People hire me to become extremely curious about a topic of their choosing. Whenever I start an assignment, my first step is to sit down and create a wish list of all the things that I’d like to know about the subject. I try to brainstorm as many questions as possible without editing myself.
I know that the list will be full of questions that are simplistic, off-topic, uninteresting, irrelevant, impractical, or just plain unanswerable, but I do this practice with the hope of eventually arriving at just a few good questions that truly get to the heart of the matter. As Albert Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend the first 55 minutes figuring out the proper questions to ask. For if I knew the proper questions, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.” To ask good questions, you can’t be afraid of asking a dumb or obvious question. You must start with a beginner’s mind and ask questions freely without any fear of embarrassment or criticism. Developing the ability to ask good questions can help you in every part of your life.
Occasionally, I come across a subject that no one has any interest in hiring me to think about, but it sparks my curiosity in a deep way. When that happens, I hire myself.
On a cold and rainy morning in November, I found myself on Commerce Street looking for a parking space at 8:15 a.m. I was hoping to attend and observe a board meeting of the Lynchburg Redevelopment & Housing Authority (LRHA). When I eventually found my way to the conference room, they asked if I was with the newspaper because the only guest these public meetings typically get is a new reporter making the rounds. I was at the meeting simply because I was interested in understanding housing issues a little better. This seemed like a good place to start. The content of the meeting itself was fascinating to me, but the thing that sparked the most questions for me was a small sign displayed in the first floor lobby of the LRHA office. It read “SECTION 8 WAITING LIST IS CLOSED” and “PUBLIC HOUSING WAITING LIST IS CLOSED.”
What did that mean? (Question brainstorming sequence engaged. Prepare for launch.)
What’s the difference between Section 8 and Public Housing anyway?
How many Section 8 units does Lynchburg have? How many Public Housing units does Lynchburg have? How do the different public housing options differ from each other and from market-rate housing?
How many people are on each waiting list? How quickly does that line move? How long do people wait on these lists typically? Why is the waiting list closed? It’s just a list, so how do you run out of space? How long has the waiting list been closed? How many people want to be on the waiting list but can’t get on it?
What do the people on the waiting list do for housing while they wait? How are those housing alternatives working for them? What about those people that aren’t even on the waiting list? What are they doing for housing? Do they have stable housing? How does the availability of low-income housing relate to the issue of homelessness?
How does a parent feel when they walk in to find housing for themselves and their children only to see that sign? Where do they go? How do they make it? What tough choices do they have to make to meet their family’s needs? Who do they turn to? Who is there for them?
Why isn’t there more Section 8 or Public Housing when demand seems to clearly outpace supply? Are there more units in the works? Can traditional rental houses and apartments be converted into Section 8 or Public Housing? What’s that process like? Is private investment in low-income housing profitable? If so, under what conditions? What private developers work in this space in our community? Have any of them spotted demand yet? Is there an opportunity here for investors?
Market-rate apartment owners would be thrilled that their waiting list is full, but does LRHA see that as a win or a challenge to be overcome? What about the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)? How do they view the housing situation in our area? What is Section 8 and Public Housing like in other communities around Virginia? Are their waiting lists full too? Are there things that they are doing differently? What can we learn from them?
How did we get here? What’s the history around housing issues? In real estate, there’s always a backstory—are there changes on the horizon? What are the best ideas and proposals floating around right now? What’s keeping them from being implemented? Where is low-income housing headed? What does the future look like?
Who is engaged and in the know on this issue? Who else is working in this space to meet needs and to make things better? Who has lived it and has firsthand knowledge to share? What is it like to actually live in Section 8 or Public Housing? Whose voice needs to be heard? Who should I talk to next? What other questions should I be asking? Those last few questions are for you, dear reader.
This is neither a perfect nor complete list of questions, but it’s enough to get started. I’m embarking on a research journey to try to answer some of these questions and gain a better understanding of low-income housing, affordable housing, homelessness, and other housing issues. The next step is to go talk with and learn from the people at LRHA and other housing organizations who know way more than I do. If you’d like to follow along with these conversations, then visit me at www.hansenrealtyadvisors.com or find me on social media @billyhansenmai. I hope that you’ll join me, learn alongside me, and help me ask even better questions than these.