Who, Why, and How Communities Oppose Affordable Housing

Editor’s Note: This is third part in a series about NIMBY and affordable housing. 

In this post, we continue to discuss the results of our survey of affordable housing developers in New York State on their experiences of community opposition to their development projects. Out of 75 developers—nonprofit and for-profit—responding to our survey (a response rate of 50 percent), 70 percent have experienced at least one incident of community opposition. In our first post, we discussed why these developers pursue affordable housing projects, what types they build, and what funding sources they use. In our second post, we analyzed where opposition occurs, what types of developers and projects are targeted most, and when during the project cycle community opposition is most likely to occur.

In this post, we present who opposes affordable housing development projects in New York State, what specific concerns are raised by communities to justify their opposition, and what tactics they most commonly use.

Individual residents and organized resident groups are the most frequent sources of opposition, but public agencies and officials can also be vocal opponents. We asked developers to choose how local opposition is most typically organized, based on their experiences. As shown in the pie chart below, residents were the lead opponents according to almost three out of every four developers. For 38 percent of developers, resident opposition was typically staged by unorganized individuals. Another 35 percent said organized resident groups—such as neighborhood associations, homeowners associations, and community coalitions—led opposition efforts to their affordable housing development projects. Perhaps most surprising, almost one out of every five developers said that a public agency or public official was the primary source of opposition to their projects. Getting residents on board seems a critical strategy for developers to pursue.

This is an area where public officials and planners, and transparent planning processes and communication, could help, especially when coupled with our findings that local opposition is most frequently experienced at the time of local approval of the development project.

The results of a survey of affordable housing developers in New York State and their experiences with communities that oppose affordable housing.Community concerns about safety and crime, and the type of population served show specific biases against affordable housing versus general development. A lot of past studies on NIMBY have tried to differentiate between community concern about any type of development (such as BANANA opposition: “Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything”) versus affordable housing specifically. Our results provide interesting insight into some specific reasons that communities may be opposed to any development, but are particularly fearful of affordable housing.

The results of a survey of affordable housing developers in New York State and their experiences with communities that oppose affordable housing.First, the most commonly reported reason for opposition is fear of increased crime and decreased sense of safety—heard by over three out of every five developers experiencing opposition. Half of the developers also regularly hear community concern about tax burdens. This concern comes into play with many development projects, but more typically with developments such as affordable housing that normally seek some type of property tax concession from local government, and thus are viewed as not paying their “fair share” of the costs of public services to the site.

Concerns about traffic, school impacts, and environmental impacts are also frequently employed, according to developers, but are not necessarily unique to affordable housing development projects. School impacts may be more of a concern when communities are operating under the assumption that households qualifying for affordable housing have a higher proportion of school-aged children than non-subsidized housing development, particularly when coupled with property tax concessions that will affect the school tax base, as well.

While recent research in New York State based on calculated multipliers by income and numbers of bedrooms has suggested that this assumption may not be true, more research is needed on how to address this area of community concern.

Perhaps the most direct indication that community opposition is specifically against affordable housing developments is that one out of every five developers mentioned opposition to the people they expected to be served by the development: “those people”, “welfare recipients”, “homeless”, “special needs”, and “renters”. These arguments expose the fact that irrational fears and misinformation may drive some opposition, as one of us has explored previously. Such prejudices can be hard to challenge and change, but it seems clear that more work is needed to counter the root causes of opposition to affordable housing development projects.

Communities put a lot of effort into opposing affordable housing development projects using diverse tactics, from traditional communications strategies, to emergent technologies, and legal challenges. The most common form of opposition remains the use of news media, including newspaper ads, editorials and letters to the editor, with over half of developers reporting this tactic. Over 45 percent also said their development projects were targeted through information campaigns, such as flyers, petitions, and yard signs distributed throughout the community.

The results of a survey of affordable housing developers in New York State and their experiences with communities that oppose affordable housing.The use of web-based discussion boards, forums, and social media is also a significant means of communicating opposition today, with two out of every five developers indicating the importance of these emergent technologies. A handful of developers also mentioned that an entire website dedicated to opposing one or more of their affordable housing development projects was launched and maintained. This is a significant effort that requires further study as to who is more likely to use this tactic within communities (e.g. individual opponents or organized ones), who their target audience is (e.g. news media vs. local officials), and what effect this growing opposition strategy has on affordable housing development compared to more traditional means of opposition.

One out of every four developers experiencing opposition to their projects said they had been the target of a formal legal challenge. Roughly, that means if you are an affordable housing developer in New York State, you have around a 25 percent chance of facing a lawsuit against a proposed project (although realistically this probability will vary based on a variety of known and unknown factors we cannot explore with our small population in a single state, related to the developer, the project, and the community). While this may be higher or lower than the rest of the country, it should still be cause for concern. Every lawsuit represents a loss of monetary resources and time that could otherwise be spent on developing affordable housing or supporting other community building activities.

Organized protests, such as active picketing at construction site or public meetings, still occur, but perhaps not as much as we would expect. However, the same number of developers—over 1 out of every 5—also noted that individuals spoke up against their development projects at public meetings in less organized ways. And outside of these public meetings, local officials are still being pressured by their constituents to oppose affordable housing development.

These all point again to the importance of transparent, well-organized planning processes that acknowledge points of conflict and work through them in an equitable way that addresses the concerns of existing residents, but acknowledges the reasonableness of promoting affordable housing options within every community. Local officials, planners, and developers need to ask: Who is speaking out against the project? What are their primary concerns? Are they real concerns or assumed ones? Are they based on irrational fears and prejudice, or solid evidence? How can we cultivate a climate of two-way conversation, rather than jump directly to confrontation approaches such as protest, media campaigns, and legal challenges?

Our fourth post will take a look at how developers have worked to overcome community opposition and what they have found most effective in New York State. We will also summarize both the positive outcomes and negative outcomes of opposition.

To catch up on the rest of the series, read Part 1—”New York State’s Affordable Housing Developers: What They Do, How They Do It,” and Part 2—”NIMBY: Where, When, And to Which Developers It Happens.

1 COMMENT

  1. Hopefully my comment will be shown on this page, but if all affordable housing developers are as corrupt as this one, it probably won’t be.

    The affordable housing project that is being put up in my town of Southampton violates several laws.

    The fire department spoke out against this development, because if it catches fire, the people will not be able to be evacuated and the fire will not be able to be contained because the pipe that the fire department would be using wouldn’t be wide enough to produce enough water.

    Affordable housing projects are supposed to be within walking distance of groceries. Not only is this development further away than the specified distance, but in order to walk to an extremely small grocery store that is so tiny it has room for less than ten gallons of milk, you have to walk along an extremely dangerous narrow road with no bike lane or shoulder.

    This development will be placed in a location that is so close to several residential areas that the sewage will contaminate our drinking water. In response, the town offered to bring town water – but only after our drinking water is contaminated, and only up to the start of the private roads, which means that everyone on my road will have to pay 30,000 dollars to afford to build the rest of the water pipe that will give us clean water.

    If you can believe it, this development also backs up to our only major nature preserve. It is also directly over the aquifer for our town.

    Residents of this affordable housing development are going to be hard pressed to get anywhere, because during the summer the traffic is so bad on the only nearby major road that it has been dubbed one of the top ten most dangerous highways in New York State. This deadly highway not only kills people pretty regularly, but it’s also packed bumper to bumper with no shoulder, so in the past, it has been a long, gruelling, nearly impossible effort to get an ambulance on the scene, which is probably one reason why so many people have to be air lifted to the nearest hospital.

    Not only will new residents in this affordable housing development be unable to walk to a grocery store without risking their lives by walking alongside a heavily trafficked 40 mph road with no shoulder, they will also be in danger of not being able to be evacuated in time should a fire occur. The location contaminates our drinking water, pollutes our wells, costs nearby residents massive amounts of money, endangers our nature preserve where we have vulnerable and endangered plants and wildlife – and completely fails to address the issue, which is that lack of housing is not the problem. The lack of the ability to get to and from work is the problem. We live very close to other towns that have reasonably priced places to live, and most commute from further up the island, but there’s no reasonable way to get through the traffic to get to and from work.

    What we need is affordable transportion! NOT affordable housing – that makes the situation worse for everyone!

    I seriously doubt that these figures accurately reflect why communities are really in opposition to affordable housing projects. The town wanted the money, and ignored several laws on behalf of this developer. Their decision has hurt all of us, and the opinions of the people were completely ignored.

    My house, and the houses of my family and friends who live near me, are all in danger of being polluted and burned down now, and that’s perfectly okay, because people need cheap housing. Even if it’s dangerous cheap housing.

    I know this comment comes across as very upset, but we are all very upset. I’ve been putting my own research into this and I’ve found that my area is not unique. A lot of the affordable housing projects in New York State have been enacted despite completely reasonable public protest that is not based on social biased or fear of crime, but rather based on critical natural preservation, pollution, and the fact that laws are being set aside right and left so that corrupt town governments can make more money.

    If you really want to get involved with a project that makes a difference, get involved with the town transparency project for New York which is working to address corrupt town governments that are allowing these affordable housing projects to pass, illegally, and at the expense of the health and welfare of its citizens.

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