Shortly after Thomas James Homes began construction on multiple lots in North Fair Oaks, an unincorporated neighborhood in the San Francisco Bay Area, the neighbors started to mobilize. Distressed that mature trees were being felled to make room for larger homes, a group of residents started campaigning against the single-family replacement-home builder, putting up lawn signs, filing appeals against tree removal permits, and even launching an advocacy website against the developer.
Without weighing in on the rights and wrongs of the situation, it’s a cautionary tale of how residents can be galvanized to take action and create PR headaches. Pushback against new development is not unusual, and not all the reasons for that resistance are obvious. While people object for commonly stated reasons such as increased traffic, researchers at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs found that opposition doubled when 1,300 survey respondents were told that a developer would earn a large profit. In their 2019 Journal of Urban Affairs paper, the researchers posit that people may consider development a fundamentally “repugnant market” in light of housing inaffordability, thus motivating them to punish developers. In fact, developers making a profit triggered as strong a negative reaction as the argument that new housing would harm neighborhood character.
Given all the potential reasons for opposition, any builder dealing with the entitlements process may want to consider putting some effort into building community goodwill. “Being a good neighbor is always a good thing,” says Dan Dunmoyer, president of the California Building Industry Association, where development is particularly vulnerable to litigation. “The home builders that continue to thrive and can move their projects forward are the ones who take the time to get to know the entire neighborhood—the existing one and the new one they’re trying to create—and make sure they work well together. Whether you’re in an easy state or a difficult state to build in, it’s still good practice because there’s nothing better than positive word of mouth.”
Certainly, the level of outreach that makes sense will depend on the scale of the project. For a major housing development, developers will do an informal assessment to find out what the pressures on the area are—traffic, schools, and infrastructure are three core concerns—and also figure out whether the community is supportive of new housing.
“It’s important to know whether the community is by nature more NIMBY or pro-growth,” says Layne Marceau, president of Shea Homes’ Northern California division. Depending on the project, there may be a way for the developer to improve the larger community with new facilities, such as a park, or donate money to a community organization. If a developer is creating something on the scale of a mini-town, some jurisdictions will suggest or even require that the developer hold a public meeting to get community feedback; this venue is also an opportunity to sell the vision to the community.
Before going before the planning commission and city council to get formal approval, developers will also reach out to organizations such as the chamber of commerce to see if their representatives are willing to speak publicly in favor of the project. Marceau of Shea Homes says being involved with local groups—not just those that have a direct stake in housing but also ones that are heavily invested in a community’s future—is a good idea. For example, he personally serves on the board of a performing arts center, and Shea Homes is a sponsor of a women’s shelter. “A lot of times these things don’t happen overnight,” he says. “Successful builders and developers have a much longer-term focus and are invested in communities continuously. It’s an overall business strategy, which gets narrowed to a project strategy at some point.”
For other builders, neighborhood outreach makes sense at a later stage. Brandon Bryant, founder of Red Tree Builders, which has about 10 to 15 starts a year in Buncombe County, North Carolina, waits to engage with neighbors until the permits are secured to avoid jeopardizing the project. But before the bulldozers arrive, he mails a letter to nearby residents that includes his personal contact information with an invitation to get in touch if there is ever an issue. “It doesn’t take that much effort, and it’s better to head any conflict off at the pass,” says Bryant. “At least one or two people will call or email, but most of the time they’re very appreciative and say, ‘Wow, nobody has ever reached out to let us know that this is about to start.’”
In the case of North Fair Oaks, it’s hard to know if any level of advance outreach would have eased the tension. As a standard practice, Thomas James Homes distributes door hangers with the project manager’s contact information and “neighborhood communication begins well before projects get underway and communication efforts are maintained throughout the entire construction process,” according to a company spokesperson.
In North Fair Oaks, it does appear some extra sensitivity was in order. Residents describe how Thomas James Homes has an oversized presence compared to other builders because it has several projects in close proximity and multiple trees slated for removal. Jon Tattersall, president of Thomas James Homes’ Northern California office, also acknowledged the higher level of disruption. “The mistake that we made, candidly, is having two to three active projects at once. And not really understanding what the impacts would be to the overall neighborhood,” he said in a story reported by the local press. That’s an approach any couple’s counselor would recommend: Own up to your mistakes so you can move forward with the relationship.