Overcoming NIMBY Opposition to Supportive Housing

by Jennifer Gorsuch Walters, Fairfield Homes Inc.

The story of Pearl House began three years ago when I was selected for federal jury duty. For two weeks I absorbed the details of the prosecution against a heroin dealer who had employed more than 20 addicts in his dealing regime over Lancaster, Circleville and Columbus, Ohio. I became increasingly appalled and astonished at the stories of families being destroyed, kids becoming addicted after merely one shot and lives fraught with desperation as a result of the infiltration of heroin into communities.

The verdict was unanimous and this particular dealer was found guilty. I returned to my hometown of Lancaster determined to do something about the destructive effects heroin was leaving in my own community. 

Fairfield Homes, Inc. has been building low-income housing for more than 60 years and my leadership extends into our third generation of a growing family-owned company. Still, we had not yet ventured into the realm of permanent supportive housing (PSH), which combines housing with services that help specific populations confront their most complex challenges to living independently. A development like Pearl House was very new for our community, my own business and the selected service provider, The Recovery Center. We developed a dedicated team committed to creating housing for families in which one or both parents are in recovery from addiction. Pearl House would serve the community as a stable and nurturing place where families suffering from addiction can heal and rebuild a healthy and productive lifestyle together, with convenient access to an array of services that allow them to focus on recovery as a whole.

The momentum of Pearl House grew with support emerging from local judges, teachers, police, service agencies and doctors. An imperative facet of PSH is that it can be in close proximity to services needed by the residents. Pearl House was to be located adjacent to its primary addiction service provider, The Recovery Center, and within walking distance to Job and Family Services, the court system, churches, schools and groceries, among other amenities. This walkable proximity reduces barriers to resident success. The perfect location was determined to be on the outskirts of Lancaster’s downtown district.

Once the development team and plans were firmly assembled, it was time to invite the community to share our vision. A neutral setting was selected and neighbors were invited to a presentation and open house to discuss the details of Pearl House. However, the local newspaper caught wind of the development and before accurate information could be disseminated, the headlines described the project as a shelter for addicted families.  

The negativity and untruths surrounding the word “shelter” unfortunately spurred a storm of community outrage and swelling hostility against the project. The community meeting was canceled in order to strategically respond in a more controlled manner. Having to present Pearl House from a defensive position, rather than proactively showcasing our vision, was significantly detrimental to the project’s repute. More than 20 small meetings and various presentations were conducted over the next few months as we attempted to reverse the negative opinions. While these meetings appeased the vast majority of Lancaster residents and support for Pearl House grew, a small group of about 50 residents formed the coalition, “Citizens for Downtown Lancaster,” whose mission was to thwart the existence of Pearl House entirely.

At this point, the development team had secured the site for the 36-unit apartment building with two signed letters from the city of Lancaster’s zoning inspector and chief building official, indicating that Pearl House was zoned appropriately for the Central Business District and consistent with the Lancaster Development Plan. Meanwhile, Citizens for Downtown Lancaster put pressure on every supporter and city official. Pearl House was awarded funding through the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, earning the highest score in the category of PSH throughout Ohio, and we submitted a final set of architectural plans to the city. These final drawings addressed all of the concerns of the community and the opposition group, including the addition of more green space and security for children.

Regardless, following the extreme efforts of the opposition, the zoning inspector denied final approval. After further review and meetings with the city law director, the zoning inspector had found a “grey area” in the code and this reinterpretation meant that Pearl House must meet the requirements of Section RM-2 (Residential Multi-Family). The community had split and zoning had become the tool of the opposition to keep our development from moving forward.

We had no choice but to fight for Pearl House and the future residents that desperately needed this type of housing. After a team of attorneys was hired to defend Pearl House and the original zoning interpretation, we found ourselves requiring four variances at the Board of Zoning Appeals, only three of which were granted. The city administration was much affected by the opposition that used misinformation to instill fear, misunderstanding and stigma toward supportive housing in the community. Compromising, educating and meeting with this group to alleviate concerns was significant, but ultimately ineffective. In the end, Fairfield Homes, Inc. chose to reduce the development to 21 units, redesign, and meet zoning in its most conservative interpretation. Using creative architecture, we were able to avoid further litigation or appeal, and met the new zoning interpretation without the need for variances.

Pearl House is under construction as a 21-unit development. The reality of NIMBYism affected but did not destroy the concept of our community. Once it became apparent that the project was moving forward, even the ugliest of battles became old news and several opponents found ways to become involved in the project’s success.

I learned a great deal as a developer and community leader throughout this process. While education and transparency about housing is imperative, an even more strategic approach is required of community outreach efforts from the very beginning. From the project’s inception, I needed more buy-in by bringing everyone to the table immediately. Not only supporters, but anyone with the ability to influence or vocalize opinion, including neighbors, business owners and residents who are sometimes reluctant to change. I began the project with the support of those who were able to visualize the good in Pearl House, but I did not include the input of those who rejected the concept of PSH. Both exist within a community and as a developer, incorporating everyone affected by a new development’s existence is imperative.

Community division and NIMBYism are harsh realities that must be faced in this industry. Integrating citizens from both sides of an issue is perhaps daunting but necessary when making great strides in a community’s progress. Change is difficult but beautiful and we know that while our experience was tumultuous, Pearl House will be a catalyst for positive growth in Lancaster.

Jennifer Walters joined the staff of Fairfield Homes in 2008. She serves as president of development and construction, and exhibits leadership in the management and real estate divisions as well. She has an acute sensitivity to Fairfield Homes’ commitment to quality within the organization, the customers they serve and the community. Walters is responsible for the daily operations of Fairfield Homes as well as customer relations and development.