Integrating Community Outreach into the Development Process

Published by Jennifer Hill on Friday, February 1, 2013
Journal thumb February 2013

While a low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC) property’s success depends largely on financing, putting together the deal isn’t necessarily the first step of the development process. After a site has been selected, affordable housing developers can put their property on the right track by securing neighbors’ support from the outset.

“Some people might think, ‘Let me do my application and see if I’m going to get money first.’ But if you’ve been working on the project six to eight months before it goes public, people’s concerns will still be the same. The right time to do it is before you apply and certainly before you buy land,” said Bill Rumpf, president of Mercy Housing Northwest.

Meeting Your New Neighbors
Seasoned affordable housing professionals suggest sharing information on the development proposal with the neighbors. They recommend distributing flyers, canvassing door-to-door, and/or hosting open house forums or small meetings to spread the word to as many community members as possible. A two-block radius around the development site is a good rule of thumb to use for focusing these efforts, according to Sibyl Glasby, associate director of real estate development at Mercy Housing Northwest. The Non-Profit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH) discourages large open community meetings because they can sometimes turn into forums for opponents to organize against the development. However, Glasby said inviting known supporters of the project to the presentation can help ensure a positive presentation of the proposal.

One way to make sure the community feels included is by showing them conceptual designs at the meetings and asking for their input on traffic, parking, playgrounds, common areas and services, said Cynthia Parker, president and CEO of BRIDGE Housing. Consider the audience and avoid using jargon or specialized financial terms during these conversations. “It takes an effort to get it on a level where you’re meeting people and not talking about your housing trust fund and your tax credit basis,” Rumpf said. Handouts should include the design proposal, general information about the intended tenant population, photos and descriptions of existing properties, and fact sheets or primers on affordable housing. Another important step is to remember to provide a translator and translated materials in neighborhoods where English may not be every resident’s first language.

After hearing neighbors’ thoughts and concerns, a willingness to accommodate them where feasible can help developers gain the public’s trust and can even benefit the project. For instance, during meetings with future neighbors in Tacoma, Wash., Mercy Housing Northwest discovered that an affordable senior property, rather than the family housing it had planned to build, would better serve the area. “Keeping your ability to make some changes is important,” Glasby said. Small-scale changes such as preserving the landscaping or changing the window orientation are examples of requests that developers can easily accommodate, she said. “If you’re still in the schematic phase it’s really not that costly.”

Demonstrating Worth
A track record of successful affordable housing can go a long way toward persuading neighbors to support a development proposal. Michael Lane, policy director at NPH, recommended that developers organize a bus tour of existing properties so that elected officials, planning commissioners and neighborhood activists can get a better idea of what the new development will look like. “It’s critical for us to be seen as good neighbors who are making major investments and improvements in neighborhoods,” he said.

NPH suggests making it as convenient as possible for the target audience to participate in the tour, and motivating them to attend by using popular speakers and offering refreshments. Other organizations may even be interested in co-sponsoring the tour. If property opponents are the target audience, NPH advises developers to inform them politely that decision-makers will be notified of their response to the tour invitation. Well-maintained properties that are at least 10 years old should be included on the list of sites to tour, if possible, to demonstrate the buildings’ durability and the quality of the property management.

Debunking Myths and Handling Opposition
“You have to convince people that this will not be a place of chaos, but a place where people live,” said Harry Hoffman, executive director of King County Housing Development Consortium (HDC). Common misconceptions about affordable housing include adverse effects on property values, overcrowded schools, and increased crime and traffic. Some ways to address these concerns include working with the local Parent Teacher Association, presenting crime statistics from neighborhoods with existing affordable housing, providing profiles of working individuals in the area who live in affordable housing.

“You need to meet with the people who are opposing it and try to identify exactly what they are opposed to,” Glasby said. “It’s better to have a one-on-one conversation about it rather than having it in a group setting.”

After the specific points of contention have been identified, provide any information necessary to allay the concerns, strive to keep the lines of communication open and try not to use labels. “Don’t use the ‘NIMBY’ word. It can be tempting to use it in an industry that’s so acronym-focused, but boxing people by using that term sets you up for a battle,” Hoffman said, noting that HDC prefers the terms “neighborhood concerns” or “neighborhood opposition.”

Local forums and neighborhood blogs can breed either support or opposition for proposals, said Hoffman, so it can be useful to find a supportive neighbor who is willing to contribute accurate information to those discussions. NPH cautions developers against falling into the trap of spending too much time and energy responding to project opponents. That time would be better spent providing existing supporters with up-to-date information and recruiting new allies.

The process of gaining the neighborhood’s support can be challenging and time-consuming, but it’s integral to the success of the development and its tenants. “You want the future residents to be welcome and not ostracized or marginalized,” Hoffman said.