Image by Joe Flood licensed under Creative Commons.

In my first post I discussed four main types of affordable housing supporters and detractors. This time, I'd like to share how to convince these different groups of people to support local housing development initiatives.

On the pro-development side we have YIMBYs, who support both new development and policies that help ameliorate issues like displacement and segregation. Their libertarian cousins, the Market Urbanists, think reducing and reforming housing regulations without specific “affordable housing” initiatives is the best way to help everyone.

On the anti-development side of the spectrum there are NIMBYs, who often identify as liberal or progressive but oppose development that could theoretically address environmental and other social issues they typically care about. Then finally we have BANANAs, who are staunchly against development of any kind.

The two groups I'd like to address here are the Market Urbanists and the NIMBYs. By getting them to “yes,” we’d create a diverse and credible coalition.

Using language of economics isn't convincing

The purpose of Nall's paper Beyond “NIMBYism”: Why Americans Support Affordable Housing But Oppose Local Housing Development was to test “primes” on the different groups. These primes were economic arguments about the demand for housing, such as how additional supply is needed to maintain affordability. The authors found that these primes had little effect on support or opposition for new housing, regardless of the original viewpoint of the person surveyed. This suggests that economics is not a persuasive way to frame the issue of affordable housing.

This finding should be largely unsurprising to housing advocates. The Sightline Institute, a pro-development organization in Seattle, released a “media audit” last year specifically advising their supporters to avoid supply-and-demand language in housing discussions.

There’s also the crucial recognition that NIMBYs are not a cohesive group themselves. One major, if broad, distinction must be made between higher-income homeowners who fret about “neighborhood character” (see: Margaret Atwood) and lower-income renters who fear gentrification and displacement.

Lisa Schweitzer, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California, undertook a project this past summer called Getting to Yes with YIMBY in LA. In it, she lays out the assumptions that YIMBY types (including me) make in housing debates, and how these don’t always resonate with people living in the affected neighborhoods (to put it mildly). To pick just one representative quote, from a black renter in Inglewood:

…if new housing is so important, start on the west side. Show how it works so great over there before coming here. Those people can afford higher rents. We can’t. If their kid gets crowded out of a classroom because of new kids, they can afford to send their kid to a tutor or a private school. We can’t. But we’re the ones that are going to wind up getting crowded. Everybody wants to live over there on the west side anyway. But it won’t happen. So it’s on us, like it always is, to lose what we have now, because that’s feasible.

This observation is backed up by data. As described in this Politico piece, research by NYU’s Furman Center showed that zoning changes in New York City tended to upzone (allow more density) in poorer minority neighborhoods and downzone in whiter, wealthier areas with more homeowners.

In other words, when YIMBYs talk about adding infill density as a way to address unaffordability, communities of color rightfully wonder whether they’ll see real benefits such as lower rents, or only the costs. Even YIMBYs such as housing activist Rick Jacobus have pointed out that while new market-rate housing may help keep down rents on a regional scale, at the neighborhood level, it can merely be a harbinger of displacement.

Can TILTS get NIMBYS to yes?

So, what can we do to address these concerns? The Market Urbanists, with their penchant for economics, are intrigued by the concept of TILTs, or Tax Increment Local Transfers. A TILT is a mechanism that would devote some of the increased tax revenue from new developments to directly paying neighbors to be OK with that development.

Research cited in the Nall paper finds some supporting evidence: “Proposed local developments that were endorsed by local elites and that provided ‘side payments’ to the community often won unexpected support.”

TILTs, the brainchild of Yale Law School professor David Schleicher, have not been put into actual practice as of yet. In Schleicher’s conception, the TILT would be a more technical mechanism than simply cutting a check – something like a property tax rebate for nearby landowners over the course of ten years. The exact amount of the rebate would vary based on how much tax revenue the development brings in.

This is meant as a more straightforward alternative to implicit payments like Community Benefits Agreements, in which developers and NIMBYs hammer out what sort of amenities, like green space and parking, the developer should pay for. This can cause costly delays, and there is no guarantee that opponents are arguing in good faith.

Yet, as already discussed, purely economic arguments don’t tend to be effective; people are social creatures driven by more than just dollars and cents. And the political blowback would likely be immense, which is probably why TILTs haven’t been enacted anywhere to date.

In any case, you’d have to deal with BANANAs who will staunchly oppose anything new. That’s their right, but it’s an opinion that is too often privileged simply because people with other viewpoints don’t show up to the right meetings, or can’t agree on some ideal solution.

Bridging the gap with YIMBY

YIMBYism tries to incorporate both pro-development and pro-assistance mindsets into policies that, while still imperfect, hopefully improve on the status quo.

The Market Urbanists have good points about, well, markets: they work best when supply is allowed to be elastic enough to meet demand. As demand surges, supply needs to keep pace. Without addressing this basic point, true affordability will remain out of reach.

But NIMBYs have more to offer than they are often given credit for. If we only discuss housing in a detached, numerical way, we can forget that we’re talking about people’s homes.

Professor Schweitzer, similar to the Sightline guidance, recommends supporting needed housing projects by speaking in terms of real projects with tangible benefits:

“I have heard more stories about friends/neighbors/family members/people from their church [experiencing] rent increases and people moving to Lancaster and Moreno Valley than I can count. They are short on stories about how the new development helped everybody, and people got to stay if they wanted to do [so].” (emphasis mine)

This is a tall order, especially as much of the argument for new development helping affordability is “filtering.” Filtering refers to the idea that luxury buildings today will become affordable housing in a generation or two, while preventing market-rate rents from rising too quickly in the meantime.

Obviously, it’s a tough sell to tout benefits that may not occur for 30 years, while fears of displacement are very real every day. We need examples of new developments that have benefited a broad range of people – and if not enough examples exist, we need to fight to create them.

So, question for readers: What projects in the DC area should be held up as models? Which shouldn’t? Which are close, and could be much better with a few tweaks?

Read part 1 of this series here: Beyond NIMBY: Understanding different affordable housing advocates and detractors