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 country.
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 opposition.
Q: How did you get involved with NIMBY issues?
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 people.
Q:Are NIMBY battles involving affordable housing different from those over other types of projects?
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 neighbors.
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 project.
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 hostile?
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 these meetings”).
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 www.gcastrategies.com.