The Effects of NIMBY and How to Overcome Them

This is Part 4 in a series on NIMBY and affordable housing. To catch up on the rest of the series, read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. —- […]

This is Part 4 in a series on NIMBY and affordable housing. To catch up on the rest of the series, read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.


This analysis continues our discussion of 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.

Most developers (88 percent) believe that opposition has negative effects on their projects.

These developers pointed to delays as the most common problem they encounter: almost two-thirds (62 percent) noted overall construction delays, and 10 percent indicated delays in leasing or selling units. Almost one out of every three developers (29 percent) were denied the building permits or zoning changes needed to develop their proposed project.

In terms of the physical characteristics of the development, one out of every three developers had to make aesthetic improvements at additional cost. Twenty-five percent had to reduce the number of units in the project, 19 percent had to change the unit composition (e.g. number of units of different sizes), and 4 percent had to reduce the size of their units.

Developers were split on whether or not they perceived any positive outcomes from the community opposition they faced. Exactly half of the developers who have experienced community opposition said there have been no perceived positive effects (just mostly negative ones). However, 37 percent believed that local public opinion of affordable housing had improved as a result of their engagement with the community. A very small proportion of developers (4 percent, each) actually were able to increase the number of units in their development or receive funding increases to pay for negotiated project changes. Finally, a few developers mentioned enhanced community engagement and positive media attention as good outcomes emerging from contentious siting disputes.

Most developers actively work with communities through both formal and informal mechanisms to discuss and negotiate project details. The most common strategy that developers use, by far, is informal public information sessions, with almost all respondents utilizing this technique. Formal public hearings, often required at some stage of the development process, are strategically used to combat NIMBY by two out of every three developers. More than a third of developers indicated they also hold informal meetings with community leaders, and about a quarter of respondents also conduct surveys, focus groups, or interviews with residents. Twenty-three percent of respondents utilize social media to interact with the public.

Perhaps most disheartening, a surprising 27 percent have engaged in formal legal disputes with communities over proposed projects.

Many strategies are used to counter NIMBY opposition, but not all are equally effective. Despite nearly all of our respondents stating that they participate in formal public hearings, only 12 percent stated that these are the most effective technique for combating local opposition.

[RELATED ARTICLE: What Is NIMBYism and How Do Affordable Housing Developers Respond to It?]

Instead, developers state that more informal techniques – including meetings with community leaders (42 percent) and the public in general (29 percent) are the most effective way to engage with the public and mitigate opposition. Only 3 percent responded that formal legal challenges are the most effective strategy they employ when faced with community opposition.

So, what can we do to promote a better development process for affordable housing to maximizes positive effects and minimizes the negative ones? Some effective strategies have been promoted through the Affordability and Choice Today (ACT) initiative of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in partnership with the Canadian Home Builders’ Association, and the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association with funding from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

We propose three additional measures that would enable more streamlined and efficient siting and permitting processes, greater community engagement among affordable housing developers, and more effective community participation to encourage more equitable siting of affordable housing developments:

1. Proactively change exclusionary zoning and land use requirements to make the siting of affordable housing developments less contentious, in general, and encourage more equitable outcomes. A handful of states have inclusionary zoning ordinances that require all new developments over a certain threshold to contain a percentage of subsidized units, although such a measure can be difficult to achieve, politically. Some states, like Massachusetts and Connecticut, are encouraging towns to adopt Incentive Housing Zones in their downtown areas and near transit stops to allow for higher density development in locations that make the most sense to both existing and future residents.

2. Change existing participatory mechanisms to allow for more effective communication and deeper democracy. There seems to be a disconnect between traditional planning processes and the most effective and efficient mechanisms for working with communities to promote affordable housing. Many developers in New York have taken additional efforts to engage informally with the public, and to build trust and improve public perception of affordable housing. These and other innovative formats can be adopted to promote greater deliberation within a less contentious (and litigious) environment, save money, and encourage more developers to consider building affordable housing. A Connecticut program has gone so far as to bring towns and developers together through a “speed-dating” process to encourage relationships between interested parties. We need more ideas for bolstering dialog of this sort, not just at the beginning of a development process, but throughout it.

3. When opposition seems unavoidable, know when it is most likely to occur, and be prepared. Developers should spend time establishing trust with the communities before engaging in formal public meetings required for various planning permissions, as this is the most common point of opposition in the process, yet one of the least effective methods of community engagement. Developers that have an existing positive reputation in the community, region, or state, will have an easier time with this.

Planners can be critical to addressing the first and second points listed above. They should be vigilant, however, throughout the entire process, and have a professional and ethical obligation to consider and present the development holistically to the public, including a comprehensive analysis of potential outcomes from the perspective of all stakeholders, especially those currently marginalized by the community.

Finally, local advocates – be they community members or someone engage in the process as a developer or planner – can play a strong role in pressing communities, developers, and municipal planners at critical times in the process. Effective advocates must understand the need for affordable housing, the concerns of the community, existing planning regulations, and the challenges facing developers in order to broker solutions. If they succeed in this, they can facilitate communication, dispel myths, and circumvent contention.

(Photo by Florida Community Loan Fund CC BY-NC)

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