Low-Barrier Housing and NIMBYism in Action

bedding where homeless people sleep on the ground underneath a bridge

NIMBYism, the idea that certain development projects are okay, but Not In My BackYard, is discrimination with a prettier hat on. NIMBYs don’t come right out and say the actual reasons for their opposition; instead, they offer other reasons, perhaps to reduce their own cognitive dissonance because they don’t want to think of themselves as having stigmatized attitudes. This post was prompted by a recent story on CBC News story about Vancouver city council approving a low-barrier housing development despite some loud public opposition.

A low-barrier supported housing development

The proposed development in question is for a 13-story building with 129 units of low-barrier supportive housing adjacent to a new SkyTrain (our version of a subway) station that’s being built. Low-barrier housing targets adults who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, low-income, and in need of support in order to maintain a successful tenancy (source: BC Housing). People accessing this kind of housing often (but not necessarily) are dealing with mental illness or addictions.

The Kitsilano Coalition, a group of community members opposed to the development, argues that supportive housing units should be spread out across the city rather than being concentrated in one building. The CBC article quotes a member of the coalition as saying “We asked for a model that is what’s proven by the science, which is to disperse individuals across the city in smaller numbers amongst people that are living in regular condo buildings and rental buildings so that people don’t feel stigmatized.”

She also stated, “We don’t understand why we, the community members, ended up being the people advocating for the best solution for the vulnerable members in our society.”

Straight from the NIMBY horse’s mouth

The Kitsilano Coalition has created a website that articulates their arguments. It states that “the supportive housing model is a failure.” Here are some excerpts:

  • The proposed housing model is “unsafe for both the residents and the surrounding community and does not come close to adequately responding to the residents’ addictions and mental health issues. Placing housing like this in a neighbourhood without having an adequate plan for supports in place perpetuates the willful neglect of the public and people this is intended to help.”
  • “Statistics show that supportive housing rules leave people isolated and put them at higher risk of harmful outcomes as a result of the restrictive environment.” (No actual statistics are offered to support this claim.)
  • ‘We believe a better alternative is scattered-site housing with supports rather than an unnecessary level of institutionalization imposed on people living in our neighbourhood.”
  • “The ‘Low Barrier’ terminology means that there are no requirements for tenants to be screened for mental health or substance abuse issues. Whilst it is feasible some tenants may enter this housing from Correctional Institutions, there are no criminal records screenings, as a prerequisite for tenancy.”
  • “There are no requirements for any tenants to seek out mental health or substance abuse support.” (their emphasis, not mine)
  • They note that their concerns have been met by the city with “accusations of NIMBY-ism and stigmatization.”

Everyone deserves a roof over their head

Low-barrier housing exists because everyone deserves to have a roof over their head. Just because someone has an untreated mental illness, an active addiction, or a criminal record does not mean that they should just be homeless and that’s the end of that. Engaging in treatment for any sort of health condition should not be a requirement to have a place to sleep indoors. The target population is people that the rental housing market either cannot or does not accommodate, so social housing is needed that doesn’t have the same barriers to getting housed as the rental market.

What’s not being said

If people are concerned about potential consequences related to drug use, they should just come out and say it so the issue can actually be addressed directly. What really makes this a NIMBY situation is that the coalition is claiming that they’re looking out for the best interests of vulnerable people. I would be incredibly surprised if any members of the coalition from the wealthy Kitsilano neighbourhood had spoken to a single homeless or at-risk-of-being-homeless individual who belonged to the vulnerable population they claim to speak for.

While I think the issue of the potential impact of active drug use on the neighbourhood is certainly worth having open discussions about, the idea that people should be screened for mental health issues and be required to seek out mental health support is a more blatant example of stigma.

The talk about statistics and “proven by the science” bugs me because it’s obviously bullshit, as they’re not offering any sort of evidence to support those claims. They talk about a “restrictive environment” and “institutionalization” as though providing housing to homeless people is just far too confining for them. On the other hand, they claim that housing people in this way perpetuates “willful neglect.” Hmm…

Denying it doesn’t make it less NIMBYish

When the coalition says they’re being falsely accused of NIMBYism, I suspect that they do actually lack the self-awareness to recognize this in their stance. From their position of wealth and social privilege, these are people who likely want to see themselves as supporting marginalized people rather than further marginalizing them. Instead of acknowledging concerns that might make them look a little bit prejudiced, they seem to prefer to claim the role of advocate and saviour.

However, if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, chances are pretty good that it’s a duck, despite the NIMBY veneer of civility.

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29 thoughts on “Low-Barrier Housing and NIMBYism in Action”

  1. I mostly hate people. We suck, and large, lots. Treating housing like it’s chocolate is a mistake. Sexy housing can be chocolate but everyone deserves a roof. You fix homelessness by putting people in homes. The world better hope I don’t get mental powers, or things are gonna get lit.

  2. I have several friends who depend on “section-eight” (the equivalent here in Tucson to low-barrier) housing; and right now, we are working with a “diffused” model. However, that means that when an apartment complex changes ownership and/or management companies, the new landlord can decide whether or not they still want to participate in the program (and thus, axe the section-eight units and evict people).

    One of my dearest friends, who is on disability for mental health reasons is an octogenarian, and has had been forced to move five times in the past two years. Each time she has been moved further and farther away from the heart of the city, and from reliable public transportation lines (and does not own a vehicle). She also has to incur the expense of moving on her own… and the unit she is in now is a total shit hole where the management requires that section-eight residents pay their rent in cash — so she is forced to get to a bank each month.

    The entire f*cking system is broken (from the care available, to the cost of care, to the ridiculous requirements for receiving food stamps, housing subsidies, disability, etc.) and the our current socio-political climate serves to further alienate the already alienated in society. It’s absolutely heart-breaking… and enraging.

    1. I apologize for the editing mistakes above. This topic really gets my fingers flying across the keyboard with little regard for extra words and/or grammar. 🤦🏻‍♀️

  3. If not in their backyard then where?? Scattered across town? Why because addicts in large numbers are more harmful than addicts spread out? What is it with people? Sadly I don’t foresee change. The poor and addicts are easy targets. We are used as examples of what not to be without ever receiving adequate assistance. We are at a loss as far as humanized beings are concerned. My comment reflects my loss of words…

  4. This one on their Common Questions page stuck out to me and looked pretty disingenuous: “[the plan] will only house an at-risk homeless population, most of whom suffer from alcohol and drug dependencies and mental health issues.

    It will not address affordability generally and it excludes the general social housing market including single-parent and women-led families and seniors”.

    Do they think the former and latter group are mutually exclusive??

    1. I suppose so. And it probably makes them feel good about themselves to say look, we care about single parents and women-led families and seniors! The “it will not address affordability generally” is rather ridiculous, since the function of social housing is not to make market housing more affordable.

  5. We agree that directness would help. Systemic discrimination hides in these situations.

    The rich folk could just say they want their property values to keep going up and they worry about personal effects of crime and their safety. So their needs are stability, safety, and order.

    The homeless who are seeking shelter have a need for shelter and stability and consideration.

    Everyone’s needs matter equally and so partnering together genuinely could help. Doesn’t sound like that is the current approach

    On a snarkier note, we could personality test and drug test the rich neighbors and publicly humiliate all the untreated mental illness and addiction. Statistics say there will be some. Science knows this, too 🤣. We could question their fitness to procreate, to make ninmby web sites, to be neighbors to their other richies, etc.

  6. I hate these kinds of people. They’re like my wealthy privileged sister who thinks inpatient psych is a free vacation, and I still had to pay for the cheap hotel (when houseless) with my own money

      1. A lot yeah. Some ridiculous fool told me his friend admitted herself to inpatient psych to get free housing too, and I think he must be lying.

        I’d qualify for social housing if I was a few years older. I meet every other criteria. :/

        Here it’s a diffused model where a few blocks are surrounded by regular (but not wealthy) blocks. It probably still carries a lot of stigma but I’m grateful for my current zone where the active volunteers (who distribute food that I get after those in social housing) often live nearby.

  7. NIMBY is also used widely to characterize developments in the environmental field. A brown field may exist in a lower income community where there may be little political voice but not in the back yard of a nearby wealthy community whose members are engaged in the politics and decision-making.

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