NIMBY Notebook: Habitat For Hypocrisy

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News: Housing advocates say Marin County’s Bill Duane exemplifies a vexing irony: People support affordable housing with their labor, money, and votes — just so long as it’s nowhere near them.

By Josh Harkinson

July 17, 2007

Bill Duane knows most people can’t afford homes like his $1 million bungalow on a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay. That’s why the Marin County attorney volunteered for Habitat for Humanity. Until recently, that is, when the group announced plans to build two affordable duplexes just down the street from him. “Habitat usually goes into a blighted neighborhood and enhances it,” Duane says. “Here, they are coming into an enhanced neighborhood and blighting it.” Housing advocates say Duane exemplifies a vexing irony: People support affordable housing with their labor, money, and votes — just so long as it’s nowhere near them.

Standing beside his garden of coastal succulents, Duane, who looks like a cashmere-clad Rodney Dangerfield, spoke in nervous bursts. He fretted about a note that a retired schoolteacher had sent him inside a Monet greeting card, which began, “You are a disgrace to the human race and should be ashamed of yourself.” His research revealed that the teacher’s home is worth almost as much as his own. “And it’s surrounded by vacant lots,” he exclaimed, “so why don’t you build it there?”

That, too, might be easier said than done: Marin is among the most liberal (and expensive) counties in the nation, but Duane says all of his neighbors back him. Indeed, opposition to affordable housing in the county was so fierce in the 1990s that a Marin chapter of Habitat disbanded, former members say, after finding itself unable to get a single project built in five years. On the opposite coast, in wealthy, liberal Martha’s Vineyard, 10 homeowners sued earlier this year — on environmental grounds — to block construction of an affordable house for a fisherman who’d been living with his wife and children in a tent. In Boulder, Colorado, affordable-housing advocate Joni Lynch says her most strident foes were button-wearing progressives. And in the gentrifying Edgewood neighborhood of Washington, D.C., one resident who fought the construction of the low-income St. Martin’s apartments nearby actually worked for a company that builds low-income apartments.

But few development projects have been more enigmatically unpopular than the Marin project, where three luxury houses will be clumped onto a 17.5-acre hill in a way that preserves most of the land as open space. In accordance with county rules, the developer set aside an acre for low-income housing. There, Habitat will build four units, two melded together to look like one Craftsman-style home, which will be sold at below-market rates to families making $40,000 to $56,000 a year (a teacher in Marin earns on average $47,000).

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