Facilitated Dialogue #1 Recap

Facilitator Sukhsimranjit Singh opened the city’s first tenant-landlord facilitated dialogue on Monday with three requests: be respectful, speak up, and listen. That acknowledged the divisions among tenants and landlords that emerged since the city adopted the first urgency ordinance in January. But it was also an admonition to the approximately 80 attendees: however passionate anyone may feel, the overarching goal across four scheduled facilitated dialogues was enhanced communication. Here is my recap.

Professor Singh
Professor Singh talks about communication in facilitated dialogue #1.

“Today I want to hear you and for you to hear each other,” Professor Sukhsimranjit Singh said. “I want you to work together on what is bothering you the most.” His next question, “Do we need some kind of discussion?” was a  gentle segue into this first formal meeting of people on either side (or all sides) of the rent stabilization debate. It comes at the suggestion of the former Mayor John Mirisch and with the support of current Mayor Lili Bosse. “We want to hear from everybody,” she had said.

If you have experience with facilitated community dialogues, you could have expected a round of introductions to help move participants toward an atmosphere of openness and even mutual trust; to recognize that people across the table from where we are sitting have their own legitimate concerns. Moreover, a structured process could help participants move from generalities to specifics (where the hard work of forging consensus must be done).

But Professor Singh’s facilitated dialogue was not that kind of exercise. The session included no introductions and proceeded with no discernible structure. After an extended and uncertain memory-building exercise (purpose unexplained), which came with no instructions and served to confuse everyone at my table, Professor Singh finally got down to business.

Talk to your table-mates and come up with five concerns, the professor said, then a representative from each table would recite the table’s concerns and upon on poster papers they would go. (In this respect it did resemble a familiar exercise.)

enumerating our concerns at the tableBut the breakout period seemed to go too long. Indeed facilitation at this point could have helped us make best use of this time. I know my table was unsure how to proceed; we lost some time amid digressions and, at my table and across the room, chatter filled the void.

Once Professor Singh had us move on to the presentations, the discussion picked up steam but took on a cast that would be familiar to anyone who watched City Council wrestle with public comments this spring. That is, a litany of concerns filled the air and even some participants took to the mic with specific gripes (a sort of free-form comment period). One speaker gave an extended disquisition on business competition (but thankfully this time he spared us detailed arithmetic about his business expenses).

Some tables had five or ten concerns; one table had nearly twenty. Once our concerns were up on poster paper, the tally indicated that each participant had contributed on average just a single concern. I myself have perhaps thirty fixes in mind for our rent stabilization law, so I’m confident that not all of everyone’s concerns made it to poster paper.

The facilitated aspect of a community dialogue should help to cut through the cloud of concerns that obscures the path from disputes to resolution with an issue as complex as rent stabilization. So Professor Singh helpfully (if summarily) grouped all of our “bothersome” concerns into five issue areas:

  • The allowable rent increase
  • Notice of termination
  • Relocation fees
  • Communication
  • The rental unit registry

With those five identified, a subsequent speaker observed that a tenant does not enjoy the same power as does the landlord in the tenant-landlord relationship. His concern was added as issue #6: the power imbalance.

The first five issues may find participants treading familiar ground.* And finding consensus on them will be a challenge as people tend to see some of these issues (namely the increase and the fees) as a zero-sum affair: you win, I must lose. But then again, divining the common interests to realize a mutually-agreeable (or perhaps mutually-disagreeable!) policy should be within Professor Singh’s skill set.

Looking back on the beginning of this session, I was reminded of Professor Singh’s initial framing question: “Do we need some kind of discussion?” That anticipated the circuitous path we took over the following two hours.Yet on Monday ours was the easiest of baby steps: enumerating our concerns on poster paper.

Residents and property owners are united in one thing: we don’t know what’s ahead for the next three sessions and beyond; and we can’t afford not to be at this table, figuratively speaking, as these sessions spool on.

I urge you to organize your concerns and bring them to dialogue #2 on Wednesday, July 12th at 7 p.m. at Roxbury Park. I will look forward to those introductions that didn’t happen last time. I want to meet my neighbors and hear their concerns. And there were two perfectly reasonable landlords at my table, and I wouldn’t mind hearing more from them. It makes me think that the reasonable people at my table alone might be able to hammer out agreement in these five issue areas as well as on the many concerns that never made it to poster paper.

But the process is what it is. Strategically speaking, I will approach tonight’s facilitated dialogue #2 with the same tactics that have been a proven winner at such exercises time and again: sit close to the refreshments, grab your swag early, and (word to the wise) bring your own coffee cream: the city only provides the powered stuff.

*As for the issue areas prioritized by Professor Singh, I myself am not certain what ‘communication’ means in the context of rent stabilization policy. But I am sure that the ‘registry’ has not only been approved by City Council; it’s up-and-running right now. The database is complete, the forms are approved, and property owners will soon start registering their units and tenancies. So maybe we can strike that item from the list. Any registry details yet to be finalized will likely be decided by staff and the City Attorney anyway – no public input invited.

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