Friday, December 2, 2016

How to counter community opposition in the age of Trump

by Amy Clark,
National Housing Conference 


On Nov. 8, voters across the country heard the affordable housing message loud and clear and approved numerous state and local housing funding measures that will make it possible for more of our neighbors in both “red” and “blue” states to live in safe, healthy affordable homes. This was a fantastic achievement in housing advocacy, but the work is far from over: Developers, local governments and advocates must now move to convincing the neighbors of proposed housing developments to accept more affordable homes into their communities.

The election cycle that brought over 37 affordable housing measures to the ballot in eight states also elevated toxic rhetoric about people of color and other minority populations.  The public discourse has changed, and that’s likely to affect our efforts to build support for affordable housing development and counter community opposition. Here’s what I anticipate you may hear about affordable housing in your community, and how to prepare for it:

Opposition based in racism. In the wake of the election there have been many reports of hate-based harassment and intimidation across the country. A segment of our population feels newly empowered to use racist language as a weapon. While racism and fear of difference have always been at least an undercurrent of some kinds of community opposition, in recent years it’s largely been implied, not overt. You may see an uptick in overt racism in siting conversations.

What to do? While it would be satisfying—and, arguably, right—to call out racist language directly when you hear it, research tells us that this is likely to backfire, causing the speaker to defensively double-down on the prejudiced belief. Instead, a study this year found that “a short conversation encouraging actively taking the perspective of others can markedly reduce prejudice.” This argues for holding small-group conversations, and for facilitators trained to listen and find common ground.

Misinformation about your work. You’ve likely heard much about the success of fake news on Facebook during the presidential campaign. Misinformation this election cycle may have had a distinctive rightward bent, but don’t bother patting yourself on the back if you lean left. All of us are susceptible to information that confirms what we already believe, regardless of its factual accuracy. Don’t be surprised to see an increase in the misinformation about your work being posted online and handed around in anonymous flyers around the neighborhoods where you work.

What to do? Don’t write up a “frequently asked questions” page that restates all the lies being told about your work. By emphasizing the misinformation—even when you later correct it—you’re just driving it deeper into peoples’ consciousness. Instead, use proven debunking techniques. First tell your truth (“Our apartments increase neighborhood safety.”), then signpost the misinformation and explain the motive behind it (“There is a myth circulating that affordable housing increases crime, promoted by a small new neighborhood group formed to fight our proposal.”), and finally give a brief, clear alternative explanation, repeated in graphics if possible (“In fact, by starting a neighborhood watch program and installing security cameras, we’ve helped create a 13 percent decrease in property crime in another neighborhood where we work. We want to work with you to have a similar positive impact here.”).

Opposition driven by ideological difference. Research into persistent opposition to affordable housing has shown that spatial ideology—an individual’s set of beliefs around who can live in and use a particular place, and who has the right to participate in decision-making about a place—can be predictive of opposition to, or support of, affordable housing. The recent push to disenfranchise groups of Americans through voter ID laws and other restrictions is an example of a narrow conception of spatial rights, and the electoral contest was rife with rhetoric supporting a conscribed idea of to whom America truly belongs. Opposition may now more frequently focus on delegitimizing prospective low-income residents, perhaps as “not American” or simply “not from here.”

What to do? Similar to racist language, addressing spatial ideology head-on might not be effective. But at the same time, there are likely to be people in your community who believe lower-income people have an equal right to live in a place. Find these potential supporters by emphasizing the values of diversity and inclusion, and give this group a clear way to take action to support your work.

Distrust of institutional authority. The success of populist presidential candidates from both parties points to, among other things, Americans’ growing distrust of institutions. Whether it’s in banks, the news media or government itself, people across the political spectrum have lost faith. As it happens, affordable housing development connects to all sorts of things many of our neighbors have come to doubt: taxation, finance systems and entities, and zoning, just to name a few.

What to do? First, people who have lost trust will hear a developer mention “partnering with the government” and immediately hear an attempt to paper over a profit-making arrangement. Step away from the marketing talk and use plain language to explain how your work works. Second, reframe the role of these suddenly suspect institutions. A new paper from Enterprise Community Partners and the FrameWorks Institute recommends that we help people understand the role of government in affordable housing by explaining “the role of systems in shaping outcomes for people and… communities,” and by “zooming out” to tell broader stories that explain the impact of having more affordable homes on everyone in a community. You know your work is about more than units; help others understand this, too.


Countering community opposition has never been easy, and I hope to hear from you that my predictions have not come true. Even if they do, our work has long-term impact, both for strengthening local economies and decreasing bias. There is evidence that white people living in diverse neighborhoods “endorsed fewer negative stereotypes, and [feel] closer to blacks as a group.” When we create diverse, inclusive and economically thriving communities, we help decrease prejudice and division. That’s something truly worth fighting for.

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