When communities resist and protest COVID-19 testing and treatment sites

NIMBY attitudes can be present even – or maybe especially – during pandemics:

Last week, residents in Darien, Connecticut, a tony exurb of New York City, successfully lobbied to shut down plans for a coronavirus testing site, despite surging demand. The reason? Complaints from neighbors. As it turns out, the “Not In My Backyard” impulse to block new development — which has been implicated in the severe affordability crisis affecting cities from coast to coast — translates far too neatly into blocking certain measures needed to stop the spread of the virus.

In a similar case in Ewing, New Jersey, a local landlord issued a cease-and-desist letter to the operator of a coronavirus testing center amid complaints about congestion in the parking lot. As The Trentonian reported, one resident who wanted to be tested in order to protect his three-year-old child wasn’t subtle about how he felt about the decision: “It blows my f**king mind.”

Community resistance from neighbors of testing sites is a rerun of the fierce NIMBY reaction to potential coronavirus quarantine sites. Back in February, California began looking for a place to shelter Americans returning from abroad with the virus and settled on an isolated medical campus in Costa Mesa. But after local residents complained, city officials sought and received a court injunction to stop the project.

As the need for quarantine sites expanded, so did the NIMBY backlash. Finding sites that won’t suffer the same fate has proven to be a major hurdle as the federal government attempts to manage the crisis. Back when the focus was still on returning cruise ship passengers, officials in Alabama went to the mat to keep passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship out of a local FEMA facility, eventually forcing the federal government to scrap the plan altogether. Similar fights have played out from Seattle to San Antonio, potentially undercutting the response to the coronavirus at key early stages. As a result, the federal government largely shifted quarantining efforts to military bases, where complaining neighbors hold less sway…

At first glance, it might seem like efforts to block potentially life-saving public health screenings and complaints about community character have little in common. But in both cases, the formula is the same: Whether out of an understandable fear of the unknown or a selfish desire to shift the burden elsewhere, local impulses are given veto power over broader social needs. Under normal conditions, the inability to constructively manage this means higher rents. In a public health emergency, it could be lethal.

In addition to what is in the last paragraph quoted above, I am struck by the resistance to facilities and sites that would be home to temporary concerns. It is one thing to object to a long-term health facility (see recent posts about a drug treatment facility in the western suburbs of the Chicago area here and here) but another to resist something that is needed now and presumably not permanent. Of course, this could be part of the fear: if a site treats COVID-19, could it then later be turned into a more permanent fixture in the community?

The logical extension of the NIMBY claims would be to push COVID-19 treatment sites or testing facilities to communities that could not resist it. When this plays out in areas like housing or unwanted land uses, this means that communities with less wealth and political power tend to become home to land uses that wealthier communities refuse. If such a pattern occurs here (and there is evidence that health differs dramatically by location in the United States), it could be evidence that pandemics further locational and health inequalities.

The little development battles happening across American suburbs

A debate over proposed development in Reston, Virginia might be indicative of debates across suburbs:

You may be well versed in this debate. “What you’ve got in Reston, and really everywhere in suburban America, is a demographic shift that’s occurring. The dominant baby-boom generation ages and expires, and the newer, younger generations look different—they have different interests and different incomes and different commuting patterns,” says Patrick Phillips, former CEO of the Urban Land Institute, who has studied Reston. “These sort of little battles”—bike lanes versus parking lots, open spaces versus outdoor shopping malls, high-rises full of two-bedrooms versus fairways framed by cherry trees—“are fractious,” Phillips says, “but they’re inevitable, too.”

The implication here is that younger suburbanites prefer more density and additional transportation options beyond having to own a car. In contrast, older suburbanites want to retain a suburban emphasis on single-family homes and quieter communities. More from Reston:

Since Metro arrived, Hays explained, traffic had become impossible, schools got crowded. As the county forged ahead with its plans, the Yellow Shirts saw each new rendering of an urban promenade or pocket park as a threat to their town’s character. They weren’t unsympathetic to Merchant’s dilemma—they just didn’t believe condos would fix it. (Were those really what a thirtysomething couple with three kids and a goldendoodle would want?) Also, the high-rises were ugly. “Azkaban Prison” and “Moscow Towers,” Hays called them.

Residents who move into a suburban community or neighborhood can become very invested in wanting to maintain the same look and feel that attracted them in the first place. With the interests suburbanites have in maintaining and growing their property values, exclusion of people who might threaten the character or property values, and the benefits of local government, residents can mobilize.

If growth is often seen as good and suburban residents should be able to protect their property rights, which side will give? The battles within communities about development then often turn into residents wanting to protect their vision versus community leaders (and possibly regional leaders) looking forward to positive changes.Some possible outcomes:

  1. Long-term conflict in the community with no changes but plenty of tension.
  2. A decisive showdown with one side winning and the others retreating for a number of years.
  3. A slow set of changes that add up to something over time.
  4. True generational change as a number of older residents leave or pass on and a new generation decides to do something different in the community.

“98 opioid-related deaths last year in DuPage” and local decisions

As Itasca leaders and residents debate a proposal for a drug-treatment facility in the suburb, an update on the story included this statistic:

There were 98 opioid-related deaths last year in DuPage.

Illinois appeared to be in the middle of states with its rate of opioid deaths in 2017 (see the data here). DuPage County has a lot of residents – over 928,000 according to 2018 estimates – and the Coroner has all the statistics on deaths in 2018.

In the debates over whether suburbs should be home to drug treatment facilities, such statistics could matter. Are 98 deaths enough to (a) declare that this is an issue worth addressing and (b) suburbs should welcome facilities that could help address the problems. Both issues could be up for debate though I suspect the real issue is the second one: even if suburbanites recognize that opioid-related deaths are a social problem, that does not necessarily mean they are willing to live near such a facility.

Does this mean that statistics are worthless in such a public discussion? Not necessarily, though statistics alone may not be enough to convince a suburban resident one way or another about supporting change in their community. If residents believe strongly that such a medical facility is detrimental to their suburb, often invoking the character of the community, local resources, and property values, no combination of numbers and narratives might overwhelm what is perceived as a big threat. On the other hand, public discussions of land use and zoning can evolve and opposition or support can shift.

Keeping track of the Democratic field on housing

Curbed is tracking the housing positions of the Democratic candidates for president in 2020. Here is part of the overview of YIMBY policies:

Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY)…

Because these laws are administered at the local level, federal policy can’t do much to directly change these laws and instead attempts to incentivize—or punish—local governments to change them. Castro has proposed a Presidential Commission on Zoning Reform to establish federal guidelines on land use and zoning. O’Rourke would direct HUD to come up with a model for setting zoning and land use policies that let formerly restrictive communities to allow more housing production.

Warren’s plan puts $10 billion into a new grant program communities can use to build infrastructure, but local governments have to reform land-use laws to be eligible.

Booker’s plan uses a similar mechanism by tying more than $16 billion in federal block grant money—including Community Development Block Grants (CDBG)—to local governments reforming zoning laws that serve as barriers to building more housing units. Castro also wants to expand CDBG and rural development programs by $2 billion per year and tie the money to zoning reforms. O’Rourke would double CDBG funding and provide new grants to communities that eliminate restrictive zoning laws.

Klobuchar proposes “prioritizing” local governments that reform local zoning laws when allocating federal housing and infrastructure funds, but doesn’t specify which ones.

Bennet would create a one-time $10 billion competitive grant program for state and local governments that reform zoning laws to allow for more housing density, in addition to increasing the funding of transportation grant program BUILD to $4.5 billion and make it eligible only to local governments that allow for more housing density near transportation hubs. Eligibility for New Starts, a grant program for fixing rail infrastructure, would also be deployed in this manner.

O’Rourke has a zoning-related proposal that’s unique among the candidates. He would allow people to deduct more in state and local taxes from their federal tax returns if they live in areas without restrictive zoning. There’s currently a $10,000 cap on SALT deductions, and that cap affects mostly coastal cities where restrictive zoning is a major issue. He would also pass a $1 trillion infrastructure package to repair transportation lines that would be tied to eliminating exclusionary zoning.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. As the section above goes on to note, it will be difficult to enact change within wealthy communities through federal policy. Without buy-in from whole metropolitan regions regarding housing, would any YIMBY policies at a federal level simply push cheaper housing into communities that already have more of such housing?
  2. The subheadline for this article suggests “Housing policy is taking center stage in the 2020 election.” This is a bold pronouncement as housing seems to attract little attention in debates or drives little national conversation. I would still be interested to see someone really run with the housing issue.
  3. I have not seen recent numbers on this: how does housing as an issue rank among other possible issues among the electorate? There are certain areas of the country – like some of the largest metropolitan areas – where this is a pressing issue while it is less important elsewhere. On one hand, housing effects all possible voters but it rarely attracts national attention, particularly compared to other national economic issues like jobs or income.

Suburbanites can rally en masse against (and for) zoning issues

Suburbanites may participate at low rates in local elections but they certainly can be energized by controversial local zoning proposals. More on the ongoing Haymarket case in Itasca, Illinois:

Itasca plan commissioners admitted they underestimated public interest in a proposed addiction treatment center when a crowd representing 16% of the town’s population packed their meeting Wednesday night…

Demonstrators marched earlier Wednesday evening through downtown Itasca to pressure a Chicago nonprofit group to abandon plans to convert a hotel into a 200-bed drug and alcohol treatment center…

Prominent politicians, advocates and other nonprofit groups have thrown their support behind Haymarket, maintaining that the center would address a shortage of easily accessible residential programs for recovering addicts in DuPage County. Proponents also say much of the outcry stems from the stigma around opioid addiction…

Opponents have focused their main objections on the size and location of a facility they say would put too much of a burden on the village’s police and ambulance services.

Quite the excitement for a suburb with less than 10,000 people. Several parts of this latest news report stood out to me:

1. A public march through the community from those opposed to the center.

2. Public demonstrations of support from those in favor of the facility. While there may be a good amount of NIMBY activity, there are also people willing to stand up for the facility.

3. That this all is based on a medical center. This is not a landfill or huge condominium building in a town of single-family homes. Of course, it is not just any medical center: it is one involving drug treatment. (And many suburbs do not like getting involved with anything to do with drugs.)

4. This is not how such local political activity works but it would be interesting to hear where Itasca residents think the facility should be located or whether they could help broker a deal for another community rather than just reject the local proposal. More broadly, how might communities and residents work together to locate facilities that may be undesirable but are needed?

Suburban opposition to drug treatment centers

The case of opposition to a proposed drug treatment center in Itasca, Illinois sounds similar to opposition last year to a center in Wheaton. On the Itasca proposal:

But opponents said the project would hurt Itasca’s economy. The hotel currently generates around $250,000 in annual tax revenue that would be lost.

Village officials also are trying to determine how the proposal would affect police, fire and emergency medical services.

While they agree DuPage needs treatment options, the residents said they would prefer the facility be more centrally located in the county.

“When direct questions were asked regarding the impact on Itasca, they were all pushed back toward the needs of DuPage,” the residents’ statement reads.

“They (Haymarket) found a facility that fit their needs in Itasca, but we believe overlooked the impact of putting it in such a small town with limited resources.”

Residents say they understand the need for the facility but do not want it in their town. The concerns are similar to those that any suburban residents might lodge against a new development: a loss of tax revenue and concerns about the size of the facility (which could be related to traffic, noise, use of municipal services).

Residents say such a facility should be more in the center of the populous county…like in Wheaton? The problem facing less desirable but necessary land uses is this: what might be good for a region on the whole is often undesirable for individual communities who suggest it should be located elsewhere. Since zoning and development decisions are left to municipalities, whole regions could suffer.

This does not just affect facilities that might be less desirable. In Wheaton, the conversation about a drug treatment center included the people who would be treated as well as crime rates around the facility. But, imagine the case of a hospital or medical clinic. People need medical care and these do not usually have negative connotations. Yet, any medical facility may not generate tax revenues like commercial uses. The size or design of the facility might clash with the character of the community.

There is no easy answer. In an ideal world, the process might look like this: a metropolitan planning board would consider the needs of the population and then find locations throughout the region that would best serve residents. There is just one big problem: Americans, particularly suburbanites, like local control over land use decisions. Few metropolitan regions in the United States can do this and place important infrastructure or facilities where they are needed because Americans place local control as a higher priority.

It will be fascinating to see how Haymarket will respond with this particular facility. If Itasca says no, what is the next suburb to approach? Additionally, how many people will go untreated as the wheels of zoning approval turn?

Mass transit agencies developing land to generate revenues

The actions of New York’s MTA – Metropolitan Transportation Authority – suggest a way American mass transit agencies can generate money: through partnering on transit-oriented development.

That is what inspired Harrison’s Halstead Avenue project, a $76.8 million mixed-use real estate development built in collaboration between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which oversees the Metro-North, and developer AvalonBay Communities. It is the first time ever that the Metro-North will sell a parcel of its land for transit-oriented development (TOD); in this case: 143 apartments, 27,000 square feet of retail space, two pedestrian plazas, and a 598-space parking garage, most of which is reserved for the public and commuters…

The New York MTA, the largest transit agency in the U.S., is becoming more familiar with this type of construction. The Hudson Yards project—where the MTA decked over its train yards, and sold the rights to developers for $1 billion to build an entire Manhattan neighborhood on top, with a new subway line extension beneath—is perhaps the largest TOD project in American history. At One Vanderbilt Avenue, an office building being constructed across from Grand Central Terminal, developer fees to the MTA will pay for interior improvements throughout the huge hub.

But the Harrison project marks a new direction for the cash-strapped MTA, which is on the hunt for new revenue: Decades of underinvestment and recent ridership declines have left the MTA with a projected $433 million budget shortfall, a gap that a recession could worsen. Meanwhile, critics agree that Manhattan’s soon-to-come congestion pricing scheme cannot alone cover the cost of the subway system’s badly needed overhaul. Capturing revenues from transit-oriented development on MTA-owned lots could help. So the agency is eyeing projects in suburban communities outside of Manhattan, with the hopes that the prospect of economic development will prod smaller towns to plot their futures near its train stations…

Transit agencies in Europe and Asia are much more likely use development as a revenue tool much more commonly than their U.S. counterparts. David King, a professor at Arizona State University who has studied transit-oriented development, said that this is largely due to the fragmented (and car-centric) nature of land and transit planning, capital investment and operation in the United States. For example, as a state-regulated public authority, with a variety of funding pots for capital and operating costs, the MTA has to comply with home rule for a housing project.

Private transportation firms in the United States have promoted and/or participated in development for years. It was good business for transportation providers to promote travel and now more accessible properties. Railroad and streetcar lines made special trips to the end of their lines where they would then sell riders on new properties.

What could make this more complicated in the United States is that transit agencies could be drawing on public funds and the United States has a history of concern about how public funds are used for development. If public money helps support traditional suburban life – think the single-family homes and highways the federal government and others groups helped make possible before and after World War II – then there may be limited outcry. Try using such monies for affordable housing, particularly for poorer residents, and opposition will arise.

Thus, this project in suburban Harrison, New York fits existing patterns. Transit-oriented development along rail lines in suburban downtowns is very common and desired by many suburbs. The project is not too big. It sounds like the suburb wants some denser downtown development. It does not involve housing considered too cheap by the community. But, whether this tactic could expand across metropolitan regions remains to be seen.