NIMBYism is a fascinating phenomenon. NIMBYs, who think that something is okay as long as it’s Not In My BackYard, cover discrimination with a thin veneer of civility and acceptability. Among the many manifestations of this is with regards to social housing, including supported housing for people with mental illness.
The NIMBY arguments
NIMBYs’ arguments may initially appear valid on a superficial level; dig a bit deeper, though, and they’re based on prejudice and assumptions. They may argue that if mental health housing goes ahead in their neighbourhood, crime and drug use will go up, and property values will decrease. While of course no one wants that, these ideas are based in fear rather than reality. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, NIMBYism regarding mental health housing is often “based on the myth that people living with a mental illness or substance use problem will harm families, community safety and property values.”
The Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness has put together a document countering common arguments raised by NIMBYs. Based on the findings of 31 studies done in California, 7 social housing projects had a positive effect on surrounding property values, 19 showed no effect, and only one showed a decrease in property values. They cited figures showing no increase in crime related to social housing, and there is often a decrease in police calls. The group suggests a “cringe test” to differentiate prejudicial NIMBYism from legitimate opposition:
If you were to substitute the word “black” or “Greek” or “gay” for the word “low income”, “mentally ill” or “people with addictions” – would the statement make any fair-minded person cringe?
This is a human rights issue. The Human Rights Commission in the Canadian province of Ontario acknowledges that NIMBYism often targets people with mental illness, and especially those living with addictions. The commission described NIMBYism related to social housing as:
based on stereotypes or negative attitudes about the people who will live in them. These are often directly related to one or more [Human Rights] Code grounds. This opposition can include discriminatory attitudes as well as actions, laws or policies developed by a municipality.
The Homeless Hub points out that addressing homelessness in a municipality requires a whole community approach rather than concentrating together and effectively ghettoizing people who may be hard to house. Vancouver, the Canadian city where I live, is quite an appalling example of ghettoization.
Vancouver’s skid row got its start a century ago with single-room-occupancy hotels that loggers stayed in. Those hotels are now some of the only semi-affordable housing in Vancouver. Perhaps all of the bedbugs and cockroaches need to start paying pay rent to keep the prices down. Social housing and services are concentrated in that area, and both drug use and drug dealing are easily visible. When I was working at the mental health team in the area, it was really, really hard to get clients out of the neighbourhood because no one wants “those people” from skid row.
Getting new mental health housing up and running anywhere other than skid row is a challenge. One project that’s well-received now that it’s established in the community had faced intense opposition in the planning stages. The executive director of the housing foundation even received death threats. So much for us Canadians being polite.
Prejudice is prejudice
Another example of attempts to keep the have nots away from the haves is the concept of “poor doors“, which involves separate building entrances for market housing and social housing. A city may grant developers perks like extra building height if they include social housing units in their buildings. Yet the developers recognize that their buyers probably don’t want to commingle with poor people, so they create separate entrances with different addresses. Must keep the rich people away from the poor, often mentally ill people, right?
It’s important to recognize that NIMBYism is still prejudice even if it’s got a pretty hat on. It’s not the same as legitimate opposition to a project itself; instead, it’s based on stereotypes about the group of people involved. NIMBYism doesn’t deserve its pretty hat; it needs to be recognized for the discrimination that it is and the stigmatized beliefs that drive it.
And if people are scared by the thought of having people with mental illness living next door, well guess what – we’re already here.