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Be Curious My Friend: Opposition to affordable housing questioned

As Lunar New Year enters its second week, I think about the crowds that flood Chinatowns across the country to see the parades, complete with firecrackers and bright colored dragon costumes.

There’s also the usual cluster of tourists that regularly frequent Chinatown to patron its shops and restaurants. Yet all of this joyous activity belies the dark history of Chinatown, that it was originally a ghetto for 19th century Chinese immigrants confined to the outskirts of society because of violent racism and xenophobia.

In America, there continues to exist the fear of the outsider. Most news coverage and political debate today centers on the U.S.-Mexico border, where migrants from Central America have been fleeing from violence and poverty in their home countries.

But in reality, the fear of the outsider centers not just exclusively on foreigners but rather U.S. citizens. I’m referring to the efforts to build badly needed affordable housing in increasingly unaffordable metropolitan areas like San Francisco and Boston.

This time, the language is more couched but no less racist and exclusionary: the need to protect “property values” and preserve the “character of the community.”

And the weapons to enforce these fears are not guns and lynch mobs but rather the bureaucratic tools of civic society: referendums, hearings, historical preservation, studies, reviews, lawsuits. The goal is not physically kill or injury but rather delay, delay, and delay until projects just wither away. Death by a thousand zoning board meetings.

In San Francisco, where everybody talks about the homeless and soaring rents as some unsolvable puzzle, the unfunny joke is that the solution is pretty obvious and always has been: build more affordable housing. But try telling that that to the wealthy and mostly wealthier neighborhoods of the Sunset District or Pacific Heights. Or even the wine guzzling communities north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

In the Greater Boston area, residents of Milton recently voted against a plan to build more affordable housing near T stations as mandated by state law. Reading the quotes of residents who opposed the plan makes me nauseous:

“I want to see a more concrete plan.”

“Physically, there’s not enough room.”

“People who don’t live here, they’re the ones who cause the trouble.”

A group of homeowners recently filed a lawsuit to stop the construction of affordable housing for the homeless in Charlestown.

The plaintiffs argue the Boston Planning and Development Agency violated their First Amendment rights of assembly, speech, and petitioning activity when it “bypassed and waived the public review requirement and failed to allow the assembly of an Impact Advisory Group,” according to the lawsuit.

Whatever helps you sleep at night I suppose. But anybody who says that opposition to affordable housing is not about race is deluding themselves. Who are the homeless? People of color. Who are the poor? People of color. Who suffers the most from drug abuse and mental illness? People of color.

The silver lining in this mess, if there is indeed one, is that the lack of affordable housing is not going to go away.

In the 19th century, there was plenty of space in America so people could afford to confine Chinese immigrants to urban ghettos without batting an eye.

But in today’s America, housing is a problem that affects everyone. File all the lawsuits you want. You might even kill a few. But that still won’t stop people’s basic need for shelter and comfort.

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