Not in My Backyard

Transparency and communication move student projects forward.

Most of us have seen a college comedy movie at some point in our lives. Kooky characters in films like Old School, Animal House or Revenge of the Nerds give us that glimpse into the non-studious aspect of college living and likely generate a laugh or 10.

But when a new college housing development is slated for development in real life, community residents’ NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) mindset can be a big hurdle for developers to overcome before the project can get approved. Because of this, it is important for developers seeking approval for student housing—or any new housing development for that matter—to have a well-rounded strategy in place that will provide a transparent forum that allows homeowners and community members to voice their concerns, have their questions respectfully answered and to foster inclusiveness into the approval process of the new development.

Who are the NIMBYs?

Student housing developments might win approval fairly easily in a more urban setting, but small college towns are a different story. According to student development experts Ted Rollins, chairman and CEO of Campus Crest Communities, Tom George, vice president of development with University Student Living—a comprehensive campus housing company of The Michaels Organization—and Corvias Group’s Greg Cannito, senior vice president of program development for Corvias Group, these smaller university towns tend to be comprised of educated residents that likely work at the university or own businesses that are made possible by the existence of the university. It’s these residents who are highly knowledgeable about local ordinances and have a vested interest in protecting the charm and character of their town.

“Every market in which we operate is unique with respect to the context of their zoning overlay,” Rollins says. “In many cases, school officials, public officers and local residents are very protective of the college town feel of their city or town and want to make sure a new entrant in the market does not alter this environment. I don’t believe the process is a difficult one; rather, with the proper planning and understanding of each market, it can move along efficiently.”

George says that these smaller and mid-sized towns tend to be segmented into members of the community who “embrace their relationship with their resident college, while others struggle with their identity of who needs whom.” He adds that “this sometimes fragile relationship between university and host community is critical, and one’s chances of successfully developing off-campus can hinge upon it.”

George also notes that some of the factors that affect community attitude toward new student development in these smaller markets revolve around several factors including whether or not there are already student developments, whether there is already existing “purpose-built student housing in the market,” and, if so, whether those previous developments fulfilled their promises and deliver to expectations.

“Naturally, residents are protective of their homes and quality of life,” he explains. “They may perceive student housing as having a negative impact to the neighborhood as it brings more students to town, cars, noise, et cetera. However, in the same breath, they can recognize the need for more adequate, appropriately built and safe housing, and how most of their concerns become a non-issue when the development is operated by a responsible, experienced management company.”

Cannito says that it is an essential step for Corvias Group, which primarily partners with universities for on-campus housing, to garner the backing of a local community when moving forward on a project.

“I think homeowners and communities are cautious about any new developments in their community, especially anything that is considered high-density for that community…and within close proximity.
[It has to do with] the size and scale of that development and then the high density in the amount of individuals and the amount of ‘interesting activities’ or events that might occur in a community that is high density. Homeowners are invested in their communities,” he adds. “They’re invested in what’s going on in the community and how it impacts their quality of life and the structure of the community. I don’t know if it’s fair to characterize it as difficult or challenging.”

Transparency is key

As with most development in small towns, student or otherwise, it is important for developers to create an atmosphere of transparency during the planning process that allows for residents to openly question and voice concerns about a proposed development.

“Whether there’s a formal process or not, if Corvias is going to be a partner with that institution, getting divining from the local community is critical, whether it’s a requirement or not,” Cannito says.

The first step of this includes an introduction of the development company to the community. This can take the form of meeting with individual residents or groups of residents at the same time.

“Early [in] the pre-construction phase, we introduce ourselves with the individuals, local businesses, and neighborhood associations to explain the profile of our new development and the benefits. This tends to squash rumors and diffuses the level of hostility early in the process,” George says.

Rollins agrees that demystifying the development and getting a jump on unsubstantiated rumors helps to ease resident concern and can even sometimes help projects move forward. It also is imperative, he says, for developers to make residents aware of the company’s reputation by providing its profile and history of being a developer.

“Most homeowners do view any development near their home as negative,” he says. “Then, add in the fear of the ‘Animal House’ student lifestyle and those are two pretty meaningful perceptions to overcome. We take the concerns of all neighbors very seriously and we work hard to help combat concerns among homeowners. We inform them that we operate as a vertically integrated company, meaning that we develop, construct, manage and own each of our properties.”

Cannito agrees and says that one of the first things Corvias Group does when they start to partner with a university and start establishing leadership is to bring in and hire local personnel for communications and community outreach groups that work to establish a working relationship with the partners and the community. “[It takes] a lot of engagement up front and not waiting to be asked,” he says. “Bringing the engagement to them helps to promote that transparency and trust.”

Handling resistance

While presenting a development plan to a community, introducing the company and establishing a line of communication is a start, and sometimes the only steps necessary to move forward, sometimes projects meet heightened resistance due to a handful of community member concerns such as increased noise and traffic proximity to existing homes or businesses.

Developers often see this as an opportunity to further engage the community more in-depth by holding a town-hall style meeting where the public can air their concerns and questions. It also gives those companies an opportunity to create or refine processes for working with resistant residents or entities in the future.

George says that USL adheres to a four-point strategy on every project it approaches: Explain, Listen, Trust and Communicate.  Following the “explain” point, which covers the company’s introduction to the community, he says that USL then “listens” to a community’s concerns before moving on to the “trust” point which can include working “in partnership with neighborhood associations, local experts and city officials to acquire the optimal solution.”

“Hostility generally arises from people feeling they do not have a voice or they have received misinformation,” he says. “If there is a critical point of concern or contention that impacts a broad spectrum, we will hold town hall-style meetings so that there is an open forum to discuss their concerns and provide accurate information.”

The final point is “Communicate.” Along with meetings, it establishes a direct line of communication to management, via email, to respond to additional questions or concerns. Additionally, George says that using webcams on the project site can help add transparency by making “the community more comfortable and engaged.”

“We all understand that some people feel uncomfortable or threatened by a change in their environment,” he says. “Our experience has been that if you listen, keep people well-informed and include them in the process, the end result is generally cooperative neighbors and sometimes even strong advocates on your behalf.”

Campus Crest also has a strategy in place for creating new developments in the smaller college towns. Rollins says that Campus Crest has had several projects stall as a result of resident or community apprehension. He says that it is key to conduct a comprehensive review of each market ahead of time so that the company can help officials and local residents to understand the genuine need for additional purpose-built, professionally managed student housing in the towns.

“It can take years before a project receives the final approval, but it all boils down to your persistence,” he says. “If you really do your homework and help the residents understand [that] the community has a real need for additional purpose-built student housing and educate them on how you can help address this need while being sensitive to the community, it is most likely to result in a successful entitlement process. Usually when we are denied or—more likely—we table our proposal and go back to the drawing board, we have not taken the time to prepare the way we should have and interface with the community the way we should have.”

Corvias Group uses similar processes to work with the community, and Cannito says that putting oneself in the shoes of the community allows them to relate to residents’ concerns.

“I like to start out, whether it’s a town hall or a one-on-one gig with someone in the community, I always remind them that everyone in Corvias has a backyard,” he says. “We all share, when we’re not at work and in our own communities, the same concerns and questions that they have. We understand their questions and where they’re coming from.  Corvias changes their expectations and when they come in to ask us questions, they’re usually expecting us to avoid the question, but what they find is that we actually address the question, we address the concern and help them work through what the concern is and help them understand it better.”