Not in My Backyard, On Facebook

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February 4, 2011; Source: Wednesday Journal of Oak Park and River Forest | The nonprofit Oak Park Regional Housing Center supports plans to convert an empty Comcast building into 51 affordable rental apartments (to be developed by the Chicago-based Interfaith Housing Development Corporation in partnership with the Oak Park Housing Authority). The plans are not without controversy.

One of the arguments being used by opponents is that the Comcast project on Madison Street would result in "segregation." The Housing Center's executive director says adding lower income people would actually increase the racial and economic diversity in the Comcast facility neighborhood where the median income is a rather hefty $86,077. In addition, the 51 apartments would increase rental housing in the Census Tract by only 2 percent.

It isn't hard to see in the online comments and the extensive Oak Park debate on Facebook that the debate isn't quite so esoteric. The argument isn’t really fair housing vs. lack of diversity. Take for example the comment that characterizes the project as being for "low-income residents, including many on permanent government assistance" – a loaded phrase if there ever was one.

Another woman adds, "This is NOT needed. There WILL be correlational problems – and not just more dollar stores." Someone else adds, "Love being panhandled in line at McDonald's. Love the Dollar Store. Thanks!" The Facebook debate contains a link to a survey conducted in the fall in which opponents outnumbered supporters of the development roughly 2 to 1, but one page of the survey findings reveals much (PDF): 74.2 percent of surveyed residents living one block or less from the proposed project were in opposition, 66.3 percent within two blocks, 65.2 percent three, 47.4 percent four, 38.9 percent five, and 19.1 percent live six or more blocks away.

On Facebook, one woman offers a long statement in opposition, concluding, "Why Oak Park anyway? . . . How many people will want to stay or move to Oak Park knowing that there is a public housing building? . . . All it would do is lower the values of people's homes, make people move away to a SAFER place and cause untold problems for our Police Department." Welcome to a case study of "Not In My Backyard" (NIMBY) played out in the social media.—Rick Cohen

  • Saraa

    Wow. Do those in opposition have any background in urban development and community building? I’m going to go out on a limb and assume not. 😕

  • rick cohen

    NIMBYism doesn’t require background, but do remember, even people with “background” in urban development and community building can turn quite NIMBYish when they feel personally involved. I remember doing expert witness testimony for group homes in New Jersey and was surprised to find a well known urban planning activist in the opposition, contrary to her generally progressive views on the topic. Why? She lived in the community where the group home was located. Sometimes, where you stand is where you sit–or where you sleep–even if your professional training should tell you otherwise. In this case, however, look at the Facebook commentary, and I think you’ll find basically the sentiment of neighbors, informed by fears rather than professional background.

  • Patricia OShea

    Crying NIMBY is a bullying tactic used by those who don’t like the fact that people are asking tough questions. This proposed project is poorly designed around requirements defined by agencies who are backed by funders who stand to gain financially from investing in it. The applicants for the zoning variance are struggling to provide clarity on how they plan to ensure success with a model they have never executed before (High density low income residence in a primarily single family home neighborhood). They cannot provide clarity on how they are going to create a successful commercial space with little parking available in a neighborhood flooded with open storefronts. They ask us to envision Oak Park residents and workers and the disabled, but then can’t actually even come close to committing to who is going to live there. The list goes on and on. Concentrated poverty is something we should work to avoid, not something we should facilitate. It is time to learn from past mistakes and follow a mixed-income housing model.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Patricia: Thanks for your response. In my experience (i’ve been a city planner, a director of housing and economic development, and an expert witness in zoning cases), the groups that face NIMBY issues are usually hardly in a position to bully. I would assume that when a nonprofit does low-income housing, there are investors who will probably “profit” from the housing tax credits, but that is how affordable housing is now often created, not as fully publicly-funded public housing, but public-private ventures leveraging private investment. “High density” is sometimes not quite so cut and dried as one might think, and in this case, it’s all too obvious that the consistent phrasing “high density low income” suggests that opponents of the project are as concerned with the demographics of the potential tenants as how many tenants there might be. So the issue, at its root, is “concentrated poverty”. One wonders if the 51 units were high income condos whether there would be as vigorous a concern about the density or about “concentrated affluence.” I hope that the nonprofits engaged in this project come on the website to answer questions about the commercial space (the Comcast building looks like a burgeoning eyesore in the pictures given its lack of use), the specific zoning-relevant issues of density (traffic, parking, utilities), and the income mix of the units (take a look at tax credit deals around the nation which are remarkably positive contributors to their communities, and I’m assuming that this would be a tax credit project). Thanks again for reading!