Keywords: Affordable housing, advocacy organizations, resident participation, e-governance, energy efficient design
Anaid Yerena is a professor in the University of Washington Urban Studies Program. As an architect, planner, and researcher, she is interested in the public participation processes and activities related to housing and community development.
Justin Wadland: What aspects of your research are you most passionate about?
Anaid Yerena: Improving the lives of others around the issue of people in need of affordable
housing —that’s what gets me going. We all need affordable housing, so this is a topic that touches us all.
My research studies how advocacy organization promote policies at the local level to encourage the creation of affordable housing. For example, I looked at how many years particular organizations had worked in a community, and I found that they got better at influencing policymakers. They know who to call, who to reach out to, who their allies are. They also have a recognition or standing in the community. People see that they’re not going away. In many cases, these organizations learn more than decision-makers and become experts in policy issues. My goal is to be an advocate for the advocates, to make planers and decision-makers aware that advocacy organizations are their partners and contributors to the solution.
How does your research affect your view of what’s happening in the Puget Sound region?
I recently attended two meetings, and I saw advocates being misunderstood and mistreated. Everybody in those meetings was concerned about the issue of homelessness, but the advocates and community members were divided into groups. During the community input portion of the meeting, these groups were pitted against each other. I felt that the passion and anger that people brought to the meeting was unfairly directed at the advocates. Everyone—decision-makers, advocate, residents—was there to help reduce homelessness in that city. The way neighborhood leaders were approaching the issue is making it more difficult to move forward.
By the way, I use advocacy organization broadly; when I use this term I include non-profit organizations as well as service providers. The service providers were there to speak for the community they serve. If the city council decided to fund a project for homeless services, they were seen as deciding against neighbors. I don’t envy the council’s position. What I wish had been acknowledged was that everybody was on the same side. We all wanted a solution: to improve the current conditions of homeless people in that city.
What has been one of the unexpected outcomes of your research?
There’s an article I have coming out that has created a lot of opportunities for community engagement, especially in my work around homelessness. I developed a tool that gives organizations the ability to do process evaluations. It is a research project that has direct practical applications.
Funding for these organization is often tied to how they perform and how the community sees them. Most of organizations evaluate their outcomes but rarely complete a process evaluation. This type of evaluation looks at the inner workings of the organization. It considers the priorities of an organization and evaluates them against policies and practices. For example, if your priority is helping program participants find resources for mental health, why are you dedicating so many resources on job skills training?
The results of the evaluation encourage organization leaders to have a conversation about how their priorities align with what they’re actually doing. It also creates a record that can help inform future decisions and improve training for new members. Best of all, with this tool, organizations only need to allocate twenty-four hours divided among staff and leadership to complete the evaluation.
If you were going to recommend someone new to your work to read single book or article, what would it be? Why?
For a practitioner interested in affordable housing, I would recommend “Advocacy in Action,” which summarizes the findings of my dissertation. My research has found that advocacy organizations do make a difference. Before my work, people agreed that advocacy organizations had an impact, but no one was able to measure it. My work operationalizes a very abstract concept. How do you quantify the ability to advocate, and see whether it had influence on spending?
Name one work or scholar that has had the biggest influence on you.
I’m going to go with Victoria Basolo. She conducted a comprehensive study that asked policymakers their impressions of advocates and the influence they had on furthering the policy agenda. Dr. Basolo is interested in the same policy issue as I am, and in fact, she was my adviser and is now a collaborator. With my work, I feel like I am picking up a baton and continuing where she and others had left off. They found evidence that the answer is, yes, organizations are perceived to influence decision-makers, but due to a lack of better measurement options that is where they stopped. With access to larger data sets, I can make more precise observations. The data had always existed, but it hadn’t been put in to a format that could be analyzed.