The United States has a major shortage of affordable housing. While surveys have shown that most people support building more affordable housing, these projects often face strong local opposition from groups that don’t necessarily represent the neighborhood as whole.

“When you look at broad, national surveys, people often say, ‘We like affordable housing!’ but the reality is that local opposition by the public at city meetings is still a large barrier,” said Sarah Billington, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford. “So we wanted to understand more about what was shaping opinions to see how we might motivate positive action.”

In a recent study, Billington and her fellow researchers explored the factors that predict support for affordable housing at the neighborhood level. Their work, published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, shows that people’s emotional responses to affordable housing may play a significant role in shifting hypothetical support of affordable housing to specific opposition to local construction. The researchers point out that these reactions may be rooted in unconscious biases, such as racism or classism, and that addressing them could potentially help garner support for affordable housing developments.

“We really wanted to see how this emotional response, which may be partly driven by unconscious racism or classism, paired with more conscious racism,” said Isabella Douglas, who led the research as part of her doctoral work in Billington’s lab. “There’s been a call in urban planning to grapple with people’s emotional responses to the built environment, and to recognize that these emotional responses – while they may be hard to understand and deal with – have a lot of impact.”

Predictors of opposition

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are only 34 affordable and available rental homes for every 100 extremely low-income households across the country. The U.S. would need an additional 7.3 million affordable homes to fill this gap.

“It’s a nationwide crisis,” said Deland Chan, a Stanford researcher with a background in urban planning and co-author on the paper. “The topic of affordable housing touches everyone, not just those in major cities, and we need more interdisciplinary perspectives and collaborations to make progress on these complex social issues.”

The researchers distributed an online survey to 534 participants around the U.S. They found that while the majority of participants supported affordable housing at the state, city, and neighborhood levels, the amount of opposition more than doubled at the neighborhood level.

“There’s a proximity effect, where as you get closer and closer to the person, their support levels go down,” said Douglas.

Many of their results were similar to what had been found in a previous study conducted a decade ago: People who made more money, lived in suburban neighborhoods, or were more conservative tended to be less supportive of affordable housing in their neighborhoods. People who had more trust in the federal government tended to be more supportive of it. The researchers also found several trends and correlations that had not been reported previously: People with higher levels of education or who lived in single-family homes were less supportive of affordable housing, and people who had lived in their neighborhood for longer than 10 years or who had personally interacted with affordable housing were more supportive.

The most significant predictors of opposition to affordable housing, though, were racism – as captured through the well-studied symbolic racism scale of beliefs – and negative emotional connotations associated with the idea of affordable housing. While the effects of symbolic racism have been documented, the finding that people’s initial emotional response, potentially arising from unconscious racism or other biases, may affect their views on affordable housing is new.

The researchers also found statistical evidence that these factors interacted with some demographic characteristics at the neighborhood level, potentially helping to explain the shift from support to opposition once real development proposals are on the table. For example, people living in suburban neighborhoods had more negative emotional connotations with affordable housing, so they tended to be more likely to oppose neighborhood developments. This finding was not linked with symbolic racism, highlighting the important role of emotional responses and the potential unconscious biases behind them.

Building housing and public support

It’s slightly unusual for civil engineers to be leading an interdisciplinary study on racism and emotional responses, but Billington and Douglas point out that if engineers want to successfully build more affordable housing, they can’t afford to ignore these biases.

“A lot of times, arguing over the buildings is used as a more socially acceptable way to protest affordable housing projects,” Douglas said. “We’re going to be dealing with the effects of racism in our projects and we need to be able to talk about that and address it.”

The researchers intend for this initial work to be a starting point in understanding how engineers can help increase support for affordable housing developments. People’s biases – both conscious and unconscious – will affect their perceptions of the built environment and shape their opinions on affordable housing. The researchers hope that by understanding these root causes, they can work more effectively to address them. They are continuing to investigate how the built environment affects public perceptions and are looking to work with partner organizations that explicitly focus on racial justice and equity to develop strategies that can improve local responses to affordable housing developments.

“Affordable housing impacts many aspects that are tied to both individual well-being and community well-being,” Billington said. “We need to work to change the narrative in the public’s mind about what affordable housing is and can be for society as a whole.”

Billington is the UPS Foundation Professor at Stanford, chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and a senior fellow of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Additional co-author Lucy Zhang Bencharit is from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Isabella Douglas was a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Fellowship recipient while conducting this research.

This work was funded by the UPS Endowment Fund and Stanford Impact Labs.