Ginny Hamilton: ‘We don’t get to choose our neighbors’

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Before moving to Amherst, we lived in a tidy residential neighborhood of Boston. Our one-block, one-way street was a mix of single-family homes, duplexes, and triple-decker condos, almost all of which were owner-occupied.

The exception was the shuttered Catholic elementary school on the corner and its accompanying parish house. We were the kind of neighbors who greeted each other from our postage-stamp gardens, and did it up for Halloween. When an early-morning kitchen fire trapped residents on their third-floor porch, neighbors had a ladder in place before the fire department arrived.

During our decade there, Pine Street Inn, the largest homeless shelter and supportive housing provider in Boston, took over management of the parish house. Even after Pine Street Inn developed the property into 26 single-room-occupancy (SRO) units — all for very low income individuals coming out of homelessness and back into permanent housing — neighborhood property values continued to rise.

According to Zillow, our two-bedroom condo is now worth almost twice what we sold it for six years ago, even though it’s across the street from this supportive housing program.

The SRO residents were good neighbors. A multiracial mix of men and women, most kept to themselves. One had no choice but to be more visible, given his use of a wheelchair to get around. Come winter, he and I bonded over the frustrations of snow mounds hindering stroller wheels for me, and so much more for him.

Another resident was more outgoing, starting a dog-walking business. His gentle smile and pack of fluffy charges drew my toddler’s attention and gained his trust and friendship. Good neighbors.

The problem neighbor? The 20-something next door who moved back in with his parents and seemed to be dealing drugs out of their living room. The disruptive neighbors? Those across the fence who blasted “Sweet Caroline” and sang along, drunkenly out of tune, during every Red Sox game.

We don’t get to choose our neighbors, not by law and not by our professed moral code. Laws preventing housing discrimination protect the right of housing choice for people with disabilities, including mental health and substance abuse. Case law supports the integration of congregate living and supportive housing into residential neighborhoods.

Even municipalities and municipal officials have legal obligations to promote integrated housing, particularly municipalities that receive federal community development block grant funds, which Amherst does.

We don’t get to choose who lives next door. Neighbors who start their Harleys at the crack of dawn on Sundays, or who set up the karaoke machine in the backyard, or who own a particularly yappy Chihuahua, may also lend a cup of sugar and take in your mail during vacation.

Neighbors who can’t afford market rents nearby or who may be in recovery may also care for Fido, share tomatoes from their garden, and cheer your morning with friendly conversation.

What if homeowners propose significant structural changes? Yes, we get to have our say. And the neighbors of Valley CDC’s project at 132 Northampton Road will have their say in the zoning process, just as if the new owner of the modest cape next door were proposing a McMansion.

But we don’t get to have a say in who lives there.

Ginny Hamilton worked at the intersection of civil rights and housing for over 12 years, including as the director of public policy for Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless and as the executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston.