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Working with a consultant to develop a local housing strategy

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Overview

When developing a local housing strategy, cities, towns, and counties can choose to conduct all of the work required to develop the strategy in-house or hire one or more consultants to provide technical support or additional capacity. Consultants can assist in developing an entire strategy or work collaboratively with the locality or specific agencies to support the development of certain components of the strategy. In either case, localities will want to determine: 1) what specific expertise or capacity is needed to supplement the locality’s lead entity/team, 2) when specific tasks or services will be needed, 3) who will oversee the consultant’s work, and 4) how to create opportunities to learn and build the locality’s capacity by working with a consultant. Should localities decide to procure consulting services, the locality will want to ensure that local staff and the consultant have a clear directive and the strong backing of the locality’s leadership, adequate time, and the necessary skills to bring people together to create a successful strategy. See “Key Steps to Develop a Local Housing Strategy” for more information on the process of developing a local housing strategy.

Factors to consider when deciding whether to work with a consultant

Using a consultant to assist in developing a local housing strategy is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Localities can engage consultants for one part of the strategy while accomplishing other elements or deliverables on their own. Localities may want to review “Key Steps to Develop a Local Housing Strategy” to assess their capacity to perform distinct tasks and the potential value of outside support. When deciding whether or not to hire a consultant to assist with the development of a local housing strategy, localities may want to consider staff knowledge, areas of expertise, workload, specific requirements of the strategy, and the process by which it will be developed, as well as areas where an outside perspective or facilitator may be beneficial.

Some considerations may be:

  • Local staff expertise and capacity to produce housing market, demographic, tax, zoning, policy, and/or spatial analyses that may support the creation or refinement of a strategy;
  • Availability of or need to create property and land inventories, evaluation of existing conditions, or specialized environmental considerations;
  • Knowledge of state or federal funding requirements which may direct development of a particular process or require specific information in specific formats;
  • Issues or areas of contention where a third-party assessment may facilitate a process or provide expertise to support internal or external collaboration, consensus building, and decision-making;
  • Potential for less internal support among government partners for strategies developed by a consultant;
  • Timing considerations including potential alignment with budgeting processes, legislative cycles, and alignment with other agency planning processes;
  • Competing priorities which may diminish the availability of local staff or resources;
  • Available funds to support the consultant’s budget.


Beyond the perspective and expertise consultants often bring to the plan itself, another benefit to working side-by-side with consultants is that local staff can learn and build their capacity. Localities may want to consider areas where they could benefit from the consultant’s expertise and structure their agreement with the consultant to allow staff to work alongside them to build local capacity.

Managing the consultant relationship

Regardless of the level of support the locality decides to seek from a consultant, a strong partnership between the locality and the consultant is needed for a successful housing strategy, and project management to guide and shape the work is key in forging this relationship. The primary project management role may be held by the locality or the consultant depending on local capacity.

To help build a successful working relationship with a consultant, localities may want to consider appointing an internal project manager who will oversee the consultant and activities related to the development of the housing strategy. In this structure, the project manager would report to local leadership and would work with the consultant to create a project brief that serves as a project management tool to lay out responsibilities, map timelines, outline data needs and existing resources, including prior housing strategy documents, and lay out the housing strategy process. The project brief could serve as a useful tool during the strategy development process to guide decisions. Having a single point of contact on both the locality’s and consultant’s side and a clear chain of command within each entity will clarify responsibilities, assisting in the management of the consultant.

Localities with fewer staff resources may need the consultant to play the primary role of a project manager. If this is the case, the locality may want to stay connected to the work by identifying a lead point of contact to work closely with the consultant project manager. Regular check-in meetings between the consultant and local point of contact can help the locality stay abreast of the consultant’s work and troubleshoot any issues if they arise.

Working side-by-side with a consultant

For many reasons, it is important that local governments collaborate as much as possible with consultants, rather than handing off the work entirely to them. Visible collaboration may be important to show government and local partners that the lead entity has a stake in the process. Furthermore, localities may want their staff to work side-by-side with consultants to shape the strategy and ensure that it is informed by local knowledge and conditions and to ensure support.

To ensure that a consultant effectively increases local government capacity, localities should consider the format and process for developing project deliverables. For example, it could be valuable for staff to be engaged in the content creation process rather than simply reviewing the draft products. Localities also may want to consider how they will assign staff to work alongside the consultant. Staff engaged in content development may not be the same staff responsible for overseeing the consultant contract for billing purposes. 

Compiling existing resources

The project manager or another staff member at the lead team/entity may want to create a repository of the locality’s applicable and relevant existing housing resources. This type of information is helpful to orient a consultant who may not be familiar with the locality’s resources, data, or history, while also forming a base of knowledge for strategy development. Does the locality have easily navigable databases or inventories of affordable housing units or rent-regulated buildings? Are there prior plans, initiatives, or regulations that should inform the new strategy? Has something significant in the population or economy changed a known driver of housing need? Are data and other supporting documentation for any changes available to inform how the locality might respond to these changes? 

Maintaining internal engagement while working with a consultant

In some cases, there is less internal buy-in among local government staff for plans developed by a consultant, and, therefore, less commitment to implementing them. An internal collaborative process to develop a housing strategy can lead agencies to new ways of working together that are important for making substantial progress on the strategy’s goals. If local staff are not actively engaged in this collaboration, there is a danger that the ongoing benefits of internal collaboration could be short-circuited by reliance on outside consultants. To prevent this from happening, should a locality hire a consultant, it will be important for a dedicated team of staff at the locality to work closely with the consultant to ensure the consultant is an extension of internal capacity and not a replacement. The consultant should facilitate rather than preclude collaboration across municipal departments.

Hiring a consultant

Developing a scope of work

There are several considerations for localities to bear in mind in developing a scope of work for a consultant to assist with developing a local housing strategy. First and foremost, the locality will need to know what services it wants the consultant to provide and which aspects of the strategy’s development the consultant will lead or support. Localities may want to refer to “Key Steps to Develop a Local Housing Strategy” for a framework of strategy elements. It is important to describe as specifically as possible the elements of work the locality would like the consultant to execute.

It may be helpful for the locality to review any available examples of completed housing strategies from other localities to consider the potential scope of work. As local housing strategies are specific in nature, examples of other types of housing plans, such as affordable housing strategies or comprehensive plans, may be informative but may not capture all the elements of a local housing strategy. Other types of housing strategies may be limited to developing a housing framework for the redevelopment of a specific land parcel to the broad development of new citywide policies or zoning. By evaluating a range of examples, localities may be able to use them together to inform a scope of work.

If the locality has some uncertainty about how it might divide tasks between itself and the consultant, or inexperience engaging in this type of strategy and planning exercise, the locality can make the scope of work more flexible by itemizing a few optional tasks and asking the consultant to describe how they would approach the work and the cost for each item. By doing this, the city, town, or county can create a menu of services from which they can choose from. Note, however, when writing a scope of work, the locality may want to consider limiting the number of optional tasks to two or three. From the consultant’s perspective, the more clarity in a scope of work, the easier it is to predict costs and staff capacity.

In the solicitation, localities may want to ask the consultant to offer their recommended approach to the strategy development. Often consultants can bring creative elements to the work that may not have been considered by the locality. Also, by allowing the consultants to express their ideas, the locality can get a sense of the creativity they would bring to other aspects of the work.

In the solicitation it is important for the locality to define the desired working relationship between the local government and the consultant. Localities should consider how much latitude they will give the consultant to work independently, how they plan to collaborate with the consultant, and more specifically, what materials, data, and access to staff will they provide.

Minimum qualifications

When hiring a consultant, it is important to look for a consultant that has experience facilitating other similar strategic planning processes. In particular, the consultant should have experience helping other localities develop housing strategies and should be well-versed in housing policies. There can be benefits to selecting a consultant that has worked with a range of city sizes and types, but also to finding a consultant that has worked with cities, towns, or counties of a similar size and makeup of the locality and with similar housing needs. Localities will want to consider minimum criteria in selecting a consultant and clearly articulate them in the solicitation.

Disseminating the solicitation

Localities often have their own best practices or requirements for procuring a consultant. Different sources of funds may have specific rules for procuring services so it is important to understand any specific requirements. As not all consultants have expertise in local housing strategies, localities may want to consider advertising the solicitation outside of their usual networks, as well as researching firms that may have this experience and sending solicitations directly to them.

Evaluating qualifications and cost

When developing a local housing strategy, localities may want to consider the qualifications of the consultant before cost. While both are important considerations when evaluating consultant proposals, there is a lot of variation in consultant quality, and hiring the least expensive consultant may not always be the best option. 

There are a number of ways to increase the chances that hiring a consultant will provide a good mix of price and quality. Localities may want to consider stating the budget in the solicitation so that each consultant is aware of funds available and can scale their level of effort to the budget. This allows for consultants to design their approach to developing that strategy that is informed by the budget and ensures that the locality will receive proposals that are within budget, facilitating comparisons. Another option is for localities to ask consultants to submit two separate proposals: a technical proposal and a price proposal. This way localities can review the consultants’ qualifications without a bias toward the lowest cost. Once the locality determines its preferences based on qualifications and approach, it can open the price proposals to factor cost into its decision.

It is important to review examples of the consultant’s work for other clients as part of the evaluation process. Localities may want to ask consultants to include links to or samples of related work products with their proposal. This can help localities assess the quality and thoroughness of the consultant’s work, as well as their approach. 

In addition to reviewing sample work products, it is important that localities interview consultants. Ideally, interviews would be conducted in-person, but remote interviews may work as well. Localities may want to craft questions that they will ask all prospective consultants that help them understand the consultant’s background, expertise in developing or contributing to the development of housing strategies and other municipal strategies in collaboration with municipal staff, work style, creativity, and ability to deliver products on time and within budget. Localities may want to ask questions about the sample work products as well. It is important to talk with prospective consultants’ previous and existing clients to understand their satisfaction and any dissatisfaction with the consultants’ work.

Paying for a consultant

Localities can usually fund the cost of hiring a consultant through local sources; however, in smaller localities and distressed markets, such funding may be challenging to access. The staff time, materials, and most notably, consultants needed to create a housing plan may all be eligible administrative activities under the HOME and CDBG federal grant programs so long as a component of the housing plan proposes implementation or usage of eligible activities under those grant programs consistent with the locality’s allocation. Localities can also consider approaching philanthropies to fund the development of a housing plan including the cost of hiring a consultant, resources for meetings and public events, and printing and materials. Banks with local portfolios, or otherwise involved in lending within the region, may have their own philanthropies that can support significant, long-term, and coordinated efforts to bolster vitality in cities, including housing strategies.

Resources

The City of Richmond Affordable Housing Strategy RFP illustrates how localities can structure an RFP and define a scope of work for hiring consultants. The solicitation clearly defines the scope of work including deliverables; outlines expectations for engagement with the community and stakeholders; defines the roles each party will play, including the municipal departments that will collaborate on the strategy; and lists items that will be provided by the City.

Hiring a Planning Consultant: A Guide to Preparing a Request for Proposals provides step-by-step guidance on developing an RFP and evaluating prospective consultants. This resource includes checklists for ensuring that RFPs are complete and questions to ask consultant references.

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