Monday, July 15, 2013

Demographically-Mixed Housing Plans Still Draw Opposition

Almost two decades ago, when I was living in a different state, I had a first-hand view of a land-use controversy at a destination resort.  I wasn’t personally involved, but knew people who were.

The resort was about fifteen miles from the nearest city.  There was a successful mall within the resort where employment numbered in the hundreds.  But the resort housing was largely upscale, so most of the low-paid retail employees found housing in the city and commuted to the resort.  Not only did the cost of the commute take a chunk out of already small paychecks, but the state highway was often icy and treacherous during the winter months.

A new owner of the mall had an idea.  Several buildings had been constructed such that the existing structure could support an upper story.  So he proposed adding apartments above the stores, expecting that the mall employees would be likely tenants.  Today, we would call it vertical mixed use.

Those who understood the land use issues applauded the proposal.  We expected that it would be easily approved by the county.  We were wrong.

The resort residents were happy to be served ice cream and to rent bicycles from the low-wage employees, but didn’t want the employees living within their community.  The county bowed to the pressure and denied the application.  And the employees continued to drive fifteen expensive and often dangerous miles to their jobs.

Moving ahead a couple of years, I was managing the engineering design for a golf community on the outskirts of the same city.  As the golf course had been laid out, there was a small, oddly-shaped parcel of land trapped between the 18th hole and a major arterial.  It was physically separated from most of the development, adjoined the golf course maintenance yard, and had no apparent use.

At the request of the developer, I worked with an architect to prepare a conceptual plan for the parcel.  Over a couple of days, we assembled a layout for low-income apartments.  Each unit would have four private suites.  The four suites would share a common living room and kitchen.

The architect and I anticipated that most of the tenants would be seasonal golf course employees.  However, with the clubhouse was only a short walk away, it was also possible for clubhouse employees to live there.  The construction cost would be low enough that the rents would be reasonable.   We were proud of our work.

The developer was impressed.  And then he shared the plan with a group of homeowners.  They were willing to have their greens mowed and their drinks served by the employees, but didn’t want the employees living within the project.

The developer never submitted the plan to the county.  The land was later developed into a handful of awkwardly-located single-family homes.  And the golf course employees continue to commute from apartments on the other side of the city.

It has been fifteen years since the latter of these two stories.  Fifteen years in which the price of gasoline soared upward, the environmental effects of driving became better understood, the need to facilitate employment was grasped, and the divide between the haves and the have-nots widened.  Given all those changes, surely the opponents would have rethought their positions and now regret their resistance, right?

Perhaps not.  In a contentious hearing last week, Marin County residents vociferously opposed a plan to add affordable housing to their communities.  And the reasons they noted were much the same as those that were cited years ago, increased crime, worsening traffic, and decreased property values.  Even though those impacts have been largely disproven by studies of other communities.

To consider just one of the complaints, two of the best strategies for reducing crime are to provide employment opportunities for which a large chunk of a paycheck isn’t required for commuting and to distribute folks at the lower end of the socio-economic scale through the community so there are fewer places for the few malcontents to foment criminal intent.  The Marin County affordable housing plan would meet both standards.

In the only good news, the Marin County Planning Commission, unlike their predecessors in the anecdotes recounted above, didn’t bow to the pressure.  They approved the affordable housing plan.  So sometimes we make progress, even if not very quickly.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. I'm glad that the planning commission for Marin didn't bow to the bigotry and classism. Which is what it comes down to in these cases. I'm sure the well to do residents can come up with all sorts of reasons that explain why they would say I'm wrong, but it all comes down to assumptions, and prejudices they have toward those that would benefit from these plans.

    1. Erik, thanks for the comment. I suspect that many folks initially oppose the housing proposals because of a fear of change. It's a very human reaction and largely understandable. The problem comes when they seek intellectual justifications for their emotional reactions, begin to articulate opinions that veer into racism and bigotry, and don't have the sense to recognize where they've gone. Sometimes, we need to let our intellects overrule our emotions. Or we need laws to overrule our emotions until our intellects can catch up.

  2. Dave, based on my study, I am confident that you are accurate in ascribing non-bigotry motivations to the naysayers. I think the intuitive negative response of some is a more inchoate reflection of simple human nature, as you suggest. If the opposition is attacked as racist, they quite reasonably will defend their own morality, and this may lead to more entrenched positioning on all sides. This is likely to make the promotion of good urbanism more difficult. It is also an ineffective way to encourage people to change racial thinking (a personal/professional interest of mine), which requires trust and relationship.