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The FrameWorks Institute has published a series of studies investigating the most effective ways to communicate about seven social justice issues: criminal justice, human services, affordable housing, education, budgets and taxes, parenting, and aging. This blog post summarizes some of the key points from their Affordable Housing report, which summarizes why housing advocates’ efforts to gain support for affordable housing are backfiring and what to do about it. Interested readers are encouraged to check out the full document available here.

Housing advocates are relying on a growing public anxiety about the rising costs of housing, and some have been able to gain support from policymakers and city leaders for new housing proposals. There has been support on the federal level as well; the Supreme Court has issued rulings related to negative effects of current policies on housing costs.

However, a large base of public support is not present, which is essential in maintaining and sustaining these changes over the long term. Why is support lacking? In part, this is due to a large sense of individualism present in America and the resulting belief that housing is an individual’s responsibility to attain rather than a shared, public concern. Vivid stories about individual troubles that are widely used to foster support, even when presented with housing facts and data, tend to decrease public support and fail to elicit the intended sympathy for the individual’s story.

These message backfires can be understood as following within six common themes:

housingmessagebackfires
Image retrieved from frameworksinstitute.org.
  1. The Mobility, Personal Responsibility, and Self-Makingness Backfire: This backfire occurs because the public tends to believe that people struggling for money and housing are lazy and unwilling to move to a place where housing is more affordable, are irresponsible and unwilling to accept responsibility for and solve their own problems, have made bad decisions, and are managing their money poorly.
  2. The Separate Fates and Zero-Sum Thinking Backfire: The public tends to fail to see how an issue relates to their own personal interests or circumstances and may see this issue as competing with their own interests. Public services for one person are generally viewed as taking away something from themselves.
  3. The Thin Understanding of Cause and Effect Backfire: This occurs because of a limited understanding of the causes and effects of housing problems. The solutions necessary to address these problems and improve outcomes are also thinly understood.
  4. The Crisis and Fatalism Backfire: When housing messages focus on urgency and crisis, people feel powerless against the severity and weight of the problem, which causes them to view the problem as too large and unsolvable. This may trigger blame for the government and skepticism of the government’s ability to address these issues, amplifying the sense that it is an individual’s responsibility to secure housing.
  5. The Not-in-My-Backyard and Natural Segregation Backfire: As issues of racial and economic segregation within the context of housing are raised, the public falls back on a “we solved that” narrative, seeing discrimination as a thing of the past, as well as believing that racial and economic segregation is natural.
  6. The Facts Don’t Fit the Frame Backfire: Facts and data that refute incorrect beliefs or assumptions, and point out benefits that new policies might bring, frequently lead people to hold onto their misperceptions about data and policies more strongly and only accept arguments that confirm their views. This phenomenon is known as confirmation bias.

The Frameworks Institute studied why these messages backfire and tested potential reframes to increase support. The most effective strategies to gain support for affordable housing and to avoid these backfires are summarized with 10 recommendations:

  1. Tell stories that balance the people, places, and systems perspectives.
  2. Don’t directly contest the public assumptions about mobility, consumer choice, and personal responsibility. Instead, explain the role of systems in shaping outcomes for people and the communities in which they live.
  3. Tell a “Story of Us” rather than a “Story of Them.”
  4. Bring the connection between housing and other issues into sharper focus.
  5. Help people connect the causes and effects of housing insecurity.
  6. Make it clear that where you live affects you.
  7. It’s okay to raise challenges of the past, but focus on the kinds of change that leads to better outcomes.
  8. Use robust examples that show how new housing policies work.
  9. Avoid leading or over-relying on the terms “housing” or “affordable housing.”
  10. Widen the public’s view of who is responsible for taking action and resolving outcomes.

By understanding how and why current methods of gaining public support for affordable housing are backfiring, as well as how to more effectively communicate these messages, progressive social change is achievable. Housing advocates are encouraged to use these recommendations to foster public support for initiatives and policies.

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Blog Post Author: Kelsey Whittington, MSW, is a former graduate assistant for the National Center for Excellence in Homeless Services. She now lives in California, where she is doing a fellowship with the VA.

Like this post?
Check out this one Kelsey wrote about the Frameworks Institute’s study about effectively communicating messages about Human Services.

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