Debates about affordable housing often involve accusations of ethical lapses or claims of personal righteousness.

Affordable housing sponsors often condemn opponents as racists or “NIMBYs” (Not In My Back Yard) lacking social compassion. Meanwhile, neighbors claim that it is the developer who is insensitive, caring nothing about the needs or rights of existing residents.

While each side feels it is right and the other side is wrong, the reality is more complex. Rather than engaging in philosophic finger-pointing, housing proponents can evaluate citizens’ ethics and shape advocacy messages to show how support for affordable housing is, in fact, the right thing to do.

When an affordable housing proposal is under consideration, ethics associated with individual rights and social responsibility often clash head-on.

Individualism: Looking out for No. 1

Americans tend to place a higher priority on individualism than on social responsibility. We like to stand out from the crowd. We value property rights, privacy, and free-market activities, and we are committed to protecting our personal life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. While President John F. Kennedy believed it was the duty of Americans to ask themselves what they could do to serve the common good, members of the “Me Generation” often place personal needs above social needs and feel justified in looking out for No. 1. As a result, many citizens feel entitled to injure the interests of other people, if necessary, in order to protect their own self-interests.

America’s emphasis on individualism is reflected in the Protestant work ethic. The work ethic assures us that, through hard work, determination and self-discipline, we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and enjoy success and material rewards. The less attractive flip side: Work ethic extremists often believe that if you’re poor, homeless, or disempowered, then it must be your own fault. When wealth is viewed as evidence of moral worth, residents fear that people who are less wealthy will be less worthy, less desirable neighbors than higher-income residents.

Collectivism: United we stand

America’s individualistic values are often inconsistent with the ethic of social responsibility preached by traditional churches and charities across the country. Social collectivism doesn’t tell us to look out for No. 1; it tells us to look out for others and to help those who cannot help themselves. The welfare of society is more important than the welfare of the individual, and citizens are expected to bear their fair share of burdens associated with programs and policies that serve the entire community.

People with a strong sense of social responsibility don’t blame needy people for their own condition, as work ethic extremists do. For social collectivists, if you’re poor, homeless or disempowered, it is because society has failed to provide enough job-training opportunities, affordable housing, or supportive-service programs. There are no “unworthy poor” for social collectivists, who often feel that where a community cannot rectify the barriers to economic success, then it must at least provide each citizen a fundamental safety net of decent housing and basic services.

Collectivist values don’t always lead to support for affordable housing, however. The emphasis on maintaining a cohesive community can, at its extreme, promote an exclusionary, us-versus-them mentality. For housing opponents, this justifies keeping out outsiders or “different” types of residents who might disrupt the character of their insular society.

In summary, America supports two entirely separate moral perspectives: individualism and social collectivism. Because it isn’t possible to fulfill both moral mandates simultaneously, people generally follow one ethical rule and feel guilty about violating the other. When people feel guilty, they often get angry, which is one reason why debates about affordable housing can be so emotional.

With different moral perspectives at play, it is possible to justify either opposition to or support for affordable housing. Rather than declaring that people who support affordable housing are morally good and that people who oppose it are morally bad, the savvy project sponsor will select pro-housing messages that work with, and not against, the belief system of each neighbor.

Influencing individualists

No injury to self-interests: Citizens often rationalize their anti-housing activism on individualistic grounds, protesting that they are “forced” to object to a housing proposal in order to protect their own safety, financial security or other personal interest. That’s why it’s important to correct the misperception that a housing proposal will damage neighbors’ personal interests. The police chief can rebut claims that lower-income residents generate higher crime rates, for instance, and residents living near existing, similar projects can provide reassurance that proximity to affordable housing does not lower property values.

Moral interests: When considering land-use proposals, citizens tend to focus on their material self-interests; that is, they worry about having good things and a good life. But people also have moral self-interests, the desire to be good people and to do good things. Encouraging people to view their self-interests in terms of moral rather than material rewards usually produces a more pro-housing response. Reaching out to residents through their religious or charitable affiliations helps them think about the ethical meaning of an affordable housing proposal and can remind neighbors of their existing commitment to help the needy. The endorsements of respected religious and charitable leaders in a community can also help increase public acceptance of affordable housing.

Personal benefits: While affordable housing supporters typically use collectivist arguments to advance their cause, appeals to listeners’ self-interests can also be effective when dealing with strong individualists. New housing can serve the personal interests of neighborhood residents by converting an eyesore into an attractive new housing project, or by reducing traffic from workers currently forced to commute from distant homes. In areas where teachers, firefighters and other valued service providers are being driven out of town by the high cost of housing, self-focused citizens may start seeing the link between the creation of new affordable housing and improvements to the public services they depend on.

Avoid claims that “housing is a right”: Outreach to those who feel strongly about the work ethic should avoid claims that society owes needy individuals housing or other “handouts.” Instead, messages should emphasize that affordable housing is just one step in a self-help program for lower-income residents trying to improve their lives. Explaining that affordable housing residents will be required to participate in supportive services to address problems like alcoholism or drug dependency, for example, can help reassure citizens that their future neighbors will be responsible people eager to work toward a more independent life.

Convincing collectivists

The greater good: Affordable housing supporters typically rely on collectivist mathematics to make their case: The greatest good for the greatest number of people, even if that means slight injury to a few. Yes, the status quo for a few people may be affected, but more people, indeed the entire community, will benefit from the creation of new affordable housing.

Evidence that need will be met: Affordable housing advocates aren’t the only people who can claim they want to help needy people. Sophisticated opponents may cloak themselves in social compassion and then assert that a project is unacceptable because it doesn’t meet the real needs of targeted residents. Opponents who want to stop a seniors housing project, for example, might argue that the proposal should be rejected because the site is too steep for seniors, too far from transit or too expensive. The objections of these critics can often be offset by clear statements from potential users that the project will, in fact, serve their needs, or by the expert testimony of professional housing and service providers that the proposed development is indeed appropriate for its target audience.

Community support for project: When it comes to controversial projects, collectivist pressure to maintain social harmony can lead to a mob mentality. If it seems that “everyone” hates a proposed housing project, then a neighbor who actually approves of a project may feel reluctant to speak up. Indeed, a series of psychology experiments concluded that one out of three people will abandon their own opinion and embrace even an obviously incorrect position if it seems like “everyone else” holds the contrary view. That’s why it is crucial to find citizens to speak out in favor of affordable housing, to take visible supportive action, and to urge other people to do likewise.

Shaping moral messages

Depending on your ethical perspective, people who support affordable housing are not always right, and people who oppose it are not always wrong. If you are trying to increase public acceptance of affordable housing, you can shape advocacy messages that work with – not against – neighbors’ moral beliefs.

Debra Stein is president of GCA Strategies (, a San Francisco-based community relations firm specializing in controversial land-use projects. She is the author of Making Community Meetings Work (Urban Land Institute) and Managing Community Meetings (ICMA).