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Overcoming opposition to affordable housing

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NIMBYism – a human rights issue

When affordable housing is being considered, there is almost always some opposition. Some of it may be legitimate (such as wanting to build a high-rise apartment building on a street with only single detached housing) – but other opposition has the potential to leave municipalities vulnerable to human rights complaints.

Discriminatory opposition to affordable housing for groups protected under the Code is a prime example of the “Not in My Backyard” syndrome or “NIMBYism.” It happens when people hold negative attitudes or stereotypes about the people who live in affordable housing or use emergency shelters. This is often directly related to one or more Code grounds. This kind of opposition can be hidden in planning terms, and can be expressed in many ways, sometimes based on exaggerated concerns about changes to the neighbourhood, impact on traffic or about the building form.

NIMBYism often arises as a response to a local development. As well, it can be seen from “single issue” groups that are opposed to affordable housing.

Opposition to housing projects based on stereotypes or prejudice towards the people who will live in them can be a violation of people’s rights to be free from discrimination in housing – which means it can be against the law.

The bottom line is that people do not have the right to choose their neighbours.

Dispelling the common NIMBY myths

Affordability and Choice Today (ACT) is an initiative funded by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. ACT, operated by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) with the participation of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association and the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association, works to overcome planning and building regulations that create barriers for developing affordable housing. It does this by promoting practical solutions at the local level. In its guide called Housing in my Backyard: A Municipal Guide for Responding to NIMBY, ACT lists some common NIMBY objections and how municipalities can respond:

Myth: Property values will go down.
Reality: Many studies on affordable housing conclude that there is no impact on property values.[2] One study done in Toronto found that, “there was no evidence that the existence of the supportive housing buildings studied has negatively affected either property values or crime rates in the neighbourhood. Property values have increased and crime decreased in the period considered by the study.”[3]

Myth: Traffic will increase.
Reality: Like any new development, a higher density or infill-housing proposal must meet the municipality’s planning and engineering standards. In addition, multiple-family dwellings near quality transit services are likely to attract residents with lower levels of car ownership, as are dwellings geared to older people, people with disabilities, and families with lower incomes.

Myth: There will be a strain on public services and infrastructure.
Reality: Generally, higher-density housing needs less extensive infrastructure than new development – features like piped water, sewer services, schools and roads already exist. Also, higher-density development and infill can provide the larger customer base needed to increase the range and quality of available services (such as public transit).

Myth: New residents won’t fit into the neighbourhood.
Reality: Often, the future occupants of new affordable housing already live in the neighbourhood. They are people sharing an apartment with other family members or friends, or struggling to pay market rent by giving up meals or having to walk because they cannot afford transit fares. Inclusive communities provide housing opportunities for all.

Myth: Affordable housing won’t fit the character of the neighbourhood.
Reality: Affordable housing must comply with the same building restrictions and design standards as market-rate housing, and will be designed to fit in with the character of the neighbourhood.

Myth: Crime will increase.
Reality: A Canadian study of 146 supportive housing sites concluded that “there was no statistically significant evidence that supportive housing led to increased rates of reported violent, property, criminal mischief, disorderly conduct or total crimes.”[4] In fact, the future occupants of new affordable housing often already live in the neighbourhood.

Types of discriminatory opposition to affordable housing

Discrimination in housing can result from attitudes, actions, laws or policies that create barriers for people based on Code grounds, such as people receiving social assistance or people with disabilities, who seek to move into affordable or supportive housing in a neighbourhood. This opposition can violate the Code when it results in changes to existing planning processes, barriers to housing access, or when it exposes proposed residents to discriminatory comment or conduct. Exclusions or limitations written into municipal bylaws can also violate the Code.

Talk about land use, not people

Concerns about affordable housing projects must be based on legitimate land-use planning considerations, and not on stereotypical assumptions about the people who will live there. When policies or practices are directed towards, or disproportionately affect, Code-protected groups, they may violate the Code.

Some examples of discriminatory practices could include:

  • requiring affordable or supportive housing providers to adopt restrictions or design compromises that are not applied to other similar housing structures in the area, such as:
    • requiring fences or walls around the property to separate it from other neighbourhood homes because of the intended residents
    • putting arbitrary caps on the numbers of residents allowed by project, ward or municipality
    • adding visual buffers or removing balconies so tenants can’t look out on their neighbours
    • requiring residents to sign contracts with neighbours as a condition of occupying the building
  • requiring extra public meetings, lengthy approval processes, or development moratoria because the intended residents of a proposed housing project are people from Code-identified groups
  • imposing minimum separation distances or restrictions on the number of housing projects allowed in an area
  • making discriminatory comments or conduct towards the intended residents of a housing project at public planning meetings or in published or displayed notices, signs, flyers, pamphlets or posters
  • enacting zoning bylaws that restrict affordable housing development that serves people identified by Code grounds (e.g. group homes) in certain areas while allowing other housing of a similar scale.

Example: A community agency meets with municipal staff to discuss the impact the municipality’s bylaws are having on the development of group homes. In this small municipality, a group home for 10 residents must be spaced 1,000 metres from another group home. This restricts the ability of group home residents, who are people with developmental and mental health disabilities, to live in the neighbourhood of their choice without discrimination. This also creates a shortage of group homes in the municipality despite a high need for housing for people with developmental and mental health disabilities.

In response to the concerns raised, the municipality examines the issue taking human rights considerations into account, and amends the zoning bylaw to remove the separation distances.

The Community Living experience
A few years ago, Community Living Toronto received funding to find and set up a couple of new group homes in Etobicoke. The group homes were to house 3-5 individuals with an intellectual disability, who had spent all or most of their lives living in Etobicoke. These people worked or attended day programs in Etobicoke and many of their key family members also lived there. Etobicoke was their home – and the community they wanted to live in.

I soon discovered that Etobicoke had a distancing by law that stated that new group homes (defined as 3-10 persons requiring a group living arrangement supported by a recognized social service agency) could not be located within 800 metres of any other group home or residential facility. After identifying all the group homes in Etobicoke and placing them on a map, I quickly discovered that there were only a couple of “postage stamp” areas where a new group home could be legally located. Given the timelines for the start-up, the distancing requirements and all of the complications with the start-up of new group homes, we had to go to another area of Toronto to find housing for most of these individuals. – Dale Makino, Program Manager, Etobicoke/York Region, Community Living Toronto

Zone supportive housing as residential
Affordable, supportive and group housing – with or without support workers – are still residential uses. The OHRC does not support zoning such living accommodations as businesses or services, because these zoning categories can subject the people who live in the housing to higher levels of scrutiny and expectations than do other forms of residential housing.

Make sure public meetings are really needed

Under the Planning Act, municipalities must host a public meeting when considering zoning bylaws or amendments. However, if zoning rules already allow the housing being considered (“as-of-right”), a meeting is not required. Yet many local councillors call meetings anyway, which often gives voice to discriminatory discussions. In these meetings, people wishing to live in the housing are subjected to hurtful comments and a level of negative scrutiny that none of their potential neighbours had to face when moving into the neighbourhood.

These meetings also reinforce the incorrect assumption that neighbourhood residents have the right to approve who moves in next door, and often inflame, rather than calm, neighbourhood opposition to the housing. They also inflame the potential for human rights complaints.

At the same time, sometimes people are genuinely afraid because they’ve been given misinformation about risks, and not calling public meetings can cause resentment. In these cases, a public meeting can be helpful as long as it is carefully planned, communicated and moderated. If done well, meetings can be used to overcome attitudes that were based on misinformation, educate, get buy-in, engage the silent majority and defuse tensions and fears.

Example: A municipal council had a staff recommendation to fund an as-of-right social housing project. The council deferred the decision until a public meeting could be held. When lawyers advised that holding such a meeting could be discriminatory, the municipality changed the meeting format to a session on the value of social housing.

Best practice – public meetings
At the beginning of each public meeting to talk about a new affordable housing project, lay out clear ground rules. State that the only issues open for discussion are legitimate land use issues such as location, size, setback and parking requirements. Advise attendees that the meeting will not be a forum to make negative comments about the people who will be living there. In addition, actively interrupting and objecting to discriminatory language or prejudicial comments can help prevent them from happening again.

Can neighbours choose tenants? No.

In many meetings, community groups demand to have a say in how tenants are selected for a housing project. And in some cases, developers agree to this to allow the project to move forward. The practice of allowing neighbours to select tenants as a condition of “approving” the project can amount to discrimination.

Elected officials have human rights obligations

Discriminatory comments can also happen outside of community meetings (for example, in municipal council meetings involving planning, zoning or funding approvals). Elected representatives are not exempt from the Code – they have a legal duty to not discriminate, and they are elected to represent all of their constituents.

Extra requirements mean more barriers
If a municipality imposes different or extra requirements for public meetings, consultations, hearings, design charettes or other processes on affordable and/or supportive housing that are not placed on ownership housing, then this could amount to discriminatory behaviour. Using excessive or extra requirements for consultation for certain types of housing delays the development process, increases the uncertainty and costs associated with the project and could, if the delays and extra requirements add up, ultimately jeopardize the project itself. Developers of affordable and/or supportive housing should face the same regulatory processes as other forms of housing, and not face additional or excessive requirements for meetings and consultations. Smart developers usually seek to creatively engage their potential neighbours, but requirements for excessive consultation can frustrate a project. – Michael Shapcott, The Wellesley Institute

[2] Ontario HomeComing Coalition, Yes, In My Backyard – A Guide for Ontario Supportive Housing Providers, 2005, p. 27
[3] de Wolff, Alice. We are Neighbours: The Impact of Supportive Housing on Community, Social, Economic, and Attitude Changes, 2008, Wellesley Institute, p.iv.
[4] George Galster, Kathryn Pettit, Anna Santiago, and Peter Tatian, The Impact of Supportive Housing on Neighbourhood Crime Rates, 2002.

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