When NIMBY Attacks

NIMBY opposition doesn't always turn out against multifamily projects, but when it does, it typically puts a viable project on the defensive, which at the very least increases risk and costs. At worst, the project fails to receive political approvals. How you respond to the crisis will determine the project's fate.

NIMBY opposition doesn’t always turn out against multifamily projects, but when it does, it typically puts a viable project on the defensive, which at the very least increases risk and costs. At worst, the project fails to receive political approvals. How you respond to the crisis will determine the project’s fate.

Let’s imagine you’re at city hall waiting for your multifamily project to be reviewed and voted on by the city commission. It’s a zoning change request that city planners recommend the city commission approve. However, a small but vocal number of neighbors have showed up at the public hearing to voice their opposition to the project.

The NIMBY opponents have a vast array of reasons why the project should be rejected: from increased traffic, crime and overcrowded schools to reduction in property values, community character and quality of life.

It’s an election year for the mayor and two commissioners who know that homeowners vote and renters don’t—at least in local elections. The vocal opponents wave their signs, antagonize the commission and turn the public hearing into a Jerry Springer episode, effectively tabling the vote.

Your multifamily project has quickly become controversial, the beat reporter begins writing the David v. Goliath story and elected officials are scrambling for political cover. The project has become politically radioactive.

At this crucial point of the application process is where most projects are in the crosshairs.

Most “how-to defeat NIMBY opposition” articles focus on after the NIMBY genie has already left the bottle. These “how to” papers go into depth on quickly creating a website, activating social media, mobilizing advocates, setting up town hall meetings and adding direct mail and other paid media to neutralize a small band of vocal opponents.

Such papers speak to our tendency to immediately counter and engage the opposition to mitigate the crisis. This is a natural reaction to defend the project and the corporation’s reputation.  However, this action generally makes a crisis situation even worse and often forfeits the political high-ground to opponents.

The better practice in neutralizing NIMBY opposition, especially after they blindside your project at a public hearing or town hall meeting, is to step back and evaluate the situation. Yes, there will be a negative press report—maybe two—but applicants who hastily engage the opposition typically extend negative news coverage, which dig even a deeper political hole for you to climb out.

It’s counterintuitive, but more often than not, by standing down and stepping back out of the public eye, you no longer give the opposition a broad target to attack, which diffuses the situation. For example, elected officials, after feeling the heat from the NIMBY forces, strongly suggest you do a town hall meeting.

What typically happens at town hall meetings? They get hijacked and torpedoed by the vocal opposition, which get even more negative press against the project. So why create opportunities for the opposition to have a platform to attack your project?

Cartoonist Walter Kelly had his Pogo character famously state, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” In the context of neutralizing NIMBY opposition, most corporations not only empower vocal minorities, but in many cases create them.

The great majority of NIMBY opposition derives from a lack of information and mischaracterizations that are amplified by the emotionally charged gossip. The notice and hearing system compounds these false perceptions by failing to educate the public.

This lack of education creates an opportunity for homeowners scared of change or activists with a political agenda to exploit fears and biases. Therefore, when you encounter NIMBY opposition, it’s often a sign that you need to conduct community outreach and recruit opinion leaders to educate key stakeholders.

The future of your multifamily project is not determined by the impact of a NIMBY attack, but instead by how you respond to the situation.

How you respond, when you respond and in what manner you respond requires a strategic response—not reactions that empower a very small segment of the greater community.

Patrick Slevin is former mayor of Safety Harbor, Fla. He is a senior vice president who heads the Tallahassee, Fla. office of Hill & Knowlton, an international public relations firm.