Building More Housing: NIMBY Should Be PMBY

By | Jun 26, 2018

Long Beach & 21st Apartments, a PATH Ventures supportive housing development.

In the past decade I have participated in over 100 community meetings proposing new homeless services facilities or supportive housing developments in specific neighborhoods. The community responses to our presentations have varied dramatically from “yes, we really need your housing in our community” to “over our dead bodies will you ever build in our neighborhood.”

The finger pointing, the screaming, the accusations of “importing murderers and child molesters,” and the personal threats have all been part of our work to build housing for people who are homeless.

I remember years ago, an intern from UCLA who was participating in one of our community engagement efforts asked me, after a particularly difficult neighborhood meeting in Los Angeles, “Why is it so hard to help people in need?”

I remember just shrugging my shoulders and saying, “Convincing neighbors to let us build is just part of the work of addressing homelessness.”

It used to be that the hard part of ending homelessness was to get enough financial resources to pay for services and new housing. With new tax initiatives paying billions of dollars for homeless programs and housing in several California jurisdictions—Measure A in Santa Clara County, Proposition HHH in L.A. City, and Measure H in L.A. County—finding the money is no longer the issue.

The major issue today is finding neighborhoods that will allow us to set up shelters, services, or permanent housing in their backyards. Los Angeles is struggling with this in their Korea-town and Venice neighborhoods. We are currently working with a San Diego neighborhood to allow us to build a supportive housing development.

So what is the solution? For those of us in the trenches of creating new programs and housing, we are tempted to present “tactical” answers when dealing with NIMBYism (not in my backyard) — responses like, it’s more cost-effective to place a homeless person in a home rather than leaving them on the street. Or, statistics that show why such programs and housing are successful.

But if neighbors are worried about the cleanliness of their streets, their quality of life, the values of their property, and the safety of their children, no tactical answer alone will allay their fears.

So here are my ten steps toward working with neighborhoods to allow new developments:

1 – Listen, Listen, Listen. When walking into a community meeting, my natural instinct is to defend, defend, defend. Or fight. Or convince. But although meetings might appear to be an intellectual debate (where we convince, defend, and fight), the discussion is really about our hearts. We need to listen to what people are feeling and what they are passionate about.

2 – It is not Us versus Them. When we were building a 14-story, 225 units/beds development in a downtown California city, I spent 9 months talking with community groups. I listened to every one of their fears. I used to share with them how when I was living on the Westside of Los Angeles I used to worry about my children walking to and from school. I worried that they would have to walk over people sleeping on the streets, and how they might encounter someone who might harm them. I told them that my fears are just like theirs. And that the solution to building our development is to make sure the neighborhood is also protected.

3 – All Politics and Homeless Issues is Local. A former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives coined the saying, “All politics is local.” In regards to siting housing and facilities for people who are homeless, I would alter that saying: “All homeless issues are local.” Neighbors are more concerned about the five people living in their park, or the ten RVs parked near their business, rather than the 5,000 or 50,000 people who are homeless in the region. People don’t care whether supportive housing worked in Timbuktu, they care how our proposed facility will help their neighborhood.

4 – Get to Know Us. If we are building a new facility or development in a new neighborhood, then we will become their new neighbors. So our neighbors want to know who we are, how we will run programs, and how we will protect their neighborhood. All community meetings are led by us—their new neighbors. Not by city or regional leaders, or by housing or services experts.

5 – Propose Safety Solutions. The safety of the neighborhood is paramount. We propose leading neighborhood watch groups, neighborhood advisory committees (a group of neighbors—critics included—who meet after the building is complete to discuss how our programs affect neighborhood issues), and coordination with the local police.

6 – Talk is Cheap. Put it in Writing. Neighbors want an agreed upon program and operations plan that works toward keeping the neighborhood safe. This includes a neighborhood covenant, and sometimes a Conditional Use Permit.

7 – Protect Elected Representatives. Not only are neighbors concerned, but also their elected leaders—typically, a local City Councilmember. Years ago, after a very contentious community meeting of 300 stakeholders, I remember telling the City Councilman, “I promise I will watch your back during this process, and after the program and building is built.” The Councilman supported us (and is now the Mayor), and we still operate the facility in a way that protects his reputation.

8 – Build Beautiful Buildings. Our facilities are not designed like the old 1960s concrete block housing projects. Instead, most of the time, our buildings are designed better than anything else on the block. It is part of our commitment to making the neighborhood better.

9 – Be Factual and Accountable. People tend to exaggerate, “We have no homeless people in our neighborhood, you will just become a magnet!” Many times, we (sometimes with the local police) will perform a neighborhood homeless count that documents on a map how many people are on the streets and shows where they sleep. In some communities we continue performing monthly neighborhood homeless counts so that our neighbors know that we are committed and accountable to addressing local homelessness.

10 – Most People Are not NIMBYs. Most people support services and housing for people who are homeless. When I hear, “I support your work, but our neighborhood is the wrong place,” I don’t label that response a NIMBY comment. Most people want to help people who are homeless. (Okay, there are some who are pure NIMBYs, but most are not.)

In my experience, the number one issue in a neighborhood is the safety and quality of life of their neighborhood. People are not NIMBY, they are PMBY — Protect My Backyard!