HIP Focus Area: Citizen Education & Outreach

  • Build community support for affordable housing and increased densities
  • Gain community’s knowledge of and participation in solving housing issues

Why is it important to plan for citizen education and outreach?

Increasing affordable, dense and diverse housing opportunities can be a contentious issue in any community. Many projects meet resistance from community members because of common misconceptions about the nature and residents of higher density and affordable housing. Citizens may misunderstand what increased density looks like, or the size of the impact it might have on their community. Additionally, the need for housing choices may not be perceived by the community.

Education and outreach can draw attention to the housing needs of overlooked lower- and moderate-income households and the benefits of housing diversity. Involving and educating the public on these issues can increase awareness and acceptance, thereby reducing barriers to constructing denser and affordable housing. Soliciting and integrating citizen input demonstrates that the local government is open to and representative of the public’s opinions.

Careful planning for education and outreach may make the difference between a process that ends divisively and one that results in widespread support for the local government’s decisions. Moreover, building community support early on can help prevent delays from resistance later. Increasing affordable, dense and diverse housing opportunities can be contentious in any community. In these cases, citizen participation and education do not just happen. Many cities and counties have followed the rules of public notice and meetings and still the process ended with hard feelings that officials didn’t listen.

What are some strategies to promote citizen education and outreach?

In addition to straightforward outreach and education strategies, the Toolkit includes other participation and information tools that reach the same objectives. Citizen education and outreach supports all the focus areas contained in this toolkit; you can strengthen many of the tools in other focus areas by combining them with these techniques.

What do I need to know to get started planning for citizen education and outreach?

Affordable or dense housing development is often met by community resistance. Many of the reasons behind people’s resistance are predictable, and relate to misconceptions and stereotypes. A good deal of education and outreach to citizens opposed to affordable housing development may involve “myth-busting” common concerns about affordable or new forms of housing built in one’s neighborhood (e.g., it will bring down property values, it is ugly and doesn’t fit the neighborhood character, crime will increase). Concerns about increased densities include increased traffic congestion, changes in community character, school overcrowding and aesthetic concerns. Many studies and examples provide evidence that counters these misconceptions, and references are included in the individual tool pages. All of the tools aim to smooth the road to attaining your community’s housing goals.

The tools and strategies selected to create a citizen education and outreach program will be very specific to your community, based on the following four general elements of the process:

  • Define the issue and gather information. 

Assess your community:

  • Do citizens know that (a lack of) affordable housing is an issue? 
  • Are there any affordable or innovative housing proposals on the table?
  • Are there parts of the city zoned for density, but not achieving near the maximum allowed density?
  • What are citizens’ concerns?
  • Who are the supporters and who needs to be won over?
  • What land is available for development?
  • What is the development climate like?
  • Are there any regulatory barriers to developing the types of housing you are seeking?

Gather Data:

  • Gather housing cost and other socioeconomic data.
  • Find examples of successful projects in communities similar to yours.
  • Look through your county’s Buildable Lands report to gauge whether some zones are building out under capacity.

The answers to these questions can help make the case for the need for innovative or affordable housing, and figure out who your outreach audience is. If you anticipate resistance to a housing strategy or project, gathering images, figures, studies and reports that debunk some of the common misconceptions about affordable and dense housing will help you prepare responses. See community outreach plans and strategies to address NIMBY for more information on addressing common misconceptions.

  • Engage stakeholders. Engaging stakeholders is ideal for every step of the process, from gathering information, to planning, implementing and monitoring a plan, ordinance, project, or program. Identify key stakeholders that should be involved to effectively address your unique housing issue. Stakeholders will vary based on the type of housing concern, program or project. If a specific project is on the table, certainly the developers, residents/block groups/homeowner associations in the neighboring area, potential residents and any associated non-profits or advocate groups should be involved. For example, when workforce housing is an issue, involving labor groups, workers, and major employers, would be important. If the housing issue is broader (e.g. a cottage housing ordinance or TOD overlay zone), outreach could be directed to residents and businesses in the areas affected. Involving stakeholder groups will help your community determine how best to reach out to the wider community.
  • Design education and outreach strategies and enact program. With stakeholder involvement and input, design a broad-level community education initiative. You should decide whether to reach out to a targeted population or extend the message community-wide, based on the intent of the initiative. If the outreach strategy revolves around a particular development, targeting just the neighboring residents and businesses may be sufficient, but if, for example, your community is developing an innovative housing ordinance, you would want to cast a wider net. Community outreach plans and strategies to address NIMBY provide suggestions on outreach and education techniques.
  • Strategically market your community as a place for investment, programs or projects. Build on and combine standard community involvement techniques (e.g. meetings and mailings) with other tools, such as community-based and strategic marketing programs, charettes, focus groups, and surveys, to get your message out. If relevant to proposed projects, begin drafting comprehensive plan amendments, development code, or program changes.

What do I need to know to get started planning for innovative single-family techniques?

Consider the single family neighborhoods in your community. Is existing density far below the maximum allowed in any areas? Is there development pressure on a part of the city that is already largely developed? Which single family neighborhoods in your city would benefit from more housing choices, including affordable options? What are the most appropriate areas to encourage added density in the context of the greater community plan?

Legal requirements. Some housing strategies adaptable to single family areas are either encouraged or required by state law. Comprehensive plans are encouraged to include “innovative land use management techniques” such as cluster housing and PUDs (RCW 36.70A.090). RCW 43.63A.215 requires cities with populations greater than 20,000 to allow accessory dwelling units within their single family zones. RCW 35A.21.312 requires cities to permit siting of modular housing units in areas zoned residential, in an effort to promote housing choices. Streamlined or consolidated permitting for projects with multiple permits is required by RCW 36.70B.210.

Development regulations. Many of the suggested strategies for encouraging innovative single family housing involve amending your community’s development regulations. A good place to start is by assessing your jurisdiction’s comprehensive plan, zoning code and other regulations. Goals in your comp plan may not be well implemented by current development regulations or may be precluded by restrictive zoning. Look for barriers in regulations that may unintentionally prohibit or discourage denser and more diverse forms of development in the single family areas you have targeted (e.g., setback, lot area, lot dimension and density requirements).

Development climate. It is important to understand the development climate of your community. If there isn’t much pressure for growth, these tools are not as likely to help you reach density and diversity goals. Plan on directing these strategies to zones where there is development interest. Speaking with developers could help you gain insight into where the proposed changes might work, or where and under what conditions they would be willing to create more diverse and denser developments. Efforts to promote efficiencies in the development process through streamlined regulations, SEPA exemption, permit prioritization and education of permitting staff can reduce overall project costs for the developer, with the savings passed on to residents. Combining these tools with incentives like density bonuses or fee waivers for units accessible to moderate- and low-income households may further induce builders to incorporate affordable units into their projects.

Education and outreach. Consult with block and homeowner groups in the neighborhoods where you are considering implementing new regulations. Speaking with affordable housing advocates could help identify strategies that would work best in the community. Techniques that encourage community acceptance partner well with strategies that preserve or introduce new forms of single family development. Using educational and outreach efforts when initiating new regulations can enhance community buy-in. Researching community opinion through survey tools, public meetings, stakeholder interviews and focus groups are the initial components of a community outreach plan. Completing a comprehensive outreach and education plan can build support for and acceptance of innovative single family techniques.

What are some key issues that may come up?

Several key issues may arise when developing or conducting citizen education and outreach.

Time. Citizen education and outreach, like all communication strategies, can be time- and labor-intensive. Bringing the right people together, engaging them, and proposing ideas of change can be difficult. Building support for an affordable housing project or overall housing strategy can take a long time, and getting everyone to agree on each issue is an unlikely outcome. For projects that add denser and new forms of housing, concerns about shifting community character are often deeply rooted and slow to change. To change opinions, how your package your appeal is often just as important as the facts you present. It is important to listen carefully to the divergent voices speaking, and understand the specific concerns of each. This will help shape the appropriate message delivered to each key group. Different interests will respond differently to messages.

It can be more costly and harder to raise support for a proactive approach to education and outreach than a reactive response. However, getting ahead of an issue before it manifests itself, e.g. championing the need for affordable housing or residential development in a town center before any developments are proposed, can prevent costs that might turn up later, like spending time and effort combating resistance to a proposal. Attempt to be as proactive as time and budget allow.

Expertise. The level of complexity of a housing issue and the associated education and outreach initiative may require expertise from outside of your community’s planning department. Funds may not be available to immediately hire a consultant to plan the engagement process or assist in outreach efforts. Taking on outreach and education internally can be a long-term commitment, and should be planned as such.

Participation.Obtaining participation from some groups can be challenging. It can be difficult to engage the “silent majority.” A vocal minority may be persistent, while representatives from other relevant groups rarely appear at events. This can particularly be the case with affordable or diverse housing projects or programs, where it can be difficult to engage the population who would be likely residents. It may be logistically difficult or uncomfortable for members of the population to participate in public meetings or events because of work schedules, child care needs, or language barriers. These issues point to the need for outreach strategies, materials, messages, and meetings to be channeled correctly and sensitively to the needs of participants and the community.