Homeless Program Opponents Refreshingly (If Terrifyingly) Honest About Their Motivations

They are at it again. The same folks in the wealthier part of Western Albany who don’t want to provide a decent building to educate our children in also don’t like that a church in their neighborhood was participating in a regional effort to help families without homes via a day time outreach program hosted in a church parsonage. Neighborhood ne’er do well and perennial candidate Joe Sullivan, pursuing his vision of segregation and protection from scary people down on their luck, managed to luck into a judge who decided to overturn the zoning decision based on a technicality about whether a parsonage is actually a house of worship. Chris Churchill at the Times Union is right that this was a bad decision; I hope Family Promise and Bethany Reformed Church do appeal.

Wow, You Said That Out Loud

But the controversy also provided a disturbing look at how many residents of wealthier, whiter, single-family-home neighborhoods seem to feel that they deserve the right to decide who can enter those neighborhoods just by virtue of owning homes there. (Yes, I read the comments, so help me God.) They are startlingly direct about it: They feel that anything serving people poorer than they are should be considered a noxious use for the purposes of zoning and banned from their “nice” neighborhood. 

From this mindset emerges the person who compared living near a program that provides child care and access to computers to parents trying to get back on their feet again after losing their homes to living next to a “leather tannery” “with the sludge and stench.” Yes, they felt that the knowledge that people without permanent homes were getting help in their neighborhood, and the fact that they might have to see them walking on the street sometimes, was comparable to the idea of having to breathe noxious chemicals 24/7. I can’t imagine walking around in the world with such a fragile sense of self.

There was also faux concern about how freeloading homeless families would supposedly be better served by being penned somewhere they are desperate to get out of because it’ll inspire them to try harder instead of being allowed to catch a glimpse of how the lucky live on their way to and from getting some basic services. How dare those bastards be allowed to gaze upon my immaculate lawn and vinyl siding until they have a proper address of their own!

I’ll wait here while everyone expressing that view sends their own children to live in an unheated garage until they get into the Ivy League college of their choice to provide motivation. I will then keep waiting until they choose to turn down the largest housing subsidy this country gives out, the mortgage interest deduction. After all, it’s not fair that hard-working non-homeowning taxpayers are subsidizing the lucky few who both own homes and earn enough to itemize their deductions. (Reforming the deduction to be a bit more progressive could actually end homelessness, but hey, I digress!)

Similarly, the comment “I would not want non-residents just wandering around,” was telling, and made me wonder what part of “public” that writer doesn’t understand. Newsflash: streets and sidewalks are public. You did not purchase them, and you would not actually stand for a world where you personally were not allowed to take a stroll in whatever neighborhood you wished.

The worst comment to me though, was “sure they need help, but does it have to be in a residential neighborhood full of children and the elderly?” I’m sure the poster in question would vehemently deny it, but right there they exposed how they feel not only about people who are without homes, but about the residents of the parts city where they feel homeless services do belong—that all of them are less than human. The wealthy white residents of the western wards can be “children” or “elderly.” But young and old people who don’t live in nice, big houses with skittish property values that apparently might implode if you look at them cross-eyed? Apparently something else entirely and not really worth caring about.

This country has a long, nasty history of trying to use supposedly neutral zoning laws to reinforce segregation by race and class—especially race. And comments like this lay the bias bare.

I think it is worth noting that many Albanians also stepped up to counter this kind of nastiness. I do not assume that it is a majority view. Unfortunately, however, it tends to be a loud and righteous kind of view that does things like go to court to attack services for the most vulnerable among us.

NIMBY Delusions

In some ways I appreciate the startling forthrightness of these comments. NIMBYs usually try to cloak their elitism and scorn in theoretically neutral quality of life arguments. But given that the facility had been operational for months, there had been no actual complaints, and Jack Flynn, the councilman for that ward, told the Times Union, “I live 100 yards from that place, and I haven’t seen any quality of life issues in that neighborhood,” I guess that wouldn’t have worked so well in this case.

But in case it comes up again, let it be known that NIMBY arguments about such facilities, as well as for ones that actually do house people, which this one didn’t, are nearly always disproven after the fact. Here’s an article on homeless shelters and supportive housing from New York City. Here’s one on highly contested affordable housing developments in Massachusetts. Here’s a summary of all the research showing that well-designed affordable housing developments (group homes included in several of the studies) actually tend to raise nearby property values if they have any effect at all.

In fact, the disconnect between what NIMBYs claim to be about and reality is so strong one lawyer in Austin was moved to try to develop a “theory of NIMBY” to explain it. He notes that NIMBYs generally treat their neighborhood amenities as things that belong solely to them: “‘club’ membership is bundled with homeownership,” he writes, and “causes the value of neighborhood amenities to be capitalized into home prices. NIMBYism can be thought of as the practice of objecting to development in order to protect the value of ‘club’ membership.” Sounds right.

Property Values

Then there’s the property values part. So, I hate to break it to you folks, but there’s no right—constitutional, human, or otherwise—for you to win at the game of real estate speculation just because you bought property that was worth above a certain amount in a neighborhood you thought was “nice.” I would find it cute, if I didn’t find it appalling, that you seem to believe there is.

Houses are depreciating assets—they cost money to maintain, repair, and update. What appreciates, if anything, is the value of the land, and its value is based entirely on location. Interestingly, the same people who want to cry foul when they imagine something that helps someone else might lower their property values never seem to mind when public or private action—infrastructure investment, beautification, better public services, new jobs—make their values go up.

Now, I understand why in a world where we have destroyed pensions and where wages have not kept up with costs that many people may fret about the value of their home—but that does not actually make it ethical to demand that public decisions prioritize those (generally unfounded, see above) worries of a certain group of a fairly well-off residents over everyone else. If financial security is an issue for you, perhaps I might suggest directing your activist attention into supporting a universal basic income, a living wage, or protecting Social Security?

 

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