Three Ways Around NIMBYism

7 min read

Legal, technology, advocacy

Overcoming NIMBYism is hard—maybe the most significant barrier—for developers looking to get projects approved. This is particularly the case for affordable housing projects, which must overcome additional biases. Propose one in a city neighborhood, and the developer could have residents, activists and politicians reject the rendering for any number of reasons.

Given this challenge, what can developers and proponents of a supply-side housing affordability approach do to either build support or circumvent opposition? There are three basic approaches.

One is to advocate for legislation, or use existing laws, to require cities to allow affordable projects. A second is to use emerging technology that identifies opportunity and communicates the benefits of better land use. A third is for the developer to directly engage with the community, so he or she can shed the reputation of the “greedy developer” and persuade people toward a project. Below I’ll break down all three strategies.

The federal government, at various times these last few decades, has taken an activist role in expanding housing affordability. As a result, there’s a federal law that can counteract local opposition to development. The Fair Housing Act’s “disparate impact” rule allows for civil action against housing discrimination. In 1988, an NAACP chapter in New York state used the rule to litigate against a Long Island town for blocking privately-constructed subsidized housing.

Different state legislatures have attempted recently to pass similar laws. In California, several bills have hit the docket that would require municipalities to upzone near transit corridors. Although they’ve failed, several prominent state senators—particularly Scott Wiener—continue to push for this approach. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown had more success, signing a law that bans single-family zoning in cities of over 25,000 people. And in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker is proposing a Housing Choice bill that would make it easier to pass local upzonings.

The Bay State offers one success story worth examining. In early March of 2020, Newton, a wealthy inner-ring suburb of Boston, held a referendum on whether to allow a large mixed-use development on the site of a disused strip mall. Opponents were well-organized, had a large social media presence, and various complaints, ranging from the development’s scale to its perceived auto-

orientation. Yet the referendum to allow the project was successful, and this may often be the case with direct voting: community members who are intimidated by or unable to participate in community meetings can still weigh in, and may vote favorably for projects because they understand the local need for affordable housing.

These political efforts that I’ve mentioned at federal, state and local levels are all ones that housing developers can get involved in, or utilize as they see fit.

PropTech—a term describing various web apps and services relevant to the real estate industry—can play a role in getting affordable housing projects over the Nimby hump. Several recent services focus on broadening the information tied into land use, to the benefit of developers, officials and community members who might otherwise oppose rezonings.

Matt Hoffman runs HousingTech Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in and advises startup companies with solutions that can increase housing affordability. “We are seeing lots of activity in the market. Innovators are using artificial intelligence, big data, and cloud computing to solve a range of problems that either reduce costs or create new value that leads to affordability,” Hoffman reflects.

One firm that he has seed funded, CityBldr, streamlines the land assembly process and has the potential to increase housing supply under existing zoning requirements. CityBldr’s algorithms examine zoning codes, land titles, and other criteria to determine where additional development could happen by right, and produce a financial analysis of development viability. Hoffman says that CityBldr’s services are now mostly used by developers, but could be used by public officials. The service can help them determine whether housing supply is low because of zoning or, rather, because empty or under-

developed parcels are sitting untouched and unassembled due to lack of knowledge in the private sector. CityBldr can help the officials bridge those knowledge gaps within the real estate development community, as well as put incentives in place to enable development to happen without having to seek variances or a rewrite of the zoning code.

Another PropTech company (which HousingTech is not involved with) is Co-Urbanize. It works with developers to provide information about a project to the community via the internet. This helps developers reach a wider audience than public meetings, which have been found to attract those who disproportionately oppose development.

“Many of the solutions that we see emerging in the housing portion of the PropTech sector are about improving access to information and facilitating communication between parties who have an asymmetrical power relationship. The affordable housing industry is beginning to get comfortable with these new ways of doing business by participating in pilots and small projects, essentially creating mini innovation teams within their companies and seeing what works,” says Hoffman.

The prospect of land rezoning creates acrimony within a community, at least in the short term. The people living near the project, particularly, will be concerned about noise, traffic, or in the case of affordable housing, crime. This is why development firms try to reassure the residents they’re building next to, often bringing in lawyers and consultants for community outreach. But one Kentucky firm skipped all this, trying a more human-level approach to win support for its project.

AU Associates, based in Lexington, is a development firm specializing in adaptive reuse and affordable housing, and is a frequent user of federal tax credits. It’s owned by Holly Wiedemann, the chair of NH&RA, and has an extensive portfolio in Kentucky and West Virginia.

AU recently built a 71-unit, 100 percent affordable senior housing facility called Meadowthorpe Landing, in the Meadowthorpe neighborhood of Lexington. Rather than “come in with a plan in hand,” says Wiedemann, she reached out to community members early on to find out what they wanted. This is where she learned that senior housing was preferred over workforce or family housing, because it would prevent school overload. She was also educated on the neighborhood’s character and architecture, which she implemented into the building design. Wiedemann did not, however, bring lawyers and consultants. She just showed up herself and spoke to the community.

“They were a little surprised because no developer had ever asked” for that level of engagement, says Wiedemann.

It’s unclear whether the Meadowthorpe model can be applied at scale; bigger cities need much more than just senior housing, and to stay affordable, developers must be able to successfully propose other uses. But in Lexington, at least, a collaborative approach early on paid off for Wiedemann.


All three of these approaches are viable for developers to overcome Nimbyism – and there may be others too. Until the home permitting process becomes more seamless in cities, affordable home developers will need to get creative about convincing officials and residents that their projects are beneficial. Lobbying for better legislation, leveraging new tech apps, and reaching out to the neighbors are all steps in that process.

Story Contacts:
Matt Hoffman, Managing Partner, HousingTech Ventures

Holly Wiedemann, Owner, AU Associates