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The 1175 Lee Hill Homeless Housing Controversy: Reflections on a Public Hearing


photo by Joe Glynn

On March 20th, the Boulder City Council held a public hearing on the controversial 1175 Lee Hill chronically homeless housing project, filling council chambers and an overflow room.  Twenty-three members of the North Boulder Alliance provided detailed testimony that Boulder Housing Partners’ development plan is unfair and unwise. We described North Boulder’s existing contributions toward addressing homelessness, including the 160 bed Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, the largest shelter in the county, and we noted how concentrating most of Boulder’s homeless facilities on two adjacent lots will reduce our safety, security, and neighborhood vitality. We pointed out that the ability of homeless people to recover from substance abuse and alcohol addition will be impaired if they are housed within a densely packed institutional setting – especially since the new facility will be “wet,” meaning that alcohol is allowed on the premises and residents are not required to receive counseling or treatment.

Other NBA presenters documented how North Boulder has become Boulder’s preferred location for social service facilities and 100% affordable housing apartments, under a free-for-all siting policy that ignores land use dynamics that encourage concentration, threatening the mixed-use, new urbanist vision that is at the heart of the North Boulder subcommunity plan. We described our conversations with state funding agencies confirming that state funding for a Housing First facility in Boulder is not at risk if council does not give this project an immediate go-ahead. Our attorney also provided his opinion that council does not risk violating the Fair Housing Act by affirming that Boulder Housing Partners (BHP) should not concentrate nearly all of the city’s homeless housing facilities in one neighborhood.

We also listened to statements from BHP and its allies at this hearing. Two statements by BHP Executive Director Betsey Martens caught our attention. First, Martens argued that the proposed facility “shouldn’t be sacrificed to the inconclusive nature of tangential policy concerns.” What we heard in this is that while Martens is aware of our argument that North Boulder has a disproportionate share of homeless facilities and other social services, she feels that this issue isn’t BHP’s responsibility to address. Second, Martens noted that it was BHP’s role to place difficult-to-site housing facilities around Boulder, and being the target of public protest came along with the territory. Considered together, Marten’s perspective is deeply troubling to us. She dismisses the broader civic concerns about facility siting, and then suggests that community opposition is an inevitable byproduct of siting homeless facilities. Council should just approve the project, dismissing local concerns as just neighbors crying “NIMBY.”

We believe that our neighborhood’s opposition to the project is unfairly characterized as NIMBYism, and council’s approach to siting this facility is adding to this perception and exacerbating the conflict.  NIMBYism occurs when the benefits and costs of a public project are not evenly distributed. This is a common phenomenon when the broader community agrees that a project is needed and yet few want it located near them. In these situations, perceived benefits are widely distributed and the costs are concentrated locally. Many valued public projects have this characteristic, including airports, waste disposal and recycling facilities, sewage treatment plants, prisons, and homeless shelters. Neighbors who oppose such facilities are not expressing prejudice. They are reacting in large part to the perception that the costs and benefits are unevenly distributed and that they are being told to accept a greater share of the burden than other neighborhoods. This problem is compounded when the neighborhood is less affluent or politically connected than other neighborhoods or appears to be a target.

Unfortunately, the way that Boulder is going about solving this problem only makes it worse. Council evidently accepts the premise that since every neighborhood will respond the same way, the solution is to bite the bullet and make the decision for them – or in this case, create permissive zoning that allowed BHP to proceed without council’s approval. Expecting community opposition, BHP kept their site planning secret, and announced the project at the ill-fated Armory meeting in September, provoking a ferocious backlash from the community. Council set in motion a dynamic in which opponents and proponents of the 1175 site clashed angrily and publicly, and then came back to council, insisting on a decision.

After council agreed to examine the issue, both BHP and NBA spent six months emphasizing the merits of their positions and denigrating their opponents’ positions, and some NBA and BHP supporters have even resorted to demonizing each other in an attempt to raise doubts about their “enemies’” character, moral fiber, true motives, and trustworthiness. As a result, council is left with a very skewed view of the impacts of the project and of the parties themselves. We are now at the conclusion of this process, where council votes, resulting in winners and losers. The legitimate interests of the winners are met while the legitimate interests of the losers are lost.

This pattern is predictable when opponents and proponents must appeal to a higher authority to influence a controversial public decision. In fact, the power relationship among opponents, proponents, and the higher authority triggers and almost ensures that this dynamic will play itself out. Fortunately, council can change the dynamic by giving the problem back to our citizens and providing the resources to help them solve the problem themselves – a facilitative role for government that captures the legitimate interests of all sides. This requires council to recognize and anticipate the dynamic and the role they play in perpetuating it. It also requires council to acknowledge the legitimate interests on all sides and requires staff to develop collaborative processes that enable citizens in satisfying those interests.

NIMBYism requires a different approach than Boulder has taken, one that recognizes how the dynamic operates and how easily it escalates. Fortunately, we can break this pattern. In other communities that have embraced Housing First, proponents have implemented a more participatory approach to facility siting, cultivating local allies and being responsive to local concerns. For example, in Portland, the developers of the Bud Clark Housing Commons  and community groups negotiated a Good Neighbor Agreement that acknowledges the developer’s responsibility to reduce community impacts and makes specific commitments. It contrasts to BHP’s proposed statement of operations for 1175 Lee Hill in the following ways:

  1. In Boulder, BHP seeks to maintain control over the content of the Statement of Operations, only allowing for “comments and questions” during a public forum in Q2 2012, while in Portland, the Good Neighbor Agreement is the jointly signed product of “negotiations” among a long list of community organizations and individuals.
  2. The Portland facility establishes lines of communication and a response mechanism to problems that includes community co-signers, while BHP’s response procedure moves issues inside its chain of command.
  3. Portland’s agreement defines a specific geographic area as the “good neighbor area” where facility operators will assume an elevated level of responsibility.
  4. Portland’s agreement explicitly assigns staff to clean up around the exterior of the facility and notes that there is a “Clean and Safe” program that patrols the neighborhood twice a day, while BHP does not address issues beyond the perimeter of its facility.
  5. Portland’s agreement establishes provisions to discourage “large groups from gathering in public areas” and discourage residents from smoking outside the facility.
  6. Portland’s agreement includes commitments made by the Portland police to the community in terms of notification and response.

These types of commitments are not cost-free or simple to implement, and they require cultivating trust between the neighborhood and operator, which is especially difficult after months of public conflict. Council should offer incentives for BHP to initiate this kind of public engagement. Instead, council’s blanket yes/no decision removes any incentive to engage in this kind of deliberative process, and encourages reliance on the kind of intensive public relations strategy (financed by taxpayer dollars) that BHP has implemented over the past six months to build support for their original plan.

Members of the North Boulder Alliance share Boulder’s commitment to helping the homeless, while recognizing their impact on our neighborhood safety and well-being. Our central issue is not that the homeless should remain homeless, but that the city should engage its citizens in siting and managing these facilities, and do so in a way that reduces neighborhood impacts and distributes them fairly.

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