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The NIMBYs of Nickelsville

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Erica C. Barnett has a gift for writing about NIMBYs that parallels Edroso on wingnuts: a light touch on the commentary with an eye towards the absurdity of it all, while not getting in the way of them hang themselves with their own words. (Great examples here, here, especially here.) The most recent NIMBY outrage is the overwrought reaction to the planned location of a homeless encampment on a block of city property in Ballard. (Danny Westneat, of all people, explains how unfounded the fears are here; more background here, on the charge that such places increase crime in the neighborhood see here) Barnett says what very much needs to be said here:

No one, including the few (mostly homeless, formerly homeless, or homeless advocates) who spoke in favor of the encampment, called the opposition “classist”–that, along with “racist,” is the third rail of Seattle’s white progressive politics–but whatever possible conclusion is there when a group of mostly upper-middle-class, mostly white, mostly homeowning residents gang up on a group of disenfranchised people sleeping on park benches or in their cars and say that they, as a class, are shiftless alcoholics and drug addicts (as if addiction was a choice) who contribute nothing to society and instigate crime and the loss of property values?

How else can we describe parents who say they don’t want their children exposed to a less-fortunate class of people, whose basic humanity is suspect because they haven’t pulled themselves up by their bootstraps into the middle-class existence so many of those wealthy homeowners received as their birthright? And what are we supposed to make of people who literally say they can’t be anti-homeless because they once took an individual homeless person into their home, just like your racist friend who says he can’t be racist because he gets along just great with the black people who serve him?

 

As someone who has often recieved a fair amount of pushback for suggesting that people’s stated desire to restrict to housing supply in their neighborhoods is motivated at least in part by classism, I can’t help but feel a little bit vindicated here. The mask slips a bit more often when it comes to homeless people, rather than ‘low income’ people generally.

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  • Breadbaker

    We had one of one of those encampments at the church a block from our house a few years back. I couldn’t tell you when it started or when it ended because the impact on our lives consisted of some different people at our bus stop or walking down our block and I don’t keep tabs on who they are.

  • LWA

    Part of the allure of suburbia is that it allows a permanent escape from what frightens us. Crime, pollution, but most of all, failure.

    Homelessness disturbs even us liberals- or maybe especially us liberals in part because it is so intractable; there isn’t a silver bullet, there aren’t innocent victims to be rescued or villains to be vanquished.

    People’s lives often run into some sort of failure or dysfunction, leading to homelessness. Visible homelessness forces us to confront this, day after day.

    The world we tell ourselves and each other that we can and should live in- that is, the world of commercials where everyone’s job is exciting and gainful, all the children are above average, everyone’s home is tastefully furnished and cars are late model and clean- that world doesn’t have a place for an uncle who is a drunk, or a sister who is schizoid, a father who is a meth addict.

    So its easy to fantasize that these are morally deficient people who need bootstraps. But its also easy to imagine that they are victims of an economic system, who can then be safely compartmentalized by the bureaucracy, out of our sight.

    I want to scold the NIMBY folks too, and they probably deserve it. But I also know that when I walk through downtown LA, I am also unsettled by the people screaming at imaginary demons, or drunks sleeping in their own vomit. Not unsettled out of a fear of safety so much as its unsettling to know that this could just have easily been my uncle, sister, father, or even me.

    I guess the only thing I could really say is that our world would be better balanced, more wise and mature if we accepted that this stuff is part of what it means to live in a world of other humans, that sometimes we aren’t that attractive a bunch of people to be around.

    • Ahuitzotl

      because it is so intractable; there isn’t a silver bullet, there aren’t innocent victims to be rescued or villains to be vanquished.

      You’re fucking kidding me, right? Tell this to any western european nation.

      Most -american- homelessness isn’t intractable at all – there ARE innocent victims, there ARE villains to be vanquished, or at least taxed til they bleed.

      There IS a level of intractable homelessness, but the US isn’t anywhere near that – most of the homelessness is due to shite wages, and a dearth of both jobs and support for the unemployed.

      • most of the homelessness is due to shite wages, and a dearth of both jobs and support for the unemployed.

        And, for some 40 years, a retreat from the concept of public housing.

        • djw

          As part of a constellation of policies that significantly restrict housing in the city and immediate vicinity.

          • I meant nationally, but yeah, in a number of cities at the local level as well.

      • djw

        We don’t even have to look all the way to Europe; Utah will do.

        • witlesschum

          I know. That’s a problem about as intractable as insufficiently melted ice cream. If people would choose to stop standing in the freezer for ideological reasons, they’d get what they say they want.

      • joe from Lowell

        There IS a level of intractable homelessness, but the US isn’t anywhere near that

        We were close, man. Before the Great Recession, it was in sight. Still a ways away, but it was thinkable that we’d get there sometime fairly soon.

        And then the banks blew up, and then the Hoovervilles came back.

      • Origami Isopod

        I’d say it’s politically, rather than logistically, intractable in the US.

        (Great comment btw, LWA.)

  • NewishLawyer

    The question I have for NIMBYism is how much of it is buried in the sub-conscious of the subsequent.

    I live in SF and work in Marin. Marin is one of the most beautiful places in California. Marin is also one of the most NIMBY filled places and development is only allowed on something like 10 percent of the land and the rest is in a land trust. The justification was not enough water.

    The original people to set this up might have had a good deal of active hatred of the poor and/or minorities but how easily is this stuff buried cognitively? How about more modern families who move to Marin because it is like a paradise outside the city? You can wake up in clean nature and views of the Richardson Bay and Mount Tam.

    The question I always have is what is the balance. Complete anti-development is a no go and immoral but what is the limit on development? Should we just always let developer go hog wild and build?

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      think you’re setting up a strawman here- also that bit about it being immoral to oppose development is really a bit much

      The people here who are pro-building don’t talk about it in terms of giving the developers free rein. but to come anywhere near doing development in the least disruptive manner possible means a level of long term planning and management that (I’d guess) most local governments aren’t capable of and that most local developers will fight tooth and nail because they think planning costs them money. So it’s *always* going to be messy

  • L2P

    You’re being a bit dismissive of concerns about putting a homeless encampment. Anyone who says that plumping an encampment in a middle-class suburban community will have no effect on quality of life is simply a liar. And without excellent planning that can be a disaster.

    I’m not sure how it became immoral to want to live in a community of sfd’s. But when you start criticizing parents for not wanting their children around drug addicts, you’ve probably lost the battle. Maybe there’s no better options, but it’s certainly a valid complaint.

    • djw

      You’re being a bit dismissive of concerns about putting a homeless encampment. Anyone who says that plumping an encampment in a middle-class suburban community will have no effect on quality of life is simply a liar. And without excellent planning that can be a disaster.

      If only there was some way of knowing how this works in Seattle. If only the city collected crime data, or talked to neighbors, or otherwise paid any attention to the homeless encampments and their effects on neighborhoods. If only someone would link to articles containing information about all that.

      I’m not sure how it became immoral to want to live in a community of sfd’s.

      Oh, for fuck’s sake.

      • Breadbaker

        Really too bad it hasn’t happened over a long time, too. I mean, Greg Nickels hasn’t been mayor for five years.

    • witlesschum

      In other words, not in my back yard, and my classism is totally okay because acronym?

      • dilan

        djw is fighting the good fight here, and a completely quixotic one.

        The basic immorality of not wanting to allow poorer people to move to one’s neighborhood is both completely obvious and something that people have to deeply rationalize against, because it conflicts with fundamental desires.

        It’s sort of like criticizing Christianity. When you run into false things that people really, really, really want to believe, there’s no way to win the argument even though you are right.

    • Lost Left Coaster

      Drug addicts? How many of the residents of this encampment are drug addicts? 100%? 0%? You have no clue. You’re just making assumptions based on stereotypes.

      Let me ask you this: how many residents of those clean nice suburban homes are drug addicts? I guarantee you that it is greater than 0%.

  • LWA

    Certainly the rate of homelessness can be reduced. We can do a much better job of treating the mentally ill .

    But there’s more going on in NIMBYISM than mere snobbishness.

    Even in the most enlightened European society, people are still flawed and fallible, and lives still fall apart and spiral into chaos.

    My point was that sometimes the fervent and well meaning desire for a sweeping permanent solution to broken lives is itself an unwillingness the cope with the inevitability of suffering.

    Our suffering, I mean. The suffering of engaging with people who may not be amenable to being fixed, of extending our care and compassion even as we know we won’t be rewarded with the satisfaction of a happy ending.

    • sonamib

      But a lot of suffering is just pointless suffering. In Brussels, there is a “Winter Plan” to provide shelter to all homeless people from November through March. But they’re on their own for the rest of the year. So the city provides just enough aid to prevent most cold-related deaths, but doesn’t care enough to provide year-round support. How are these people supposed to get out of homelessness again?

    • joe from Lowell

      #notallhomelesspeople!

      There are a lot of homeless moms who work shitty retail jobs then go “home” to the kids in a shelter or motel.

      There are a lot of people you see and don’t realize they’re homeless. The ones you recognize immediately as homeless people aren’t the most representative of the homeless, just the most easily-recognizeable. That type of homelessness may be intractable and I can understand your seeming despair, but the mom with the kids – that can be fixed.

      • JL

        Indeed, I’ve had activist colleagues that I didn’t know were homeless or formerly homeless until after I’d known them for a while.

    • JL

      Our suffering, I mean. The suffering of engaging with people who may not be amenable to being fixed, of extending our care and compassion even as we know we won’t be rewarded with the satisfaction of a happy ending.

      Homeless people are more than fodder for savior complexes and weird martyrdom fantasies.

      Nobody here is talking about utopian visions of ending suffering. We’re talking about approaches that have been used in the world that exists to reduce homelessness. Utah’s implementation of the Housing First model. The Broadway pilot study on reducing long-term homelessness. Research-driven prevention and early intervention tactics for youth who are homeless or at greatly elevated risk for becoming such.

      • Davis X. Machina

        It. Costs. Too. Much.

        Even when it’s cheaper.

        Plus, the Theater of Virtue never closes.

      • LWA

        I think we may be talking past each other.
        There are vast swaths of homeless people who are the Easy Cases- the waitress my wife works with, who lives in a camper; the displaced worker, and so on.
        But I am calling on us as liberals to honestly address the other ones, the Hard Cases- the addicts, the mentally ill, the ones who defy cheap and easy solutions, like the person we know who drank himself to death in an alley.

        The reason is that NIMBYs, cops, and politicians aren’t complaining about the Easy Cases- no one really objects to the waitress living in her camper, and politicians would gladly provide funding, especially if she were white, pretty, conforming to middle class values and so on.

        When we refuse to honestly address the Hard Cases, we unwittingly accept the framing of innocence and guilt, of Deserving Poor versus the Undeserving. We leave the Hard Cases unrepresented, without a voice.

        I’m zooming up to the more abstract level of how we as a society grapple with things that don’t have pat solutions; I am connecting our love of suburbs with the consumer culture that prefers to ignore failure and suffering, and calling for us the “reality based community” to lead the way in asserting that we have a societal obligation to treat and care for the Hard Cases, because they are hard.

        • joe from Lowell

          It turns out that housing first does a pretty good job with the hard cases, too.

          People in alleys are more likely to drink themselves to death than people in bedrooms. People with bedrooms are more likely to start going to meetings.

        • djw

          The reason is that NIMBYs, cops, and politicians aren’t complaining about the Easy Cases- no one really objects to the waitress living in her camper, and politicians would gladly provide funding, especially if she were white, pretty, conforming to middle class values and so on.

          I think, though, the tendency you’re arguably exemplifying here–presenting the image of the homeless person as a tragic/romantic outsider/other, beyond the scope of our help or even understanding–ends up contributing to the do-nothing political inertia regarding homelessness, by erasing or (perhaps inadvertently) pathologizing the ‘normal’ homeless people. That’s what it sounds the like the Ballard NIMBYs were doing at the town meeting Barnett writes about–opposing a measure to ameliorate the harms and dangers of homelessness by presenting an image of the homeless as irredeemable outsiders. (And, not to keep harping on Utah, but it turns out many of the people in that category end up staying in housing if you build it for them.)

        • jim, some guy in iowa

          in the article djw links Utah has it down to about 175 Hard Cases- they know their names and possible needs and stay in contact. I think we’ll always have *some* of that

          (edited out second paragraph of badly expressed speculation)

          • sonamib

            Yes, staying in contact with the “Hard Cases” is essential. I mean, it’s not rocket science, if these homeless drug addicts are in regular contact with social workers, they’re less likely to die, and more likely to improve their lives. This won’t solve everything, but it would surely help a lot.

  • Derelict

    In America, there will never be enough political will or momentum to deal with homelessness. The NIMBY aspect is one very, very small part of it. The much larger part is that American culture views life (writ large) as one gigantic morality play–people are homeless because they deserve to be homeless. They have earned their homelessness. And that makes the homeless worthy of contempt, of shunning, of ever greater deprivation and dehumanization.

    And yet, I’d be willing to bet that nearly every person who feels that way about the homeless also looks at homeless people in horror because they know that one bad event–losing a job, getting too sick–could wipe away their own economic underpinnings. And then they, too, would be living under plastic.

    • djw

      Again: Utah. I’m not saying a more comprehensive approach is right around the corner or anything, but if they can do it in Utah, I’m thinking perhaps the pathologies of American ideology may not be insurmountable (especially considering how much money it appears to save).

      • joe from Lowell

        Yes, absolutely.

        You know who went big on the Housing First strategy? The W administration.

        This is an unusual issue, in that there really is the possibility of Republicans and conservatives coming on board. Maybe that’s because it’s been so under-the-radar that it hasn’t become a partisan shibboleth.

        • I knew someone who was very into Housing First, and it sounded to me like a “culture” argument, the kind David Brooks makes, only with having a house or lease instead of an education or a job, as a foundation for everything else in life, kind of thing. But if the program works . . .

          • joe from Lowell

            I would say that the argument is between culture vs. material conditions, and that housing first is a strategy very much on the opposite side of that argument from what David Brooks has to say.

            • I had in mind when Brooks talks about bringing poor kids into middle class neighborhoods, which he seems to think will automatically assimilate them to the “culture” of the majority in those neighborhoods.

              I mean, sure, of course Brooks starts from a completely different place than my friend did. Though, personally, I can easily see him taking the idea from someone like her and running with it, (Assuming she didn’t actually have something she read in Brooks in mind, in the first place, when she thought about what Housing First might mean, which she might not realize or admit, and which doesn’t matter anyway as long as the policies she supports are good.)

              • joe from Lowell

                Oh, I see.

                For the most part (bit of an understatement there), the housing first strategy doesn’t bring “hard cases” to middle-class suburban neighborhoods. More like, single room occupancy flats in the poor part of the city.

                It’s really more about getting the hassles of living on the streets out of the way, so that it becomes possible to deal with their other issues. The bit about absorbing the culture of people that David Brooks likes doesn’t really come into it.

                • It’s really more about getting the hassles of living on the streets out of the way, so that it becomes possible to deal with their other issues.

                  What I heard, though, on occasion. was an implicit “so they can deal with their issues in the way we ‘normal’ people do”. So they can get into the system that already exists to help them, and we can forget about them again. Look, I know the statistics show that focusing on getting people leases works better than the alternative, and the movement can use any support it can get. But it has the potential to play into people’s prejudices about people who happen to be homeless.

                  Anyway, I live in Framingham, which has its share of whatever Lowell and Boston have, I’d think (eta: except an RMV office). In fact, I’d be surprised if there was a shelter or methadone clinic for people in the surrounding burbs that wasn’t located in one of Framingham’s working class neighborhoods.

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