“I’m looking for resources to help put together an effective communications plan to manage NIMBY if we were to move our housing services into a new neighbourhood. I was wondering if the Homeless Hub had any resources that might be helpful to look at with this objective in mind?” 

This question came from Misha via email.

There is an unfortunate lack of guidance in creating specific communications plans, as evidenced by you needing to ask this question! NIMBY is something that many housing and homelessness organizations have found they need to overcome, so there are some resources available. I’ll first describe what NIMBY is for all our readers. Then I’ll discuss some responses to it and how they can be applied to communications.

Construction zone sign
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What is NIMBY?

NIMBY is short for “Not in my backyard,” which describes a phenomenon in which residents of a neighbourhood consider a new development (like affordable/supportive housing, a group home, or a shelter) or tenant changes within an existing building as unwanted or ill suited to the area.

NIMBYism has been especially common in the last few decades. Its arguments are typically rooted in anxiety and fear of change, and as such, do not highlight the benefits of shelters and affordable/supportive housing. They are also influenced by negative stereotypes and sometimes, outright discrimination of people living in poverty; people experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, and/or drug abuse. The ideas lead to concerns that that crime will increase, property values will go down, etc. if a new development serving these groups enters a community.

This can be difficult, but not impossible to overcome. The first step in creating successful communications for a shelter or affordable/supportive housing project is being able to speak to NIMBY-based concerns. The Greater Victoria Homelessness Coalition has created an excellent series of fact sheets about NIMBY; and the Ontario Human Rights Commission has an entire section debunking myths about shelters and affordable/supportive housing. Both contain references to studies that have found that the common NIMBY-based concerns are not true. (Crime doesn’t go up! And property values do not decrease!)

There’s also this study, which reviewed literature on the subject and found that subsidized housing developments do not negatively impact communities.

Potential supporters for shelters and housing
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Tips for effective communication

Once you know how to respond to NIMBY, it’s time to create your communications strategy. In her analysis of 14 case studies in 7 Canadian cities and across 5 provinces, Jeannie Wynne-Edwards writes: “While bias and prejudice may not yield to facts, education and awareness through the presentation of facts is important. This fear can only be addressed through education, awareness and change.” She also describes the entire NIMBY cycle and makes specific recommendations around what language to use based on what kind of opposition (ie. prejudice-based).

The Fair Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania made a great toolkit for developing fair housing. In its 4th section, they emphasize the importance of building community support. Here I’ve adapted some of their points on how to launch a successful community campaign:

  1. Research everything you can about the community. What it is like? Who lives there? What has happened to similar proposals in the past? Who are the neighbourhood leaders and political representatives? What are the zoning laws and bylaws of the area? 
  2. Find potential allies and seek their endorsement. Partner with nearby social service agencies. Find out how they’ve been involved with housing issues in the past, and if they have influence with any relevant decision makers. The writers of the toolkit make some specific suggestions about which kinds of groups to approach (pictured right).
  3. Make sure the messaging is specific. As the writers state: “Early in the process it is important to develop a set of talking points about why THIS development is the right project for THIS neighborhood and THIS community at THIS point in history.” People are much more likely to support a project they feel matters and they are invested in—it won’t be enough to quote general statistics about homelessness or the importance of affordable housing, though those can come in handy too.
  4. Prepare a media strategy. If your project is likely to meet opposition, reach out to media first to make the case for its development. This involves telling the story of why this project matters to this community, now. Be sure to also prepare short, fact-based responses to anticipated claims from opponents, as those will inevitably arise when media coverage comes around. (A legal strategy may also be necessary if opponents bring up zoning issues.)
  5. Get creative to reach different audiences. Putting up a few posters isn’t going to reach everyone you want to anymore. Embrace multimedia and social media, and factor each of those into your communications plan. Create different audiences (Potential Opponent, Youth, Person Experiencing Homelessness, City Councillor) and tailor materials to them, what they care about, and what their concerns might be. In the toolkit, the authors mention a particularly creative example where developers arranged public tours of existing affordable housing buildings to help residents see what the new development would actually be like.

My colleague Tanya also made a great suggestion in a previous Ask the Hub post, in which she highlights the potentially high impact of including personal stories from people with lived experience in communications. As she wrote:

The Dream Team, a group of mental health survivors who advocate for supportive housing, have used videos, post card campaigns and lawsuits to challenge both NIMBYism and to call for more supportive housing. By telling their stories — see Philip and Linda sharing their stories — they help educate the public and government alike about the importance of supportive housing and how it helped get them off the streets.”

A few other resources make similar points and are also worth reading:

- Jaimie Ross’s fact sheet on NIMBYism and overcoming community opposition

- The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s case study research on affordable housing projects

- Matthew McNeil’s step-by-step guide to overcoming NIMBYism

Additional resources

While none of this makes a complete communications plan, it hopefully provides a foundation and understanding of NIMBYism that can help you move forward in creating your own specific plan. Here are a few more resources you might want to check out: 

A guide to overcoming NIMBY for municipal officials (Canada)

Creating inclusive communities in Florida (United States)

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Photo credit: Elliott Brown on Flickr