Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Even grandmothers get the (NIMBY) blues

by Amy Clark, National Housing Conference

This morning I discovered this story on opposition to an affordable senior housing development built by National Church Residences in St. Louis County, Mo. via the Twitter feed of the Urban Institute’s Erika Poethig (note to all: if you’re not on Twitter, you’re missing out). Housing advocates often see older adults (along with children and people with disabilities) as the “sacred cows” of community acceptance: who could object to Grandma moving in next door?

But what appears to be a minority of Oakville residents found a way. For those who follow trends in community opposition, the objections raised will sound familiar:
  • The county did not provide adequate notice or comment opportunity prior to development. 
  • The building is too large for the land on which it’s sited. 
  • Fear of crime—not caused by the residents themselves, but by grandchildren of the residents. 
  • The building’s proximity to a school. 
  • Its potential impact on traffic congestion. 
When even senior housing meets with vociferous objection, is there any hope for the housing community? There sure is. Research by NHC and the experience of housing practitioners provides us with techniques communities can use to help counter opposition in the future. Some examples:
  1. Have the meeting before you have the meeting. Jurisdiction-mandated community notification processes are important, but before public meetings happen, developers and their allies (including those in local government) should meet with key community influencers and interest groups to learn of concerns at the very start of the approval process, providing timely intelligence and the opportunity to build support early on. 
  2. Drop the open mic. An open mic-style meeting gives all comers the opportunity to speak, but it also puts the loudest voices in charge of the conversation. If local regulations permit, host public meetings using formats that give all voices and viewpoints a chance to be heard. And facilitation must be done in good faith; all participants should come away feeling their perspectives were really heard. Meetings with small-group discussions can present great opportunities for public education as well. 
  3. Jurisdictions must step up. Building community acceptance isn’t just the job of the developer or nonprofit sponsor. Local governments can and should play a role in building pathways to community support for affordable housing. After all, it may be the developer doing the work, but those affordable homes are being developed in service of a broader public policy goal. Government officials can aid developers in planning community acceptance strategies from the outset, and be available throughout the process to answer community questions and share how a single development fits into the jurisdiction’s broader affordable housing goals. 
  4. De-politicize the process. Jurisdictions can put civil servants in charge of final approval of affordable housing developments instead of elected officials or appointed boards or commissions. Input and advice from all parties can be valuable, but putting the final decision in the hands of a local government employee takes politicking out of the equation. 
I’m sure our friends in St. Louis County did everything they could to ensure a successful development process, and changing the way we talk about housing itself will go a long way to building community acceptance as well. This post is just the tip of the iceberg. But the more we’re able to employ community acceptance best practices in development today, the easier it will be to build the housing our communities need down the line. Have your own community acceptance story to tell? Share it on the Housing Communications HUB.

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