NIMBYism, the idea that certain development projects are okay, but Not In My BackYard, is discrimination with a prettier hat on. NIMBYs don’t come right out and say the actual reasons for their opposition; instead, they offer other reasons, perhaps to reduce their own cognitive dissonance because they don’t want to think of themselves as having stigmatized attitudes. This post was prompted by a recent story on CBC News story about Vancouver city council approving a low-barrier housing development despite some loud public opposition.
A low-barrier supported housing development
The proposed development in question is for a 13-story building with 129 units of low-barrier supportive housing adjacent to a new SkyTrain (our version of a subway) station that’s being built. Low-barrier housing targets adults who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, low-income, and in need of support in order to maintain a successful tenancy (source: BC Housing). People accessing this kind of housing often (but not necessarily) are dealing with mental illness or addictions.
The Kitsilano Coalition, a group of community members opposed to the development, argues that supportive housing units should be spread out across the city rather than being concentrated in one building. The CBC article quotes a member of the coalition as saying “We asked for a model that is what’s proven by the science, which is to disperse individuals across the city in smaller numbers amongst people that are living in regular condo buildings and rental buildings so that people don’t feel stigmatized.”
She also stated, “We don’t understand why we, the community members, ended up being the people advocating for the best solution for the vulnerable members in our society.”
Straight from the NIMBY horse’s mouth
The Kitsilano Coalition has created a website that articulates their arguments. It states that “the supportive housing model is a failure.” Here are some excerpts:
- The proposed housing model is “unsafe for both the residents and the surrounding community and does not come close to adequately responding to the residents’ addictions and mental health issues. Placing housing like this in a neighbourhood without having an adequate plan for supports in place perpetuates the willful neglect of the public and people this is intended to help.”
- “Statistics show that supportive housing rules leave people isolated and put them at higher risk of harmful outcomes as a result of the restrictive environment.” (No actual statistics are offered to support this claim.)
- ‘We believe a better alternative is scattered-site housing with supports rather than an unnecessary level of institutionalization imposed on people living in our neighbourhood.”
- “The ‘Low Barrier’ terminology means that there are no requirements for tenants to be screened for mental health or substance abuse issues. Whilst it is feasible some tenants may enter this housing from Correctional Institutions, there are no criminal records screenings, as a prerequisite for tenancy.”
- “There are no requirements for any tenants to seek out mental health or substance abuse support.” (their emphasis, not mine)
- They note that their concerns have been met by the city with “accusations of NIMBY-ism and stigmatization.”
Everyone deserves a roof over their head
Low-barrier housing exists because everyone deserves to have a roof over the head. Just because someone has an untreated mental illness, an active addiction, or a criminal record does not mean that they should just be homeless and that’s the end of that. Engaging in treatment for any sort of health condition should not be a requirement to have a place to sleep indoors. The target population is people that the rental housing market either cannot or does not accommodate, so social housing is needed that doesn’t have the same barriers to getting housed as the rental market.
What’s not being said
If people are concerned about potential consequences related to drug use, they should just come out and say it so the issue can actually be addressed directly. What really makes this a NIMBY situation is that the coalition is claiming that they’re looking out for the best interests of vulnerable people. I would be incredibly surprised if any members of the coalition from the wealthy Kitsilano neighbourhood had spoken to a single homeless or at-risk-of-being-homeless individual who belonged to the vulnerable population they claim to speak for.
While I think the issue of the potential impact of active drug use on the neighbourhood is certainly worth having open discussions about, the idea that people should be screened for mental health issues and be required to seek out mental health support is a more blatant example of stigma.
The talk about statistics and “proven by the science” bugs me because it’s obviously bullshit, as they’re not offering any sort of evidence to support those claims. They talk about a “restrictive environment” and “institutionalization” as though providing housing to homeless people is just far too confining for them. On the other hand, they claim that housing people in this way perpetuates “willful neglect.” Hmm…
Denying it doesn’t make it less NIMBYish
When the coalition says they’re being falsely accused of NIMBYism, I suspect that they do actually lack the self-awareness to recognize this in their stance. From their position of wealth and social privilege, these are people who likely want to see themselves as supporting marginalized people rather than further marginalizing them. Instead of acknowledging concerns that might make them look a little bit prejudiced, they seem to prefer to claim the role of advocate and saviour.
However, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, chances are pretty good that it’s a duck, despite the NIMBY veneer of civility.
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