A Response to Opposition on Affordable Housing

A Response to Opposition on Affordable Housing

As letters flowed in opposing a town proposal to allocate $500,000 toward the development of a single-room occupancy (SRO) affordable housing development at 132 Northampton Road, Amherst finally got its chance to take part in a time-honored national tradition: good ol’ American NIMBY-ism (which stands for “Not In My Backyard” for those unacquainted with the acronym).

Luckily, Amherst is really making up for lost time, as the breadth of complaints so well demonstrates. In a few, we’ve seen the classic “Poor people are dangerous!” and “Think of the children!” arguments — insinuating that drug addiction and alcoholism would be rampant among future tenants. Some residents frame their NIMBY-ism not as personal concern, but rather as a selfless interest in “the good of the public,” citing fears of lost access to Pratt Field due to improper (implied drug) use by the new residents.

To be fair, not all the complaints are so black or white. There are plenty of arguments which actually seem to posit useful critiques — for example, Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies Katherine Sims proposes using town funds more efficiently to maximize the project’s number of beneficiaries. Still, even these critiques usually conclude that the project shouldn’t continue at its current site or with its current intended occupancy.

Thus it’s hard to determine whether these residents are genuinely seeking better housing options for vulnerable Amherst residents or are simply looking for justifications to move the development away from their own backyards.

However, whether these arguments amount to sincere critique or disguised aporophobia isn’t my main concern. After all, who am I to assign intention to residents’ words? Rather, I want to discuss some problems with one of the more salient complaints put forth: the letter sent to the Town Council by 56 residents from Amherst’s Districts 3 and 4.

If you haven’t read the letter, I’ll provide a brief summary. Overall the residents take a defensive stance, emphasizing that they “are not saying ‘not it our backyard,’” but rather ‘please get this right, because it’s our backyard.’ Thus they land on the conclusion that the development doesn’t necessarily need to be moved, but rather that Valley Community Development Corporation (Valley CDC), the developer and manager of the property, should pledge more professional support for residents — for their own benefit and the neighborhood’s. They add briefly at the end of their letter that the development should also be reduced in size (perhaps a NIMBY concession?).

Fair enough. I’m all for allocating more resources to empower the homeless and treat addiction and mental illness. But who’s to say this development won’t already provide enough resources — especially when Valley CDC has a proven track record of managing similar SRO developments (e.g. 82 Bridge St., Northampton)?

It’s on this point that the letter takes a turn. Though the authors aren’t literally saying “not in my backyard,” they do justify their conclusions using some NIMBY arguments: worries about drug use and concern for “the public.”

“Hmmm… That smells like profiling!,” you might think. Well fear not, because according to the authors, “this is a wholly inaccurate description of the situation.” They go on to tout their academic credentials and “rigorous use of data” as unassailable proof of their lack of bias. Moreover, they argue that their data prove the shortcomings of Valley CDC’s management strategies.

Yes, I’d agree that arguments based on legitimate evidence generally don’t count as profiling. I’d also say that the letter’s argument lacks the “rigorous use of data” which the authors claim. This comes down to two examples, the first of which is worth a mention, and the second of which merits a full discussion.

In the first case, while the authors don’t explicitly reference numbers, they do mention reading “surveys and scientific research detailing the expected rates of history of substance use disorders, the rates of relapse, and the statistics regarding social/behavioral outcomes given substance abuse.” The implication is that these data (though not provided) support the authors’ proposal and provides the reader with a baseline of knowledge on the effects of the proposed development. But considering the authors’ argument, these data seem wholly irrelevant. They wouldn’t actually make any claims about the sufficiency of Valley CDC’s tenant services — just about the general population of people suffering from addiction. If the letter’s argument is that Valley CDC’s tenant services aren’t sufficient, how would these data support that point?

Right off the bat, the evidence seems a bit dubious, but then we get to the authors’ real data. Analyzing police calls associated with other Valley CDC residences (four of which use the SRO model and one of which doesn’t), the authors found that 2,669 calls were placed “over a period of several years.” They placed these calls into five complaint categories of which “criminal” was the largest (22 percent of calls).

I’ll discuss a number of issues with these data and their presentation, but there’s one important point to make off the bat: calls to the police don’t constitute crime.

It’s pretty simple: police calls are complaints until the case is proven criminal. For example, I could call the police on any of the letter’s signatories to complain about its contents; does that mean they committed a crime? No. If anything, these data simply show that people like to call the cops on the poor and the mentally ill. The authors, trying to reject accusations of profiling, define it using a classic example: “a law enforcement officer pulling over a vehicle simply because the driver is of a certain race.” Ironically, they don’t seem to realize that calling the cops on someone because you believe they committed a crime counts too. Despite the authors’ claims of objectivity, their data might actually be the result of rampant profiling.

In all fairness to the authors, they do mention that John Hornik, chair of the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust Fund, had suggested they investigate call data. But that still doesn’t justify basing their argument in unsupported data.

Let’s say for a moment, however, that every call made to the police in these data reported a crime (or other emergencies/disturbances) that actually occurred. These data are still irrelevant to the case of 132 Northampton Road for a number of reasons. For one, the authors include non-SRO housing (specifically three-bedroom units) in the dataset, while the proposed development is exclusively SRO units. These two occupancy layouts are certainly not interchangeable, given the fundamental differences in social relations among tenants. Similarly, the developments in the dataset don’t provide the same tenant services as the proposed one — most notably, a 20-hour per week on-site social worker. Generally, the data cited don’t include cases comparable to the proposed development.

Let’s give the letter another concession and say that the data do use comparable cases. Even then, the letter still presents the data in a misleading way. For example, the authors might throw out ostensibly high numbers of calls — such as 2,669 “over several years” and 2.07 to 3.06 “per resident per year” — but they don’t provide a control for comparison. What’s the average number of calls per resident per year throughout that neighborhood? In neighborhoods with similar demographics? For market-rate studio apartments, etc.? No comparison is given, and without comparison, these data don’t actually lend to an argument about Valley CDC’s management capability. For all we know, when put in context, that’s a reasonable number of calls for those scenarios.

Still, let’s be even more generous and give the letter that last concession, too. In total, we’re assuming that calls to the police constitute actual incidents, that the data are comprised of developments comparable to the proposed CDC development and that the number of calls connected to these residences is inordinately high. Given all of these, the authors’ presentation of the data still doesn’t support their argument, because they don’t indicate who is placing the calls. Why is this important? If neighbors were calling to complain about Valley CDC’s tenants, that would support the letter’s argument, because it shows how the tenants’ actions might affect the neighborhood. On the other hand, if the calls originated from within the development, that doesn’t do much for the argument that the tenants will have an adverse effect on the neighborhood; rather it exemplifies the need for services for tenants’ sakes, not neighborhood residents.

My final concern with the residents’ letter doesn’t have to do with their data analysis; rather it concerns their lack of understanding of the project. While SRO housing often implies temporary housing for the homeless, 132 Northampton Road seeks to provide permanent housing to 10 formerly homeless tenants using project-based Section 8 vouchers (federally subsidized rent). These tenants won’t be strangers in the neighborhood; they’ll be neighbors. They, just as much as the writers of the letter, will have a stake in the community.

Moreover, for all the authors’ concerns about mentally ill tenants, only two units are allocated for residents with mental illness. And what about the 16 remaining units? They’re reserved for tenants earning 50 percent and 80 percent of area median income who are not using rental vouchers. Thus the majority of units are allocated to tenants who aren’t homeless and don’t have severe mental illness; they simply don’t make as much money as professors. Given this tenant makeup, some of the fears expressed in the letter seem a bit unfounded.

All of this isn’t to say that Valley CDC’s plan is perfect; there are useful critiques made, and for all I know, insufficient tenant services could end up being one of them. What frustrates me is the way the authors of this letter tout their academic credentials and “scientific analyses” as absolution from bias while providing a botched analysis of data. In the end, while the use of these data to advocate for more tenant services isn’t inherently problematic, it still obstructs funding for the project without proving any issues with it as is. If this isn’t the quintessence of the bubble of academia, I don’t know what is.

My goal here isn’t just to lambast some academics for what looks like NIMBY-ism. I’d much rather assume that they really do care about the success of this development and its tenants. If they really care about success, the residents’ goal shouldn’t be to defund the project before it even starts. Rather, they should actively contribute to the success of the project. Get to know the new tenants! If they’re having issues, help them out instead of calling the cops! Volunteer your time and money! Be a neighbor to your neighbors. After all, this is their backyard, too.