Density Revisited

This past summer, I wrote a feature for Shelterforce about a community where a CDC was battling a NIMBY mentality. The CDC was trying to build neighborhood support for over a hundred units of new market and affordable housing in a former Catholic church in Boston’s Jamaica Plain district. They ran into a fair amount of opposition from single family homeowners in the area, but won a go-ahead for the project with the help of housing activists in the community.

In my article I cited sources who said the project opponents were not just NIMBY, but were standing against affordable housing because they opposed any more poor people in their midst. But now that I’ve moved to this very neighborhood, I’m starting to hear different, more nuanced takes on why people opposed this project. And I have to say that I failed to show these nuances in my story.

I talked to one neighbor who felt strongly that people living in large apartment buildings could not be part of the community in the same way as people who lived in single-family houses or townhomes. He noted the experience of seeing his neighbors cleaning their front yards or shoveling the sidewalks. He was not necessarily talking about the advantages of market-rate versus affordable housing, or homeownership versus rental. The key issue for him was the design of the housing.

To achieve the number of housing units they wanted, and therefore the level of affordability, the CDC had to build over a hundred units. This apparently precluded the kind of design that would have allowed each household a yard, front porch, and picket fence. Instead a management company would be hired, as is the case in most multifamily or large condo developments, to maintain all exterior spaces. Perhaps some sense of community would be encouraged within the new housing, but the new residents were less likely to blend seamlessly with the existing homes and residents.

It could be argued that the new housing is in a transition zone between single family homes and a much more dense area of buildings that have three or more units each. That weakens the argument that the church’s conversion to housing represented an unacceptable increase in density in a low-density area. On the other hand, this was a neighborhood that was incredibly distressed 20 years ago, and is still working to raise itself up. Some people were looking for signs of increasing stability and felt the new development was a step in the wrong direction.

For them the best way to measure stability was by counting the number of times they talk to their neighbors. They wanted to feel that would happen spontaneously, that they wouldn’t have to go to a neighborhood meeting to meet people. I think this is a powerful argument against the dense, multifamily projects that are our best hope for increasing affordability and transit-oriented development in urban areas.

David Holtzman is a planner for Louisa County, Virginia, a freelance writer, and a former Shelterforce editor.


  1. Interesting. I wonder if there’s a way around this with well-designed public gathering spaces? It’s true I interact with my neighbors often when I’m sitting on my porch or shoveling my sidewalk, but it’s not the only way. I also do so when walking with my daughter, sitting on a bench by the community garden or the fire house, patronizing local businesses, or shopping at the farmer’s market.

    In highly dense Manhattan neighborhoods people meet on the stoops, whether it’s their job to clean them or not.

  2. In addition, I can’t tell you how many people I have met, some now lifelong friends, at the bus stop.

    Any neighborhood needs good “third places” where people can encounter each other, but millennia of community experience prove that single-family housing is not an absolute prerequisite to productive social interaction. In fact, I would argue that, in developments with driveways, garages, and air conditioning, it is quite the opposite.


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