Dispatches from the Messaging War

The FWD #167 • 533 Words

The affordable housing landscape is changing. Are we changing with it?

Are you a busy affordable housing professional with back-to-back Zoom meetings on your calendar with no end in sight? Have you suffered through the same NIMBY conversations in your community for your entire career? Have no fear: the eminently insightful Dr. Tiffany Manuel of TheCaseMade has a solution for you. 

You may recognize Dr. Manuel from You Don’t Have to Live Here and multiple speaking engagements in Virginia in recent years. She continues to produce actionable, science-based advice for changing hearts and minds around the big policy topics of our time, including zoning and residential development.

JLARC’s recent Affordable Housing in Virginia report reiterated the significant impact local zoning decisions have on our housing production, and consequently, our supply of affordable housing. Persuading the public, and by extension the elected officials they choose, continues to be essential to the success of our work—despite how difficult it can seem. 

Dr. Manuel, previously of FrameWorks and Enterprise Community Partners, is now CEO and President of TheCaseMade. She uses her skills as a social scientist to research, evaluate, and then propose solutions to building public dialogue and public will for the major public policy quagmires of our time. Housing policy is a key pillar of her work. 

HousingForward Virginia has followed, learned from, and disseminated the housing-related messaging work Dr. Manuel created with FrameWorks. In part, these innovative resources prompted HousingForward to begin our Overcoming NIMBY training curriculum in 2016. This curriculum evolved over the years, beginning first with defining NIMBYism, understanding its implications, and basic approaches to effectively combating it in housing work. 

FrameWorks’ 2016 report You Don’t Have to Live Here: Why Housing Messages Are Backfiring and 10 Things We Can Do About It was a wakeup call for many of us. It revealed—with new empirical evidence—that the most common marketing, communication, and messaging techniques we’ve used to build support for housing were actually backfiring on us. In other words, we were doing more harm than good.

Through their research, FrameWorks held focus groups and interviews and learned that underlying beliefs many Americans hold about economic mobility, prosperity, and housing costs were not persuaded by our most common messaging methods. Instead, our default appeals using data and individual stories actually reinforced pre-existing assumptions and biases, no matter how detached from reality. FrameWorks taught us that our messaging was working against us. You can see more specific examples of this in our 2018 training materials

Dr. Manuel and FrameWorks went on to produce alternative messaging materials they found to be more successfully persuasive. We most recently showcased these in our Overcoming NIMBY 3.0 training. This year, Dr. Manuel produced a new series of short articles entitled Building the Will. Volume 1 was released in March of this year and Volume 2 in April. These short, two-page briefs lay out simple processes for framing public messages and countering the most common NIMBY talking points.

Armed with these sample responses, our industry can step anew into public meetings and online debates and give this messaging a try. Share your feedback with us if you make use of any of these and find they have traction.

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