Guest Opinion | Overcoming ‘NIMBY’ if We Want to House People

Published : Wednesday, August 30, 2017 | 7:05 PM

In the course of my work week, many people ask me what can be done to increase the number of affordable, low-income and permanent supportive housing units to help the homeless and most vulnerable. The short answer is: Build the units as quickly as possible and begin to house the most vulnerable with the supportive services needed to rebuild their lives. So, what is the problem? Why can’t we get this done? It seems that it is much easier to vote for measures to help the homeless population, than to actually approve of them in your neighborhood. The crucible to the housing issue is the acronym NIMBY, or ‘not in my backyard.’ We all want to help get people off the streets, but few-to-nobody wants to support it in their neighborhood. Without a change in attitude and support for the units, I fear that we are going to be asking the same questions at the end of the 10-year Measure H money, after spending, or worse, squandering, billions of dollars.

I find myself getting frustrated on good days, very angry on bad days, as we try to serve our homeless neighbors everyday at Friends in Deed. Women and men, struggling to make it on the streets, wondering why society has forgotten them, or don’t care enough to actually build the housing needed. They see luxury apartments, condos and hotels being built all around Pasadena, with speed and efficiency, but we can’t get an affordable housing complex even begun without huge roadblocks. Budgets are moral documents, reflecting the priorities of the organization or city or country; and while we here in LA have seemingly put our budget priorities on paper, we are having a very difficult time turning them into realities. Other cities, namely Denver, Salt Lake City and San Antonio have all streamlined and advanced a variety of different strategies to both increase affordable housing, and build significant permanent supportive housing units, using creative ideas like old motels, nursing homes and other already constructed housing-type units. Haven House in San Antonio, featured this week in the LA Times, is a 22-acre campus with not only housing, but services to rebuild lives. The bureaucracy of the agency systems, along with development quagmires, multi-year environmental impact studies, appeals and other hold-ups, provide a great deal of skepticism that even when we allot the money, we can’t get it done. As we saw just last week in Boyle Heights, as also reported in the LA Times, a modest set of units that was thought to be ready to build, got held up again by a last minute request for another study. And this was in a place that was ready to start! If we can’t build a 40-unit complex, how will we build the thousands needed to solve the problem? This will have to change if we want to make a dent in the homeless population on our streets.

The situation couldn’t be more urgent. The 3% vacancy rate in Pasadena, and the high cost of land, is not helping the cause, but the will of the people, and the elected officials, to do more to fast-track these kinds of developments, is key to success. We all need to make sacrifices if we want to truly live in the community we believe in, and that means accepting the people we don’t want to see on the streets into our neighborhoods, if that is where there is room to build. The goal of supportive services, which is what Friends in Deed can provide, is to help the residents enter or reenter the community with the needed skills to succeed. We can’t continue to keep compassion for others at arm’s length. We can’t continue to say “NIMBY” one moment and “how can we house the homeless in our community?” in the next. It is one or the other. Spiritual leaders of many faiths say something about “the mark of a great civilization” being judged by how well they treat the poor among them. We have the resources and capacity to meet this mark. Can we? Will we?


Rabbi Grater is the Executive Director of Friends in Deed, an interfaith homeless service agency in Pasadena. Learn more at


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