Yes! In My Backyard!
A commitment to neighbourliness eases resistance to new supportive housing. Part of a series.
Stefania Seccia is the managing editor of Megaphone Magazine. Megaphone readers separately supported this particular series on homelessness solutions through a spring 2016 crowdfunding drive. Other publications wishing to publish this article or other Housing Fix articles, please contact editor Chris Wood.
Wanda Mulholland isn’t proud to tell this story.
In the fall of 2004, some condemned buildings in her neighbourhood came down, and the results were swiftly visible. “We were inundated with people that we hadn’t seen before,” she says.
It turned out that people had been squatting in the dilapidated four-storey structures. But when the buildings were taken down and those same people showed up instead in the Burnaby social worker’s own backyard, she wanted them gone.
The “Not in My Backyard” syndrome is so common it’s better known by its acronym: NIMBYism. It’s even defined by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation as “the protectionist attitudes and exclusionary/oppositional tactics used by community groups facing an unwelcome development in their neighbourhood.”
One such generally “unwelcome” development is housing for the disenfranchised. Despite research showing that the presence of such housing can actually benefit property values and crime rates, NIMBYism is a common barrier to their development.
That’s why these days, Mulholland is an advocate instead for “YIMBYism” — a nascent movement promoting “Yes in My Backyard,” which has gained traction as an advocacy movement in the U.S. and is finding toeholds in Canada.
As a social worker, Mulholland says she understands the impacts of poverty on a professional level, but when people were setting up camp literally under her windows, “my neighbourhood and my home didn’t feel the same anymore.”
“I didn’t know where [the] people came from, I didn’t know why they were there all of a sudden,” she says. “I didn’t like the kind of behaviour that was happening around us.” Although there was no violence, drug use was a consistent issue.
After her husband failed to persuade them to leave, she called the RCMP and demanded to speak with the person in charge.
The staff sergeant she reached wasn’t at all what she expected. The officer, she recalls, “started off by saying that homelessness wasn’t a crime.” Then he asked if she knew any place else where these people, “who were so poor that they were without the basics of shelter,” could go in Burnaby.
Mulholland had to admit she didn’t. And in fact at the time there were no services in Burnaby for a homeless demographic whose very existence city officials denied.
But the officer’s questions started Mulholland thinking.
When she next approached her “homeless neighbours,” she tried a different angle: asking about their lives, and trying to figure out how to help. The conversations revealed that some had “lived in our neighbourhood longer than I had,” she says.
Mulholland says she would now welcome any emergency shelter, or transitional or social housing facility that popped up next door. It felt like a natural next step, she said, to become active and help form a Burnaby Homeless Task Force that this year became formalized as the Society to End Homelessness in Burnaby.
The motives behind NIMBYism range from emotions as simple as fear of change, to perceptions of newcomers as threats to concern for traffic impacts, according to a Federation of Canadian Municipalities guide designed to “promote a non-confrontational approach to community opposition and gain acceptance for well-planned housing developments.”
While it may also arise from resistance to gentrification in a neighbourhood, it more often stands in the way of social housing, shelters, or places for people to recover from substance abuse.
Earlier this year, opposition among suburban Vancouver residents prompted Liberal members of the B.C. legislature to veto a project to transform a former Holiday Inn in Maple Ridge into a permanent emergency shelter. (While the province says it will spend $15 million for a facility somewhere else, the project has stalled.)
An effort to provide 16 affordable housing units in Calgary’s Rosedale neighbourhood was met by opponents who told a public consultation this summer that the proposed facility didn’t match the neighbourhood aesthetic, and suggested concentrating all low-income people in one area.
And when Toronto’s city council proposed a 100-bed men’s shelter in the Rockcliffe-Smythe neighbourhood, neighbours again came out in full force to oppose the proposal, expressing worry about decreased safety and the facility’s proximity to schools and parks.
In fact, such fears are overblown.
Fact: social housing boosts property value
Most studies have found that affordable housing does not depress property values. Of 31 studies that examined whether non-market housing hurt surrounding property values in California, one recorded a negative impact; 19 found no discernable effect, and seven documented rising property values (the others were inconclusive).
As long as 20 years ago, the B.C. government undertook a study to address NIMBY concerns by tracking seven social housing projects across the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island, and the Interior. In each case, neighbours didn’t want the project to happen because they worried property values would take a hit.
Over five years, appraisers reviewed sale prices in nearby homes and compared them to a controlled area. They found that prices near the projects increased as much as — or more than — houses in the control area. There was no evidence the property values were negatively impacted by nearby social housing.
A University of Minnesota study even found that a property gained US$86 in value for every 30 metres closer it was to well-managed, non-profit, multi-family subsidized housing.
Research also suggests that low-income housing developments can reduce the risk of crime, rather than add to it, according to the National Homeless Initiative.
Between 1997 and 2006, a Toronto neighbourhood around supportive housing facilities saw dispatched emergency calls fall 27 per cent, an 11.5 per cent decrease in assaults, and sexual assaults drop by almost a third, according to a Wellesley Institute report.
Vancouver Coastal Health stated in 2007 states that a review over 25 years had uncovered no evidence that “there has been an increase in crimes in areas around [supportive housing] buildings.” Neighbours made few complaint calls about the projects.
Indeed, NIMBYism may be self-defeating: a report by the National Homelessness Initiative found that when community opposition to housing the homeless succeeded, it actually created more crime, by cutting down the number of options for people who would otherwise have resided and received care in the proposed facilities.
YIMBYism positions itself as the opposite of NIMBYism. It began with advocates in New York and San Francisco and achieved status as a social movement this summer with its first-ever conference in Boulder, Colorado. About 150 activists from the U.S. converged to brainstorm on how to make cities more green, sustainable and affordable. Organized groups have adopted its credo in Vancouver and Toronto.
No longer stepping past the problem
While Ronna Chisholm isn’t a formal member of any of those groups, she does count herself part of the broader YIMBY movement.
The co-founder of Dossier Creative, a Vancouver design firm, for years she avoided contact with people living on the sidewalks and back alleys near her company’s Alexander Street offices on the outskirts of the city’s Downtown Eastside.
“For the most part, I just drove up, walked into the building and didn’t look,” she says. “I kind of ran away from anyone that was walking in the parkade.”
Then she happened to have a conversation with a mentor, the late Vancouver philanthropist Milton Wong, who grew up in the Downtown Eastside. “What is wrong with us, Ronna?” she remembers Wong asking her. “We’re walking over people and not even looking at them.”
Wong’s concern came back to her one day as she was leaving work and met a man watching a new building being built across the street. When she asked what it was, the man said it was for the “hardest to house,” and made a concerned expression. When Chisholm asked what he thought it would be like, his answer was: “a disaster.” Police would be a constant fixture, the man believed, and people would be “throwing TVs out the window.”
An email, she then remembered, had circulated around her building seeking signatures on a petition to stop the housing project. She had ignored it then, but now it gave her an idea.
When Chisholm’s company next accepted a group of interns, she challenged them to find a way to bridge the two sides of the street — the business side with the social housing side — before the first residents moved into the newly built apartments.
She and her team of young interns approached the Portland Hotel Society, which managed the building, to explain that they wanted to greet all 140 new residents with something that “could be like the apple pie, to say welcome,” says Chisholm. They raised money and donated items from other businesses in Chisholm’s building.
When new residents began to move in a couple years ago, each received a gift basket containing a welcome card, a frame for a favourite picture, a plant, winter gloves and other things. While some were at first skeptical at being handed “moving in” gifts, the apprehension melted once Chisholm and her interns explained that they were just the neighbours from the other side of the street. “That totally changed the dynamic,” she says.
While the intention had been to make it a one-time thing, the “Hello Neighbour” initiative has continued with other community events. And as Chisholm hoped, doors are opening and hands reaching out on both sides of Alexander Street.
Paid in snooker lessons
One of the new residents in the building for the “hardest to house” was Dennis Scott, a former jazz musician who had waited more than 30 years for stable housing. Chatting after a community event that raised some money for the residence, Chisholm asked Scott what they could do with it. His answer: “a snooker table.”
Turns out that Scott, 69, had been playing snooker in pool halls across North America since he was 15, sometimes hustling wagers and even playing on a professional level. “I love the game,” he says. “When you know how to play snooker, you’ll never be alone.” Scott told Chisholm he would love to teach her the game.
Which is why the two now have a standing appointment every Wednesday, and at least two dozen people, including several of Chisholm’s interns, have since gone through Scott’s informal “pool school.”
“My goal was super simple,” Chisholm says. “You can’t fix anything, right? But if we could actually walk down the street and look at [other people] and smile, and they smile back — that was what we were really hoping to achieve.”
‘It can be any of us’
Mulholland now understands that people who lose their shelter tend to stay in their home community because it’s the one comfort they can afford — familiarity in a time of crisis.
She’s also gone from seeing them as a nuisance, to seeing them as neighbours. “It can be any of us,” she says, who fall on bad luck. Some of the people she thought had “invaded” her neighbourhood had actually raised children there, had grown up there themselves.
Her Burnaby backyard, at least in the larger sense, “means all the same things [to them] that it means to me,” Mulholland says today. “So it would be preferable to have the housing and services for people here.”
“And if that is next door to me, wonderful.”
DISPELLING MYTHS ON HOMELESSNESS
The homeless are often stereotyped in unrealistic ways. Here is the truth behind some common misconceptions:
“Homeless people just need to get a job!” Reality: Many homeless people do work but they still can’t afford shelter. In a recent survey of Canada’s homeless youth, about 20 per cent reported having employment, but weren’t able to put a roof over their heads.
“It costs too much money to house people.” Reality: The Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addictions found that the average homeless adult cost British Columbia $55,000 in 2006. Adequate housing and support would have reduced that to $37,000 — for a net saving of $211 million.
“People are homeless because of drug or mental health issues.” Reality: Many other issues can render people without a home: physical disability, loss of employment, a traumatic event in life such as a home fire, or simply being unable to find another affordable dwelling after being evicted in the course of a renovation or demolition. Illness is common: 80 per cent of 2,777 homeless people counted in Metro Vancouver in the 2014 Homeless Count reported having one or more health conditions including diabetes, arthritis, spine and back problems, HIV, heart problems, as well as brain injury, asthma and cancer. More than half did not use drugs, and only one-third reported a mental illness.
“The homeless are transient and move from city to city.” Reality: People who are homeless are more likely to stay in their own community. It’s familiar and they may have family and friends nearby.
“Homelessness will never be solved.” Reality: While homelessness may never be solved entirely, chronic street homelessness can be ended, as Medicine Hat, AB claims to have done. But it takes investment in social and affordable housing, support, and ongoing commitment by all levels of government.
— Stefania Seccia