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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Last night, my Home Owners Association (HOA) announced on their (closed group) Facebook page that there was a meeting at the local high school about a proposed affordable housing project.  The announcement was framed clearly:  "For those who oppose this project...".

Not surprisingly, there is a group of neighbors who have formed an organization to protest this (and other) low-income housing developments in our area.

The Executive Director of the local St. Vincent de Paul, -- one of the partners in this project -- wrote this editorial in the local paper as an attempt to allay people's fears about a relatively large low-income housing development in their area.

Before I lose myself in a discussion of thinly disguised classism, racism and unfounded fears, let me say that I *do* agree the proposed development is rather large (perhaps TOO large) and that it does appear to violate several of the City's Housing Dispersal Policy objectives and goals (one being that no low-income development should have more than 60 units; this proposed one has 101 and there are other projects proposed to go in next to it, meaning that, in the end, the developers could end up locating a majority of the city's poor all in one place).

The Housing Dispersal Policy was written in 1996 and, well, lots of things have changed since then.  It is particularly notable that the policy was based on *1980* Census data -- we're 32 years past that!

While I'm twitchy about a really large low-income housing development *anywhere* in the city -- and particularly since there is more than one planned for the same area -- I fully realize that the demand and need for subsidized housing far outstrips the availability.

I know this not just from statistics like the ones cited in the above editorial, but also from my own friends who struggle to make ends meet.  I recently tried to help a friend find a one-bedroom apartment, with utilities, in  a safe neighborhood, for less than what she is paying now.  We searched and searched and couldn't find one.  She makes "too much" to qualify for any government program -- meaning she likely wouldn't be able to live in this proposed development -- yet she is spending far more than 50% of her income on her rent.

It shouldn't be that way, folks.  She works.  (Like lots of other struggling people!)  She attempts to play by the rules (like lots of other struggling people!).  And she cannot make it without help; when she cannot find it through agencies (which is common, given her "high" income), she has to either earn money under the table or ask friends for help (like us).

There is no doubt in my mind that Eugene needs more affordable housing, that Eugene (like cities everywhere) largely lacks a living wage, and that this vacant lot near where I live is one of the rare ones in the city.  Our neighborhood has the *space* to build this development, whereas most areas of the city do not.

It's also true that there are also other low-income housing developments already on our side of town, so it's not (as some comments on  articles have erroneously claimed) that "all" the people over "there" (here) are "elitist snobs" or "against poor people".  There is, in fact, quite a range of incomes and housing types and options in our neck of the woods -- mansions and large houses next to or near ranch-style homes, small one-story homes, older two-story homes, condos, apartments and rented houses and affordable housing developments.  

Not everyone who opposes the development opposes low-income housing per se.  Many people who oppose this project oppose it on several valid claims:  that it violates the City's (perhaps outdated and still unexplained) no-more-than-60-units rule; it consolidates the poor in one location (ironically far away from where services are located); it potentially adds a LOT more traffic to the area; it potentially adds many students to our already overcrowded schools.  In other words, these concerned citizens might get behind a smaller (60-unit) project, one which puts less stress on already stressed systems (particularly schools).

Others contend that adding students to our schools might be a good thing -- more students bring more money to the schools and *may* make classes *smaller* because, if enough students enroll, schools have to hire more teachers.  This is a theoretical claim that has yet to be proven.  With parents and students and teachers reeling from the effects of our last round of budget cuts (which included closing several schools), few think that the potential addition of hundreds of kids to our neighborhood would uniformly result in many more teachers being hired.  At the very least, it seems likely that class sizes *would* increase, particularly for older students.  But class sizes are already too large -- 39-42 in middle school classes and, depending on the subject, 40-50 per high school class.  As a parent of two kids still in public schools, I share this concern that our local schools -- like schools throughout the city -- are already stressed beyond capacity.

The questions that I have about the development have not been answered anywhere (at least not in articles I've found).

1)  How many people in Eugene currently qualify for low-income housing *and cannot find it in Eugene*?  In other words, are ALL low-income housing units in Eugene currently occupied?  Or do we have some vacant ones?  What *exactly* is the need?

2)  If the need is, indeed, 101 or more units, can we build several smaller housing projects throughout the city, rather than all 101 (or more) in one place?

Simply building more low-income housing *which residents have to pay for* may not solve enough of their problems if *they actually can't find a job to begin with* or cannot afford childcare so they can work in order to afford their housing.  If they don't work, they have no income.  If they have no income, they cannot pay for the housing...  If they have no childcare, they cannot work.

It's all connected, people.

Many years ago, when I was working at Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP), I did research on programs for at-risk families.  In a nutshell, HFRP consistently finds that the best programs -- the ones with the best outcomes for kids and their parents -- co-locate services at one place.

I strongly believe that this housing development should really be far more than just a housing development if we are at all committed to doing something to help people.  But I would argue that it should be on the smaller side (in part because, if successful, one would want to replicate it elsewhere).  This development shouldn't be about making money for the *developer* but about serving people.

A doctor, a dentist, and an eye doctor (who accept the Oregon Health Plan, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) should have office space on site.   There should be on-site, affordable childcare center (for residents only).  A preschool (perhaps Head Start) should be there, too.  Buses should be plentiful (this, ironically, may be the easiest thing to do -- get a few more LTD buses to the area).

While we're at it, the neighborhood as a whole has been complaining for YEARS that it doesn't have a grocery store.  There's been talk of building a Market of Choice nearby -- but that market, as local and lovely as it is, does NOT serve the needs of the poor.   What grocery store -- not gigantic, but decent-sized -- can we bring to the neighborhood, that could be within walking distance of the development?

We live in a community -- with problems like all communities.  But the NOT IN MY BACKYARD APPROACH doesn't build communities; it erodes them.  At the same time, lack of careful consideration of the complex problems that ALL families have (but which affect poor families more) could easily result in a project that nobody likes -- including those who would qualify to live there.

Bottom line:  I'm not against building affordable housing in my community, but if we do so, we have to be committed to establishing the services (including grocery stores, child care, and schools) that would be required to make this housing development a successful community.

Housing, in and of itself, doesn't do that.

I'll be at the next meeting, proposing something far more ambitious than just housing.  YIMBY -- Yes, in my back yard!

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