In this series of blog posts, we’re featuring the stories of UEP alumni, where they are today, and how they got there. In this post, we get to know Meaghan Overton, Housing Manager for the City of Fort Collins, Colorado, who has extensive experience in municipal planning, housing, and community engagement. Her current focus is leading the implementation of Fort Collins’ Housing Strategic Plan.
Can you describe your current role and your career path since UEP?
I am the Housing Manager for the City of Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s a newer role for the City – we created this position a little over a year ago to lead the development and implementation of our Housing Strategic Plan. A colleague and I co-led the development of the Housing Strategic Plan last year (during the pandemic!) and I was hired in April to fill this role permanently.
I should back up a bit though and talk about my career path since UEP. I finished coursework in 2013 and worked for a couple of years as Executive Director of one of Boston’s Main Streets districts in Dorchester, MA. It was an amazing experience with on-the-ground neighborhood planning and economic development, managing a board, and wearing lots of hats at all times!
When I relocated to Colorado, I applied for a paid internship in the Fort Collins Planning Department. At the time, it was a risky move with no guarantee it would pay off with a permanent job. After about 6 months, though, a position opened up and I was able to get a permanent role on the Planning team. Over the next 5 years I worked on a whole range of planning projects – long-range plans, development review projects, policy work, and I even got to co-lead the City’s Comprehensive Plan update (City Plan)!
After City Plan was adopted by our Council, I applied for and received an $860k grant from the State Office of Health Equity to work on community capacity building to prioritize and implement land use and policy changes that could improve housing affordability and health inequities. That’s really how I got involved in housing and eventually ended up in the role I am in today.
I am constantly learning and trying to guide our City organization, partners, community members, and elected officials toward achieving our housing vision that everyone has stable, healthy housing they can afford.
Tell us about you work leading implementation of the Fort Collins Housing Strategic Plan and why you’re excited about this project.
I feel so fortunate to be in the role I am right now. I never thought I would specialize in housing and I wish I had taken more classes at UEP on housing issues! I am constantly learning and trying to guide our City organization, partners, community members, and elected officials toward achieving our housing vision that everyone has stable, healthy housing they can afford.
The Housing Strategic Plan has 26 priority strategies, and since the plan was adopted in March 2021 we have gotten 3 of those strategies completed with 18 more underway. Right now our main initiatives are:
- Land Use Code (LUC) Phase 1 Updates: Housing-related code changes and reorganization. Our code hasn’t been revamped since 1997. We do make changes twice a year for clean-up and maintenance, but we are at a point now where our policy documents and our code aren’t aligned. That means we aren’t seeing the kind of development we envision in our long-range plans.
- Occupancy and Rental Programming: Fort Collins has an occupancy ordinance that limits a household to 3 unrelated people. We also don’t have a rental registration or licensing requirement, nor do we have many incentives for small landlords to keep their properties affordable and healthy. We have a LOT of work to do to better address housing stability and healthy housing, especially for folks who rent.
- Equity and Opportunity Assessment: We’re looking at more quantitative ways to explore and consider equity in our policy and land use decisions. A vulnerability index, an access to opportunity index, and a gentrification analysis will help us put more intentional work into ensuring equitable decision-making.
- Revenue for Affordable Housing: Like many Cities, Fort Collins does invest in housing (to the tune of $1.5-3M a year). But our current levels of funding are not enough to help achieve our housing goals. We’re beginning a conversation about how to generate more revenue for housing alongside other community priorities like transit and parks maintenance.
My work is very cross-departmental. I work with Planning, Community Development and Neighborhood Services, Utilities, Sustainability Services, the City Manager’s Office, City Attorney’s Office, and more. Outside the City organization, I build and maintain partnerships with all kinds of people and organizations across the political spectrum. We all have a role to play in implementing the Housing Strategic Plan, and it’s my job to bring people together and find common ground to improve the housing system for all of us.
I remember reading Policy Paradox by Deborah Stone in my first year at UEP … I thought I probably wouldn’t use much of what was in that book. I was so very wrong. I am involved every day in complex, long-term collaborative policy processes.
What are the fundamental urban planning questions you grapple with in your role?
Oh gosh, so many questions. What is the “public good” and how do you uphold it when you know you aren’t hearing from the people who are most impacted? What is the right balance between incentivizing and regulating? How can we learn from the mistakes of the past and actively dismantle racist systems and regulations?
How has UEP helped you get to where you are in your career?
I went to UEP because of its emphasis on social justice and community engagement, and because of the blend of policy and planning in the coursework. UEP gave me an incredible foundation to build on, and encouraged the curiosity I try to bring to my job every day. I remember reading Policy Paradox by Deborah Stone in my first year at UEP. It was boring in places, and I thought I probably wouldn’t use much of what was in that book. I was so very wrong. I am involved every day in complex, long-term collaborative policy processes. This work is a marathon, and being able to manage momentum, pay attention to politics, and take advantage of opportunities while also balancing that with life is something that UEP gave me the skills and theoretical background to tackle.
What advice do you have for current UEP students?
Take a housing class! I’m not kidding.
Read more alumni profiles in this series here.