Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Neighborhood Board Diversity that REALLY Matters

We like to talk about diversity a lot. Uptown in particular likes to pride itself on its "diversity," even if the reality is that it's not all that diverse. Usually when people are talking about diversity they're talking about race and ethnicity, but here in Uptown - as with elsewhere - diversity can and should be a great deal more than just race or ethnicity alone.

Some other examples of diversity to consider in Uptown:
  • Age
  • Marital Status
  • Households with children
  • Income level
  • Type of work
  • Political party
  • Sexual orientation
  • Nationality
  • Language spoken at home

I'm sure there are many more categories you could add to the list. The biggest diversity in Uptown, though, isn't just race or age or income; the biggest issue, particularly when it comes to the neighborhood boards, is renter versus owner.

Uptown and its neighborhoods are inhabited primarily by renters. Shouldn't it follow that the neighborhood boards are dominated by renters? In reality, renters are few and far between. Relatively new ECCO board member Anders Imboden (brother to former CARAG renter and board member Thatcher Imboden) is the only, or at least one of a very few, renters on that neighborhood's board. The other neighborhood boards have equally dismal renter participants, although some neighborhoods have been more successful than others. CARAG, for example, has 2 renters and 8 homeowners (plus one board member living in a parish). In a city system that looks towards these boards as the local voice of the masses, this skewed renter/owner schism is obviously a major problem.

Why don't renters join the board? Or should the question be why do home owners join the board? It makes sense if you think about it. While both owners and renters have an investment in the neighborhood, owners have a long-term economic motivation. A desirable neighborhood increases their home value. Conversely, a crime-ridden, unpleasant neighborhood means home values will go down and homes will be harder to sell. A renter wants a nice neighborhood, too, but they have the option of bailing out cheaply and easily if the neighborhood becomes dangerous or just unpleasant. They also face the opposite risk of putting in too much work, dramatically improving the neighborhood, and then seeing their rents go up as a result. I doubt most renters or owners think it through in this much detail, but it's obvious that there are more incentives for owners to get involved.

Renters, too, are diverse in perhaps a broader sense than are Uptown's homeowners. Renters range from young college students living with roommates to old people who have lived here for many decades. Renters, especially the younger ones, might be more likely to have jobs with evening hours; if you're waiting tables at night, for example, you're not going to be able to make it to regular board meetings no matter how much you love the neighborhood. A larger percentage of renters do probably just see themselves as temporarily passing through; for every longterm renter there is another who see Uptown as a fun place to live for a couple of years before settling down somewhere else.

It's also worth noting that renters and homeowners have many of the same concerns. Crime, environmental issues, transportation, parks, among other things, all impact everyone. Also, just because someone owns a home does not mean that they aren't concerned about the issues facing renters, or vice-versa.

As I've said elsewhere, I think the neighborhood boards would gladly welcome more diversity in their ranks. The time has come to go beyond just openness and towards active recruitment. Every neighborhood should have a nomination committee, as well as a renter outreach committee. It's possible that many interested renters may never have even considered joining a neighborhood board. Perhaps there are some renters who think you have to own a home to participate. In any case, it's the job of the neighborhood to go out to their residents and make sure that everyone feels involved and welcomed. The result would not just be a more diverse board, but also an overall increased sense of larger community.

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