When Sightline launched its policy research program to study and promote solutions for affordability and green urbansim, we poked at the prevailing narratives about housing, and it felt a lot like stirring a hornet’s nest. It wasn’t just the euphemistic anti-renter, anti-housing rhetoric about preserving “neighborhood character.” Dominant opposition messages menaced with imagery of bulldozers, chainsaws, and the end of your city as you know it. And don’t forget that it was our erstwhile friends on the left who often agitated to prioritize parking spots over protecting people and places. Finding better ways to talk about zoning reform felt daunting. 

Little by little, and arm in arm with a growing network of abundant housing advocates, we’re pushing out the old narratives and making room for solutions-centered ones.


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But, little by little, and arm in arm with a growing network of abundant housing advocates, wonks, and leaders, we’re pushing out the old obstructionist narratives and making room for new solutions-centered ones. As we close out 2019, the hornets are still around, but theirs is no longer the only buzz you hear.

Starting about 3 years ago, we began collecting others’ research and doing our own, focus-grouping and road testing messages, gleaning and sharing everything we could along the way. From granny flats to exclusionary zoning, here is the cache of resources that we’ve built up, all in one place for the first time:

Missing Middle Reframes: Lessons from Oregon’s State-wide Upzone Success

Words matter. We suggest replacing “single-family” with “single-detached.” And instead of talking in jargon about “units” and “multi-family housing,” switch to “homes” or “choices of all shapes and sizes,” and descriptive terms like duplexes, triplexes, and apartments. Find more reframes and talking points in our full messaging memo

Put a Friendly Face on Gentle Density: Our open-source photo library of home choices in all shapes and sizes

Most people believe, in principle, in expanding opportunity and affordability. But if left to the imagination, multi-family housing can sound too big, unfamiliar, and even scary. Showing what missing middle homes look like helps tame exaggerated fears. Find our tips for putting missing middle homes in their best light—and hundreds of photos to use in your own work. And let us know if you have photos to add!

Exclusive Zoning Puts Up Invisible Walls Around Our Cities: Talking points for upzone solutions

Our video explains in under 2 minutes how exclusionary zoning puts up invisible walls and locks people out, banning affordable home choices close to work, school, friends, parks, and transit. Commutes get longer and we get more traffic and pollution. And cities are segregated. Upzoning to allow more home choices opens the gates to affordability and opportunity. What’s upzoning? It means protecting a healthy mix of homes of all shapes and sizes—and for all incomes—throughout our neighborhoods, including lifting bans on rental options and more affordable homes like duplexes, backyard cottages, and apartments. Find the video here

Why Mother-In-Laws Matter: From economic security and affordability to sustainability, talking up the benefits of ADUs.

Small apartments in existing neighborhoods—often in existing homes or structures—offer multiple benefits, including adding affordable options for renters in single-detached areas where prices are otherwise out of reach. Here’s our guide for communicating about this low-impact, common-sense affordability solution. You can find the whole guide here.

Talking Triplexes: Missing middle messaging tips

Re-legalizing a variety of modest, mid-size home choices, like duplexes, triplexes, and quads in residential city neighborhoods, protects mixed income communities from becoming exclusive McMansion enclaves. Zoning that allows “missing middle” homes curbs prices and gives moderate-income, working families and small households like seniors or young couples more affordable options. Find the full memo here

Do People Object to Development—or Mostly Developers Making Money?

Opposition to new homes can hobble community goals for affordability and sustainability. But what if people dislike development because they don’t like to see developers profit? And what if the rules that result—ones that punish homebuilders—in reality encourage only the most deep-pocketed, aggressive developers, preclude all but the most expensive kinds of homes, and wind up punishing the community instead? Here’s our take on a UCLA study showing that a desire to punish developers drives anti-homebuilding attitudes.

More Homes, All Shapes and Sizes, for All Our Neighbors

In focus groups we conducted in Seattle, we found that saying “more homes, all shapes and sizes” to talk about housing solutions toggled people toward community-minded, big-hearted thinking—about community, neighbors, inclusion. The idea stuck with focus group participants (they repeated it back to us), and it proved an especially compelling case for changing city rules to allow plenty of homes to go around and a variety of homes for all kinds of people. Find more messaging guidelines from Sightline’s focus groups here.

Talking Housing Affordability: Getting from “Me” to “We”

We learned from focus groups in Seattle that people are anxious about growth and change—renters and homeowners alike—and 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 found opportunities to open minds to abundant housing solutions. For one, shifting the focus to  neighbors (not buildings) helped people think about how home choices determine who can or cannot afford to live in a community. We found out that people like density in practice—walkable, convenient places to live—but dislike the word. So, better to describe density than use the word! More findings from our focus groups that help shift the conversation  here.

“Let’s Own Our Growth!”—A housing narrative that centers equity and shared opportunity

A messaging research project in Seattle by Yesler Community Collaborative revealed broadly shared goals of expanding social, racial, and economic equity and sharing the progress and prosperity of a thriving, healthy city. Their talking points emphasize growing to make sure we build cities for the many, not just the wealthiest few. Owning our growth means shaping a city where everyone can share in the opportunity of growth and prosperity. Our cheatsheet for this narrative project is here.

A Blueprint for Better Housing Messages

FrameWorks Institute found six common ways housing messages can backfire and ten constructive reframes, like swapping “housing” and “affordable housing” for inviting (less loaded) terms like “homes,” “neighborhoods,” and “communities.” They suggest acknowledging a history of inequality and focusing on better ways forward and stressing that where we live shapes how we live, from our commute to food choices to chances for success. Find a summary of Frameworks’ research and talking points in our Flashcard.

6 Tips for Talking Housing Solutions

Sightline’s audit of Seattle media coverage of housing issues revealed that growth was often cast as out of control and scary. Despite rancor over decisions that might invite more change, we found evidence that Seattleites were unified in shared hopes and dreams for their city—including income and racial diversity and expanded opportunity and access—core values and community priorities that could help align voters behind abundant housing solutions. We pulled 6 lessons from the exercise: 1) remind people what they love about the city; 2) emphasize shared values; 3) ditch supply and demand for shortage and enough; 4) amplify diverse voices; 5) abundant housing solutions are a foundation for successful displacement protections; and 6) ease panic by shaping solutions together. More tips from our media audit are here

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

December 31, 2019