Developers spend too much time and resources trying to
placate their anti-housing opponents rather than mobilizing
pro-housing supporters, according to Debra Stein, president
of GCA Strategies, a San Francisco-based public affairs
firm specializing in controversial land-use projects across
The author of several books on NIMBYism, Stein talks
with AFFORDABLE HOUSING FINANCE about how NIMBY battles are
changing and shares some tips for overcoming neighborhood
Q: How did you get involved with NIMBY
A: The person who deserves credit for
my career is a woman who spit on me at a public hearing 20
years ago. As I was wiping saliva off my arm, I said to
myself, “I am going to figure out why this
happened and never let it happen again.”
That’s what ultimately led me to write the first
book on NIMBYism in America.
Q:How are NIMBY battles
different from five or 10 years ago?
A: The Internet has significantly
increased opponents’ access to information about
potential development projects. You can go online to see
how other communities have successfully campaigned to stop
affordable housing in their back yards, and e-mail and
instant messaging has made it easier to turn out
anti-housing troops against a project.
As American ethics about individualism and social
responsibility evolve, it has become increasingly
acceptable to put selfinterests above broader community
needs. The “Me Generation” is simply not
willing to tolerate minor impacts for the sake of the
larger community, and feels less guilty about protecting
its own self-interest, even at the expense of other
Q:Are NIMBY battles involving
affordable housing different from those over other types of
A: Absolutely. Because America has
parallel but conflicting values that relate to affordable
housing, it is equally ethical to oppose or to support
affordable housing proposals.
Years of traditional religious training have taught many
Americans that we must help those in need. But the
Protestant work ethic is also a strong moral tradition in
America, emphasizing that individuals must pull themselves
by their bootstraps to attain the material rewards of hard
work. When wealth is seen as evidence of moral worth,
residents fear that people who are less wealthy will be
less desirable neighbors and more likely to engage in
anti-social behavior, compared to higher-income
Q:What is the most creative or
best pro-affordable housing campaign that you’ve
seen by developers recently?
A: The Supportive Housing Network of
New York (SHNNY) is launching a church-based outreach
campaign to get public support for the general idea of
building more supportive housing in New York City, without
reference to any particular site or proposal. Once SHNNY
gets its foot in the door to obtain the initial commitment,
it will be much easier to ask those pro-housing residents
to sustain their commitment and endorse a particular
Q:Give us a tip for
negotiating with neighbors.
A: Consider executing a Good
Neighborhood Agreement that memorializes commitments
regarding staffing, admission criteria, maintenance, and
other key operational issues that ensure the project will
be a good part of the community.
Q:What advice do you have for
developers going into a public meeting that is sure to be
A: First of all, minimize negative
feelings such as loss of face or frustration that give rise
to angry feelings. Just because people feel angry
doesn’t mean they have to behave in an aggressive
manner, which is why it helps to get the audience to
“buy in” to rules of civic discussion.
Reducing anonymity is another good tool—people are
much less likely to behave badly if they have name tags or
have introduced themselves and can be held individually
accountable for antisocial conduct. Once the genie has
escaped from the bottle—people are booing,
hissing, throwing spitwads—it helps to describe
how the anti-social behavior is actually an attack on the
audience (“When there is profanity, it makes it
very difficult for parents with children to participate in
Q:Please share a memorable
NIMBY battle involving affordable housing.
A: We placed an ad in the newspaper for
a very low income housing project in a very high income
community in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Silicon
Valley: “Two- to four-bedroom units, $X-Y if you
qualify, your help needed to make this project a reality at
City Hall.” Four hundred people contacted us for
qualification screening, and out of that 400, 300 wrote a
letter, phoned a council member, or attended a public
hearing in favor of the project.
Q:What is the lesson learned
from that experience?
A: Get out there early to build a base
of support before the project application is filed and
controversy scares people away.
For more information about Debra Stein, visit