Overcoming community resistance to multifamily development
Community opposition to multifamily has become one of the top barriers to construction of accessible, sustainable housing in America. But there are strategies developers can use to build political and community support for controversial multifamily housing proposals.
Keeping a cap on opposition:
There are at least four different types of opposition to proposed multifamily projects, and no single outreach solution will resolve all types of resistance.
Misinformation: Where opposition is based on lack of communication, misinformation or exaggerated fears of project impacts, then fact-based public information tools such as project flyers and technical reports can address these needs. Where opposition is not caused by the lack of clear data, however, then disgorging too much information can actually create problems. Excessive information materials notify neighbors of issues they previously weren’t concerned about, validate vague fears, and distract attention away from important pro-housing messages. Over-reliance on costly outreach materials like advertising, direct mail or fancy Websites can quickly drain outreach coffers without eradicating all opposition or actually creating support.
Loss of face: A significant number of project opponents stake out hostile positions not because they dislike the proposal itself, but because they feel they have been treated disrespectfully. “I’m important,– think these community activists, –but the developer didn’t give me the special attention I deserve.” When citizens feel they have “lost face” or been disrespected, they often feel they have to discredit the builder and reject the proposal in order to repair their damaged sense of social importance. While it is always important to treat neighbors with respect, it is especially important to do so in situations involving potentially controversial multifamily proposals.
Conflicts of values: Parties battling it out over a multifamily proposal often characterize their own position as morally justified and the opposing side as morally suspect. Compact housing opponents define themselves as the defenders of the neighborhood or protectors of individual rights, while multifamily proponents often see themselves as unselfish advocates for sustainable development or champions for the less fortunate. Even where people hold different moral perspectives, however, discussions about multifamily development do not have to degenerate into self-righteous finger-pointing. Advocacy messages can be shaped to appeal to a range of moral perspectives, and differing perspectives can be reconciled by appealing to common interests rather than focusing on different ethics.
Conflicts of interest: Multifamily proposals often bring fundamental interests into conflict. People who support multifamily development tend to do so because it offers new benefits: more housing, a new children’s play area, new traffic improvements. By comparison, opponents are often more focused on protecting the status quo from any change: they don’t want more crowded schools, blocked views, or lower property values. Developers utilize both persuasion and negotiation strategies to reduce opposition based on conflicts of values.
Turning out the troops
Too many developers spend too many resources trying to convert die-hard opponents into flag-waving supporters. When hearing time rolls around, there are plenty of unconverted opponents but not enough advocates to stand up at the microphone and testify, “I want this project in my backyard!” At some point, the practical project sponsor must look beyond citizen resistance and focus on getting citizens to sign petitions, make phone calls, and speak up at hearings in support of the development proposal. Getting witnesses to actually show up and testify on behalf of your project can be the most difficult and the most important part of a community outreach campaign. It is tempting to zero in on a potential supporter and immediately ask that person to testify in favor of a compact development project, but going directly to this kind of big request isn’t the best approach. Citizens are much more likely to agree to a big request for support if they are first persuaded to comply with a smaller request. A sociologic study conducted in the mid-1960s offers a stunning example of this “foot-in-the-door technique.” Sociologists went door-to-door asking homeowners to comply with a seemingly trivial request: to place a three-inch by three-inch card in the front window reading, “Be a Safe Driver.” Two weeks later researchers went back to those houses asking for permission to install an enormous and hideous billboard in the front yard reading, “Drive Carefully.” Just 17 percent of those who had refused to post the tiny cards in their windows agreed to the larger billboard request. Of those who had innocently made the initial commitment by posting the card, however, a whopping 76 percent agreed to allow the billboards to be installed in their front yards. While petitions and endorsement cards can certainly persuade decision-makers at City Hall, their primary value is to help you get an initial, public commitment of support that can be used as a starting point for later, larger requests for assistance. Once you’ve gotten a supporter’s promise to attend the hearing, put it in writing. Send a follow-up e-mail or letter confirming that your supporter is coming, reiterating the time and date of the hearing, and providing draft testimony or key messages. By putting your supporter’s promise into black-and-white, you make it much more likely that your ally will actually perform as promised.
A strategic approach to community outreach
While citizen resistance to multifamily proposals may be a common part of the development process, it is neither inevitable nor unresolveable. With a strategic approach to community outreach, multifamily developers can avoid or reduce neighborhood opposition and actually build community support for multifamily proposals.