A fork in the road? My take on the Terwillegar Towne Controversy


When it comes to urbanization in Canada, one mark of maturity is the concentration of poverty and social services within inner city neighborhoods followed by the contentious and always controversial attempt to decentralize low-income populations and social services to inner and outer suburban neighborhoods. Edmonton, Alberta you have finally come of age!

To clarify, I extend this congratulatory note with a good dose of sarcasm – concentrated poverty and social exclusion are nothing to celebrate. But a recent controversy sparked by a proposal to build social housing in a relatively new, upper-middle class, suburban neighborhood strikes me as an important fork in the road and it has left me wondering: what kind of city will Edmonton grow into? An inclusive and compassionate city that makes good on its pledge to end homelessness by 2019? Or will it become a divided city seeking to better fortify the walls that separate the rich from the poor?

The controversy that provoked these questions has revolved around a proposal by Jasper Place Health and Wellness Centre (JPHWC), a nonprofit, Christian social care agency, to build an apartment building with up to 60 units designated for homeless individuals as part of the city’s Housing First program.  JPHWC plans to house a mixture of men, women and families who will pay rents approximately 20% below market value. JPHWC has also planned to support tenants 24 hours a day, seven days a week using support and individual case management teams. They maintain that this facility will not be a transitional housing facility, a homeless shelter, a rehab facility or a mental institution – an important distinction given that the location is zoned for residential development.

It might come as a surprise to some that homelessness and poverty exists in a province overflowing with job opportunities and high wages. Alberta is widely seen as a prosperous province rich in energy and mineral wealth. But Edmonton and many other cities in Alberta have long been grappling with severe shortages of affordable housing, a growing homelessness problem and intransigent poverty.

The Capital Region Housing Corporation, Edmonton’s largest provider of social and affordable housing, states on its own website that there are currently more than 2000 applicants on a wait list for housing or a subsidy. Affordable housing, or more accurately the lack thereof, is a key variable when it comes to levels of homelessness. One year ago, on October 16 2012, 2,174 Edmontonians were found to be homeless, roughly half of whom were dwelling on the street or at an agency. The remaining 1,104 individuals were staying at a shelter[1].

At the time of the 2012 count, the rental apartment vacancy rate in Edmonton was just 1.7% (a vacancy rate below 3% is generally considered bad). The apartment vacancy rate in the downtown core was even lower at 1.3%. Fast-forward one year and conditions have not improved. In fact, they have worsened. This year the apartment vacancy rate declined to 1.2%. The average 1-bedroom now rents for $897/month and the average two-bedroom rents for $1,077/month[2].

This housing market makes life extremely difficult for low-income people. In 2010, approximately 10.8% (122,739 persons) of the 1,136,475 people living in the Edmonton region were counted as low-income using the after-tax ‘low income measure,’ a relative measure of poverty[3]. According to another measure, the ‘low-income cut-off’ (a measure of absolute poverty), the poverty line in Edmonton for a family size of three is $26,950/year. Those families with incomes below this cut-off who are lucky enough to acquire an apartment are more than likely ‘shelter poor’ as a result. After renting the average two-bedroom apartment, a single parent working full-time at a minimum wage job (earning just $1,592/month at $9.95/hour, almost $7,000 below the poverty line), is left with around $500/month (before taxes) to pay for food, clothes, medication and transportation.

The situation is not much better for those unable to work because of major illness or disability. The low-income cut-off for single individuals is $23,298/year. After renting a one-bedroom apartment,  an adult receiving financial assistance through Alberta’s Assisted Income for the Severely Handicap program ($1588/month, roughly $4000 below the poverty line) is left with around $700/month for all other expenses. Hence both the ‘working poor’ and the ‘disabled poor,’ two groups generally counted among the ‘deserving poor,’ are extremely vulnerable when it comes to the essential need of housing.

In this context, the proposal by JPHWC seems to be a reasoned and appropriate response to a systemic housing crisis. So what is the controversy?

The JPHWC proposal is controversial insofar as some residents of the Terwillegar neighborhood, where JPHWC has proposed to build their apartment building, have strongly voiced concerns about the project.  Their concerns consist of alarm regarding the concentration of ‘the homeless’ in one location; fear of  potential ‘high risk’ tenants; uncertainty regarding adverse impacts to property values; and dissatisfaction with the communication of information about the project. Despite several town hall meetings organized by JPHWC to consult with the Terwillegar community about the project, concerns among residents have evolved into outright opposition. Earlier this month, on Oct 1, the Terwillegar Homeowners Association voted to hire legal representation and invest $35,000 to fight to stop the housing project.

At first glance, this appears as a classic case of the ‘not-in-my-backyard’ (NIMBY) syndrome. NIMBY is a catchphrase used to describe the attitudes and tactics adopted by local community groups fighting unwanted developments in their neighborhood. In common usage, NIMBY is a pejorative term insofar as it functions as a label for selfish and reactionary attitudes held by residents who want to protect their turf. There has been a substantial amount of research on community opposition to locally-unwanted land uses, the bulk of which has tried to gain a better understanding of this ‘turf politics’ phenomenon beyond its stereotypical portrayal of self-interested behavior.

Going back to the early 1980s, a good deal of this research has been done by geographers such as Martin Taylor, Michael Dear, Jennifer Wolch, Lois Takahashi, Robert Wilton, Brendan Gleeson, and Deborah Martin[4]. Their interest in community opposition emerged out of concern regarding the spatial concentration of services for the poor and homeless in low-quality, inner city neighborhoods, what has come to be labeled the ‘service-dependent ghetto.’ One of the factors contributing to the over-concentration of service-dependent populations in the inner city has been suburban exclusivity maintained through vehement community opposition against any attempts to move existing or new facilities to inner and outer suburban neighborhoods.

A number of insights regarding community opposition to homeless services have emerged from this research. For example, Michael Dear, Jennifer Wolch and Robert Wilton[5] identify a number of patterns commonly shared by so-called NIMBY cases. For instance, they tend to be cyclical in nature consisting of periods of intense disputes followed by periods of relative calm. They often display their own internal rhythm progressing from an organization of small private groups consisting of those directly affected to more organized formal groups who move debates into public forums and mobilize more ‘objective’ arguments on behalf of the broader community. These arguments often follow a similar script focusing primarily on threats to property values, followed by concerns about personal safety and declines in neighborhood quality of life. It is not uncommon for opposition groups to frame their opposition in compassionate terms by stressing the inappropriateness of the proposed site with regard to clients’ needs. As far as tactics are concerned opposition groups generally direct their efforts towards legal mechanisms such as municipal by-laws and zoning rules.

When it comes to predicting if and where oppositional groups form and who joins them the above authors point out three prevailing factors: geographic proximity, social composition and affluence. First, households closest to proposed facilities are most likely to oppose them. Opposition tends to diminish with distance. Second, the social and physical characteristics of the community play a role. Neighborhood homogeneity, in terms of income, education and ethnicity, as well as physical characteristics such as housing types and land use, can be telling when it comes to the acceptance or rejection of a facility. Suburban neighborhoods, consisting largely of detached, single-family homes and low densities, tend to be more socially and physically homogenous than mixed, higher density inner city neighborhoods. They also tend to be the habitat of the typical NIMBYists: high income, well educated, professional, married, homeowners.

It is interesting to contrast this theoretical profile of the ‘exclusive suburban neighborhood’ with Terwillegar. A quick glance at the 2011 National Household Survey provides some social and economic statistics[6],[7]. At approximately 20,000 people, Terwillegar is one of Edmonton’s larger and fastest growing neighborhoods. Between 2006 and 2011 the population of Terwillegar increased 188%. Terwillegar is relatively young in terms of its demographics. The median age of the population is 32, as compared to 36.5 in Edmonton as a whole. In Terwillegar, 23% of the population is below the age of 14 whereas in Edmonton 18% of the population is below the age of 14. Terwillegar is by and large a neighborhood of families. Of the 6,775 private households in Terwillegar, 76% (5,165) were reported as family households (a married couple with or without children, or a couple living common-law with or without children, or a lone parent living with one or more children).

Terwillegar is also wealthier than the average Edmonton neighborhood. The average individual income is $66,516 and the average household income is $134,066 (before tax), well above Edmonton’s average individual income of $46,571 and household income of $97,454. In fact, 56% of households earned more than $100,000 before taxes in 2010. Moreover, Terwillegar families are more affluent by Canadian standards; 74% of family incomes were in the top half of the Canadian distribution of incomes (28% are in the top decile).

A vast majority of Terwillegar residents own their homes but for a substantial number their shelter costs account for a significant proportion of their living expenses. Of the 6,750 private households in Terwillegar, 81% have a mortgage and 22% spend more than 30% household income on shelter costs (30% is the CMHC threshold for housing affordability stress). By contrast, in Edmonton, of the 446,670 private households 61% have a mortgage and 18% of owner households spend more than 30% on shelter costs. Terwillegar homes are valued, on average, at $439,945, above the average valuation of homes in Edmonton $394,904.

While suburban and relatively affluent, Terwillegar is not your stereotypical uniform, low-density neighborhood. Terwillegar encompasses a mix of detached and row housing as well as apartment buildings. Of the 6,770 households who occupied private dwellings in Terwillegar, 62% (4,230) occupied single-detached dwellings and 16% (1,095) occupied apartment buildings.  By contrast, in Edmonton, of the 450,785 households that occupied private dwellings, 59% (264,295) occupied single-detached dwellings and 25% (110,550) occupied apartment buildings.  Moreover, Terwillegar is diverse. The total visible minority population is 43% (8,075). By contrast, in Edmonton, visible minorities account for 22% (254,990) of the population.

Given what we know from research on community opposition to human service facilities perhaps we should not be surprised that the JPHWC project has not been welcomed with open arms. Terwillegar is, generally speaking, a neighborhood of upper-middle class, well-educated, young families, most burdened by mortgages, and hence presumably sensitive to property value changes and quality of life issues.  According to the literature the homeless and the services that serve them are more-often-then-not seen as ‘out of place’ in neighborhoods such as Terwillegar. But this deduction is incomplete for it begs the question why? What is it about ‘the homeless’ that is so incompatible with suburban neighborhoods such as Terwillegar? Why the alarm and fear regarding the re-location of ‘the homeless’ to Terwillegar? What lies behind the presumption that the project will adversely impact property values?  Why is this project viewed as a threat to community life?

When one dwells on these questions it becomes clear that community responses, such as the one in Terwillegar, are more complex than the NIMBY concept makes them out to be. They reflect widely held public attitudes that manifest as negative perceptions of ‘the homeless’ and the places that serve them. More specifically, they reflect the social stigmatization of the homeless as an ‘outsider’ group.

Fifteen years ago, Lois Takahashi published a seminal book on the process of social stigmatization and its relationship to community acceptance of the homeless and the facilities that serve them[8]. In it, Takahashi argues that the process of stigmatization plays an important role in community opposition insofar as it functions to distinguish between the acceptable and the unacceptable. A ‘stigma’ is a tainted or spoiled identity by which a person is devalued in society. In the case of homelessness, Takahashi identifies three dimensions by which people who lack housing are stigmatized: productivity, dangerousness and personal culpability.  First, homeless people are generally seen as unproductive in the sense that they are assumed not to participate in paid employment or ‘normal’ consumption activities. Second, homeless people are generally seen as dangerous because of their association with mental illness and substance abuse, conditions which are themselves extremely stigmatized, as well as criminal activity. Third, homeless people are generally seen as blameworthy and responsible for their circumstances. In this sense, homelessness is commonly associated with personal weakness, deficiency or failure.  Together, these perceived traits directly contravene the normative profile of a valued and accepted community member, someone who productively contributes to society through their participation in paid employment, is of right mind and law-abiding, is capable of self-control and personal responsibility. The greater the perception that a person or group is unproductive, dangerous and culpable, homeless or otherwise, the more likely they will be debased and rejected.

Takahashi goes one step further to suggest that places can inherit the stigma associated with homeless people. This process applies to any stigmatized group, be it in terms of class, race or religion. In the case of homelessness, the concentration of homeless service facilities in particular neighborhoods is seen to spoil or taint those same neighborhoods in the collective imagination of the city. They too come to be seen as unproductive, dangerous, and culpable in terms of their circumstances. So-called ‘inner-city’ or ‘skid row’ neighborhoods exemplify this process, what Takahashi calls ‘socio-spatial’ stigmatization. Importantly, Takahashi points out a self-reinforcing cycle: as suburban communities block homeless service facilities because of the perceived threat of inheriting the social stigma of their clientele, and such facilities are further concentrated in already stigmatized inner city neighborhoods, the perceived danger and feelings of fear among suburban residents are intensified.

It possible to further unpack this process of socio-spatial stigmatization and boundary-maintenance using psychoanalytic theory[9]; but for the time being it is more productive to draw attention to the process sketched above as one driver of the always present and powerful geographies of exclusion that shape urban society.  In the example examined here, suburban exclusivity risks further concentrating housing options for economically and socially marginalized Edmontonians in inner city neighborhoods, aggravating the social stigmatization of low-income and homeless people in the process. As a result, the maintenance of these geographies of spatial exclusion serves to reproduce unhealthy social boundaries in the city.

Consequently, one possible reading of this particular case is that Terwillegar was predisposed to objections given its social and spatial context and the widespread social stigma of homeless people. This may seem convincing enough, but to end here risks missing what I consider the most critical aspect of this controversy.  While the function of stigma is clear in the reading offered above, we should not accept the content of this stigma as itself unproblematic, for the stigma of homelessness rests in a fundamental misrecognition of ‘homeless people.’

By this I mean that there is a cultural propensity to misrecognize homelessness in terms of flaws and failures of persons rather than as a social condition[10]. The fact that the most vulnerable in society are inadequately housed is not due to poor choices and weak character, it is an outcome of a housing system driven by profit rather than need, an economy that cannot provide a living wage to everyone, and political choices to reduce, restructure, and dismantle the social safety net and other redistributive policies.  The implication of this misrecognition for cases such as the one examined here is that concerned residents mistake cause for effect. They mistake personal disorder as the cause of homelessness rather than the effect of social, cultural and economic oppression. In doing so they disassociate and distance themselves from the underlying conditions producing the problem.

Yet, a fundamental question remains: what is to be done? In the case of JPHWC’s Terwillegar project what is the correct urban policy decision? To agree on an answer we must first achieve consensus on how to define ‘correct.’ Some might argue that the correct decision is one that is democratic and open in terms of its process. Others might argue that the correct decision should be judged in terms of its outcomes, its distribution of benefits and costs. Ideally, one should aim to achieve consensus in both areas.

Process issues have featured prominently among the concerns of Terwillegar residents. Dissatisfaction with the communication of information about the project has been openly expressed, even suspicion that the project is being ‘pushed’ undemocratically on the community. A common opinion expressed by residents and others who have weighed in on the issue is that the whole controversy could have been avoided if the City of Edmonton and JPHWC had properly consulted with the community. But if we return to the central point made above, that the stigma of homelessness rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of homelessness and misrecognition of low-income people as ‘unproductive,’ ‘dangerous’ and ‘culpable,’ then it follows that the duty to consult, as well as calls for more of it, simply reinforces the stigma of homelessness by affirming the outsider status of homeless people. Grievances around consultation take for granted the social constructedness of homeless people. It is therefore difficult to disentangle process issues from the identity politics of homelessness.

Consequently it is ‘distribution’ that should be selected as the primary reference point for evaluating the correct decision. Here I am following the lead of urban theorists such as Susan Fainstein[11] who argues that in urban policy decisions, especially those involving housing, issues of distribution should take precedence over issues of process; moreover, equity (fairness) should be the standard by which urban policy decisions are judged as good or bad. To define equity, Fainstein applies John Rawls’ criterion of justice[12], a central component of which asserts that any inequality in the distribution of primary goods (for example, housing) should be to the benefit of the least advantaged member of society. This is not a utilitarian criterion that seeks to maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Rather then trying to maximize the ratio of overall benefits to costs, the correct decision is one that does not disadvantage those who have less or are worse off, in terms of material benefits, and does not favor those who are already better off.

Applying this understanding of equity is instructive in the Terwillegar case.  The correct urban policy decision is one that does not favor those who are already better off and does not disadvantage those who are worse off. In terms of material benefits, there are obvious disparities between Terwillegar residents and low-income Edmontonians who lack housing. Considering the chronic shortage of affordable housing and the structural poverty outlined earlier, blocking the addition of affordable housing would clearly disadvantage the worse off, irrespective of any perceived impacts to property values or quality of life in the Terwillegar neighborhood because, quite simply, they still have homes.

So, what kind of city will Edmonton grow into?

[1] Edmonton Homeward Trust. 2012. Edmonton Homeless Count. Edmonton, AB: Edmonton Homeward Trust. Retrieved Oct 26, 2013 http://www.homewardtrust.ca/images/resources/2013-01-22-11-53FINAL%20%202012%20Homeless%20Count.pdf

[2] Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. 2012. Rental Market Repot: Edmonton CMA. Ottawa, ON: CMHC Retrieved Oct 26, 2013 http://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/odpub/esub/64379/64379_2012_A01.pdf?fr=1382031482803

[3] Statistics Canada. 2013. NHS Focus on Geography Series – Edmonton. Ottawa, ON: Statistics Canada Retrieved Oct 26, 2013 http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/fogs-spg/Pages/FOG.cfm?lang=E&level=3&GeoCode=835

[4] See Dear, M. and Taylor, M. 1982. Not on Our Street: Community Attitudes Towards Mental Health Care. London: Pion; Dear, M. and Gleeson, B. 1991. Community attitudes towards the homeless. Urban Geography, 12(2): 155-176; Wolch, J. and Dear, M. 1993. Malign Neglect: Homelessness in an American City. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers; Dear, M. Wolch, J. and Wilton, R. 1994. The Service Hub Concept. Progress in Planning, 42: 173-271; Takahashi, L. 1997. Information and attitudes toward mental health care facilities: Implications for addressing the NIMBY syndrome. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 17: 119-130; Wilton, R. 2000. Grounding hierarchies of acceptance: the social construction of disability in NIMBY conflicts. Urban Geography, 21(7): 586-608; Wilton, R. 2002. Colouring special needs: Locating whiteness in NIMBY conflicts. Social & Cultural Geography, 3(3): 303-321; Martin, D. 2013. Up against the law: Legal structuring of political opportunities in neighborhood opposition to group home siting in Massachusetts. Urban Geography, 34(4): 523-540

[5] Dear, M. Wolch, J. and Wilton, R. 1994. The Service Hub Concept. Progress in Planning, 42: 173-271

[6] Statistics Canada. 2013. 0104.24, Alberta (Code 4686) (table). National Household Survey (NHS) Profile. 2011 National Household Survey. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 99-004-XWE. Ottawa. Released September 11, 2013.http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/dp-pd/prof/index.cfm?Lang=E
(accessed October 17, 2013).

[7] Statistics Canada. 2012. 8350104.24, Alberta (Code 8350104.24) and Edmonton, Alberta (Code 835) (table). Census Profile. 2011 Census. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-316-XWE. Ottawa. Released October 24, 2012. http://www12.statcan.gc.ca/census-recensement/2011/dp-pd/prof/index.cfm?Lang=E
(accessed October 17, 2013).

[8] Takahashi, L. 1998. Homelessness, AIDS, and Stigmatization: The NIMBY Syndrome at the End of the Twentieth Century. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

[9] Sibley, D. Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West. New York: Routledge

[10] See Feldman, L. 2004. Citizens Without Shelter: Homelessness, Democracy and Political Exclusion. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

[11] Fainstein, S. 2010. The Just City. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press

[12] Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice. 2nd Edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

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