Jan 25 2010
There goes the neighborhood? I don’t think so. But since it’s my neighborhood I’m talking about, I’m going to waffle a bit.
Vancouver writer Frances Bula points out a big problem with consultations on social housing projects in Vancouver, in this case referring to a new proposal for my neighborhood of Mount Pleasant:
As is always the case with “public consultation” these days, the open houses are always designed to split people up, rather than have a big open meeting, so that the angry ranters don’t get a chance to dominate.
That’s good, but I was struck by what I noticed in the conversations I had, which was a tendency among the explainers (city planners, architects, housing groups) to take on a tone of “but you just don’t realize the facts and I’m now going to explain them to you.” Very annoying, as it felt like I wasn’t really being listened to…
In the small groups I eavesdropped on, it sounded as though others were having the same experience and not being persuaded by it. One explainer said the neighbourhood didn’t have to worry about problems with the project because there had been a housing project built on Fraser and everyone had been worried about that, but it was completely unnoticeable now that it was up. But, said the woman listening, that project was much smaller, only 30 or so units, and this was is 100. And the people accepted there were people who’d gone through rehab; this one is for people who still have a lot of problems that aren’t going away any time soon.
Talking past one another is only part of the problem. But another factor is that stakeholders in these public forums may be encouraged in the impression that if they can just talk things out, a compromise solution will be found. But in some aspects of the social housing debate, there may be no middle ground.
Does the argument hold that all citizens, regardless of how addicted or delusional they may be, or whether they are a danger to themselves or others, are entitled to shelter? And that the shelter they are entitled to must be in a location and have amenities that offer a better quality of life than your typical bug-infested Downtown Eastside hotel? Well, then, some people, somewhere, in a community that has managed to create a positive experience for its residents, will necessarily have their own livability diluted.
It’s no stereotype that living next door to newly-moved-in drug addicts and the mentally ill is no picnic — it’s just the way it is. The level of inconvenience and public safety is likely to go down. But how much of a downgrade in livability is the community willing to tolerate so that their more unfortunate fellow citizens can have a chance at a better life?
Well, that really goes to the heart of what cities have always been about. Living in an urban setting has always been about trade-offs in access to amenities, economic opportunities, views, safety and just how comfortable you can be with your neighbors.
As a thought exercise, I suppose I’m comfortable with the idea of a single social housing facility going up in my neighborhood. But right now, I’m fuzzy on precisely how these new residents might affect the neighborhood overall. Won’t the potentially negative impact of the new neighbors be diluted in a densely-populated area of 54000 residents?
I’m also a bit more able to be more welcoming, since I know the project isn’t going up right next door to me. I judge the likely impact on my own standard of living to be relatively small. This seems to be borne out by one recent study showing that social housing facilities in Vancouver thus far seem to have little to no impact on the host community. I’m certain I’d be more emotionally involved if I lived on the same block as the new residents. I can afford to be more open-minded. But the NIMBYists do have legitimate concerns. What we have here is a failure to communicate — though it doesn’t have to be.