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Every town and city in the country faces different challenges that make it difficult to create housing that’s affordable to all the different people who need it.

But to a surprising degree, the biggest challenge developers face in this arena isn’t necessarily the actual construction of such projects, but, rather, the building of another crucial element behind affordable housing: consensus. Developments that have the support of local political leaders and the people who live nearby can overcome the more traditional challenges associated with development, such as high costs and restrictions.

Without that support, however, proposals to build affordable housing often fail. Indeed, many a plan has struggled against what seems to be a bitter resistance to any new development.

“NIMBY is the biggest barrier,” says Chris Estes, president and CEO of the National Housing Conference (NHC). “Fear of change cuts across a broad range of neighborhoods and incomes.”

Fostering Support
Some affordable housing developers build support for their plans by studying the particular fears and needs of their proposed development’s potential neighbors.

Including these neighbors in the planning and design process is important, especially for prominent developments. “Planners stress the importance of engaging the community early, often, sincerely, and openly, in an effort to create dialogue,” according to Building Support for Transit-Oriented Development: Do Community-Engagement Toolkits Work? a report from the Center for Community Innovation (CCI).

It’s also important that the process of community engagement be a real negotiation, not a rubber stamp on decisions that have already been finalized and can’t be changed. “These are processes that can be manipulative, if planners use them exclusively to push through a pre-existing agenda,” notes the CCI.

Architect Andres Duany, creator of the “charette” process of community engagement, purposely explores potential disagreements in his meetings with communities, to make sure he understands possible resistance to development. “A charette is often confused with a political campaign,” he says. “It’s not about patting people on the head and calming them down.”

Successful developers, too, try to identify and address the needs of the community. “There’s a growing recognition that our country is truly in an affordable housing crisis,” says Andrea Ponsor, executive vice president for policy for Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future. “This seems to be opening the door to new partnerships and discussions.”

In high-cost markets, numerous studies now show how a shortage of affordable housing can hurt a local economy, because local companies might not be able to pay prospective employees enough to support high housing costs. “The business community is really recognizing the need for housing,” says Estes.

Federal officials created the Prosperity Playbook Toolkit to help link efforts to create new affordable housing with economic development. “Within the last year, the White House toolkit played an important role in peer exchanges and learning opportunities,” says Ponsor.

Different Challenges in Different Markets
Large cities may have an advantage over others when it comes to accessing available resources to help pay for affordable development, including high land, labor, and materials costs. However, they may also encounter a long list of stakeholders who may make demands of their projects.

Neighborhood groups, for example, might resist affordable housing if they feel their community has already been the site of too many affordable projects. Low-income neighborhoods, too, might resist new mixed-income or luxury developments they fear could push their rents higher as new, higher-earning residents discover the neighborhood and begin to displace lower-income people. “In high-cost cities, renters tend to be opponents of market-rate development,” says Estes.

Existing communities don’t always oppose new development, however—at least not unanimously. In Seattle and San Francisco, housing advocates have started “Yes, in My Backyard” groups that expressly welcome new development. “Activist groups are forming around the idea to saying yes to all kinds of housing,” says Estes.

In older, second-tier cities like Detroit and St. Louis, there are often large amounts of vacant and abandoned housing. Relatively small cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia might combine a development boom in the neighborhoods around downtown but still suffer from acres of empty lots and crumbling, vacant homes.

“The new development isn’t priced for any but the wealthiest households to move into—and a lot of people live in substandard housing,” says Estes.

“In communities with some distress, opposition may come from folks who may be on the edge of qualifying for some kind of assistance themselves,” says Amy Clark, senior director for the NHC. “They want the Walgreens, they want the Starbucks. They don’t want poor people dumped on them.”

First-time home buyers can be especially wary of any change that might affect the value of their new home. “That person has made a huge investment. He or she might look at the supportive-housing development coming in down the road as destroying their equity,” says Clark.

Yet, research has shown just the opposite: New affordable housing often raises nearby property values—especially if the new development replaces a blighted property. However, some opponents might have had their opinions shaped by the experience of living near a poorly managed affordable development.

In suburban areas, opposition can become even more intense. In many such locales, land-use regulations can make it difficult or even impossible to create new housing, resulting in one of the leading causes of the current undersupply of affordable housing. In many areas, zoning laws don’t allow the development of anything but single-family homes on large lots.

To obtain the right to build, affordable housing developers will need the support of local elected officials. These same officials can also bring financial backing to a development. “At the local level, the Housing Trust Fund has provided much-needed sources of funding for the construction of affordable housing,” says Ponsor.

Affordable development in rural areas faces a different set of hurdles. Many rural regions are losing population, especially young educated people. Residents’ incomes have stagnated and many rural homes are often substandard, according to an analysis of the latest U.S. Census data by the Housing Assistance Council (HAC). As a result, the cost of maintaining that housing is still higher than the low incomes of many rural households. “Affordability has become the largest rural housing challenge,” according to HAC.

Thus, in rural areas, affordable housing developers frequently struggle with many of the same issues as developers in urban cores and suburban areas, even though their properties are often much smaller. Communities frequently resist change, and it’s still a struggle to gather the capital to build a new community with, say, only 24 apartments.

The cost of rural construction is high as well, even though it’s less expensive than in big cities. “The per-unit and per-square-foot cost of construction [in rural locations] is higher than you might think,” says Ponsor. “The cost to build is close to that in high-cost areas.”