When Affordable Housing Clicks with Technology

Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s Susan Connelly, MPZ Development’s Mathieu Zahler and coUrbanize’s Karin Brandt discuss the ways online outreach tools can spur civic engagement and address community issues.

Affordable housing development is on everyone’s lips nowadays. Misconceptions make it hard for many developers across the country to get their projects approved by the members of the communities they want to build in. Sometimes, affordable housing projects are delayed, or even abandoned, because their developers can’t clearly communicate their intentions among opponents.

Rendering of McElwain School Apartments
Rendering of McElwain School Apartments

Technology stepped in to provide creative solutions. Massachusetts Housing Partnership (MHP) has recently renewed its collaboration with a technology platform to grant developers outreach tools that build community support and speed up the development process. Along with MPZ Development, they are currently working on transforming an unused school site in Bridgewater, Mass., into a 57-unit affordable housing property. The project calls for the conversion of the existing McElwain School into 16 mixed-income apartments, the construction of a new, rear building that is set to include 38 units and the overhaul of a three-family home and barn at 242 Main St., an adjacent site.

(Left to right) Brandt Karin, Mathieu Zahler, Susan Connelly
(Left to right) Karin Brandt, Mathieu Zahler, Susan Connelly

MHP Director of Community Assistance Susan Connelly, MPZ Development Principal Mathieu Zahler and coUrbanize Founder & CEO Karin Brandt discussed how technology can encourage dialogue and make the development process more transparent for a larger audience. 

What are the advantages of using tech outreach tools?

Connelly: Not everyone has the time to be able to leave work early and attend a night meeting, so having information available online and providing online ways for people to participate increases public participation and transparency.

How do these outreach tools work and how do they integrate into affordable housing projects?

Brandt: Community members, using real names, can post comments about the project and the developer responds directly. Every comment can be folded into a public record, just like a comment at a public meeting. Community members who are passing by the development site can submit comments via text—no internet connection, or smart phone required.

We’re seeing more developers using technology during the entire development process. Developers can … find the community members interested in housing once a development is complete or local store owners to fill retail space. They can also proactively share updates to the community throughout the construction process. Offering open and accessible information goes a long way in building a strong, positive relationship with the community.

What are the benefits of using tech outreach platforms with the McElwain School project?

Brandt: Bridgewater, Mass., where the McElwain School project is located, needs more affordable housing. Based on what we see across similar communities nationally, while the demand is there, pushback from a few vocal community members has historically made it challenging for affordable housing to be approved.

Not everybody has the luxury of time to attend a three-hour community meeting on a weeknight. When developers don’t offer other ways to engage in the process, those voices aren’t being heard. When we lower the barriers to participation, we help places like Bridgewater get more representative input. That means development that meets the needs of the community.

How does technology help you engage with potential residents at the McElwain School project?

Zahler: Using technology is a more efficient way for us to communicate with stakeholders and get them informed in real time. We want to collect feedback to ensure that the project is meeting the wants/needs of the community and its residents. If there is an issue of concern, we want to hear about it so we can do something to fix it.

Do you use other tech tools when developing affordable housing projects?

Zahler: The industry as a whole isn’t very tech savvy. We are using technology so we can be proactive instead of reactive when addressing community concerns.

Images courtesy of Massachusetts Housing Partnership