Housing gets practically a free pass when it comes to people's acceptance of new development, according to a first-ever nationwide poll on land issues, released in January.
Support for new housing “is amazingly solid and consistent across all demographics and regions,” says Patrick Fox, president of the Saint Consulting Group, a Hingham, Mass.–based company that specializes in the politics of contested real estate projects.
In the survey, which was conducted in October and November 2005 for Saint Consulting by the Center for Economic and Civic Opinion at the University of Massachusetts' Lowell campus, 1,000 people from across the country were interviewed about land-use issues. Surveyors used a standard clustering methodology known as random digit dialing, interviewing 250 people in each of four regions—Northeast, Midwest, West, and South.
In contrast to housing's surprising support, backers for commercial development of almost any kind were scarce. People are twice as likely to resist offices, big-box retail, and warehouses, the study found. And in what Fox calls “a staggering number,” one in five of the people surveyed nationwide has actively opposed a project in their backyards.
A Wal-Mart is okay, too, as long as it's in someone else's backyard. But all other uses are verboten, and people says they will use the political process to stop it. “If ‘all politics is local,'” says Fox, “our study confirms that all land use has become political.”
Another major finding: Americans are “far more sophisticated about planning and zoning” than most think.
Many are educating themselves about how the process works and how they can affect the outcome—one in five report having taken part in efforts to alter proposed development or stop it altogether by forming neighborhood groups, raising funds, calling and writing elected officials, signing or gathering petitions, and speaking out at hearings. Some have even hired their own legal counsel and engineering experts.
The approval process “has become an adversarial system,” says Fox, suggesting that ever more fever-pitched battles are on the horizon. “By inference,” he says of the survey findings, “competitive opposition to other developers' projects will be contested in far more sophisticated ways in the future.”
Housing, though, has more support than opposition, with 75 percent of those polled saying they would support a single-family housing project if it were proposed in their community. “It all comes down to protecting real estate values,” Fox surmises. “People don't seem to be nearly as nervous about growth when it's housing as they do when it's a mall or office project, even in their own backyards, which is how we framed the question.”