Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Deep in the heart of NIMBY

News from NHC 
by Amy Clark, National Housing Conference

Community opposition is one of the most vexing challenges to affordable housing development. NHC is exploring solutions. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

Start by looking in the mirror
At Solutions for Housing Communications in Seattle last week, we kicked off the convening with an exploration of the psychology and language of not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) sentiment. As I emphasized in my presentation, the concerns expressed by neighbors of prospective affordable housing developments are usually unfounded, but they’re not unreasonable. Safety and quality of life are important to all of us, and a little empathy can go a long way to building trust and understanding between housers and the broader community. (This is why I suggest we drop the term NIMBY altogether when describing people in our communities.)

It’s a process
There’s no one right way to prepare for and counter opposition, there’s no single person or group with all the answers and having decades of experience doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to learn. I heard over and over again from convening attendees last week about how hearing from others helped them feel they could improve their own approach, and watched plenary panelists take notes on each other’s remarks.  We can all learn from one another, and whether through personal networks or resources like the Housing Communications HUB, we should continue to share our experiences and reach out for advice (and commiseration).

Change the message, change the frame
There are a few truisms that seem to underlie the community opposition conversation: if we just share the facts, acceptance will follow; and when it comes to building support, it’s the housing developer’s responsibility to do the heavy lifting. In Seattle last week, we explored the idea that while commonly raised concerns are more mundane, conflicting beliefs about who has the right to access—and make decisions about—space could actually be a foundation of persistent community opposition. More exploration is needed, but I believe this new frame can help us rethink the way we talk about the positive impacts of affordable housing. And as I write in the most recent edition of Shelterforce, local governments committed to increasing their community’s supply of affordable housing must be equally committed to vocally supporting, and de-politicizing, the affordable housing development process.

Opposition to new development of any kind is not likely to be swept from the American landscape in anyone’s lifetime. But by continuing to explore the roots of the issue, engaging community members and involving key stakeholders like government officials in solutions, we can bring the problem closer to solved. NHC will continue to address community opposition in future events and research. Have questions we could help answer or topics you’d like to see covered? Share them in the comments.  

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