Using Technology to Build Support for Affordable Housing

by Katie Sloan

For developers of affordable housing, a certain amount of NIMBYism is virtually inevitable. But the contentiousness of our times has amplified the rumbling of, “not in my backyard,” into a shout. Time consumed in countering the claims and tactics of affordable housing opponents can damage or derail a developer’s plans — delaying approvals, raising costs and in some cases causing the project to be abandoned altogether. At a time when large segments of the population have been priced out of many neighborhoods, the need to defuse NIMBYism is critical, not simply for preserving individual communities, but also for protecting the greater social fabric.

Fortunately, time-tested strategies that have long been used to win over local affordable housing opponents become even more effective when shifted to web-based platforms. Savvy developers are now using their websites and social media to discredit stereotypes about affordable housing communities, demonstrate transparency and promote dialogue. When community members realize that affordable housing is something that can contribute to their neighborhood rather than detract from it, the conversation changes dramatically.

Introduce Yourself with a Compelling Website

Opponents of affordable housing often couch their objections as an appeal to the greater good, highlighting the potential effect a community might have on traffic, open space or neighborhood character. Although these arguments may have some basis in fact, more often than not NIMBYism is inseparable from misinformation and fear of the unknown. Opponents bring to the table preconceptions about the design of affordable housing, the behavior of its residents and the motives of its developers.

A thoughtful, well-constructed website can go a long way in helping a developer dispel these myths by moving the conversation from emotions to facts. It might highlight completed communities, offer profiles of residents and include endorsements from civic leaders. A website provides an opportunity for developers to tell their stories on their own terms.

Laura Bailey, Senior Vice President, Capital One Community Finance

For instance, Breaking Ground, a New York City-based developer, uses its site to paint a comprehensive picture of its activities. It includes a timeline of its almost 30-year history, highlights the positive impact specific properties have had on local communities and debunks stereotypes with resident success stories. Furthering transparency, it even posts its annual reports and audited financial statements.

There is no single formula for an effective website. Bowery Residents’ Committee (BRC) is another New York organization providing housing and services to homeless adults. Its website stresses its grassroots origins and its commitment, maintained over five decades, to find ever more effective ways to serve its clients. It has a special section, for instance, explaining the theory behind its innovative Homestretch Housing Program, which combines a homeless shelter and affordable permanent housing in a single property. The section also introduces its first Homestretch community, Landing Road, in the Bronx.

Open Up the Discussion with an Interactive Platform

Attractive, easy-to-navigate websites are a great way for developers of affordable housing to present themselves to a larger audience, but they have limitations. Most websites are designed explicitly to convey information, not start a dialogue. Furthermore, their usefulness for developers depends on the curiosity of community members who seek them out.

Accordingly, some developers — often with the help of specialists — are taking technology a step further to promote interaction and build community. These companies create comprehensive civic engagement platforms for clients that include moderated community forums, surveys and polls and text messaging campaigns.

For instance, developers might have Boston-based coUrbanize set the stage by creating an information-rich online platform, including specifications, renderings, floorplans, maps, meeting announcements, engineering reports, environmental studies and FAQs. CoUrbanize generates interest in the platform by posting notices around the neighborhood, inviting community members to express their views on a question related to affordable housing and providing a QR code to make it easier for them to reply. They can also publicize the website on social media and in communications with neighborhood groups. Once someone has replied, he or she is added to the list of users and receives text message updates when new documents are posted.

Users are encouraged to post comments. For instance, if a plan includes retail space, they might be asked what sort of shops they would like to see. The developer can respond to their suggestions, creating a dialogue.

Broaden the Conversation and Increase Supporters

These forums give developers an opportunity to correct misinformation and convert doubters. For instance, one poster on a forum coUrbanize established for a mixed-use community under consideration in Chicago claimed that the developer, “was only obligated to put veterans here if [it] get(s) a grant.” The developer was able to set the record straight, asserting, “we are actually going to be setting 20 percent of the units aside exclusively for veterans regardless of whether we get the grant or not.” The forum gave the developer the opportunity to address issues around parking, décor and apartments reserved for people with disabilities.

Karin Brandt, CEO and Co-Founder, coUrbanize

These civic engagement platforms provide a number of other advantages. They not only promote the conversation, but also expand it. The Chicago forum generated 171 comments in five weeks, many from people who would not normally have had the time to attend planning commission meetings. By casting a wider net, forums yield a more accurate profile of community sentiment.

Online platforms also allow developers to incorporate suggestions into their designs that make their projects more acceptable to communities. Inspired by the suggestion of an online supporter, a coUrbanize client set aside housing for artists. Community members appreciate this kind of developer receptivity. One reason that people object to affordable housing communities is that they feel they are being imposed on them. The forum gives them a voice in how they are developed.

Finally, such forums become documents that developers can present to planning commissions as a way of demonstrating that they have engaged the community. After all, cities are looking to make sure that developers have incorporated community input into the process and these platforms give them an opportunity to show that they have responded to the community and are building a better project because of it.

Set the Stage for Productive In-Person Conversations

So often at groundbreaking, people who had originally objected to an affordable housing community come up to its developer and complement his or her work. They often comment that they had no idea the community would be so attractive. Smart use of technology enables developers to correct these misperceptions at the very beginning of the process, even before the project comes up for discussion at public forums.

It’s all about finding creative ways to bring in the voice of the community, listening and incorporating what you hear to bring a development to life that works for everyone.

Laura Bailey, senior vice president, Capital One Community Finance, and Karin Brandt, CEO and co-founder, coUrbanize

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