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“What were we worried about?” is what affordable housing developers tend to hear from community members once they meet their new neighbors and see a housing development completed. But getting to that point requires developers first to build relationships and engage communities in smart conversations about affordable housing.

October 28 Investors CouncilOctober 28 Investors Council

At a recent MHP Investors Council event, developers shared their perspectives on gaining public support for affordable rental and ownership housing in suburban communities.

What works

Mike Waldo of Ron Clark Construction shared the following elements of success:

  1. Engage local political leaders – including mayors, city council members, and police chiefs—who will take the lead in the discussion
  2. Demonstrate that the proposed housing will be both affordable and of high design quality
  3. Demonstrate a long-term commitment to manage the housing with a strong property management team for fifteen years, thirty years, or more

Alan Arthur of Aeon explained the importance of building relationships: “If someone opposes a development, invite them out to breakfast. They still may not like your proposal, but if you can help them understand you're not the devil, perhaps you and your project won't get killed.”

Mike Nelson of Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity gave an overview of Habitat's comprehensive approach, which includes broad public education and advocacy about why affordable housing is beneficial to communities. Habitat then focuses on ensuring homeowners will be successful, and working with communities to build homes that fit into existing neighborhoods: “One example of this is that in the early years of our affiliate’s history we did not include garages. Today we design our homes to better match the existing neighborhood.”

Reducing fear of the unknown

In a discussion moderated by Minnesota Housing Commissioner Mary Tingerthal, many participants agreed that misperception and fear of the unknown continue to be the biggest barriers to serving any community’s housing needs.   People often talk about affordable housing in code language thinly masking bias against people of color or people in poverty, or invoking outdated images of infamous troubled housing projects.

Many developers and people in the audience agreed that dedicating consistent, significant resources to marketing affordable housing well is essential to change perceptions. Trent Bowman of Associated Bank challenged the audience to ask community members, “What are you afraid of?” when a new development is proposed for a neighborhood.

Community asset mindset

Demographic changes in suburban communities are both a local and a national trend, and are important context for the discussion in our region.

Gretchen Nicholls of Twin Cities LISC argued that, as suburbs face change, we need to talk about housing as part of the bigger picture of community assets.  

Paul Williams of Project for Pride in Living agreed: building on cultural assets and celebrating the opening of new businesses are among the benefits of working in housing and across community economic development issues. He asked, “How do we engage communities in a sophisticated, public way?” and urged the philanthropic community to invest in continued public engagement.

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To learn more about the MHP Investors Council, and the conversation described here, visit http://mhponline.org/about/investors-council/events