Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Legislating NIMBY

Two very different projects, in communities half a mile apart, together offer a single lesson.

In Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood with a housing shortage and one of the highest HIV infection rates in the country, a proposed supportive housing project for people living with HIV and AIDS barely survived a lawsuit filed by residents from the surrounding area. Developed by Pratt Area Community Council, a local community-based organization, in part with public monies (including State tax credits), the Gibbs Mansion at 218 Gates Avenue is considered by some to be a model of quality, affordable housing. Two thirds of the units are designated for formerly homeless and HIV-infected people. These residents are seamlessly integrated into a dignified and comfortable living environment with the other one-third of the residents whose only occupancy requirement is income-based.

Half a mile away, on the corner of Clermont and Park, under the shadows of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, neighbors were at first excited to see what they thought to be the development of condos. Then they noticed beds being moved in under the cloak of night. After all was said and done, a private developer had, in spite of existing code violations, successfully established a somewhat dubious hotel that was being subsidized by the New York State Department of Homeless Services for up to $95 a day per unit.

These two state-supported projects differ in many obvious ways, and in one way not so obvious but very signficant: People in the surrounding neighborhood learned of the Gates Avenue project before it broke ground. In the case of Clermont and Park, people learned of the developer's project after it was too late to do anything about it.

All around the city there are neighborhood skirmishes and feelings of deep resentment flaring up between community residents and those who seek to develop facilities that address social needs. And in the New York State legislature there is an attempt underway to meet the public's growing demand that neighborhood residents and public officials be given ample opportunity to weigh in on whether these facilities that claim to serve the public interest can set up in their collective back yards, particularly when public funds are used.

The Community Notification and Empowerment Act would require community notification and review of proposed state financed facilities in New York City. Senate Bill S71 and Assembly Bill 4795 propose that the local community board, borough president, state and city elected officials have the opportunity to submit their written recommendations, along with those of the New York City Planning Commission, to the lead state agency,

The bill, sponsored by State Senator Serphin R. Maltese and Assemblyman Scott Stringer, makes the argument that state funded facilities should undergo a review process similar to the City Charter Fair Share process, and that currently state funded projects are not required to undergo the same rigorous review as city projects. City residents, the legislation claims, are often uninformed and powerless with regard to the siting of state financed facilities, since there are no provisions requiring community notification and review of state financed facilities.

As fair minded as this may sound, this legislation has placed ordinarily populist-minded allies at odds with one another. Senator Velmanette Montgomery, a highly respected leader in Central Brooklyn whose voting record is consistent for the most part with Scott Stringer, for instance, strongly opposes this legislation. Her position is also shared by two highly prominent and influential not-for-profit policy forces, the Coalition for the Homeless and the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies.

Senator Montgomery's beef with this bill is that it could embolden misguided strains of the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) movement, which in New York City at least has come to refer to a growing chorus of community board leaders, parochial-minded activists and others who assert power mainly by stopping neighborhood projects they feel threaten them or their property values. This can include anything from the dumping of toxic waste, a commercial chain that threatens a family business, or a facility for the mentally ill that represents, for some, a nest of undesirables. In Montgomery's opinion, worthy projects that function as a safety net in her district would be constantly thwarted and discouraged under this bill. In an incident that suggests her rather principled stance on this legislation may put some of her own political capital at risk, Montgomery's relationship with the powerful chair of Community Board #3, Sherronie Perry, was severely strained as a result of Montgomery's support of the 218 Gates Avenue project.

Assemblyman Stringer, who maintains that he and his senate colleague want the same thing -- a responsible and practical way for neighborhood people to decide what kind of social service infrastructure their neighborhood can support -- says "This is about fair share and the public's right to know two terms which have become legitimate rallying cries for social justice advocates." Stringer plays down the impact this bill will have and even asserts it is weak in the sense that it does not have the power to stop projects from being assigned to neighborhood sites. It is the lack of notification, he says, which prompts people to object to the building of certain facilities. Stringer believes that once the public knows what is being proposed, this will foster cooperation between facilities and neighborhoods. The best way, Stinger advises, to support worthwhile neighborhood-based projects is by educating people in the surrounding neighborhood.

Others are not buying it. Shelly Nortz, the Deputy Director for Policy for the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocate for the kind of supported homeless housing that is typically attacked by NIMBY forces, accuses this legislation as being disingenuous and wolf in sheep's clothing, warning that it is meant to turn the community development process into knots. Nortz says this legislation stands in the way of developing solutions to homelessness and poverty and recounts countless moments when supportive housing facilities have been doomed because community boards have been misinformed about the nature and details of the project.

One of the more popular tools that community boards use to flex their power, for example, is ULURP (Uniform Land Use Review Process), which grants community boards authority in zoning changes and the disposition of city property. Sometimes the opposition to proposed projects can be reasonable and more than justified. But community boards, which are made up of mostly grassroot political appointees, some of whom have obviously too much time on their hands, often take their gate-keeping positions a little too seriously. Some community boards have reputations for being arbitrary, tyrannical and sometimes just plain self defeating, such as in the case of one board representing a predominately poor area that opposed the placing of a fruit and vegetable garden in a neighborhood park.

These issues cut to the heart of the distribution of power within neighborhood settings and test the claims of democratic action. They also force us to confront our values as a civilized society.

Shouldn't there always be a place for our elderly, our mentally ill, ex offenders, or anyone else who lives at the margins of our culture? At the same time, are facilities that ghettoize and stigmatize members of our community always solutions to poverty? And who can deny the claims of air share advocates who rightfully question why low-income and of-color neighborhoods routinely get dumped on and are expected to shoulder a higher social burden? Neighborhoods like the Upper West Side, the area that Scott Stringer represents, or say, Bay Ridge, don't have to contend with racist or class-based policy making. These areas also flex the kind of political and economic power and have the kind of resources that virtually pre-empts them from having to confront whether a facility housing recovering addicts, for instance, is welcomed in their area.

But Shelly Nortz rejects the idea that this bill even calls these kinds of questions, mainly because, according to the Coalition's Memorandum in Opposition, the bill applies to any entity that receives more than $80,000 annually in state compensation or those that receive more than half their operating revenue from the state. In her opinion, this bill does not operate on a level playing field because it singles out organizations that receive often small amounts of state funding. Organizations that do not rely on state funding are not subject to this notification process. We can not call it an issue of democracy or fairness until we start from a place where the same rules are applied to everyone.

One would even have a hard time claiming that democracy is exercised by community boards, whose members are not elected by the neighborhood constituencies they claim to represent. As one community advocate I talked to said, "This bill, by referring to community notification and empowerment uses the language that many activists speak and support, and few would argue against, but it makes assumptions about what constitutes community notification and fair share. These terms mean different things to different people."

Nonetheless, the momentum that NIMBY thinking has gained throughout the city may be reflected in this legislation. Unlike the past couple of years, when this bill has passed in the Assembly with an almost unwritten understanding that it would be defeated in the Senate, it recently passed the Senate finance committee. It still has a long way to go -- votes on both floors of the legislature and, if it gets past there, a trip before the governor -- but pass or fail, right or wrong, this bill frames and serves as a flashpoint for what will certainly be an on-going debate in New York.

Mark Winston Griffith, a writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Essence and Spin, is also founder of the non-profit Central Brooklyn Partnership, which organizes people to build economic power.

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