Editor’s note: This is the first of several housing affordability messaging recommendations resulting from Sightline focus group testing. 

Sightline has conducted two rounds of focus groups (six groups in all) to explore Seattleites’ attitudes about affordability. In the first round we recruited groups of moderate- to low-income homeowners and renters. Participants were screened to be politically moderate or progressive, Seattle residents for at least five years, fairly neutral about housing issues and density, and not overly distrustful of government. Participants reflected a diverse range of ages, education levels, and racial and ethnic backgrounds.

We asked each group’s participants to share how they are feeling about growth, density, development, displacement, and a menu of affordability solutions. Needless to say, housing is an emotional, top-of-mind issue. Seattleites are anxious about changes they see around them, and the feeling is personal: many are struggling with the cost of housing, or they have friends or family who have been forced out of the city.

Participants expressed their sense that growth and development feel out of control and that solutions cater to newcomers, not “locals.” They see developers as the problem, not part of the solution. In this context, it’s difficult to cast building as key to keeping prices down.

But we also found opportunities for productive engagement on solutions. People don’t always agree how we get there, but our qualitative research helped us home in on a destination they do agree on. In fact, we can go a long way bringing all kinds of Seattleites together around solutions when we focus on broadly shared values and big-picture goals for the city.

Here are the top messaging strategies from homeowner and renter focus group testing (find the full research summary here):

  • Pivot from buildings and neighborhood “character” to people—neighbors and the characters who make a community! Seattleites value the quirky, unique charm of the city’s neighborhoods, and buildings do add to that charm. But it’s important to refocus on the neighbors who make Seattle’s neighborhoods interesting, lively, unique, and full of character. When rules make only certain building types available, it determines who can or cannot afford to live in a community.
  • Toggle people to their big-hearted side. As in most complex policy contexts, we find that people can hold multiple, often conflicting beliefs and attitudes. Thinking about housing affordability and growth in Seattle, participants toggle between competing perspectives and motivations. The most effective messages will help trigger and reinforce broadly-held big-hearted, community-minded attitudes. To help toggle from “me” thinking to “we” thinking, reinforce the vision most share for a vibrant, diverse city where all kinds of people from all income levels can afford to make their home.
  • Include everyone in the story, newcomers and long-time residents alike. For many, it can feel like the city is rolling out the red carpet for new arrivals and pulling the rug out from under people who’ve been here a while. Accommodating a growing population is a big part of the challenge, but existing communities feel like they are bearing the burden rather than relishing the benefits of change. Affordability solutions are for everyone, and we should go out of our way to make sure people who already live here, and not just newcomers, can see themselves in the picture. We should acknowledge that along with the city’s prosperity come concerns about traffic and change and also seize opportunities to spell out ways everyone stands to benefit.
  • Play up community values with choice frames: What kind of places do we want to live? Exclusive or inclusive neighborhoods? McMansions or more modest, affordable choices? When we frame clear choices and the directions in which they’ll take us, we reinforce big picture thinking and community values. Growth and change feel out of control for many. To regain a sense of control and address prevalent equity concerns as prices rise, consider “choice” frames that suggest two ways the city can go: one where we expand opportunity for all kinds of people at all income levels, another where we see prices rising and all but the wealthiest residents being pushed out of the community. It’s good to cast community affordability solutions as a way to work together to shape how the city changes.
  • Paint a picture of density (without saying the word): When it comes to density, it’s better to show than tell. The word itself is a turnoff. In fact, it conjures people’s worst fears of endless highrises and congestion. But most people describe an ideal place to live as convenient, walkable, and close to transit, schools, jobs, outdoor spaces, and things to eat, see, and do. (Pssst. Guess what? They just described density!) So, skip the density jargon, and opt instead for descriptions of great places to live.
  • When you do talk about buildings, name specific affordable home types: When we named specific types of more modest home options, like duplexes, triplexes, backyard cottages, and apartment buildings, focus group respondents could envision these fitting into their neighborhoods. They embraced these as more affordable options for all kinds of people. So, spell out types of homes that people might not think of themselves. It’s also good to replace abstract terms like “units” and “development” with more friendly, familiar ones, like homes and homebuilding!
  • Cue up “shortage” thinking with familiar stories. Participants do not intuitively blame soaring prices on under-supply or shortage. In fact, when people look around and see lots of new buildings, they assume there’s an excess. But there are ways that people cue up shortage thinking on their own, namely, familiar experiences or anecdotes about bidding wars and long lines to rent apartments.

Here’s a sharable cheat sheet:

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

Thanks to David Metz and Miranda Everitt of FM3 and to Dan Bertolet, Keiko Budech, Todd Campbell, Alan Durning, Ed Guzman, Colin Lingle, Laura Loe, Margaret Morales, Serena Larkin, and many other community partners for their invaluable contributions to this project. To read more about the family featured in the photos and to find more housing stories, see Seattle Neighbors.  

June 8, 2018