30 Good Minutes: It’s Not Really My Backyard in the First Place

Our far northern San Antonio subdivision is not much for yard signs. The home owner’s association doesn’t have rules against them, so far as I know, which is weird because they have rules about basketball hoops and parked cars and paint colors and SO MANY other things. But not signs, though for the most part people don’t drop much signage in their lawns beyond the occasional happy birthday or high school athlete shout-out.

So it was extra surprising when, one weekend a few years ago, these started popping up all over the place:

They were facing both ways at each community entrance. They dotted the medians in a couple different intersections. Overnight, it seemed, someone had taken it upon themselves to rile the neighborhood up. And it worked—the “town hall” being promoted turned into something more like a rally. We met in the clubhouse of a nearby golf course, and it was bursting at the seams—hundreds of people, standing room only.

The “low income” housing in question was just a single apartment complex financed in part by state tax credits that would require the developer to make the units available at 60-80% of the Area Median Income. So, applicants would need to make nearly $50,000 to qualify. The developer sent a few representatives to our “town hall,” one of whom tried to walk the room through a PowerPoint running down their data on why we needed more housing density in our area (too many workers commuting here from too far away), who was likely to live in the complex (single parents with school-aged children), how they knew their residents would not have criminal records (they had to pass background checks), and so on.

Their point: Everybody calm down. We’re not building low-income housing! We’re just building an apartment complex for the kind of people who already work in this community.

And also: It’s not even in your backyard! As it turned out, the apartment complex in question was not exactly in our subdivision at all. It was nearby-ish, and the theoretical kids in the complex would most likely be enrolled in our neighborhood school. But as the meeting went on, I strained to see how much this project was even relevant to most of us in the room. Where did we think our collective backyard started and stopped? We’d all bought homes in a barely 20-year old suburban development in northernmost San Antonio. Did we really think that all development hereafter would cease? Did we think any of us had a say in determining who else could be northern San Antonio suburbanites?

NIMBYism in a neighborhood like this is like going to a chain restaurant, reserving a table, then demanding that no one be seated at any of the tables around you.

I was reminded of all this last week when reading this story by San Antonio Report‘s Iris Dimmick. Dimmick reports that the City of San Antonio has over $40 million in funds designated for what’s called “permanent supportive housing.” That means long-term housing for people who are chronically homeless. As Dimmick explains, it also means wrap-around services such as mental healthcare, job training, and financial coaching.

This kind of housing, which is genuinely for people with lower incomes, works—it is proven to help people get off and stay off the streets. And it does not harm the surrounding community—study after study shows that housing projects in higher-income areas do not bring down area home values. What’s more, these projects can really do the trick of creating genuine opportunity for families.

Dimmick’s story profiles a few projects in town that have lately run into classic Not-In-My-Backyard opposition. These examples are not quite as problematic as the one in my neighborhood, and sometimes local residents do need to band together to fight for their own common good.

But on the whole, this stuff is maddening. We have precious little housing in this city designed for families who are cost-burdened—and that’s about 95,000 households, according to the official study. The need is there. And now, thanks to the housing bond passed earlier this year, the money is there, or at least the start of it. The space is there. Even the political will is there.

All that’s missing is a lot more backyards that people don’t assume is part of their own.

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