When it comes to managing new housing development, municipalities can play a number of different roles. Developers bring in a specific vision that may meet considerable resistance from residents, particularly in the cases of affordable housing projects and developments that increase neighborhood density. Municipal staff often assume the role of mediator, helping to guide the development process and keep channels of communication open between the development community and residents. Sometimes a compromise is reached between competing interests. Other times, projects never advance because of community opposition, and potential economic and social benefits are never realized. Ultimately, the critical role that municipalities play in the development process is as a decision maker, where they weigh feedback and information from developers, residents, and other stakeholders to determine which developments move forward.
There are many tools that municipalities can use to balance multiple interests and ensure that communities remain a friendly, welcoming environment for residents, businesses, and developers. These, along with supporting resources, are described below:
Messaging and communications
Affordable housing and housing developments that increase density often face the highest barriers to garnering public support. Yet, public support is vital to successfully bringing in these types of housing developments to any community. The responsibility ultimately falls to the developer to draft a proposal and create a communications strategy that can explain why a project will be an asset to the community. However, it is the elected officials, municipal staff, and community partners on the ground that best understand the viewpoints of residents and businesses, and are therefore best positioned to effectively communicate why housing matters and why it is a shared public concern. The ways in which affordable housing developments or projects that challenge the status quo are messaged often backfire and provide momentum for counter narratives. Coordination between developers and municipalities around messaging and communication strategies that have proven to be effective can build points of connection with a concerned public and improve chances of success. Please see “You Don’t Have to Live Here”: Why Housing Messages are Backfiring and 10 Things We Can Do About It for more information on how to build public support for specific housing agendas and policies. The message guide developed in 2003 by Belden Russonello & Stewart also contains useful strategies for how to best communicate the case for more affordable housing.
Importance of inclusive planning
Developing a local vision for future housing needs before a development proposal is on the table can help reduce resistance. Through planning tools such as Homes for a Changing Region or the comprehensive planning process, elected officials and municipal staff can engage the public in a dialogue about the housing needs of the community. The planning process can be an opportunity to educate the public about relevant issues such as the existing housing cost burden of residents living in the municipality. Having a broad conversation about the community’s housing needs separate from a specific proposal can serve to educate residents about the benefits of more housing options and make them more receptive to new housing options in the long run.
The ideal process is inclusive, allowing as many different stakeholders to participate as possible. Municipalities should collect demographic data of those who are involved in the planning process to better understand whether their approach to public engagement is inclusive and representative of the community. Social media and other online forums are good mediums to encourage the participation of those individuals who do not have time to attend, or may not be able to access, a public meeting. Discussions and any communications should be understandable to lay people, and efforts should be made to increase access for residents who speak English as a second language and the disabled community. For more specific information about how an inclusive planning process can help address opposition to new housing development, please see Understanding and Challenging Opposition to Housing Construction in California’s Urban Areas.
Elected officials and municipal staff should make efforts to develop relationships with local community-based developers, and should also encourage developers with no existing activity in the area to partner with local organizations, institutions, and community-based developers to build trust within the community. Developers and nonprofit partners should actively work to cultivate and maintain relationships with municipalities in order to smooth the process for current and future proposals. When a project is planned, developers should reach out to key community stakeholders and neighborhood groups in the early stages of the process to learn about, and address, potential challenges. Elected officials can play a role in helping to connect developers to key stakeholders in the early stages of the process.
Housing policy is shaped by government, but housing decisions and the resulting landscape are largely guided by the market. For this reason, municipalities alone cannot convince a divided public that a new affordable housing development or a higher density project is in everybody’s best interest. Recruiting the business community and institutional partners to your side is a practical strategy when trying to build support and momentum for a proposed housing development. Different approaches can be taken to recruiting and outreach depending on the type of housing proposal. For outreach to business partners, messaging could center on housing’s connection to a higher quality-of-life for workers, which can increase company loyalty and reduce employee turnover. Higher density housing can also expand a customer base, particularly for retail businesses. Health care providers, especially hospitals, are another important community stakeholder that can help to advance a housing agenda. Healthcare providers view housing as an important social determinant of health. Providers are concerned about patient health and readmission rates, and are beginning to see the value of investing in affordable housing and healthy housing initiatives as a way to reduce costs and improve public health. There are always local, state, and national actors who have a seat at the table, and have the ability to affect change and lend their expertise to shaping housing outcomes. Municipalities should leverage the relationships they have in their communities and seek to build coalitions in order to establish credibility and show a broad range of support for a particular housing policy or proposal.