OpinionCommunity Development Field

9 Tips for Overcoming NIMBY Opposition

Lessons for affordable housing developers from the trenches.

Exterior view of the Carver Inn, owned and operated by AHA in New Jersey. Illustrating an article on how to deal with NIMBY opposition

The Affordable Housing Alliance in New Jersey converted this old hotel into housing for low- and moderate-income residents. Photo courtesy of AHA

In a state as densely populated as New Jersey, every new development will experience some opposition. It does not matter how expensive the housing or commercial site to be constructed will be. Those who live close to the new construction will want to keep it the way it was, and will use claims about the loss of trees, the increase in traffic, or the impact additional folks will have on the school system to fight the change. Building affordable housing or special needs housing only adds to the types of arguments people will raise.

However, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do.

My organization, the Affordable Housing Alliance (AHA), was established in 1991 in Monmouth County, a relatively affluent suburban area on the Jersey Shore, to develop supportive housing especially for those being deinstitutionalized from state hospitals and antiquated residential health care facilities. The mission expanded to develop affordable housing in general as people with disabilities sought the same integrated opportunities in housing that others sought. Over 30 years, AHA constructed or renovated 600 rental and for sale units, including group homes, large- and small-scale multifamily residential structures, rooming houses, manufactured home parks, and mixed-use buildings. AHA was a major participant in the rehousing of many of those who lost their homes during Hurricane Sandy on a permanent and temporary basis. 

From all this experience, we have nine tips for overcoming NIMBY opposition:

  1. Do predevelopment PR. Don’t wait until someone hears that you want to build supportive housing on their block to introduce your organization. Have people get to know you before you propose something. Positive stories about your previous buildings and the people who live there should be a continuous part of your public relations. We often profiled new homeowners and how they were helped by AHA to get their first home. Long-term homeowners in a local neighborhood often pay less in mortgage and taxes than new renters who seek affordable housing. Every chance we had to show what good AHA was doing for the community we did so. We wanted the media to have good stories that surfaced if someone were to Google our name.
  2. Have your facts ready and reliable. These facts should be entered into the Planning Board record but they should also be part of every media opportunity you present. For example: How many jobs do you create? How long do residents live in your home? What are the local jobs that qualify for your housing? How many applicants from the immediate area are on your waiting list for housing? The need should be evident and easy to define. Know your own data better than anyone else. We kept records of all applications by town, family size, and average income. Every time a reporter called about any affordable housing, we provided specific information on the numbers of people in Monmouth County who needed that housing.
  3. Recruit allies. For example, reach out to parents of special needs children who might need supportive housing as adults, or local businesses that will be supported by the residents and need housing for their employees. Hospitals are a good example of large employers whose nurses often qualify for affordable housing but can’t find housing in their area. One of our best allies was a popular local schoolteacher who had been through a divorce. She would never have been able to stay in the community if it were not for the affordable housing opportunity presented by AHA. She was grateful and happy to speak about how valuable this resource was to her. Now with social media many folks are willing to make video presentations for use in the future.
  4. Build goodwill by helping existing homeowners. Consider offering foreclosure prevention, utility assistance, and homeowner repair programs. Be part of the community and accessible to its residents. We taught the new homeowner education program that is often required for discounted mortgages and have a successful track record of keeping families in their homes thanks to mortgage modification. 
  5. Make sure everyone knows who is eligible for the proposed development and how they can get in. Most folks do not have an actual working knowledge of the programs that are being offered, have a misperception of who is served by the affordable housing opportunities in our communities, and often don’t think it is people they know. They are often shocked by how high the income qualifications are. Make sure people are aware of how to qualify and apply. Have open houses and community fairs, etc., to change the narrative.
  6. Build and manage properties that you and your residents can be proud to live in. If you don’t feel good about the property, why would you expect others to?
  7. Look for opportunities to remove an eyesore. Opposition can be minimized when renovating an existing vacant and deteriorated building or cleaning up a troubled lot that local residents see as more detrimental to their personal values than the future development.
  8. Listen to the messaging of the opposition, as there is always something to learn. If folks on the message boards are concerned about transient populations, for example, know how long residents remain in affordable housing. If they are concerned about numbers of children, know what the average family size is.
  9. Persevere. Opposition for any new development can be fierce and neighbors fear the unknown, but opposition diminishes soon after approval. Although it sometimes takes a while, success will follow.

For more strategies, see: What is NIMBYism and How Do Affordable Housing Developers Respond to It?

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