Housing Projects’ Entitlement

7 min read

Meet Early and Often with Local Leaders and Neighborhood Groups

A lack of affordable housing has reached crisis levels throughout huge swaths of the nation. Despite the extreme need, garnering approval for projects from local governments can be a grueling, time-consuming effort that sometimes ends in rejection.

Tax Credit Advisor spoke with three developers to learn their most effective methods for obtaining approvals for affordable housing projects. Their overarching message?

Meet early and often with local leaders, work to dispel long-held myths regarding affordable housing, and—perhaps most important—remain persistent.

“It requires meeting with folks, dispelling myths about affordable housing and providing facts,” explains Owen Metz, senior vice president, and project partner for Dominium, a national company with offices in Atlanta, Dallas, Phoenix and Minneapolis. “And you have to be available to folks who have concerns.”

Craig Cobb, vice president of DGA Residential, an affordable housing development firm based in Knoxville, TN agrees.

“It is a long process, and you have to know your timelines,” says Cobb. “Communicating early and often with local politicians has been a big help.”

Work with Local Governments First
When launching community efforts on a project, Cobb says his firm will first meet with the local elected officials in whose district the project would reside. He believes it is important to meet with elected officials before talking with community groups because some officials feel slighted if they are not approached first.

“The first step is to approach the county commissioner or city council person whose district the project is in,” says Cobb. “Not approaching them may be taken as a slight.”

Cobb says once a city council person is on board with a project, they often will help developers in working to gain approval from neighborhood groups.

“Once you get a council person’s buy-in, when they get calls from constituents about the project, they will tell them the reasons why they support it,” he says.

Metz did not suggest an order of meetings with community leaders when working to garner community support but says his firm takes a multi-pronged approach when working to entitle projects. Dominium has an in-house government relations team that puts “regionalized boots on the ground” that create a “presence in the markets we serve.”

Dominium’s government relations teams work with local land use attorneys, neighborhood groups, planning departments and elected officials to build relationships and garner buy-in for projects, or at least temper opposition.

“It is a grassroots effort of finding supporters in a micro-neighborhood, working with constituents, policymakers and those who vote on your project,” says Ryan Lunderby, senior vice president and project partner at Dominium.

Lunderby says building support for projects can be a lengthy process that varies with each specific community.

“In Austin, TX, the council member in whose district we had the land for the project would not move forward until the neighborhood approved the proposal. Austin has specific neighborhood contact teams established with the city. They are known groups that are part of the process. We had been working with this particular neighborhood group for over a year until we got them to the point where they were comfortable with the project. We now formally have their support and will move the process before the city council and put it on the agenda. That took over 12 months.”

Metz says elected officials’ leadership is key.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to leadership,” explains Metz. “Are elected officials willing to say yes to the project in the face of likely NIMBYism?”

Dispelling the Myths
Many elected officials and community members still cling to myths around affordable housing, such as that they will bring crime and lower property values, say developers contacted for this story. It is important that developers come armed with facts when they meet with officials and community groups.

“The most frequent question we get from elected officials is – ‘Is this going to be a Section 8 property that will be a headache for my constituents?’” says Cobb.

“Often, they are not familiar with the tax credit program and whom a project can serve, especially with income averaging. It takes coaching and good stories to try to get them on your side and buy-in.”

 Among the good stories Cobb’s team tells is how safe the projects are.

“There is a lot of good industry data out there about how safe the projects are and how they won’t drive home values down,” says Cobb.

“Studies have shown the projects can be a driver for a better economic situation. A lot of times, many people have the old public housing image in their heads. They don’t realize that with income averaging, residents in projects can make $60,000 to $65,000.

These are people who are first responders, teachers, firemen and policemen. It is a broad spectrum of people that can be housed.”

Lunderby says taking city officials on tours of existing affordable housing projects can help to dispel myths.

“Take the time to take local elected officials to see the product,” says Lunderby. “There is fear about what affordable housing is and that fuels misconception. Once people look at the product delivered, most people cannot distinguish between affordable housing and a market-rate community.”

Metz says it can be helpful to personalize the need for affordable housing. Find people to tell their stories of growing up in an affordable housing project or how their mothers live in an apartment home.

“Personalize it,” says Metz.

Cobb adds that it is important to have detailed renderings of projects to show elected officials and neighborhood groups.

“It is helpful to have good-looking renderings. They open people’s eyes,” says Cobb. “We have found the renderings helpful because a lot of times people are expecting us to throw up a cheap, unattractive project. They don’t realize we are building projects with similar designs and finishes to a Class A project. People respond well to pretty pictures, and they seem to help satisfy people who are on the fence.”

Metz also says it helps to know your audience when meeting with elected officials and community groups. It helps to remind elected officials and others that affordable housing has long had bipartisan support and the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program was started under the Reagan administration.

Community Benefits
Offering to build parks or other community benefits can help garner support for projects, says Metz

“With one project, we worked with a local homeowners’ association and realized they had an issue with a greenway that cost an arm and leg to irrigate,” explains Metz. “We entered into an agreement to help xeriscape and convert the greenway to a brownway with rocks. We worked closely with the Homeowners Association and got support for 600 plus apartment homes.”

Metz says other public benefit projects they have built include classroom spaces that can be used by a local school district or other organization.

“We are trying to look at how it can help the community more broadly,” says Metz.

Death by One Thousand Cuts
All the developers contacted for this story stress how much time it takes to entitle a project. And time, especially in terms of building projects, is money.

“Things aren’t getting quicker,” says Metz. “It is death by a thousand cuts.”

“One of the biggest things that kills a real estate transaction is time,” adds Lunderby. “The entitlement process creates disconnects in the time we need to make applications for funds. And bigger than that, the sellers of the land that we may have under contract won’t want to wait for us to close on the deal. Already in a lot of markets, finding land is like finding a needle in a haystack and the sellers aren’t willing to wait that long.”

Still, persistence pays off, stresses Cobb.

“Stick with it,” says Cobb. “It definitely can be a tedious process, but we have been successful in getting partnerships with the different communities.”

Pamela Martineau is a freelance writer based in Portland, ME. She writes primarily about housing, local government, technology and education.