Poll after poll cites homelessness as the number one concern for Bay Area residents, yet many of these same citizens actively oppose the development of supportive housing when it’s proposed in their own community. We already know that it is necessary to solve homelessness through housing and that developments should be spread throughout cities and counties rather than isolated in one area.
However, when the focus shifts to incorporating supportive housing in higher income areas, so too does the Not in My Backyard (NIMBY) opposition. As supportive housing developers site more projects in high resource areas, the NIMBY sentiment will continue to increase. To minimize this sentiment, an inclusive, transparent and collaborative approach with the community from the outset can be the key to the success of a new supportive housing project.
Before introducing the project to the wider community, identify and recruit local supporters, educate local government officials, and engage with other stakeholders to establish the project as a positive development. Mobilizing local allies, including Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) organizations and other advocacy groups, and engaging with the local Neighborhood Association are important to getting the community engagement process started off on the right foot.
Engaging the Community
When designing and developing a supportive housing project, it’s critical that the team involved take the concerns of the direct neighbors seriously. The building and its occupants will have the largest impact on this group, so hearing them out and attempting to address their concerns should be first and foremost. Neighbors tend to have legitimate concerns about these projects, including the amount of parking, height of the building, crime, litter, etc.
Understanding these concerns not only has the potential to positively impact the design, but equally important, it’s an opening to dialogue and education around the supportive concept. Further, making changes to the planned project based on community feedback engenders trust. The most successful projects are those that evolve based on legitimate community feedback and subsequent action by the developer. Forming lasting relationships with neighbors that continue the collaboration through construction completion and into operations should be the end goal of all outreach efforts.
When engaging with the community, it can be beneficial to showcase previous, successful development outreach efforts on other projects, including testimony from community members on what was changed based on their feedback. For example, prior to beginning construction on Vitalia, a 79-unit supportive project located in San Jose, Calif., several meetings with the community were held, resulting in a change that decreased the total number of floors in the building and increased the number of parking stalls. Of course, not all of the community members’ requests could be granted, but a good faith effort on behalf of the project team to work with the neighbors on making real revisions was demonstrated and appreciated.
Highlighting the ongoing success of complete and operational supportive housing projects and the accomplishments of their current and former residents can also help demonstrate the value supportive projects deliver and can go a long way in convincing an otherwise skeptical community member. Demonstrating good neighbor values can help teams build credibility in a new neighborhood.
Showcase additional community benefits the project will provide. This might include new local job creation, increased area security, traffic calming measures, public meeting spaces and area beautification schemes.
Correct misinformation with hard data. Addressing inaccurate claims early with fact-based resources is one of the most important and effective components of community engagement. For example, the most common fear community members have about supportive housing in their neighborhood is a decrease in property values. Many studies have shown there is no connection between the presence of supportive housing and the value of other properties or owners’ abilities to resell their homes.
Create and distribute clear and accurate information on the development that responds to community concerns at public hearings, through the press and online. Be sure materials are also available in hard copies as handouts to be provided at any community meetings.
Form a Neighborhood or Community Advisory Council comprised of neighborhood leaders, local merchants and other interested parties to meet regularly during construction and operation of the project.
Educate the local community on the population of the development and ensure representatives from property management and the supportive services provider attend all meetings.
Engaging NIMBY folks is an opportunity to build awareness, understanding and support for people without homes in their own communities. While this pushback and fear of the unknown can be difficult to overcome, employing successful engagement and outreach strategies can help achieve positive results.
Rob Wilkins is vice president of Affirmed Housing Group’s Northern California region. With more than 10 years of experience in affordable and supportive housing, he has led the acquisition and development of more than 20 properties in the Bay Area, totaling over 1,750 units. He can be reached at [email protected].