Backing sympathetic elected officials, focusing on the human impacts of the housing shortage, and mobilizing nonvocal supporters for new projects are all effective ways to overcome NIMBY-ism over affordable housing projects, a panel of advocates said during the ULI Housing Opportunity 2017 conference in New Orleans.
Overcoming neighborhood opposition is often the highest hurdle facing developers of affordable housing, but a new wave of advocates and grass-roots groups—sometimes called YIMBYs for “yes in my backyard”—are working to build community support for new affordable housing. The ULI panel discussion offered an opportunity for some of those front-line advocates to share advice on how to be more effective agents for community change.
Ali Solis, president and chief executive officer of Make Room, a nonprofit organization that highlights the human suffering and societal costs of rental housing shortages, moderated the panel. Other participants included David Whitehead, housing organizer for Greater Greater Washington, a housing-focused blogging community that has branched out into organizing and advocacy in the Washington, D.C., area; and Linda Mandolini, president of Eden Housing, which builds and maintains affordable housing communities in northern California.
“It’s about how we change the narrative in this country so that people understand the housing affordability needs and why they matter,” Solis said.
One way to change the narrative, the panelists agreed, is to put a human face on the impacts of the shortage of affordable housing and to back up those stories with hard economic data and research.
“There absolutely is this component of storytelling and getting out to have people understand that this isn’t just a problem in urban centers, but it’s also happening in rural communities,” Solis said, adding that it is important to have “real people—not actors, not families that are benefiting from housing—but real people that are struggling today share those compelling stories.”
Whitehead said that while human stories are important, it also is important to clearly communicate the broader benefits of building more housing, because the benefits are often overlooked by neighborhood residents fearful of change. The benefits, he said, include “how density serves local businesses, how it serves people of multiple incomes, how it serves transit development, and just how it serves the city.”
When it is time for local governments to cast votes on projects, Mandolini said she often finds herself calling on architects or others in the community whom she knows support affordable housing projects or better zoning—but who rarely speak out—to testify in favor of projects. She cited the Silicon Valley advocacy group SV@Home as a pioneer in turning out supporters in impressive numbers to counterbalance neighborhood critics when affordable housing projects are being considered by government bodies. “Showing up and having balance in the room really matters,” she said.
In addition to cultivating more visible community support, Mandolini said that effective elected officials are a critical component for earning political and community buy-in for any affordable housing initiative. She recalled how a former city council member in San Jose, California, shepherded through an affordable housing project in one of the city’s wealthiest districts by systematically encouraging all parties to communicate throughout the development process.
After Eden Housing won a city contest to develop an affordable housing project on public land in the district, the council member worked closely with the nonprofit and neighborhood representatives to ensure that there were no surprises when it was time for the council to vote on the plan. He urged developers and the architect to work closely with the community to address any design concerns as the project progressed. Ultimately, the president of the homeowners association spoke in favor of the project, and the council unanimously approved the plan.
“I really admire the leadership, and I think it’s very hard for elected officials when they’ve got 27 people yelling at them saying, ‘We hate this,’” Mandolini said. “That’s a tough spot to be in. They want to get reelected.”
Mandolini said that it helps to recognize supportive elected officials through formal awards or even just a simple note of gratitude via social media. Her organization’s leadership group has also held closed-door peer support sessions with council members to offer insights on how to support affordable housing projects and still get elected. “We have very frank conversations about how you deflect concerns,” she said.
Other groups have taken an even more direct approach. Mandolini said the nonprofit California Housing Consortium has started a political action committee that donates to the campaigns of politicians who support affordable housing. “You start getting people’s attention when you start getting politically motivated,” she said.