Dealing with NIMBYism in Multifamily Project Development

Dealing with NIMBYism in Multifamily Project Development

One obstacle to building or acquiring sites for affordable multifamily housing is the notion of “not in my back yard” (NIMBYism). Although it is a difficult problem, developers and prospective site owners can get local support for buildings they want to construct. With the help of Gehbre Selassie Mehreteab, chief executive officer of NHP Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, we will show you how you can limit local opposition to controversial housing projects.

One obstacle to building or acquiring sites for affordable multifamily housing is the notion of “not in my back yard” (NIMBYism). Although it is a difficult problem, developers and prospective site owners can get local support for buildings they want to construct. With the help of Gehbre Selassie Mehreteab, chief executive officer of NHP Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization, we will show you how you can limit local opposition to controversial housing projects.

Types of Opposition

Among the many forms of opposition to multifamily housing proposals, four stand out, says Mehreteab. “Conflicts of interest, conflicts of values, loss of face, and misinformation are the four main reasons why communities resist building projects,” he says. “No single panacea tackles all these types of resistance; each issue must be addressed separately,” he adds.

Conflicts of Interest

When a developer suggests building an affordable housing project, basic interests within the community often emerge, says Mehreteab. Those in favor of building the multifamily project will voice approval because of the new benefits the developer is offering them. A new playground, more units, larger units or social areas, and improvements in services may be offered in the area.

Usually, opposition arises because people don't want change in their community: They don't want schools that are more crowded and less effective in educating their children; they don't want a high-density building project that limits views from their windows; and they are afraid that sites catering to residents in need of rental assistance will cause their homes to decrease in value.

Conflicts of Values

“Reducing opposition based on conflicts of values requires a variety of time-consuming and hand-holding strategies: negotiation, advocacy, and persuasion,” says Mehreteab. Advocates of multifamily housing development usually think they are doing good for the community by fulfilling the rental needs of low- and moderate-income households, he says. Those who want to limit growth in the neighborhood see themselves as defending individual rights or protecting property rights, he adds. Each side tends to see its own position as correct from a moral and “social justice” standpoint, and the other's position as morally wrong, unjustified, or even parochial or racist. No matter how far apart the core values of each side may be, it is possible to have intelligent discussions about the future of a community without descending into recrimination or violence.

To appeal to the common interests in a community and to the good nature of the individuals within it, developers must craft a message advocating a position that suits a wide range of moral perspectives, says Mehreteab.

Loss of Face

How a developer initially treats local officials and existing households can have a long-term effect on their goodwill toward a project. Sometimes activists will be hostile to a project simply because they feel the developer has been a disrespectful, arrogant, flashy, fast-talking stranger to the community. Advocacy groups in the community may think that the developer did not give them due respect or was condescending to them. “This is called ‘losing face,’ ” says Mehreteab. “When that occurs, activists who may have no rational basis for objecting to a proposal will reject it because they need to fix what they perceive as damage to their sense of importance to themselves and to their role in the community,” he adds.

Mehreteab speaks from personal experience: He was forced to sell one of his own sites, in Lindenwold, N.J., because of the NIMBYism that local community leaders were able to fan into hostility from the office of the mayor and the city council.

A developer offering a multifamily proposal that has the potential for controversy should be especially sensitive to the self-esteem of community residents and must treat them with respect to avoid undermining the project unnecessarily, says Mehreteab. “Building within controversial circumstances is no time to bring out the bull-in-a-china-shop mentality,” he adds.


Project opponents may try to exaggerate fears in the community of what will happen if the developer is allowed to have its way. “Their usual mantra is: It's going to be a Section 8 site filled with riff-raff from the inner city who will invade and degrade our beautiful little community,” Mehreteab says. But opposition may actually be based on incomplete or inaccurate information. If so, developers can provide information tools, such as flyers and more detailed reports, about the project.

“It's much better to be the author of the information about your project instead of having to dispel misinformation presented by the opposition,” Mehreteab says. “Simple facts, such as the number of units, rent charts, rigorous applicant screening process, are proven project savers,” he adds.

However, if opposition is not caused by lack of clarity in describing the project, you may not want to give out a lot of information. Sometimes additional information will raise issues that the community either did not know about or was not concerned about earlier. Excessive information can also distract people from the housing goals you want to communicate. It is not in a developer's best interest to stretch budgets thin with costly advertising or direct mail campaigns, because those efforts may not end opposition to the project or build support for it.

Building Real Support

No matter how much time and money you spend, you can't turn fierce opposition into undying support for your multifamily housing project. The key is to accept a given level of community resistance and go beyond it by being visible at hearings, the local annual fair, and community celebration days, says Mehreteab. “The more visible, the better,” he adds. A developer must get ordinary citizens to make calls, write letters, hand out leaflets, and speak at hearings—to reach out to the community in support of the proposed project, he notes.

Best Approach

The hardest task is to get people who favor a project to actually show up and testify in support of it.

“I have found that people are more likely to testify on behalf of a project if they have already been helpful performing smaller tasks, such as working on petitions and getting endorsements from others,” Mehreteab advises. Once you have people working for you on petitions and endorsements, you have an initial, public commitment of support, and you will be able to ask for more from these supporters later on, he adds.

Think Strategically

Developers know from experience that opposition to proposals is a standard ingredient in the process of building a housing project, especially affordable multifamily housing sites. But you can resolve opposition through strategic thinking, says Mehreteab. For example, you should seek ways of compromising that don't affect your bottom line, instead of confronting opponents with the goal of winning.

Seek “win-win” solutions to issues raised by the community. By bearing that in mind and by disseminating facts about the project to the community, developers can eliminate, or at least reduce, local opposition to the project, he notes. If they use the right approach, developers of multifamily sites may even be able to get the community on their side, he adds.

Insider Source

Gehbre Selassie Mehreteab: CEO, The NHP Foundation, Washington, DC


Washington State Plans to Help Projects Faced with NIMBYism

Projects in Washington state that lose tax credits under the low income housing tax credit program (LIHTC) because of “Not-In-My-Backyard” (NIMBY) opposition from the local community can expect help from the Washington State Housing Finance Commission (WSHFC).

In cases where neighborhood opposition groups cause delays and prevent LIHTC projects from proceeding, forcing developers to return tax credit allocations and then reapply, the WSHFC has proposed a policy to grant relief. WSHFC plans to give priority for tax credit allocations to developers who can show that NIMBYism prevented construction or otherwise had an adverse effect on project continuity. Under the new policy, projects temporarily derailed by NIMBYism would be given the highest priority regardless of their competitive ranking. A NIMBY-affected project qualifies for relief if it:

  • Fails to score sufficient points for a tax credit allocation;

  • Shows that the developer prevailed on issues that caused or led to construction delays;

  • Submits a reapplication that is virtually identical to the one originally applied for; and

  • Establishes that the project remains financially viable.

According to WSHFC, the purpose of the new policy was to send a strong message to groups deploying delay tactics as a means to prevent tax credit projects from proceeding.

The WSHFC's policy permits a developer to get credit for any previously paid reservation fee. However, developers would still have to pay a new application fee for each project that was stalled due to neighborhood opposition, but that was restarted. Furthermore, tax credits awarded under WSHFC's new NIMBY policy would not be counted against allocation set-asides.