Karin Brandt is a member of ULI Boston and CEO and founder of coUrbanize.
ULI MEMBER–ONLY CONTENT: What do people really want and expect from real estate development? For many in this industry, the gut reaction to this question is to assume that the majority are NIMBYs, who simply do not want any new development in their neighborhood. But a 2020 survey conducted of more than 1,000 Americans counters that assumption, demonstrating that most people are open to new development if it addresses their community’s needs.
When asked how real estate development projects positively affect their community, only 18 percent of participants felt that development did not positively influence their community in any way. Moreover, 82 percent of respondents cited at least one benefit that development brings to their community.
Designing Development for Existing Community Members
Perhaps the starkest survey finding was a result of asking participants whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “My community is affordable to live in.” Only 29 percent of participants agreed or strongly agreed with this statement.
Oftentimes, the words used to describe and advertise new development, particularly projects in up-and-coming areas—such as luxury units, modern living, exciting restaurants, or on-site concierge services—are designed to attract new residents to the area. However, based on the survey results, these words typically do not correspond with the wants and needs of people who already live in the community such as concerns about affordability.
The survey in early March also asked participants how new development positively affects their community. Economic growth (48 percent), new retail and/or other public amenities (43 percent), new housing stock (40 percent), and job creation (37 percent) were the most commonly selected responses. If we asked this question in today’s economy—just months later—economic growth and job creation may have ranked even higher.
In addition, the survey asked participants what would make a specific development project a welcomed, attractive addition to their community. For this question, the top three responses were public green space (59 percent), streetscape improvements (57 percent), and affordable housing solutions (55 percent).
These data points provide important guidance for project teams during the pre-development and entitlement phases. While the data points above are not the flashiest aspects of real estate’s potential impact on a community, they are nevertheless the most valued by current residents. Designing a community engagement strategy that leads with these benefits will build trust with arguably the most important stakeholders—those who already live, work, and own businesses in the neighborhood.
Top Concerns Revolve around Long-Term Viability of Development
The survey also asked participants about the negative effects that new development has on their communities. The top responses share a central theme: how a project can fundamentally change what it’s like to live in that community.
The three most commonly selected concerns were traffic and parking challenges (62 percent), increased cost of living (52 percent), and environmental concerns (44 percent). It is worth noting that participants’ responses to this question varied when looking at key demographics such as the type of community where a respondent lives (urban, suburban, or rural), the respondent’s age, and whether or not the respondent considers themselves pro-development.
For example, environmental concerns were the most commonly selected negative impact for respondents over age 60 (58 percent). While gentrification was not in the top three responses for any particular age group, it was more of a concern with younger respondents and became increasingly less of a concern for older age groups: 26 percent of respondents age 44 and under cited gentrification as a negative effect of real estate development in their community, yet only 13 percent of respondents 45 and older mentioned it.
The survey also asked participants whether they self-identify as pro-development. For those who did not identify this way, traffic and parking challenges were an even more popular response. Seventy-three percent of this subsection cited traffic and parking challenges as a concern compared with 62 percent of the total sample. Overcrowding (67 percent) ranks second, followed closely by increased cost of living (60 percent), environmental concerns (59 percent), and loss of historical character (56 percent).
The variances in responses highlight how important it is to understand the community where a project is being proposed or built. Public data can show breakdowns by age, income, marital status, and so on, but those numbers cannot tell you about people’s inherent feelings about development or their connection to the neighborhood.
Gaining that understanding requires an investment in both qualitative and quantitative research for each project. Two of the most insightful questions to ask are, “What is the best quality of the area and what needs the most improvement?” and, “How can we highlight the community’s history and honor its roots and culture?”
Overall, these survey findings validate how critical it is to imagine and build projects that reflect the unique needs of the community. We are witnessing a continual shift in those needs given the economic and public health impacts of COVID-19 as well as the growing calls to finally address systemic racism. Now is the time for development teams to embrace the communities where they are working, ask thoughtful questions, and design (or redesign) accordingly.