Already in My Back Yard

How can long-standing providers of services for the poor resist gentrifying forces to stay in place?

When social service agencies are planning to move into a particular community and fear NIMBY opposition, they can access a vast arsenal of information about how best to overcome it. “Not In My Back Yard” objections are not new and have been widely studied by city planners, sociologists, geographers and a variety of other professionals with a vested interest in understanding NIMBY dynamics.

Recently many executive directors have been scrambling to strategize around an old problem with a new twist. What happens when a social service agency locates in a blighted neighborhood, only to find itself – five, 10 or 20 years down the road – smack in the middle of a gentrifying neighborhood? And what if, suddenly, new neighbors are less than thrilled to be living next to a homeless shelter or drug treatment center? When the agency is there first, and the neighborhood changes around it – as opposed to the agency bringing change to the neighborhood – does the story of NIMBY as we have traditionally understood it, play out? Or are there other forces that might change the way community objections present themselves, and as such, how agencies should respond?

Haley House and Pine Street Inn are two social service organizations in Boston’s once tony – subsequently derelict – now hip South End neighborhood. Both agencies own their facilities in whole or in part and cannot be forced to relocate in the face of increasing rents. The agencies serve a comparable client base; many of those seeking services are some of the city’s neediest, and are often suffering from chemical addiction, mental illness or both. Despite these similarities, resident objections to each organization – and the agencies’ subsequent responses – have played out in dramatically different fashions as the streets of the South End have gentrified. As it turns out, the reason that Haley House and Pine Street Inn have had such different experiences with neighborhood objections is not fully explained by what we know from reading about traditional NIMBY.

Existing research is a fundamental part of helping already sited agencies understand and plan for potential opposition, but it fails to explore how the nature of the change in the neighborhood itself, that is, the nuance of the way that gentrification changes the neighborhood, contributes to the already complicated dynamics of NIMBYism. The cases of Haley House and Pine Street Inn – the organizational culture of the agencies, the nature and extent of community objections, the agencies’ response strategies and the neighborhoods’ subsequent reactions – offer an opportunity to better understand how social services agencies in gentrifying neighborhoods can prepare for and respond to community objections.

NIMBY Research So Far

Research up to this point has focused on three main pieces of the NIMBY puzzle: the types of concerns commonly put forth by communities in which a social service agency is attempting to locate; the factors that might cause these concerns to vary in intensity (including the type of agency and the nature of the communities themselves); and how agencies can best choose and execute a response strategy. Crime and safety, property values and threats to the character of the neighborhood top the list of community hot buttons. In response, organizations can choose between low- and high-profile community relations strategies.

A low-profile approach to siting entails exactly what the name suggests. Operating autonomously, the organization does not actively engage the community in discussions about the agency’s plan to take up residence. A low-profile approach is recommended when the organization in question will not have tremendous neighborhood impact, when staff or finances are not available to conduct extensive outreach efforts, or when the organization and its services are backed by some sort of official mandate.

A high-profile approach usually requires a good deal of community outreach before, during and after the agency is sited. Specific strategies include hosting public meetings to hear neighborhood concerns and offering community incentives. The high-profile approach is recommended when the organization has, among other things, a strong history of service within the community and broad political support.

Haley House

Haley House is a small “House of Hospitality” based in a five-story brownstone in the Ellis section of Boston’s South End. The heart of the organization is the small soup kitchen that serves breakfast to approximately 40 men each morning; it does not offer an overnight program. When Haley House founders purchased the building in 1967 for a mere $21,000, community objections to the establishment of a neighborhood soup kitchen were nonexistent. Rooming houses and seedy bars comprised a large chunk of the neighborhood at the time, and any good Samaritans who would corral some of the area’s more unseemly characters were a welcome addition. Forty years later, the Ellis neighborhood boasts hip boutiques and well-maintained brownstones selling for seven figures apiece.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Haley House was not the source of neighborhood blight, but rather served a needy clientele in an already struggling neighborhood. As the Ellis neighborhood first began to gentrify, Haley House was not the focus of community ire – urban pioneers and long-time residents looking to improve neighborhood conditions were far more focused on shutting down local saloons and brothels. However, as “undesirables” were displaced from local streets and abandoned buildings, and well-heeled homeowners began taking their place, Haley House’s supposed contributions to neighborhood decay became more apparent, and more troublesome, to local residents.

One resident noted that, at a time when the neighborhood was really trying to “pull itself up by its bootstraps,” the agency was attracting people the neighborhood “didn’t need.” In the late 1980s, tensions between Haley House and the larger neighborhood peaked. Under pressure from neighbors, Haley House hosted a community meeting in an effort to address “nuisance behaviors” perpetrated by those thought to be its guests – public urination, loitering and drunkenness topped the list of neighborhood concerns. The meeting served to open a much-needed dialogue between the organization and its neighbors.

Over the next several years, the Ellis neighborhood shook off the last vestiges of its troubled past. Most of the loiterers dispersed to less watchful neighborhoods, and Haley House staff attempted to monitor the behaviors of the few dozen men who still used Haley House’s services. Over time, middle- and upper-class homeowners began to outnumber the local indigents who had been seen as a threat to public safety and real estate values. And as property values continued to increase and street crime abated, Haley House – whose constituents were now in the minority – was suddenly less of a threat.

Ultimately, Haley House became a combination of benign neighbor and source of local pride. The executive director of Haley House, once forced to defend the agency to angry neighbors, received the neighborhood association’s community service award 15 years later. The organization – a small scale agency in a neighborhood that saw slow change – survived the demographic tipping point and emerged as the proverbial last man standing.

Pine Street Inn

Pine Street Inn is New England’s largest homeless services provider, and one of the area’s most well-known and widely supported charities. Occupying four separate buildings and spanning a full square city block, the Inn is a 24-hour operation, sheltering up to 700 men and women each evening in its overnight program – a far cry from Haley House’s 40-person soup kitchen.

When Pine Street Inn moved to the Old Dover section of the South End in 1980, the neighborhood was comprised largely of empty parcels of land and vacant factory buildings; its very isolation from the rest of Boston’s South End was the reason it was sited there. Abutting a major highway and considered a “no-man’s land” as late as the mid-1990s, today the area is known for its trendy art galleries and high-end condos. The neighborhood’s transformation happened virtually overnight. At least eight residential construction or renovation projects – half with more than 35 units and several with more than 100 units – have been completed since 2000. The comings and goings of the men and women served by Pine Street Inn do not go unnoticed by the shelter’s new, upscale neighbors.

For years, Pine Street Inn was synonymous with the Old Dover neighborhood. Although there were other recognizable facets to the community, it contained, as it still does today, a sizable public housing development as well as substantial artists’ housing, it was the towering Pine Street Inn that came to mind when this final frontier of the South End was mentioned to Bostonians. Neighborhood blight was nearly indistinguishable from Pine Street itself. Thus, as the streets around the Inn gentrified, neighborhood concerns about nuisance behaviors were leveled squarely toward Pine Street Inn. Local derelicts, it was reasoned, were there exclusively to take advantage of Pine Street’s services.

Unlike Haley House, the impact of which has been limited primarily to the streets immediately adjacent to its facility, Pine Street Inn has always had a presence throughout the entire South End. As a high-profile organization serving hundreds of guests each day, its presence in the neighborhood is often used to account for a wayward panhandler even a dozen blocks away.

From the beginning of their tenure in the Old Dover neighborhood, leaders at the Inn have been responsive to more serious claims, hosting community meetings to discuss crimes thought to have been perpetrated by Pine Street’s guests. But, until recently, the Inn was the local neighborhood. Twenty years ago, it was only the occasional South End murder that necessitated quick action from Pine Street’s leaders. Disheveled men sitting in groups near the Inn were left to do so in peace. But with rapid residential development on the streets abutting the Inn, such behaviors have become increasingly alarming to those new to one of Boston’s hottest neighborhood.

Since the development juggernaut began rolling through the Old Dover section several years ago, calls to Pine Street Inn about guests’ behaviors – public urination and drunkenness, loitering in doorways, etc. – have markedly increased. Since Pine Street Inn is a last resort for some of Boston’s neediest residents, those facing alcohol or drug dependence in conjunction with untreated mental illness are unlikely to leave in search of a comparable social service agency in a more welcoming area. No other such agency or neighborhood exists.

Pine Street Inn is a savvy, high profile, highly strategic organization. Its leadership is well aware of and has responded to mounting neighborhood concern about its presence and its guests. Guests are discouraged from loitering in the neighborhood, and some are asked to remain in the Inn’s “wet park,” which allows drinking on site. The agency does due diligence when responding quickly to complaints, and Lyndia Downie, the Inn’s executive director, notes that the organization tries to be “supportive where we can be supportive, responsive where we can be responsive,” but that there is a “fine line” between controlling guests inside and outside of the Inn.

Haley House has been watching its neighborhood gentrify for nearly 25 years, but gentrification around Pine Street Inn is still in its early stages. Unfortunately, Pine Street Inn seems unlikely to meet the same fate as Haley House because gentrification is having an entirely different effect on the neighborhood. The slow pace and moderate effect of gentrification enabled Haley House to survive a demographic tipping point, while the rapid influx of gentrifiers in Pine Street Inn’s neighborhood poses a real threat to the agency.

Traditional NIMBY Strategies

In “reverse NIMBY,” community concerns, at least in the cases of Haley House and Pine Street Inn, are identical to those outlined in traditional NIMBY. And based on the specifics of their cases, both organizations chose the strategy that would have been recommended by traditional NIMBY literature. The unaddressed dilemma is that there are additional dynamics at play that are not considered in NIMBY research and that can change how neighborhood objections and agency responses play out: namely, the speed and scale of neighborhood change and how that change affects the community landscape.

Haley House is a classic example of a low-profile response to neighborhood concerns. As Ellis went from a down-and-out neighborhood to one of increasingly pricey real estate, the staff at Haley House did little to proactively welcome new neighbors into its fold. Traditionally, there has been little formalized interaction between Haley House and the local neighborhood association; there is no designated Haley House representative at Ellis Neighborhood Association meetings, and the organization does not regularly participate in neighborhood clean-ups. Many Ellis neighbors lived in the area for several years before realizing they lived near a soup kitchen. Several are still unclear as to exactly what the organization does. One resident classifies Haley House as being “in the neighborhood, but not of the neighborhood.”

Haley House leaders did not consciously choose a low-profile approach to neighborhood concerns, but it was the right one, according to NIMBY research; it had all three requirements. Haley House has, courtesy of its size, limited neighborhood impact. It also has minimal staff and a limited operating budget. And while it has no official mandate to provide services, it does have a unique network of supporters in the neighborhood that can substitute for the power of a legal mandate. Many former members of Haley House’s live-in community (a rotating group of energetic, largely young college graduates who work in the soup kitchen in exchange for room and board), including the agency’s founder and executive director, moved from Haley House into the surrounding brownstones when they could still be purchased for a reasonable sum. Staunch advocates of social services and affordable housing – folks who are residual from the neighborhood’s politically active past – are also scattered throughout the area.

Having chosen the right strategy, however, is not what saved Haley House. Ultimately, it was the slow change in a small-scale neighborhood that helped Haley House survive, and even thrive.

Just as Haley House is the quintessential example of a low-profile approach to neighborhood concerns, so is Pine Street Inn the archetypal example of a high-profile one. The Inn has always been an active neighbor, and with increasing complaints from new neighbors and continued development at its doorstep, the organization’s leadership has ratcheted up its neighborhood profile even more. Two Pine Street Inn staff members serve on the board of the Old Dover Neighborhood Association. The organization regularly participates in neighborhood cleanups and other community gatherings, even catering local events through its food services training program. The Inn, notes one board member, “wants to be a good neighbor,” and recently hosted a community reception in an effort to open a dialogue with neighbors. The organization offered to help finance a private police detail to patrol the streets around Pine Street Inn in an attempt to allay neighbors’ fears about guests who may be loitering in the area.

The Inn also has both a notable history of service in the community and incredibly broad political support in the region. Based on traditional NIMBY research, the approach taken by Pine Street Inn is the preferred one. But this strategy fails to take into account how rapid, large-scale neighborhood change may threaten the future of Pine Street Inn.

The Missing Link

Haley House and Pine Street Inn chose, intentionally or unintentionally, the strategies that would have been recommended by traditional NIMBY literature were these agencies attempting to move into hostile neighborhoods. But the organizations have had vastly different degrees of success in staving off NIMBY objections, because the existing response strategies focus on static neighborhoods.

In the case of Haley House and Pine Street Inn and countless other social service agencies in gentrifying neighborhoods, the changing neighborhood itself is a force. The nature of the neighborhood change – fast or slow, large-scale or small-scale – affects the way in which NIMBY objections present themselves when the organization is static and the neighborhood is changing. Slow change in a small-scale neighborhood first threatened, then ultimately saved, Haley House’s small operation. Rapid, large-scale neighborhood change is posing a very real threat to Pine Street Inn’s highly visible large-scale operations.

While Haley House was able to survive a demographic tipping point because the neighborhood around it was sanitized, leaving only Haley House’s discrete guest population, the same fate is not likely for Pine Street Inn. A massive organization, Pine Street Inn was initially located in the Old Dover neighborhood specifically because it would be the area’s primary resident – it was in no one’s back yard. It is nearly impossible to disentangle the organization itself from neighborhood blight – sanitizing the Old Dover neighborhood would be unlikely without relocating Pine Street Inn.

Traditional NIMBY literature is a fundamental piece of helping already sited social service agencies understand the increased opposition they might face when the neighborhoods in which they are located begin to gentrify. The community concerns in either scenario are comparable, and the existing research pays close attention to the importance of understanding the specifics of the particular case before choosing a response. But current NIMBY literature is not sufficient to help agencies facing “reverse NIMBY” design their response strategies. Therefore, a need exists for research and guidance that address the additional factors at work – namely, the nature of neighborhood change itself, including the speed and scale of change and the way that change itself affects the community landscape.

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