Can Better Messaging Overcome NIMBY?

The affordable housing industry is increasingly focused on clear and effective messaging as the means of convincing skeptical bystanders to support more funding and regulations to increase supply and subsidies. A recent example is the new video by the United for Homes campaign, spear-headed by the National Low Income Housing Coalition to fund the National Housing Trust Fund.

The message is clear: A home is a necessity, not a luxury. The current shortage of affordable rental housing is directly connected to our homelessness problem. The solution is the National Housing Trust Fund to fund more affordable rental homes (and put renters on similar tax footing as homeowners, while giving the construction industry a boost). Watch it here.

What does it take, though, to translate such campaigns into more affordable homes in our backyards? Language can influence attitudes, and even aid in the creation and modification of policies and programs, but turning positive messages into local action can be tricky business.

At around the same time NLIHC released its video, the Center for Housing Policy  published its national review of the evidence on public opinion and messaging for affordable housing. In sum, their review shows that what you say about housing can influence people’s perceptions of its value. An emphasis on deserving populations, homeownership, and community-wide benefits can improve perceptions, however simply referencing high costs and poverty does not result in much sympathy or political action. (And there is not much hope for renters, no matter which way you spin it).

Beyond these general perceptions of who deserves housing, and why, are the realities of how people feel about having affordable housing in their own neighborhood. The Center for Housing Policy reports on the results of a survey conducted this year by the ReThink Initiative, a campaign to promote public housing. Their survey found most people want everyone to have a “decent and safe place to live”, but don’t want to live near public housing themselves. (To change this perception, ReThink has launched a campaign guided by much of the advice listed above. See for yourself.

Why is this? For one thing, people remain afraid of people who are different than them, be it family status, income, race, physical or mental health, disability, or a range of other factors that we think separates “us” from “them”. However, local context is also of critical importance (as the Center report briefly notes).

My own research confirms how little we understand about which federal and state policies and programs will be well-received in local communities, and why some communities may be interested in more affordable homes and others might not.

Unless you look closely, you may never know what historical legacies and regional inequalities make affordable housing development an uphill battle in one region and a more pleasant experience in the next. One place’s desire to increase homeownership and block further rental housing development is counterbalanced by another’s strategic use of tax credits to create affordable rental homes while preserving historic buildings. One region’s equitable approach to promoting local provision of their “fair share” of affordable homes is offset by another’s history of inequitable development concentrating all affordable homes in the central city (although sometimes both occur simultaneously, sadly enough).

State governments are in an excellent position to help craft messages and resulting policies and programs to fit unique local circumstances and legacies, although few use their position to the fullest potential. States administer lots of federal programs, as well as their own, with flexibility to target funds to priority projects in certain jurisdictions. Instead of taking the opportunity to match and promote state solutions to local housing needs, states often leave local governments and housing developers to decide what they want to utilize.

Thus we see project applications reflecting local fears and legacies. What if, through better messaging, targeting, and monitoring of actual outcomes, states could actually alleviate fears, combat negative legacies, and promote positive ones throughout its cities and regions? That could certainly be New Jersey’s call to action after its most recent state Supreme Court decision reaffirming local municipal obligations to provide a “realistic opportunity” for the development of low- and moderate-income housing. More than just calculating numbers, however, states could provide a comprehensive vision and plan for affordable homes that is sensitive to local contexts, but willing to challenge them.

I am all in favor of national campaigns to improve perceptions and increase the supply of affordable housing. The difficulty comes in translating such wins into local acceptance and action. Changing attitudes is a difficult battle. Overcoming not-in-my-backyard fears and legacies is even tougher. State governments could have a stronger role in both.

Corianne Payton Scally is a principal research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute where she explores affordable housing and community development policy and practice from large cities to rural towns.


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