Building Community Support for Housing
Ten Tips on How to Win Support for Your Affordable Housing Projects.

Debra Stein

Many residents are frightened by the very idea of affordable housing, envisioning ravaging hordes of strangers bringing crime, traffic and plummeting property values to the neighborhood. If allowed to fester, public opposition can impede or even stop your project from gaining the political and financial support it needs. Community outreach isn’t just advisable: it’s vital. These tips highlight what goes into a successful community outreach campaign for an affordable housing project.

Tip #1: Do Your Homework
To win the game, you have to know the rules. What agencies or officials have formal or informal approval power over your proposed project? Are public hearings required? Who is entitled to appeal a decision? Is it merely helpful to have the formal recommendation of the staff, or is it absolutely crucial?

Before launching a persuasive pitch to city officials, politicians or the public, you need to know what arguments work. That’s why opinion research is often a good investment for a potentially controversial project. Research tools such as telephone surveys, focus groups, or scripted elite interviews with stakeholders can help you identify potentially supportive audiences, test different persuasive messages, and determine whether making concessions will really reduce opposition.

What’s the best way for affordable housing supporters to express their enthusiasm? Is it appropriate for project advocates to phone their public officials? Are e-mails more persuasive than letters? How many bodies does it take to establish a strong supporter presence in the hearing chamber? Defining these issues early in the outreach campaign can help you avoid wasted outreach efforts later on.

Tip #2: Develop Targeted "New Benefit" and "Status Quo" Arguments
In general, people who support affordable housing do so because they want new benefits: more housing, fewer homeless people, the elimination of a deteriorated eyesore, a lower cost of living. Project opponents, on the other hand, usually like the status quo and are worried about negative change: they don’t want more traffic, more crime, more graffiti, more of ”those kinds of people.” Not surprisingly, arguments about new “quantity of life” benefits rarely work with opponents concerned about protecting their “quality of life,” so carefully consider both proactive and reactive messages and target these to the appropriate audiences.

Tip #3: Line Up Supporters Early
Affordable housing developers often spend too much time and resources trying to convert opponents into flag-waving enthusiasts. When hearing time rolls around, there are still plenty of opponents ... but no supporters. Your top priorities in a public outreach campaign for affordable housing should be identifying, recruiting and mobilizing supporters.

Begin lining up your supporters as soon as possible -- preferably before the project application is filed or the project is announced. Not surprisingly, potential allies will grow increasingly hesitant to endorse your project if they think that their position will earn them the disapproval of their peers; you’re more likely to win commitments of support from allies if you approach them before your proposal explodes into a high-profile controversy.

Tip #4: Pre-Lease to Tenants
The folks who will really benefit from new housing -- and are often eager to help make those plans a reality -- are the people who want to move into the units. Consider placing advertisements in the paper to recruit prospective tenants, while carefully explaining that the project still needs public support and political approval. In one affluent Northern California community, more than 300 families signed up on a waiting list for affordable housing and were pre-screened as qualified applicants. Out of this potential pool of supporters, more than 200 prospective tenants actively participated in the entitlement process, writing letters to the Planning Commission, calling City Council members, testifying at public hearings, and helping neighbors to get to know the real people soon to be living next door.

Tip #5: Approach the Business Community
Businesses hoping to attract and retain qualified workers often recognize the need for more housing near employment centers, while costly “sprawl” housing located out in the suburbs results in traffic congestion, cost-of-time issues, and quality-of-life problems.

Tip #6: Mobilize Social Justice Groups
For many, support for affordable housing is more than a political challenge; it’s an ethical issue. Ask the leaders of local churches, temples, and religious organizations to add their voices to the public demand for compassionate housing decisions. Social justice and civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) are fundamentally committed to improving the lot of poor or oppressed minorities. Senior rights groups and advocates for the disabled are also very supportive of affordable housing projects, especially when opposition is based on prejudice and stereotypes. P.S.: check non-profit donor or volunteer lists or City Hall records on earlier affordable housing proposals -- these people have already made a public commitment to affordable housing and compassion for the less fortunate.

Tip #7: Recruit Union Support
Using a unionized construction contractor? Your labor friends may be your best friends when the public hearing rolls around, able to turn on their grassroots organizing experience to turn out the troops in support of your project. Looking for additional financing? Labor union pension funds are an increasingly important source of funding for affordable housing projects.

Unions representing city workers, school district employees and law enforcement agencies make powerful advocates for housing affordable to working people: envision an entry-level teacher pleading at a public hearing for a chance to live in the community where she teaches.

Tip #8: Recognize Emotional Opposition
Many people are frightened by the anticipated tenants and impacts they believe will result from your project, and it is important to recognize that emotional opposition cannot be resolved with dry statistics. When a neighbor screams, “My kid is gonna get killed by some drug dealer speeding away from your project!” he isn’t looking for an academic study on the likelihood of drug dealing or traffic accidents near low-income housing developments; he’s afraid and looking for reassurance that you recognize his fear. Until opponents believe that you really understand their fears, they’re going to ignore any of your facts and arguments as irrelevant.

Tip #9: Listen!
Neighbors don’t want you to talk; they want you to listen. To their fears. To their demands. When you invite neighbors to "come to a meeting so we can tell you what we’re doing," what you’re really saying is that you’ve already made all the important decisions and have only a condescending duty to inform neighbors of those plans after the fact. Rather than focusing on the information you want to set out about your proposal, emphasize that you’re really seeking input, advice, opinions, and ideas. You don’t have to agree with what you’ve heard, but you need to show that you’ve listened to what’s been said and that neighborhood comments will have some actual impact on the overall project.

Tip #10: Say Thank You
Win or lose, you will someday need community friends and political allies again. Recognize how each individual helped to win approval for the affordable housing project.