had around cars were also revealing. Most of the older crowd were convinced that nothing can be done to get people out of their cars and so investing in public transit was not a good idea. What did become clear was that housing an transit are inextricably linked and must be approached together.

I’d like to share just one moment that touched my heart…

On Sunday afternoon after a lot of conversation about zoning regulations and higher density, I asked our young friend what he was making of all of this. He answered by saying he didn’t really understand what zoning is or how it worked. There was a pause and then the real estate agent leaned in and in the most compassionate way began to explain to him the many layers of the zoning process from the difference between incorporated and unincorporated lands to what setbacks and impact fees were. Others chimed in to offer advice on how to locate different departments in City Hall, what questions to ask of whom and how to become informed enough to be a neighborhood leader who can speak out when regulations threaten to negatively alter the character of his neighborhood. It was magical. I looked on in wonder as the boundaries of race and class dissolved and people moved out of fear and into a spirit of helping someone who did not know what to do. 

If nothing besides that had occurred the event was a success for me. But there were many other things to report. More on them later. 

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