Access to Affordable Housing is a (Complex) Human Right

The recent reports of community resistance to a Capital Region Housing proposed development in Keheewin are yet one more example of the NIMBY-YIMBY quagmire we cannot seem to prevent.

I read Councillor Walters’ remarks in the Journal, which I found to be balanced and, to be transparent, they resonated with me, but there are a few comments to make.

There are what Walters referred to as “technical issues” that every community has a right to question or challenge – things like density, impacts on traffic and parking, noise, community use, aesthetics (to a point) and impacts on services. To expand a bit on Walters’ comments, questions I have (which perhaps have been answered just not reported on) are:

  • Will the school next door be able to accommodate all of the new students that the housing complex will send their way?
  • How will the development impact child care capacity in the area?
  • Is the proposed development adequately serviced by public transportation?
  • And… was the community engagement thorough, and transparent in the reporting of such engagement?

Frankly, prejudices about folks with low incomes as being substandard human beings are unpleasant reminders of the ugly underbelly of a public sentiment that actually believes these things. Assuming the future residents of the proposed development will increase crime and social disorder or somehow pose safety risks to children currently living in the neighbourhood is the age old argument that stands strong despite all the piles of evidence gathered around their feet.

The “hysteria” in this case is rooted in divisive and unresolvable biases. This is when governments have to be prepared to make the tough decisions.

Access to housing IS a human rights issue. Implementing actions based on human rights, however, is a complex undertaking.

In the case of Keheewin, people should have the right to live in that neighbourhood. Imagine if some other group told you where you are and are not welcome to reside. That would piss you off.

But are there cases where “rights” clash and need to be addressed? Are there problems that arise because of improper planning or thin ideology?

I think so.

Is implementing a human right a straightforward undertaking?

I think not.

The city’s strategy is to allocate affordable housing in its many forms across the city. In years previously urban core neighbourhoods had been the go-to location for all forms of affordable housing, in particular, McCauley, though urban core neighbourhoods in general hold a much higher percentage of affordable, social, and permanent supportive housing than all other neighbourhoods.

Urban core neighbourhoods are not against these types of housing projects in and of themselves, they are upset about the impact of having such density of these developments because they impact economic development, cast the neighbourhood in a bad light to other neighbourhoods, and the density of affordable housing in those areas can have an impact on housing prices.

If public sentiment is in effect that McCauley and other urban neighbourhoods should hold all such housing, it is a sentiment that cannot be allowed to win the day.

Neighbourhoods like McCauley have aspirations similar to other neighbourhoods. In its case, one major aspiration is to expand the local economy. Neighbourhoods where affordable housing projects are over-represented impacts the spending power of the consumer base and impacts new business development thinking.

I am not trying to reduce this to an economic argument. Far from it. Again, I believe access to affordable housing is a human right. I am just pointing to how a lack of balance of land use in a neighbourhood can have unintended, deleterious effects. This challenge has nothing to do with the quality of people living in affordable housing.

They are not the problem. Bad planning is.

The economic impact I refer to is why anchor institutions, chain grocery stores and other key businesses do not locate in neighbourhoods with local economies insufficient to support their revenue requirements.

Healthy economies rely on a healthy revenue mix. While it is not a human right that we have healthy economies, the right to work is a human right, too. And we do expect neighbourhoods to be mindful and planful about how to strengthen their local economies, don’t we?

The city’s plan to better distribute affordable housing developments, if delivered well, will avoid density problems which inadvertently negatively impacts neighbourhoods’ economic development.

In Keheewin, the community’s “technical issues” deserve to be addressed. But its community should not be allowed to reject a development because of incorrect and sometimes mean-spirited feelings about the “poor.” The city should follow through on its plan, not only to benefit the future tenants of the proposed development, but to ensure its plan to equitably distribute affordable housing is implemented.

Keeping that promise is, I suggest, key to city building and a rights-based approach to serving residents.

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