Fighting homelessness without building homes

A piece at McSweeney’s lists reasons residents do not want to build more housing near them:

Ending homelessness doesn’t mean building more homes because this town is full of homes already, especially mine, which is a single-family mini-mansion on an acre lot that I inherited from my parents and/or managed to purchase with the kind of job and bank terms and economic equality that don’t exist anymore for anyone and only ever really existed for well-educated white Americans. Either that or it’s a magnificent luxury condo with expansive views that I don’t want marred by more luxury condos or — god forbid — affordable housing.

Every room in my Instagram-worthy abode is either filled with clutter or rented out nightly to hipsters from another gentrified, monotone city also suffering from a homelessness crisis — this is a national epidemic, after all. I’m a good person, a generous person, and what made me the person I am is having to work hard for everything my parents gave me, and everything I will, in turn, give to my children.

Listen, I know that the unholy concentration of wealth in America is a big, big, problem, but so is having to constantly say no to people asking for change as I whizz into Whole Foods in my Tesla or Prius (depending on how my startup investments pan out). What’s the point of having all this money if I have to feel bad about it? Also, has anyone actually verified that the homeless people claiming to be veterans aren’t just pulling some elaborate fraud? I’ve never actually met a veteran and I forget for like, decades at a time that the military even exists because the bubble of privilege where I reside is literally impregnable, but I’m suspicious nonetheless.

I know we need more housing, but I was here first and I’m not giving up even one blade of grass on my water-guzzling, pesticide-leaching lawn or a single burner on my twelve-burner Viking range that I never actually use to house another human soul. Tough luck, homeless people. You and your allies can call me names but I won’t hear you over the lushness of my climate-inappropriate rose bushes and the stucco walls I’m paying some desperate immigrant under the table to build for me on the cheap before I low-key call ICE and have them deported.

I’m not sure this has to be tied to addressing homelessness; many communities and communities do not want to support cheaper or affordable housing. The public arguments may be couched a bit differently than what is listed above – such housing could affect the character of the community, lower property values – but one does wonder how much of what is written above is what is really behind the opposition.

How skate parks became normal in America

There are skate parks in many American neighborhoods and communities and this was not necessarily a sure thing decades ago:

The Tony Hawk Foundation, a leading partner in the construction of skate parks in the United States, estimates that there are roughly 3,500 skate parks in the country now — still about a third of what it says the country needs…

In a different time, hoping for city officials to get on board with building a skate park seemed like an impossible task. Mr. Whitley said a great deal of Nimby-ism once plagued developments.

But aging Gen X grew up alongside skateboarding’s ascent in popular culture, from Bart Simpson plonking down onto the roof of the family car in the opening sequence of “The Simpsons” to blockbuster video game franchises like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. Skateboarding is no longer something people fear. The skate punk of the late 1980s is now a suburban dad. Across runways, and in music videos and film, subtle influences of skate culture are noticeable. Everyone wears Vans sneakers…

Iain Borden, a professor of architecture and urban culture at University College in London, wrote the book “Skateboarding, Space, and the City” in 2000. He also sees the growth of skate parks as a social phenomenon. “They’re places of social exchange,” he said. “You could argue that they’re not sports facilities, they’re social landscapes in which skateboarding and riding and scootering and blading are some of the activities that you might do.”

The recreational activities of one generation do not necessarily endure over decades so the spread of skateparks is an intriguing subject. I would be interested to see in what kinds of neighborhoods these parks exist: are they as prevalent in poorer neighborhoods or the wealthiest communities (who might opposed them on NIMBY grounds)?

I also wonder how much race plays a role in this in the United States. The examples of skateboarding cited above – Tony Hawk, Bart Simpson – are white and more middle-class. Come to think of it, many of the X Games competitors fall into this group. Since these are not exactly mainstream sports (compared to the big four of football, baseball, basketball, and hockey) plus they require a few resources (at least a skateboard while other X Games sports require more), these may not be available to all. While skateboarding might the punk music of the sports world, is it still more palatable to the white middle-class compared to having basketball courts nearby?

Polarization: California housing bill does not make it out of committee

It is unclear how California intends to move forward in providing cheaper housing to residents after a YIMBY (“yes in my backyard”) housing bill did not make it out of committee earlier this week:

On Tuesday night, legislators killed SB 827, which would have allowed the construction of apartment buildings up to five stories tall near every high-frequency mass transit stop in the state.

SB 827 sparked a spirited debate about how the state should address its housing crisis. Its lead sponsor, State Senator Scott Wiener, argued that wresting zoning decisions away from local municipalities and forcing communities to build more densely near transit was the best way to both ease housing affordability in cities like San Francisco and help the state hit its ambitious environmental goals. Supporters of the bill—dubbed YIMBYs, for “Yes In My Backyard”—took on residents from wealthier, single-family home neighborhoods, who deployed the traditional NIMBY argument that the bill imperiled neighborhood character and would lead to traffic and parking woes.

The NIMBY side had some surprising allies, among them the Sierra Club and advocates for “Public Housing in My Backyard,” or PHIMBYs, who argued that the law would enrich developers and exacerbate gentrification in low-income minority neighborhoods…

Wiener also acknowledged how ambitious the bill was, and said he was “heartened by the conversation it has started.” Indeed, the bill was much-discussed nationwide. Vox’s Matthew Yglesias called SB 827 “one of the most important ideas in American politics today,” and the Boston Globe’s Dante Ramos said the bill could be “the biggest environmental boon, the best job creator, and the greatest strike against inequality that anyone’s proposed in the United States in decades.”

There are plenty of polarizing issues in America today but few would divide people so deeply than the issue of housing. There are several reasons for this:

  1. It is closely connected to race in the United States. While legally discriminating based on race or ethnicity in housing has been illegal for 50 years, residential segregation by race and ethnicity is alive and well.
  2. It is closely connected to social class in the United States. Those with resources do not want to live near those without resources. This can disrupt groups that commonly stick together, such as Democrats who might generally be more in favor of affordable housing but not necessarily when it means providing more housing in wealthier areas.
  3. Some of these polarizing issues are more abstract for many people but housing is an everyday issue that affects who you interact with, school districts, what kids see as normal, communities, parks, safety, and property values. Those who have choices about where they can move typically want those places to stay “nice.”

If California cannot figure this out at a state level, are there other states that can step up and provide affordable housing?

(Of course, the state level may not be the best level at which to address this. However, if it is left to municipalities, the wealthier ones will simply opt out and leave the issue for other communities to address.)

Ongoing fights over zoning for religious buildings

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed in 2000 and still there are numerous local battles between local governments and religious groups who want to use or build a structure for religious purposes:

By the time they take on a zoning challenge, many religious groups are already struggling to find and retain members, and to get by on shoestring budgets. Without an adequate place to gather, they miss opportunities to assemble in study, service, and prayer. The stakes are high for towns, too. Churches, synagogues, and mosques influence life well outside their walls: People who belong to religious institutions are more civically engaged than their secular neighbors. They are more likely to serve on school boards, volunteer at charities, and join clubs. In the absence of these institutions, communities can become fractured and isolated. Neighborly infrastructure decays…

Many of the groups that wind up at the center of RLUIPA cases have it worse than North Jersey Vineyard. Cases can stretch on for decades, and the majority of religious organizations end up losing: According to Dalton, who wrote a book on RLUIPA, roughly 80 percent of RLUIPA claims filed in federal court fail. “This is a very hard statute to follow,” he said. “For the inexperienced, it is easy to lose.” An untold number of religious groups never make it to court at all, either because congregations don’t realize they have special protections under the law, don’t know how to file a claim, or don’t have the resources to pursue a case. Many simply walk away from purchasing a property when they discover that it is not zoned for religious use.

North Jersey Vineyard was also spared the ugly bigotry underlying many zoning disputes. Other than a few awkward comments confusing Catholic and Protestant styles of worship, officials in South Hackensack didn’t seem to oppose North Jersey Vineyard’s purchase based on the congregants’ faith. Often, though, zoning books are wielded by intolerant or ignorant officials; about half of RLUIPA disputes involve religious or ethnic minorities, according to Dalton. As a participant in a Department of Justice listening session recently told government officials, “People don’t come into hearings now and say, ‘I hate Muslims.’ They say, ‘The traffic is going to be terrible on [Fridays,]’” when Muslims gather for Jumah prayer…
This is where the practicalities of land-use law shade into something more philosophical: Where is the line between preserving a community’s character and preventing its evolution? While it’s easy to sympathize with a church that can’t find a space in which to pray, it’s also easy to imagine aggrieved residents sitting in Sunday-morning traffic or searching in vain for parking near their house.

My own take on this is similar: it is not as simple as saying that most communities dislike certain religious groups (though some requests certainly gain more attention – I’ve seen more cases in the last ten years or so involving Muslims and orthodox Jews) as many times the concerns raised by local residents and governments are similar to those raised for any development project. The difference is here that religious groups have certain legal options open to them that are not available to non-religious development projects.

Almost all suburban residents’ concerns about redevelopment expressed in one meeting

Naperville is pursuing a redevelopment project just south of the downtown train station and a recent public input meeting provided almost all the typical suburban concerns about redevelopment:

Land use and traffic are emerging as top concerns about redevelopment plans for 5th Avenue near the Naperville Metra station.

But close behind are issues of stormwater, green space, pedestrian access, the commuter experience and parking…

Promises to take time understanding and synthesizing resident wants and concerns seemed to only somewhat satisfy residents at Ryan Companies’ fourth group input session Friday afternoon. Some who attended said they want very little to be built on the land, which they see as a solution to flooding, traffic congestion and a lack of nearby park space.

“I don’t want high density,” neighbor Dana Aldrich said. “Our schools are already crowded.”

These are all common concerns. Too much traffic. Water issues. Parking. A desire for more green space. The city or developer not taking the concerns of residents seriously. Not increasing the burden on local services (and presumably property taxes), particularly schools. The only thing missing? The suggestion that property taxes will be negatively affected. Given this particular location and wealthy community, it is unlikely the proposed project would reduce property values – but realities do not always stop suburban residents from raising this specter.

It is also interesting to consider how suburban governments can proceed if residents tend to raise the same concerns almost regardless of the project. Something is likely to be done with this land since a good argument could be made that it is not serving the community as well as it might. (Redevelopment can incur new costs but it can also generate new tax revenues.) Development can be tweaked to try to assuage concerns. However, at some point, community leaders may just decide to override residents’ concerns. Perhaps the concerns are limited to a small number of vocal residents. Perhaps they would argue that as leaders they have the greater good of the community in mind.

Fighting over affordable housing in Cedar Rapids

Lest you think NIMBY responses to new housing are limited to expensive cities, here is a case of opposition to 45 affordable housing units in Cedar Rapids, Iowa:

Neighbors said they didn’t oppose affordable housing per se, but that they feared the burden of the construction on their area, citing issues such as an increase in traffic and car accidents, potential flooding, and a lack of walkability for incoming residents. The developer said it had selected the site because it would immerse residents in a middle-density community with access to family amenities, including a bus stop, parks, and an elementary school.

At first, it looked like NIMBYism had prevailed: The petition and complaints convinced the city planning commission to vote against the request to rezone the property at an April 2016 meeting. But a few months later, the proposal was revived, becoming a test of what it would take to defeat neighborhood concerns and develop affordable housing that was integrated into rather than segregated from low-poverty communities.

That’s when the real animosity started to emerge, according to Phoebe Trepp, the director of Willis Dady, the local homeless services organization that would provide assistance at the development…

City leaders are also interested in spreading affordable housing throughout the city, rather than clustering it in the poorer southeast quadrant. Susie Weinacht, a City Council member at large, says that city staff want “housing options available throughout the community.”

This sounds fairly typical. A decent-sized community has difficulty providing affordable housing as well as dealing with homelessness. The city wants to spread the affordable units throughout the city so that poorer residents are not concentrated in one area (and perhaps to limit political opposition if one area had to host more units). Residents are not happy about this. They raise all sorts of common concerns about new developments – traffic, too much density near single-family homes, water issues, negative effects on property values – while also hinting at issues of race, ethnicity, and class (not cited in the excerpt above but more details are in the full article). A public debate ensues, one side wins, and the other side is not happy.

Is there a better way to do this whole process? Toward the end of the article, an official says that affordable housing initiatives work best when the support is from the grassroots (rather than planned by local or larger governments). This is probably true. Yet, how does one convince working-class to upper-class residents that it is in their interests to live near affordable housing? This is an incredibly tough sell to make to many Americans.

It is also worth asking about how the neighborhood fares within five, ten, twenty years of the construction of affordable housing units. Are the fears of Cedar Rapids neighbors unfounded? Does a denser development significantly alter the character of the community and drive existing residents away? Having some of these facts may not matter to some residents but showing some data could help ground the discussions in reality rather than emphasizing possible negative effects.

Crossing the line into NIMBYism

Author Margaret Atwood is opposed to an eight story residential building that would back up to her home in pricey Toronto. In some exchanges on social media, Atwood was accused of a NIMBY attitude. This raises an interesting question: when does one’s actions move from normal concerns about a home or neighborhood and into NIMBYism? Here is a description of Atwood’s concerns:

As the debate escalated, Atwood threw shade at a prominent local urbanist, accusing him of being in the pocket of developers, and went toe-to-toe with the architecture critic of a major Canadian newspaper.

The exchanges were confusing because, historically, Atwood has championed urban issues. She fought cuts to the Toronto Public Library under Mayor Rob Ford and opposed a plan by the University of Toronto to cover one of its historic green spaces in artificial turf.

In actuality, the opposition Atwood officially registered with the city was muted compared to those of others, particularly her husband, author Graeme Gibson.

“[The condo] hover[s] close to a brutal and arrogant assault on a community that has been here since the 19th Century,” he wrote in an email to the local city councillor.

In her email, Atwood focused on potential damage to several trees with roots in the development area, and later insisted on Twitter she would prefer affordable housing and a community center in the building.

In really expensive markets, perhaps anyone opposed to new housing units could be accused of NIMBYism. In many cities, there is a shortage of affordable housing and, as the article notes, it seems like wealthier residents do not want to live near cheaper housing and they have the clout to contest development. Additionally, it is difficult to imagine how sufficient housing units could be provided without making major changes to neighborhoods and cities as a whole.

But, is there also a way that NIMBYism is particularly expressed? This particular article hints at three possible distinctions. First, her husband used particular language. Perhaps taking a haughty or dismissive tone does not help. Second, Atwood has fought for the people regarding other city issues so perhaps she is not the average, out-of-touch wealthy resident. Third, Atwood may be trying to make a more nuanced argument – not opposed to the building but opposed to its uses – but this is difficult to relay through social media and it may not matter in a city like Toronto where housing is a controversial issue.

For better or worse, NIMBY is in the eye of the beholder. When arguments about land use and personal property arise, they are often heated. Accusing an opponent of NIMBY and the related idea that they are trying to keep people away from what they already have is a common tactic. Whether this application of a label helps the process in the long run is another matter to consider.