Friday, March 3, 2017

Opening a path to meaningful dialogue

by Andrea Nesby, National Housing Conference

When it comes to bringing affordable housing options to a community, fear of the unknown can be the biggest catalyst of opposition. That is why proactively educating a community on affordable housing is crucial. NHC previously conducted an informal survey of our Restoring Neighborhoods Working Group members to better understand the types of community opposition they face, and a majority of respondents indicated the most commonly encountered opposition centered on who the residents will be.

This made me think about the severe opposition my former employer faced when opening a housing program for homeless veterans in a wealthy area. Residents had concerns about potential impacts on their property values, crime and safety. When the organization held open houses for community members to tour their other housing programs, it illuminated for me how important face-to-face interaction is to changing community members’ perceptions. When one single mom, who escaped an abusive relationship, welcomed community members into her home, she was eagerly trying to make sure everything was in its place, since her unit was in the process of being renovated. The visitors assured her everything looked fine. She joked about how it would all be messy again anyway when her two kids returned from school, and one community member laughed and said, “I can definitely relate.” This brief interaction demonstrated how few differences there are between people and humanized the housing program participants for community members.

In a 2015 report, NHC outlined seven effective strategies for countering community opposition. The report makes clear that face-to-face interaction is key. Two of the strategies touched on understanding the community’s values and addressing them and inviting community members to the discussion before decisions are made. Holding community meetings and open houses can provide an opportunity to do just this.

Part of the planning process often includes inviting community members to a public meeting to discuss the projected plan. This is where we as housers can address concerns and educate the community about why affordable housing is important and to whom. Consider coming prepared with a story or inviting a resident, who is already housed in one of your programs, to share their story. This can help put a face to the housing development and can help community members feel connected with future residents. After the planning process has passed and you’ve broken ground, an open house can provide the opportunity to share how the community’s input and needs have been incorporated into the design or program structure. For example, if a community expressed concerns about safety, you can discuss plans for residents to participate in a Community Watch program and point out security features in the development.

Practicing these strategies will prove how face-to-face interaction can go a long way, but of course it won’t always be a walk in the park. This is why we hold our Solutions for Housing Communications convening to help you think of creative solutions, so you can advance your work.  

We hope you will join us for this year’s convening on April 27-28 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where we will discuss best practices for countering community opposition and tour local examples of housing developments who are innovating in their approach to countering community opposition.

If you have a strategy you’ve put in action and learned from, please comment below!

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