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Neutralizing NIMBY: 3 Lessons from Efforts to Build Support for Housing in Massachusetts

Neutralizing NIMBY: 3 Lessons from Efforts to Build Support for Housing in Massachusetts

By Eman Quotah, in conversation with the team at CHAPA

How important is housing in people’s lives? As our partners at Building a Better Brookline, in Brookline, Massachusetts, put it:

“Wherever we live in this nation, a home is way more than a building. It’s where the day starts and ends. It’s where family, friends, and neighbors get together. It’s full of hopes and dreams and love.”

Over the past 10 years, a growing scarcity of housing across the country has pushed communities to have increasingly urgent conversations about how to ensure everyone has a home from which they can thrive. But too often, conversations about housing are hijacked by negative narratives and fears. We should be rallying behind housing as the single best investment every community can make to secure the future we all want and deserve. Instead, people dig into entrenched positions against housing.

How do we get people up and over those “Not in my backyard” attitudes and excited about the opportunity of plentiful, affordable homes before it’s too late?

‘Building a bigger tent’

In Massachusetts, the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association, or CHAPA, recognized the first step: help local communities bring together and support affordable housing coalitions that go beyond the “usual suspects.” CHAPA is the state’s nonprofit umbrella organization for affordable housing and community development activities. It actively engages its membership, committees, and coalitions to advocate for the amount and diverse types of housing that Massachusetts needs for people and communities to thrive.

“The whole model is based on really building a bigger tent, engaging a broader stakeholder group than traditionally has been working on housing advocacy,” said Dana LeWinter CHAPA’s director of municipal engagement, in a recent TheCaseMade Brunch and Learn conversation. “So, you know, folks that are working on transit and sustainability and racial justice advocates and people with lived experience — how can we make sure their voices are part of our conversation?”

‘Support fell off’

The group was starting to see a lot of successes in broadening the coalition in places like Newton and Brookline. But staff members noticed that there was a need to “tighten up our messages,” LeWinter said.

CHAPA staff knew most people were concerned about the cost of housing in Massachusetts, and they supported more affordability. Still, there was a big “but.”

“When we got to the point where we said, ‘Alright, here's our solution,’ the support fell off,” LeWinter said. “They just really couldn't see a way forward and they were seeing the housing crisis as something that was unsolvable.”

Mapping a way forward

As TheCaseMade worked closely with CHAPA and several of its local partners to build a stronger case for housing in Massachusetts, we emphasized three lessons:

1. Tap into local aspirations. Housing is a common issue across the country, but every place has its own history and strengths. For example, in Massachusetts, we worked on a statewide message:

“Massachusetts should always be a place where our communities nourish us and help us grow. Right now housing is the single best investment that every community across the state can make to secure our future.”

Engine 6, a group of housing advocates in Newton, Massachusetts, crafted a vision that leverages the city’s environmental, egalitarian bent:

“Towards an inclusive and sustainable city where anyone can thrive.”

Keeping Newton connected, efficient, sustainable, and supported by public transport were goals the city’s housing advocacy partners could agree on.

2. Harness the power of the moment to build urgency. The past several years, there have been a number of large cultural moments — like protests against racial injustice and the widespread stresses of the pandemic — that have created windows for change. They have provided opportunities to help people envision — and choose between — two tomorrows: One in which we let the moment pass and resign ourselves to fate, and another in which we come together and act decisively for a better future.

In Massachusetts that choice of “two tomorrows” translates into a message like this:

“The urgent impacts of the COVID pandemic and the damaging legacy of racial injustice are putting our entire Commonwealth’s future at risk. Will we look back in 20 years and find that our inaction poisoned our soil? Or will we Bay Staters come together once again and lead ourselves to a thriving tomorrow by investing in the place we love?”

3. As you get allies on board, help them see how their interests overlap with housing. Whitney Demetrius, CHAPA’s director of fair housing engagement said, “Our allies are the housing authorities, the planning board, the city council members, the legislators, environmentalist groups, the religious leaders in the community and certainly, hospitals, the veterans agency, bike and transit advocates. … Everyone has a crisis. How do we help them to understand how their interests really overlap with housing?”

For each set of allies, the conversation becomes tailored. Your chamber of commerce will care about people being able to live and work in a thriving community. Your health care allies will care about “housing as health care,” the idea that having a safe, healthy place to live enhances people’s health across the lifespan.

“Our opportunity is to help people see their stake in this work,” Demetrius says.

Want to work with us to bring Strategic CaseMaking to housing advocacy where you live? Contact us to learn more about how we teach, guide, coach, and co-create with you as you learn and deploy the leadership skills and strategies to build support behind your quest for deeply transformational change.

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