We on the Advocacy Committee hope to explore what advocacy means for landscape architects in this BLOG. In the broadest definition, it means to support what’s important. This post explores what we can do on a local level to support worthy local projects and the implications of not doing so.
In a January 28, 2019 opinion piece on CITYLAB, the authors described an unfamiliar term, “Vasectomy Zoning.” While I had not heard the term before, after many years of shepherding projects through site plan review, upon further reading I was very familiar with the concept. The basic premise is that in affluent areas, zoning can have the effect of prohibiting young families with children from finding houses and apartments large enough or affordable enough. The authors describe “a growing body of research indicates that restrictive zoning—which often blocks the services and housing that families need—may help to explain why family sizes are shrinking in the United States.” They describe the fear of children coming into a community as a “mainstay” of public meeting comments and the justifications as running the gamut from preserving local character to preventing overcrowding in schools.
The authors list a number of situations in the New York Metro/New Jersey area but with a quick Google search it becomes clear that this is not an isolated issue. It seems to me that in the best case, this is an unintentionally naive attempt to preserve quality of life for residents and in a worst case a form of ‘not in my backyard’ and ‘I’ve got mine, to hell with you.’
A fascinating example of an affordable housing project recently constructed by Ithaca Neighborhood Housing, a non-profit specializing in affordable (not low-income) housing, is 210 Hancock Street whose site was designed by Trowbridge Wolf Michaels. It did require variances and there was a fight. This mixed-income development includes a four-story mixed-use office and apartment building which houses a Head Start program. Additionally, 7 for sale and 5 rental two-story townhomes were constructed. The for-sale townhomes sold for $129,000 and a three-bedroom townhome rents for $1,600 per month, considered affordable.
Ithaca is notorious for lack of affordable housing and the situation is often blamed on the student population. An assessment undertaken by the county, the 2016 Tompkins County Housing Needs Assessment, completed by the Danter Company, calls attention to the influence of community opposition as an exacerbating factor in the upward trajectory of housing costs. Neighborhood opposition to new proposed housing, the study concludes, “can result from inadequate local regulation to assure that new housing is in alignment with community expectations, self-interest (NIMBY, or “not in my backyard”), or lack of understanding of the severity of the housing problem in the community.”
The study also quotes CITYLAB. “For an increasing number of people living in urban areas, the New York Times’ CityLab reports, “NIMBYism and land use restrictions are the culprit behind everything from growing income inequality to shrinking affordable housing, productivity, and innovation.”
Archived public comments on the 210 Hancock Street project include:
“The proposed project is flawed, detrimental to what neighbors and the bulk of the people in Ithaca want, single/double houses, not apartment complexes where people are warehoused.”
“Too many units, and there must be a safe place for children to play. Don't try to make it like NYC, there is a reason people leave there to live here!”
“I'm a lifelong resident, and I'm frankly getting tired of seeing all these areas getting bulldozed and developed, building ever higher and wider, especially when we have dozens of empty/condemned houses and buildings just sitting around! Renovate those for homes!” (mind you, it was an abandoned big box grocery store)
“I am totally in support of low income housing, but I believe that putting so many adults and children in such a dense situation is not healthy for them. People need access to green space, yards and the ability to get outside directly from their living space. I would support a number of two story townhouses that would create a neighborhood. Shame on you "Ithaca Neighborhood Housing" for even thinking of creating something that will breed trouble, will not support healthy living and will cause undue problems for Ithaca for years to come. Would any of you decision makers choose to live in this creation of yours.... or live next door to it?” (notice the reference to ‘breed.’)
From the comments, selected for effect I admit, it’s insinuated that if a family can’t afford a single-family home, they don’t deserve children. As landscape architects, do we have the responsibility to speak out about situations like this? How many times has a project where everyone you spoke to was largely supportive but when municipal review came around, few or none of those supporters appeared to comment on the project? It has been my experience that there are always the ‘not in my backyarders’ and the perpetually negative opposers of everything who appear at public meetings. I personally tend to avoid public meetings like the plague but I’m asking myself if I’m shirking a responsibility as someone who could actually make useful comments for or against a proposed development. One’s level of participation in these public processes is not an easy decision to make when it’s very possible your project will be the next one on the schedule. Submitting written comments or a letter of support may be a more comfortable way to comment but the important message is we must advocate for what’s important in our own communities.
Nolan Gray and Lyman Stone. How ‘Vasectomy Zoning’ Makes Childless Cities: Municipalities shouldn’t block or raise the cost of things young parents need, like day-care centers and two-bedroom houses or apartments. https://www.citylab.com/perspective/2019/01/family-planning-day-care-costs-zoning-cities-children/580279/
Laura Mansnerus. Great Haven for Families, But Don't Bring Children https://www.nytimes.com/2003/08/13/nyregion/great-haven-for-families-but-don-t-bring-children.html
Kyle Friend. No Place to Call Home: Explaining why middle-income housing development is rare in Ithaca https://ithacavoice.com/2017/05/no-place-call-home-explaining-middle-income-housing-development-rare-ithaca/
Ithaca Neighborhood Housing, 210 Hancock Street http://inhsproperties.org/210hancock