How to Talk to Opponents of Affordable Housing

7 min read

Emphasis is now on benefits to the community

The people who oppose affordable housing projects often seem to speak an entirely different language from those who support the development of safe, new homes for those who cannot afford market rents. Housing advocates hope to start a more productive conversation.

“There are some people we are never going to win over – but there are some people who can become quite supportive,” says Chris Estes, President and CEO of the National Housing Conference (NHC). “It’s really important to communicate values and solutions. Housing can be the solution to a lot of problems.”

Estes spoke at the Solutions for Housing Communication 2016 Convening, held in April  in New York City by NHC. More than 100 housing experts shared ideas on how to better communicate with opponents in the communities where they would like to build. Advocates now concentrate on how affordable housing can help a community.

“Rather than saying ‘this is not as bad as you think,’ how do you sell affordable housing as a benefit?” says Estes.

Communicating these ideas can be difficult. Resentment and distrust can linger for years after an affordable housing property opens. “Community opposition is not just something that happens on the spot… it can continue long afterwards,” says Joanna Lucio, Associate Professor at the School of Public Affairs in the College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University.

Many residents in expensive neighborhoods believe that they have struggled and earned the privilege of living in these expensive places. The ability to live in an expensive suburb is their reward for hard work. “They felt that low-income residents did not belong in their neighborhood,” Lucio says. It can be difficult to persuade residents that their ideal of an exclusive community may be illegal under the Fair Housing Act.

Economic benefits of affordable housing
Access to affordable housing can help the local economy – and the national economy. “There is a link between housing and economic growth,” says Lisa Sturtevant, of Lisa Sturtevant & Associates. She points to high-cost towns from Santa Barbara, Calif., to Travers City, Mich., where economic development officials say the lack of affordable housing hurts the local economy because employers attract fewer potential employees.

The lack of affordable housing has also contributed to slower economic growth at the national level, according to research released in November by Jason Furman, Chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers. He argues that high housing costs prevent workers from moving to highly productive places.

The vast majority of employers – 83% – say housing is an issue that affects their business, according to a recent survey of employers made as part of Vermont

Regional Planning Commission’s comprehensive economic development strategy. “Employers keep reinforcing the need for housing,” says Charlie Baker, Executive Director at the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission.

These facts may help redirect the discussion, changing “exclusivity” from being perceived as a benefit of blocking affordable housing to a problem. “Discrimination is bad for them economically,” says Estes.

The workforce argument affects even bedroom communities where most of the money is earned in a nearby metropolis, so there isn’t much of a local economy to damage. The families of residents in these expensive suburbs may benefit if the teachers of their children didn’t have to live more than an hour’s drive away.

Social benefits of integrated neighborhoods
Advocates also encourage the people who live near planned developments to do more than simply tolerate affordable housing. Lucio frames “integration” as a challenge to existing residents, asking them “how can we make the neighborhood more welcoming?” To Lucio, welcoming affordable housing, and the low-income families who live there, is something positive that people can do together and feel good about.

“We tell people how they can be a part of the solution,” says Lucio. “We need to have more radical approaches to community integration.”

Church groups can provide a potent audience for this message, building a bridge into communities. “We focused on the message that they can help,” says Ginger Rumph, Deputy Director for the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development that has successfully advocated for new affordable housing funding in Washington D.C.

Advocates still use the voices of low-income families to help humanize the need for affordable housing. “Personal stories from residents really resonated,” says Rumph. “We conveyed the sense that these economic forces exist, but of course they want to see all folk thrive in the District.”

Advocates should take care not to flood people with facts about the vast shortage of affordable housing, however. “We are really good at overwhelming people with the need metrics on how much people need housing,” says Estes. “That just gives the impression that the housing crisis can’t be solved. It just makes a lot of people tune out.”

Another successful advocacy campaign by the Citizens Housing and Planning Association in Massachusetts defeated a challenge to the state’s inclusionary zoning statute, Chapter 40B. “They used a lot of humor,” says Lucio. “One roadside sign said: ‘If you own a home here, you probably couldn’t afford a new home here.’”

Beautiful, well-maintained buildings
Advocates and housing developers also point to the attractiveness and good management of today’s affordable properties. A long list of studies shows that affordable housing properties had either a neutral or even a positive effect on property values nearby, according to Jaimie Ross, President and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition.

Opponents of affordable housing can sometimes change their minds once they see a finished property that is operating well. That’s what happened in the case of Nelson Wong, who opposed a planned development near his home in

Brindisi, a quiet subdivision of single-family houses in Irvine, Calif. He had been the victim of a violent home invasion and was anxious about potential crime from the new development.

“We were concerned about property values and possible youth gangs coming in… those are things that property owners naturally come to think about,” says Wong. Years passed however, and the affordable housing community has been well-maintained and quiet. “We as an association kept an eye on the property for years and we kept on waiting for the shoe to drop.  But now most of my neighbors I think are not even aware that it is there.”

Wong even made a video in support of BRIDGE Housing, the developer he had opposed. Advocates should take care to deal with opponents respectfully, to keep the possibility of reconciliation alive.

The Threat – Fair Housing Law
If all else fails, however, affordable housing developers have recourse to the law. Federal Fair Housing laws and a variety of state statutes make it illegal to discriminate against several protected classes of people, and keeping affordable housing out of a town can count as discrimination, according to many court cases.

“There is an amazingly powerful body of law,” says Ross. For example, the federal government has demanded that towns and villages in the County of Westchester, N.Y., allow new construction of hundreds of units of affordable housing, based on Fair Housing law. Several states like California and New Jersey also have laws that explicitly require local communities to plan to provide housing affordable to low-income families.

It’s important to use civil rights lawyers for any Fair Housing lawsuits. “So many times we’ve seen affordable housing developers hire the wrong lawyer,” says Ross. Perhaps the worst choice would be a real estate lawyer – because real estate lawyers are often not used to confrontation. “We used a real estate lawyer,” says Carol Lambert, Executive Director of Settlement Housing Fund. “He kept on trying to reach out to people and negotiate. We had to switch to a civil rights lawyer.”

These laws give developers a “nuclear option” that they can deploy if officials refuse to allow their projects… if all else fails. “You don’t start by bringing a lawsuit,” says Ross. “Nobody wants to go to court. You want to use the law to avoid going to court.”