Risk and Reward

Everything comes with a price. Most of us have learned this lesson in one way or another. To gain one thing is to sacrifice another. In the case of Valley Community Development Corporation’s (Valley CDC) affordable housing project, the price of building such a complex takes a certain amount of risk.

As Chair of Classics Rebecca Sinos’ letter to the Town Council argues, establishing this housing unit has the real possibility of harm — in the form of used hypodermic needles in the Amherst College fields — which can pose a very real threat to anyone who stumbles upon them, especially children.

Let’s not mince words over whether Professor Sinos says all low-income or homeless people are drug addicts. That’s not what she writes in her letter. Her point is that an opioid-using population exists and that a housing unit near the fields means it is possible a part of that population will occupy a part of the unit and bring needles with them. Sinos deals in possibilities, not absolutes, nor does she make any sweeping generalizations.

At the same time, Professor Sinos’ argument is not the most compelling. Her letter is largely rooted in her own experiences and anecdotal argument, with little hard evidence to back up her claims. However, the fact that her case is certainly lacking is itself a separate issue. More important is her perception of the possibility of danger.

This is what defines risk. After all, “taking a risk” doesn’t mean you are guaranteed any kind of harm; it only means that harm appears possible or likely.

A certain degree of risk comes with investing in and building such a housing project. Sinos has determined that there exists a risk associated with the housing project, and that this risk is not worthwhile.

While her stance is unfortunate, looking for the potential drawbacks of the Valley CDC project is wise. However, the brief analysis in her letter to the Amherst Town Council is woefully incomplete: Sinos speaks only to the potential for harm and fails to acknowledge the equally real potential for good.

Within our communities, the value of actions should be measured based on the good they can achieve for society — especially for those in need. We should seek to take action because it may do good, rather than refraining from taking action simply because it may bring harm. We should be willing and prepared to accept risks for the sake of more vulnerable populations in our communities.

If we are unwilling to invest in providing such support, then the only remaining option is to stop pretending as though we actually care about our community. And, naturally, if any among us don’t care about the community, then those individuals have no business involving themselves in community affairs.

At the same time, there is a limit to how much risk is acceptable. How much is too much? What price is reasonable? Recklessly ignoring or denying the potential risks of a new endeavor is just as shortsighted as refusing to take action solely because of risk. An assessment of the consequences of action demands a discussion of whether the good consequences outweigh the bad, or vice versa.

While it is somewhat regrettable that Sinos has chosen such a narrow position on this issue, her opinion absolutely has value — she was bold enough to acknowledge a point that many would be unwilling to address.

We should all be careful to avoid crass ad hominem attacks on Professor Sinos, regardless of whether her concerns are substantiated or not. To deride her character as a poor-hating monster is unnecessary and unproductive. Instead, her letter should be taken as a starting point for a greater conversation about the merits and repercussions of Valley CDC’s plan.