More than just a home; the place we live shapes how we live. Where we live maps our lives: where we go to school, where we shop for groceries, how we get to work, the air we breathe, and even our pathways to success over a lifetime. Leaders in Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, and beyond are puzzling together policies to unlock the promise and opportunity of their cities by keeping them affordable. 

But when it comes to messages that build public support for affordability solutions, most housing policy advocates are still in design phase. So, how do we construct stronger foundations?

FrameWorks Institute, a go-to shop for evidence-based messaging recommendations, conducted research for nonprofit affordable housing developer Enterprise Community Partners and found six common ways housing messages can backfire and ten constructive reframes.

Don’t forget to scroll all the way down to check out our flashcard for quick and easy housing talking points based on FrameWorks Institute’s messaging guide.

Six messages built to backfire

Through extensive interviews and discourse analysis, FrameWorks pinpointed common default patterns of thinking that hinder understanding of and support for affordability solutions:

  1. The personal responsibility, “self-makingness,” and mobility backfire: People tend to blame the individual for poor choices, lack of responsibility, or laziness or unwillingness to simply move somewhere cheaper.
  2. The separate fates and zero-sum thinking backfire: People don’t readily connect housing (someone else’s fate) to the fate of the community as a whole, let alone their own fate and wellbeing. Worse, fixes for “other” people may seem to require sacrifices by everyone else or competition for resources.
  3. The thin understanding of cause and effect backfire: Most people don’t understand the root causes or results of housing issues, making it difficult to make sense of solutions. The confusion between gentrification and smarter ways to create mixed-income neighborhoods is one good example. Unless you know pretty well how development and markets work, it can appear that the very same fixes low-income housing advocates are encouraging to revitalize and invest in vulnerable neighborhoods are the ones causing the problems they talk about solving in the first place: affordability and displacement. Without the basics, it’s hard to know whether development is part of the problem or part of the solution.
  4. The crisis and fatalism backfire: Crisis and urgency messages can cast the problem as too big to fix. This is compounded when messages trigger skepticism about government’s effectiveness.
  5. The not-in-my-backyard and natural segregation backfire: FrameWorks found a prevalent assumption that racial and economic segregation is “just the way things are”—that wealthy people seek out wealthy communities and racial minorities seek out communities where they can support each other or share cultural traditions. A “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative frames economic advancement as a matter of choice or effort, not systems or community rules. This thinking dilutes messages about the shared benefits of diversity and inclusion and bolsters community opposition (NIMBY) to housing solutions.
  6. The facts don’t fit the frame backfire: People are not swayed by evidence, data, and research, especially when the information doesn’t conform with what they already believe or experience. Rather than changing opinions, new evidence can further entrench misconceptions. Data and research cannot be the message; rather, they should enhance and support a compelling alternative narrative.

FrameWorks’ blueprint for constructive housing affordability messages

FrameWorks found plenty of evidence that the messages housing policy advocates currently employ can backfire, but they also found that these challenges can be overcome. The second phase of their research tested potential reframes. This is ongoing research, but here are some initial insights:

Position people in stories of places and systems (e.g. local laws) that shape communities and lives

Stories should balance the people, places, and systems perspectives. Giving problems and solutions a “human face” is good practice. But we should always give context to individual stories, showing how people both shape and are shaped by the places they live, as well as how community decisions, policies, and systems influence the places we share (like cities and neighborhoods).

Community values prompt “stories of us” instead of “stories of them”

Widen the lens from “them” to “us.” Illustrate how housing impacts everybody in a community, not just those pushed out, but also those who remain. And housing solutions work toward inclusive, healthier, and happier places. A big-picture “story of us” helps to tap into shared values, such as prosperity and ingenuity, to trigger collective thinking.

Stress that where we live shapes how we live, from our commute to food choices to chances for success

The idea that “where we live shapes our lives and our health” is persuasive but not top of mind, so our messages should remind people of this. Concrete examples are helpful (e.g., “When people live near grocery stores where fresh produce is available, it’s easier to eat healthfully” or “When families live near excellent public schools, their kids have a better chance of success throughout their lives.”) FrameWorks found that reinforcing this idea helped people think of shared community goals rather than blaming poor outcomes on an individual’s choices.

Map housing’s intersections with top community priorities

To bring the connection between housing and other issues into sharper focus, find ways to show how housing intersects with almost every other social issue and community outcome, from education and health to employment, public safety, and pollution.

Instead of disputing misguided thinking (e.g. blaming individual choices), give a compelling alternative (e.g. our community can make sure affordable choices are available)

Directly refuting false thinking is counterproductive. Instead, shift the emphasis off individuals to the systems they live with: community choices, rules, and investments. Together we shape what choices are available to individuals in our communities in the first place. Responsibility for affordability in our communities is collective. 

Cue solutions-thinking with simple explanations of cause and effect: Why there’s a shortage and how community rules can encourage more affordable homes

Most people need help seeing the causes and effects of housing insecurity. If we don’t give simple explanations of why we have housing problems, how solutions work, and who can make progress, people default to culprits outside our control: individual responsibility and uncontrollable market forces. FrameWorks found that a short, clear explanation of the cause and effect of housing insecurity increases support for policies and programs aimed at housing affordability. For example,

We make community rules together, and those rules shape our neighborhoods and what homes are available. When our policies make it so affordable homes are scarce, competition makes what is available more expensive. But people aren’t getting higher wages. That means they spend bigger portions of their earnings on housing, leaving less for things like child care, food, and healthcare. Our community can make sure the rules we set encourage a variety of housing choices in all shapes and sizes and price points so that people can afford to live here.

Acknowledge a history of inequality while refocusing on positive change going forward

It’s okay to bring up past challenges, but more effective to focus on the kinds of change that lead to better outcomes today. Our cities and neighborhoods have been shaped by discrimination and segregation, and it’s important to recognize how the policies of the past perpetuated patterns of inequity. But housing messengers should focus as well on community reforms that address inequity and improve outcomes going forward. Communities that benefit those who have been systematically left behind are better for everyone.

Show that we can do this! Link real success stories to the policy foundations they’re built on

Mistrust of government solutions and the size and complexity of the housing problem make it important to show, not just tell, how we can achieve solutions and that fairer and healthier and that more affordable housing is possible. Link concrete success stories to the local, community policies that made them possible.

Expand thinking about who plays a role in solutions, casting government as one of many key partners

Messages should position government as a tool for making community decisions together and as just one of many partners in housing solutions. Emphasizing shared community responsibility among a wide array of stakeholders opens the door to a broader range of solutions: zoning, land trusts, alternative models of development and ownership, assisted housing, and more.

Swap “housing” and “affordable housing” for inviting (less loaded) terms: “homes,” “neighborhood,” “community”

The research shows that the terms “housing” and “affordable housing” cue negative images of public housing projects. This thinking limits a broader view of housing within our social fabric. It’s better to use terms like “home” and to focus on places, neighborhoods, and communities.  

FrameWorks’ research casts doubt on many of our “go to” affordability messages. As they point out, individualism and a consumer rather than community lens shapes people’s thinking. Combine that with mistrust of government, competing economic and social priorities, and resistance to change, and the work of building public support—let alone simply avoiding pitfalls—can be daunting. But FrameWorks’ research also shows how those narrative circuits may be rewired. And these reframes are just the beginning; rigorous testing continues and a full communications strategy is under construction. (Expand the image below by clicking on it, or download the flashcard here.)

Original Sightline Institute graphic, available under our free use policy.

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April 5, 2017