To Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis, We Must Turn NIMBYISTS into Allies. Here’s how.

Written By: Dee Walsh
Chief Operating Officer

Skyrocketing real estate costs have brought America’s affordable housing crisis to a boiling point — and the pandemic’s service sector job losses and bullish real estate market have only worsened the problem. Out of Reach 2021 finds that in no state, metropolitan area, or county can a full-time minimum-wage worker afford a modest two-bedroom rental home. Forty-three percent of Black households, 41% of Latino households, and 25% of white households spend more than 30% of their incomes on housing, making it difficult for families to cover all of their household expenses. These challenges are highest in large cities throughout the U.S., making it impossible for many families to afford to live in the communities where they work.

Reversing this trend is crucial for the health and wellbeing of families and communities, as well as for racial and socioeconomic equity and inclusion. In order to rapidly increase the amount of available affordable housing in communities nationwide, we need to increase local, state and federal dollars for affordable housing, streamline approval and permitting processes, and address zoning conditions that limit where and how much housing can be built. Additionally, local communities must counter one of the most stubborn foes of development: NIMBYism.

“Not in My Backyard” Behavior

Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) behavior is often driven by fear of the unknown, racism, class bias, and a desire to maintain the status quo. Ironically, even people who are progressive on many issues and profess support for social and racial justice can be strong opponents of affordable housing when it’s proposed in their neighborhoods. It was NIMBYism rooted in racism that led to the first single-family zoning laws, and those laws continue to block multifamily affordable housing — along with diversity and equity — in neighborhoods with access to good jobs and schools. The result is that much affordable housing is built in low-cost areas that often lack access to quality jobs, schools and services, a phenomenon that perpetuates racial segregation and intergenerational poverty.

As the nation’s largest affordable housing nonprofit, we support the loosening of exclusionary zoning laws. In the meantime, to get much-needed affordable housing built, we use four strategies to turn NIMBYists into allies. Local leaders who are committed to expanding affordable housing will increase their chances of success by being thoughtful about site selection, conducting extensive community engagement, providing quality design and delivering excellent property management.

Four Ways to Counter NIMBY Sentiment, One Community at a Time

Work with local government to expand the amount of land that allows multi-family housing, and develop there.
This is optimal, since zoning changes are time-intensive and can allow opponents to hold up projects for years. If it’s necessary to use property that does require a zoning change, it’s vital to start the process early and choose a location where you have allies in the community and local government.

One additional challenge is that NIMBY opposition and exclusionary zoning may be less likely in areas with environmental issues, poor access to quality schools and a lack of transportation to jobs and services. Building housing in such locations doesn’t advance equity or provide good quality of life for future residents. Whenever we consider a site, we ask ourselves, “Would I live here?”

Work with partners who see affordable housing as a vital aspect of community health.
Often these partners are local governments that own vacant property, healthcare organizations that value the links between housing and health, or religious organizations that see housing as part of their social justice missions.

In Portland, we recently worked with the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary to get a zone change for the now-closed Marylhurst University campus so we could build 100 units of multi-family housing. The campus is in an affluent suburb, but due to the university’s relationship with the local community and the Sisters’ relationship with city planners, the approval process went relatively smoothly. In Chicago, we worked closely with the city to develop our Englewood Apartments on the South Side, with the local government donating land and providing Tax Increment Financing for construction.

Build relationships with neighbors.
As a developer and owner of affordable housing, Mercy Housing is a long-term investor in each community we serve, so we develop collaborative relationships with key community partners, local policy makers and public officials. When we’re new to a community, we take the time to meet the local players and listen to their concerns. Then, we strive to maintain ongoing communication so people aren’t surprised by our plans.

In developing Magnuson Place in Seattle, we coordinated with local school officials because the development would bring children to their classrooms. We also worked with local agencies to help provide services at the early learning center and health clinic that we developed on-site. Such partnerships, along with open communication with those who live in local neighborhoods, helps communities to value a development’s contributions to the area.

Use thoughtful site selection, quality design and sound property management.
Designing buildings so they fit into the neighborhood and involving neighbors in the process through charrettes and meetings are worth the time, as is building a reputation for responsible property management. When we start projects, we share information about our policies for resident screening, our approach to managing the property with on-site staff, and the role of our service coordinators in supporting resident through health, childcare, and job training services Recently, Mercy Housing developed a Racial Equity Lens Worksheet that will guide our real estate development staff in advancing racial equity as we plan new affordable housing communities.

Building strong community relationships and being a good neighbor often results in local communities becoming advocates. At one of our Denver properties, people who lived nearby donated food during the pandemic because they consider our residents neighbors and are committed to the community thriving as a whole. The more often we build such relationships in communities nationwide, the better chance we’ll have of solving the housing crisis.