Affordable Housing Doesn’t Have Enough Advocates, Science Explains Why

In May, Scientific American (SA) published an article entitled “You Are Less Beautiful Than You Think.” The title refers to the article’s pointed rebuke of a well-publicized Dove brand video […]

In May, Scientific American (SA) published an article entitled “You Are Less Beautiful Than You Think.” The title refers to the article’s pointed rebuke of a well-publicized Dove brand video campaign “Dove Real Beauty Sketches.” In essence, SA takes apart Dove’s appealing, yet scientifically questionable, assertion that we are more attractive than we think we are:

“The evidence from psychological research suggests instead that we tend to think of our appearance in ways that are more flattering than are warranted. This seems to be part of a broader human tendency to see ourselves through rose-colored glasses. Most of us think that we are better than we actually are—not just physically, but in every way... Inflated perceptions of one’s physical appearance is a manifestation of a general phenomenon psychologists call 'self-enhancement'.”

There are profound implications of this “self-enhancement” phenomenon for those who support and care about affordable housing. Here’s why:

It's no stretch to say that say that most individuals are motivated by self interest and that they would be more supportive of policies when they see value for themselves. This is basic human nature. And with a great need for affordable housing, espeically rental, one would think that projects and policies to increase supply would be well-supported. Yet, I'd suggest that affordable housing advocates are not gaining the support needed because of this “self-enhancement” phenomenon.

According to the Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach 2012 report, “the gap between the housing wage and the average renter wage is an indicator of the magnitude of need for more affordable rental units. In 2012, in 86 percent of counties studied nationwide, the housing wage exceeds the average hourly wage earned by renters.”

One of the perpetual challenges is convincing people to care about this issue in the world of affordable housing. And conversely, much effort is focused on convincing people not to oppose affordable housing. In Public Opinion and Affordable Housing: A Review of the Literature, J. Rosie Tighe found:

“Research on NIMBY opposition to affordable housing finds that NIMBY attitudes are complex and often stem from an individual’s ideology, level of trust in government, and the extent to which they agree with the necessity of the proposed development (Pendall 1999).”


“Furthermore, widespread speculation exists in the field that NIMBY concerns regarding property values, crime, and school crowding are simply publicly professed concerns that serve to disguise privately held prejudice (Pendall 1999; Somerman 1993; Takahashi 1997; Wilton 2002).”

This is where the “self-enhancement” phenomenon comes into play. The widespread belief that we are above average as described in the SA article could explain NIMBY attitudes toward affordable housing, instead of solely privately-held prejudice, which is often what advocates suggest. From the article:

“Most people believe that they are above average, a statistical impossibility. The above average effects, as they are called, are common. For example, 93 percent of drivers rate themselves as better than the median driver. Of college professors, 94 percent say that they do above-average work. People are unrealistically optimistic about their own health risks compared with those of other people.”

There is personal psychological dissonance with the term “affordable housing” that may give a root explanation for NIMBY opposition, and conversely, the failure to engage more advocates for affordable housing. The term affordable housing misses the mark because most people would (incorrectly) estimate that they are above average in terms of their income, making them ineligible for affordable housing assistance, and not something of interest.

Most people probably don’t see affordable housing as relevant to their life because they perceive themselves as above average, whereas the LIHC report shows the average wage in many parts of the United States qualifies the average household for affordable housing!

Which would be more effective: to find a way to help more people accept the notion that they are not above average, or to fundamentally change the way we talk about housing?

Perhaps it's time to think about replacing the term “affordable housing” with “social housing,” which is used extensively outside the United States.

(Affordable homes on South Hartford's Grafton Street. Photo provided by the LISC)

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