Colin Weinstein: Low-income tenants will be neighbors, not statistics

  • The house at 132 Northampton Road, Amherst, seen from the Amherst College campus. Erin ONeill

Saturday, February 01, 2020

By Colin Weinstein

Letters opposing the town’s proposal to allocate $500,000 toward a single-room occupancy (SRO) development on Northampton Road prove that even residents of Amherst partake of a time-honored national tradition: good ol’ American NIMBY-ism.

While some of the pushback against the now-passed proposal genuinely sought to improve the project based on legitimate arguments, many relied on overt profiling or profiling disguised by poorly interpreted data.

The letter sent to the Town Council by 56 residents from Amherst’s District 3 and 4 particularly caught my attention. The authors emphasize they “are not saying ‘not it our backyard,’” just “please get this right, because it’s our backyard,” yet they express quintessentially NIMBY worries about drug use and concern for “the public.”

Profiling? Fear not, the authors assert that would be “a wholly inaccurate description of the situation,” touting their academic credentials and “rigorous use of data” as unassailable proof that they lack bias.

But their data analysis is hardly rigorous. The authors refer to (but don’t provide) “surveys and scientific research detailing the expected rates of history of substance use disorders, the rates of relapse, and the statistics regarding social/behavioral outcomes given substance abuse.” Such statistics have no bearing on the sufficiency of Valley Community Development Corp’s management or tenant services — they merely describe the general population suffering from addiction.

They next cite “police dispatch calls associated with … residential buildings in Northampton, currently or formerly owned by Valley CDC” and calculate that 2,669 calls were placed “over a period of several years,” 22% of which they categorize as “criminal.”

There are a number of issues with this use of data, the most obvious of which is that calls to the police don’t necessarily correlate to crimes. It’s pretty simple: police calls are merely complaints until a case is proven. If anything, these data suggest that people call the cops more often on the poor and mentally ill. Despite the authors’ claims of objectivity, the data themselves might be the result of rampant profiling among callers.

Even if these calls did report actual crimes, they do not prove the 132 Northampton Road project in Amherst will be problematic. A non-SRO development is included in the dataset, which is not a comparable model, and even more significantly, the developments in the dataset don’t provide an on-site social worker, as the proposed project would for 20 hours per week.

The authors also present the data in a misleading way. They suggest the number of calls — 2,669 “over several years” and 2.07 to 3.06 “per resident per year” — is high, but they don’t provide any comparisons. What’s the average number of calls per resident per year in other neighborhoods with and without SRO developments? For all we know, the number of calls they cite is typical in every neighborhood.

Data issues aside, my biggest concern about the residents’ letter is their mischaracterization of the project. While SROs can be transient housing for the homeless, 132 Northampton Road will provide permanent housing for 10 formerly homeless individuals. These individuals won’t be strangers in the neighborhood; they’ll be neighbors!

They, just as much as the writers of the letter, will have a stake in the community. Moreover, for all the authors’ focus on mentally ill tenants, only two units are allocated for their use. The 16 remaining units are for tenants earning up to 50 percent and 80 percent of area median income who do not have rental vouchers. Thus, most of the units will be occupied by tenants who weren’t homeless and don’t have severe mental illness; they simply don’t make as much as the neighborhood’s abundant academics.

Valley CDC’s plan may not be perfect, and it’s worth engaging in useful critiques, but what frustrates me is the way the authors of this letter tout their academic credentials and “scientific analyses” as absolution from bias while providing a lopsided analysis of data. The use of these data to advocate for more tenant services isn’t inherently problematic, but the authors tried to obstruct funding for the project without actually proving any flaws in it. Is this group genuinely seeking better housing options for vulnerable Amherst residents or just looking for justifications to move the development away from their homes?

In the end, my goal isn’t to lambaste some academics for what looks like NIMBY-ism. I’d rather take their words at face value and assume they truly care about the success of this development and its tenants. If so, their goal shouldn’t be to defund the project before it even starts; it should be to actively contribute to its success. Get to know the new tenants. If they’re having issues, help them out (instead of calling the cops). Volunteer your time and your money.

In other words, be a neighbor to your neighbors. After all, it’ll be their backyard too.

Colin Weinstein is a student at Amherst College.