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Photo Credit: Carol Alberts

Housing in St. Lucie: A Needed Conversation

People are talking about Affordable Housing in St. Lucie County and I am excited to be a part of the conversation! Let me tell you, the members of the St. Lucie County Council of Social Agencies (COSA) dedicated a full day to represent the voices of the people they serve in their various agencies and organizations. Of course, they did not solve the problem in a day. They did come away with clear action items to keep the conversation moving with momentum.

COSA Affordable Housing Retreat
Photo credit: Carol Alberts

Placemat tool used by facilitators to present Options for discussion.

On February 6, 2018, after weeks of planning, a team of Facilitators from the University of Florida’s IFAS Extension Service guided 37 members of COSA through a series of activities designed to lead them toward shared ideas and goals. You can see pictures of the team in action here. I was part of that team.  We helped them to figure out what they wanted to say and how to say it.

The members of COSA  work closely with the most underserved populations of the county.  Repeatedly, issues caused by unstable or unaffordable housing undermines their clientele’s path toward self-sufficiency. Services related to stabilizing individuals and families in homes are increasingly over-burdened. Anne Ray, Florida Housing Data Clearinghouse Manager at the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida, confirmed their thoughts through data and statistics.  Then Caleta Scott, City of Fort Pierce Neighborhood Revitalization Coordinator, shared news about efforts within the city to address housing. Members then spent some time envisioning what a world with adequate housing would look like. Once you can see the goal, it often makes the path to it more clear.

Action Items to Move Forward

In the end, it came down to two things: education and advocacy.  First, COSA will take steps to educate themselves more about the programs already in place. This will lead toward coordinating efforts and looking for innovative solutions.  Next, COSA members agreed that financial education is necessary for their clientele. Lack of knowledge leaves them prey to unfair practices and unable to recognize opportunities. This will help many to start getting ahead instead of just getting by. Finally, COSA will take steps to educate community leaders about the needs of their clientele. 

Photo credit: Carol Alberts

COSA Members taking part in “Tents and Palaces” activity.

This is where the advocacy piece comes in. COSA members will craft a common, consistent message to get in front of the right people.  They’ll have identify who those “right people” are, and figure out how to get them at the table. The great thing is: they know they can do it.  The other great thing is they are motivated together to get it done.

Being part of the process was inspiring for me. I have seen skilled facilitators do their magic to bring a cacophony of thoughts into a shared idea before. This was my first time as one of those magicians. As the group shared ideas, one at a time, not talking over each other, I noticed they started getting excited. Maybe it was because someone just validated what they said. Maybe it was because they found a new perspective, or had an epiphany.  Sometimes I knew, other times the conversation moved away too fast to find out.  In the end, the energy in the room was palpable, people signed on to tackle the next steps.  The conversation will continue.

Community Voices Informed Choices (CIVIC)

My team of facilitators are part of a program at UF called CIVIC. Through CIVIC training, we will help community members and leaders, organizations, and professional teams tackle issues.  As the need for community dialogue grows, so does the need for CIVIC. More Extension professionals are recognizing this service, this ability to facilitate discussion, is the future of their programming efforts. Stay tuned for information on more ways to become part of the conversation  – affordable housing’s or otherwise – through Extension.

Photo Credit: Linda Seals

Anne Ray, framing the housing issue in Florida for COSA members