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Can Citizen Engagement Help Solve the Housing Crisis?

Rising housing costs affect almost every single country in the world. The lack of affordable housing to buy or rent fuels a global housing crisis, which leaves millions of people in a difficult living situation.

Only in Prague, over the past fifteen years, apartment prices have risen by almost 2.5 times, outpacing the capital’s wage growth. The main reasons for this are that the city and its districts have sold most of the municipal flats and thus lost the possibility to influence the prices of flats on the market and its overall direction. The city, the boroughs, and the state have also sold off large tracts of land and property where new municipal housing could have been built. 

Moreover, flats in Prague have become a new investment idol of foreign and domestic speculators, who have been buying up flats in large numbers for the last twenty years, mainly in lucrative locations. Prague’s overall popularity and the arrival of investors have also accelerated the phenomenon of online platforms for short-term accommodation, which makes real estate investments even more lucrative with higher rental income. And finally, there is the long-term reluctance of politicians to confront these issues head-on.

This pattern more or less applies to other big cities, too. Berlin, London, Budapest, Vienna, but also cities in China or the USA are facing major housing price increases and lack of affordable housing. 

The solution to the housing crisis might seem pretty straightforward – build more houses. However, it is not that easy. Naturally, it all must start with a plan or strategy. For instance, the Czech Ministry of Regional Development is now preparing a law on housing support and, along with it, a package of other measures to improve housing affordability. The state is also to invest in the construction of new residential buildings. But how to ensure that the final plan will address housing needs and align with the needs of residents at the same time, as changes will have long-lasting impacts on the people and their neighborhoods?

While making efforts to ensure access to safe, affordable, and equitable housing options, public officials often don’t think of engaging the public to such a hot-button topic. Yet, bringing the local community along can help address increasing housing affordability, potential zoning changes, strategies to increase density, and more. Authentic community engagement and well-designed community conversations will not only ensure that all voices are heard, but also can help quell a number of common community concerns related to housing development. As a result, well-thought-out housing plans can prevent displacement of residents, preserve existing housing, increase affordable housing and reverse racial and economic segregation.

There are several ways to engage the public on topics such as affordable housing. Public meetings, the most common current method of public input, is, however, something you might want to avoid this time. “Public meetings place a premium on the interests of existing homeowners, who usually want to quash new development, and put public officials in an untenable position. If they persist with the project, residents feel unheard, may lose trust in government and the process, and make their voices heard during elections. If they abandon or scale back the project, the housing crisis is exacerbated.” (Adams, 2022)

So, instead of asking residents if they want a particular new development (the answer is generally “no”), simulation activities might be just the right fit. As they upend the dynamic by moving the focus away from hyperlocal interests toward a community’s housing goal, simulations (or scenario planning) provide multiple options around the jurisdiction and then ask the entire community to identify solutions that cumulatively meet the community housing goal.

Affordable housing issues can also be addressed with the help of civic tech tools. The city of Wichita, Kansas, USA started with the creation of its Affordable Housing Fund and then, using a digital platform, turned to its residents to help define where housing is most needed and what type of housing people want. The city collected community feedback and used that feedback to develop a plan that responds to the needs of residents while addressing larger housing issues. Other cities are using map-based online simulation tools to gather public input for state-mandated planning processes.

It is clear that public participation alone cannot lead us out of the housing crisis. Nevertheless, more and more local governments tend to focus on designing co-creation processes and looking for ways to support and enhance citizen engagement to solve this complex issue. This way, we hopefully look toward a brighter future where people have a chance to afford a home even if they haven’t opened a savings account for housing already on the day they were born.







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