When the board of the Fresno Housing Authority was debating a proposed 60-unit affordable housing project on Willow and Alluvial avenues in Clovis in March 2019, a commissioner opposed the plan, stating “there are more, better areas for diversity and our residents to feel like they are in the right place.”
Commissioner Terra Brusseau cited concern about the impact on public transportation and local schools the children of the families would attend.
Brusseau’s attitude is quite common and replicated in cities and counties throughout California and the nation as residents fiercely resist affordable housing projects because of how they think the projects will impact their neighborhoods.
But as the growing region copes with an estimated 35,000 shortfall in affordable homes, many neighborhoods that have previously never seen any apartments — let alone affordable housing — may start to see more projects come into their backyard.
Not In My Back Yard
Historically, neighborhood pushback — often characterized as NIMBYism, or “Not In My Back Yard” — has had a chilling effect on affordable housing construction across California and the U.S. — stalling projects for years, adding significantly to the cost of development, and, in many cases, resulting in failure.
A 2020 report from Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley, identified community opposition as a significant barrier to keeping construction costs low for affordable housing:
“This opposition directly impacts the costs of affordable housing development. It increases development timelines, and it can also lead to concessions that can reduce the number of units on a project or lead to more expensive design features on a building, all of which contribute to costs,” explained Carolina Reid, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at UC Berkeley and the author of the report.
Some community concerns around affordable housing do hold true, but many are also rooted in racist and classist conceptions of affordable housing. There’s a long history of racist policies that have historically kept affordable housing projects segregated in lower-income communities of color, farther from quality schools, grocery stores, and better amenities.
This isn’t just bad for people who live in segregated neighborhoods, says Fresno State sociology professor Amber Crowell: “It’s also just bad for the city overall, because the social divides that emerge from cemented segregation can polarize local politics so that we never really agree on an equitable distribution of resources, which means the affluent exclusionary areas may win out on amenities but the city overall pays more for reactive measures to deal with the problems that come up in under resourced neighborhoods like blight, crime, and health challenges.”
Most opposition to affordable housing is driven by a host of common myths and misconceptions that have seeped into our collective consciousness. Correcting them may help neighbors feel more receptive to them. Below we share how the research compares to common perceptions about affordable housing.
Myth #1: Crime will increase
Fact? Mostly false
Generally, many studies have concluded that affordable housing does not have an impact on crime rates. A 2015 study from Rebecca Diamond and Timothy McQuade at the Stanford Business School on the effects of affordable housing developments across 129 counties found that there was no effect on crime rates in more affluent neighborhoods, and that, in lower-income neighborhoods, crime rates went down after affordable housing was built.
A 2019 study from Marie Tillyer at the University of Texas, San Antonio, however, found that design and location matter greatly: generally, the developments are a product of the broader neighborhood they are built in; and, that certain design and property management standards make a difference in criminal activity. But ultimately, the vast majority of crimes, she found, were concentrated in only 5% of the developments they looked at.
In particular, the study found that efforts to control access, enforce rules, and a design that keeps community watch possible made a difference in criminal activity. But a community’s access to resources matters greatly. In places with high levels of concentrated disadvantage and low residential stability, there was more criminal activity, which led the author to suggest locating more affordable housing in economically diverse neighborhoods.
Design features for safety don’t have to perpetuate a surveillance state: unlike older public housing projects, which were notorious for creating environments with low visibility, like enclosed stairways or dark corridors, more architects are designing housing to include more balconies, open hallways, and common spaces with many visibility points.
Myth #2: High-density housing will change neighborhood character
Fact? Somewhat true
What do people usually mean when they refer to “neighborhood character?”
The term is often invoked to talk about lower-density, single-family residential neighborhoods, which have historically been protected by zoning codes that disallow higher-density residential and commercial uses in close proximity.
The history of single-family zoning has origins in racial discrimination, where cities used them to prevent apartments from going in next door — which were more likely to house tenants of color, who had less wealth to purchase homes.
As more Black and immigrant families climbed the economic ladder in the 20th century, policies like redlining, federal policies that banned Black families from receiving federally backed loans, and racial covenants were used to keep single-family neighborhoods white.
There’s a growing movement across the United States to eliminate exclusive single-family zoning – not by banning them from new construction, but by allowing more duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, or other apartment buildings near transit lines to reduce carbon emissions.
And while not all affordable housing is higher-density — and not all high-density housing is affordable, many affordable housing developers try to build as many units as allowed on a site to lower development costs per unit, according to Greg Chin, a housing finance consultant with the California Housing Partnership Corporation.
In addition, many cities — including Fresno and Clovis — offer a density bonus for affordable housing developers, allowing them to build more than the underlying zoning permits.
So yes, building more affordable housing could impact neighborhood character.
“When you say you don’t want to change the built environment, what you’re saying is, ‘I don’t want any new people to live here.’” said Lewis, of California YIMBY.
Myth #3: The area will become a slum
The word “slum” originated in 19th century Britain to describe poor, desolate neighborhoods; it was often used as a slur and meant to garner attention.
In 20th century America, the word slum gained popularity in describing predominantly poor, working class communities of color, who had been forced to live in segregated neighborhoods with poor sanitation because of racist federal policies and the practice of redlining.
Fresno’s first general plan, authored in 1918, proposed that housing for the working poor should be located adjacent to industrial areas, because “employees working long hours at low wages can afford nor the time nor the money to live far from work,” codifying a century-long pattern of locating affordable housing west of the railroad tracks in west Fresno.
“Slum clearance” became a popular federal policy in the mid-20th century under the guise of improving living conditions for the residents of these neighborhoods. Unfortunately, it led to the displacement of residents and businesses of color as new freeways, government buildings, and ‘modernized’ public housing were built — but often without adequate resources for maintenance.
The Highway 99 freeway project in Fresno was one of the city’s first “slum clearance” projects, where several blocks of Chinatown, Germantown and other predominantly Black, Latino and Asian enclaves in west Fresno were demolished to make way for a modern transportation future.
City planners now recognize and promote the concept of mixed-income communities, acknowledging that the over-concentration of affordable housing in any one neighborhood has not produced good outcomes. (A 2006 Brookings Institution report found that Fresno had the highest rate of concentrated poverty in the U.S., a trend due in part to a concentration of affordable housing in west Fresno, according to a 2009 Federal Reserve study.)
However, it can be difficult to build mixed-income projects, where developers include both affordable and market-rate units in the same development — because California’s housing finance programs favor projects that are fully affordable, Chin said.
And finally, let’s be clear about who we are talking about when referring to low-income people. In Fresno, low-income for a family of four is $55,900 per year, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A person making $15 an hour would have to work 77 hours per week to reach that salary. It’s a typical salary for teachers, firefighters, journalists and EMTs, for instance. It’s far above average wages for farmworkers or store clerks.
Myth #4: Housing will be substandard and poorly maintained by an absent landlord
Fact? Mostly false
It’s important here to understand there is a distinction between the requirements for new subsidized affordable housing versus housing that is considered affordable for lower-income families but owned and maintained by private landlords.
The vast majority of new subsidized affordable housing today is built by private or nonprofit entities, under the low-income housing tax credit program created by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
To qualify for financial assistance from state and federal grant programs, developers have to build in a substantive maintenance budget, said Chin, with the California Housing Partnership Corporation.
“The financing agencies have an interest in making sure these are assets in the long-run, and they conduct site inspections to monitor the quality of the housing built,” Chin said. “And nonprofit housing developers usually build high-quality maintenance into their mission.”
That said, not all affordable housing has been maintained to a decent standard of quality. Concerned neighbors should ask for plans around on-site management, rental inspection schedules and property management companies’ track record at other locations.
The city of Fresno has a rental registry and requires annual inspections at all rental properties; the Fresno Housing Authority also conducts routine inspections of properties where Section 8 rental vouchers are used, in addition to the projects it owns and manages.
Myth #5: Property values will decrease in the neighborhood
Fact? It depends
Over the past 30 years, there’s been a lot of studies on the impact of affordable housing on property values. The Furman Center for Housing Policy at New York University put together a summary of the research, and found that affordable housing doesn’t have any impact on property values — and in some cases there’s a net positive impact.
However, a 2015 Stanford Business School study found that while property values in lower-income neighborhoods went up after affordable housing was built, property values in higher-income and less-diverse neighborhoods fell by 2.5%, but only within 0.1 mile of the development. That impact only applied to higher-income neighborhoods that were also majority white.
The authors of the study blamed decline in property values on the negative perception toward affordable housing. It can create a self-perpetuating cycle — if affordable housing comes into a higher-income neighborhood, and residents sell at lower prices for fears of lower-income people coming into the neighborhood, then the perception converts into a real effect on property values.
Myth #6: Parking will be more difficult to find
Fact? It depends
Many residents often raise challenges around parking concerns in new affordable housing developments, especially if they are higher-density.
We can’t find any studies that look at this effect in detail —although there is some evidence that residents in affordable housing developments own fewer cars, generally. In Fresno, 16.8% of all residents don’t own a car, according to 2019 census data.
However, affordable housing developers are limited by state laws that discourage more parking provision. “In California, the state has really tried to focus its affordable housing dollars on well-located projects that get people out of their cars,” Chin said.
AB 744, signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015, requires that if requested, cities and counties cannot force a developer of affordable or senior housing to provide more than 0.5 parking spaces per bedroom if the project is located within a half-mile of a major transit stop.
So while that doesn’t solve your neighborhood parking problems, know that there’s not much the developer can do to address it.
Myth #7: Traffic will get much worse
Fact? It depends
Whenever any new development goes into an existing neighborhood, residents typically raise concerns about traffic and new cars coming in and clogging the roads.
There are a lot of factors at play to consider when it comes to traffic: road capacity, street design and the proximity of the project to key amenities within a reasonable distance by walking, biking or taking mass transit.
California’s approach to reducing traffic has shifted away from increasing road capacity and toward investing more in amenities that provide transportation choice by making it more safe and convenient to walk, bike or take public transportation.
This is encapsulated in SB 743, signed into law by former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013, requiring cities and counties to evaluate projects not by how they impact current drivers, but by how they impact people’s choices to get around.
What does this mean if you live in a neighborhood with a high-density affordable housing development coming in? Expect less road widening, and look for improvements aimed at improving pedestrian and bike safety.
But there may not be as much traffic as you might expect: A 2018 study from researchers at Portland State University found that density and income levels had a significant impact on the number of car trips a household makes; as income levels decline, and as a neighborhood is more urban in character, car trips decline.
Many cities and counties have substantive review processes to examine the impacts of affordable housing on the neighborhoods they are entering. They often, but not always, require affordable housing developers to pay impact fees to compensate for the impact on water, sewer, streets and parks.
Where do you stand?
For some, the debate can simply be distilled into who we want to be our neighbors.
Matthew Lewis, director of communications for California YIMBY, a pro-housing advocacy group, said, “When people say they don’t want affordable housing, what they’re saying is that they don’t want teachers, firefighters or grocery store workers — people who allow the community to function — to live in their neighborhood.”