Not in My Backyard, On Facebook

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