By Kyle Broxton, DCI Fellow
On Tuesday, March 30, the Davidson College Deliberative Citizenship Initiative, in partnership with the Center for Civic Engagement and North Mecklenburg Economic Mobility Collaborative, hosted an expert panel and deliberative forum on pressing issues related to housing in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region. Members from Davidson College and the broader community were invited to first hear from a panel of five stakeholders and experts on a variety of challenges to housing, including affordability, gentrification, and segregation. Following the panel, participants engaged in small-group deliberations during which they shared their own ideas about addressing the housing challenges facing the community.
The panelists included the Town of Davidson’s Housing and Equity Director, Eugene Bradley, CEO of A Roof Above, Liz Clasen-Kelly, Associate Professor of Geography at UNC Charlotte, Elizabeth Delmelle, Affordable Housing and Community Development Professional, Willie Jones, and Senior Analyst in Regulatory Studies and Research Editor at John Lock Foundation, Jon Sanders. Each of these panelists brought a unique perspective to best contextualize the issues related to housing throughout the first hour of the event.
The expert panel was immediately followed by a deliberative forum in which participants were divided up into small groups and tasked to deliberate on the issue themselves. Having been given some background by the expert panel on a wide array of issues that relate to housing, the groups were prepared to engage in deliberations of their own. Similar to the panel of stakeholders and experts from the first hour, my group was composed of participants with a diverse range of perspectives on the issue. They each brought meaningful insights to the conversation.
My group adopted an open-minded approach in identifying the needs and goals of housing. While favorable to the idea of increasing the supply of housing, we all remained aware of the costs that result from achieving this supply. Furthermore, we acknowledged the drawbacks that would ultimately manifest with each goal that was posited. By the time we were considering solutions to accomplish the goals of housing we had discussed, my sense was that a negative and pessimistic view of the topic had been adopted by most of the participants of my group.
At that point, one of the participants asked a question that I believe made for an excellent way to close out the latter half of the event. Instead of suggesting a solution to address the housing challenges, the participant simply asked if there were any housing victories the group had seen in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg region in recent years. Initially, the other participants denied any victories existed. However, after a brief pause, one participant corrected herself, recalling an instance when her community convinced a developer to construct affordable living spaces where more luxurious housing was originally planned. Following her, another participant expressed her appreciation for the recent work of one of the panelists, Willie Jones. Another noted the benefits that would result from bringing more voices to the development phase of housing through development dividends. In that moment, I recognized the significant effect that the question had on our small group.
Simply asking the group what housing victories they had seen in recent years seemed to motivate the participants to adopt a slightly more positive and optimistic view of the topic. By noting what has worked in the past, the participants were far more motivated to suggest what we should do for the future. While the drawbacks and challenges related to housing were still acknowledged by the group, we closed out feeling more motivated than we were before the forum.
This experience revealed to me the value of striking a balance between realism and idealism in deliberative contexts. Too much of the former can be discouraging and depressing, while too much of the latter can be ungrounded and misleading. In my group’s context, having looked at what has succeeded to better gauge what can succeed (considering the many challenges we had already identified), I believe we struck a healthy balance between realism and idealism by the end of our deliberation. Ultimately, not only did our group take on a more hopeful view of that evening’s topic, but of deliberative democracy itself.