My Category Test for Public Comments

A public hearing in Saint Paul’s City Council chamber, fall of 2017.

I’ve spent five years on the Saint Paul Planning Commission, a Mayor-appointed group of people intended to provide a broader perspective on city planning and zoning decisions. Planning Commissions are meant to be a less-political buffer between the public and elected officials, and Commissions have a long history that dates back to the early 20th century urban reform movement. In my time on one, it’s been an interesting experience where I’ve learned a lot about how cities work and met a lot of smart and thoughtful people.

Of course, the most exciting parts of the Commission experience are public hearings. Before a decision or plan approval, we hear from anyone who has an opinion about a particular issue. Like most of the Commissioners, I take these hearings seriously and try hard to pay attention to people’s testimony and letters. Sometimes I agree with people’s statements, and sometimes I don’t, but either way I try to listen respectfully and with an open mind.

This is true even if it’s an issue (like parking policy) about which I’ve already thought a lot about. Just because I don’t agree with a particular perspective doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought about it or aren’t listening. And I find that, in general, even people who disagree about a development or policy proposal have have a lot of shared values.

My Simple Category Test

That said, today I want to share a rule that I’ve developed over the years. For lack of a better name, I call it the Category Test.

Here’s the key question, followed by a couple examples:

Q: How does the public comment look if you change the group of people involved?

Poring over reams of testimony, I usually come across statements that rub me the wrong way. One way I think about them is to use this test.

Here are two recent examples from a site review case that came before the Commission a few months ago. The testimony was about a site plan review for a new apartment building on Marshall Avenue that was going to replace two existing older single-family homes.

Here’s the first one. It’s an excerpt from a letter from the local neighborhood group that voted not to support the development application. This is the second bullet point, which covers why the group suggested balconies not be included as part of the building.

Read it first as written:

 

Ok, now read it again with the category removed:

 

[Also, if you like you can read the entire neighborhood group letter here. Union Park Board Resolution on Marshall & Moore.] 

How does that statement feel if you replace one group of people with another? What happens if you put in a racial or religious category there, instead of “college students”?

Here’s another example, from the same public hearing. In this case, it’s an excerpt from a study submitted as part of the public comment called the Partnership Feasibility Study, put together in 2011 by a consultant for the University of St. Thomas and the West Summit Neighborhood Advisory Committee (WSNAC).

Here’s the highlighted section (the highlighting is not mine, but was submitted to the Zoning Committee like that):

 

And here’s how it reads with the category removed:

 

Again, I ask myself the question: how does that statement feel if you replace one group of people with another? What happens if you put in a racial or religious category there, instead of “non-homestead” or “student rentals”?

This isn’t to say that these claims or comments are incorrect, misguided, racist, or anything like that. In fact, these claims might be factually accurate and may be sound in many ways.

But I still think it’s important to put things in an historical perspective. I try hard to remember that the history of United States housing policy is extremely racist. For example, it used to be commonplace to put into one’s mortgage racially restrictive covenants about who could purchase homes. Similarly, historical claims about impacts of groups of people on property values, or troubling assumptions about behavior, led to huge problems around race and housing.

 

What about protected classes?

One final catch is that the United States legal system has rules about which groups of people are “protected” and which are not. For example, our laws theoretically protect people on the basis of sex, race, religion, national origin, and disability status. There are even protections for people over the age of 40 (age discrimination).

However, as I was told once during a public hearing, being a student or a renter or someone under the age of 40 is not a protected class. Theoretically, it is just fine to enact a policy that discriminates against these groups.

But just because a policy is legal does not make it right. To my mind, one of the big lessons of history is that concepts of protected classes have not always reflected moral or ethical positions. For example, as far as I can tell from a few minutes of scanning legal explainer websites, sexual orientation is still not a protected class, which is why the North Carolina legislature can go ahead and create bathroom laws that discriminate against transgender people.

Just because “students” or “renters” or “St. Thomas attendees” or “the homeless” or [X type of person] are not protected classes, it doesn’t mean I’m comfortable making sweeping generalized statements about those groups. At the very least, I find it helpful to replace the group in question with a group that has been traditionally discriminated against.

 

In Conclusion: A Useful Exercise

There’s a lot to unpack here, and a lot more to say. But I wanted to share this because, as someone tasked with thinking about housing policy, equity, and how to balance competing needs and visions for a city, this is one of the exercises that I find useful when weighing public comment.

In the case of this particular site plan application, these two public comments did not carry much weight for me. The merits of the case seemed clear simply because the application was “by right.” In other words, it did not request any re-zonings, conditional-use permits, or variances. Regardless of whether or not I liked the project, I could not see any pressing reasons to deny the application.

For me, the Category Test is not a litmus test. In many cases, these aren’t black-and-white situations where there’s a clear right and wrong lesson to be drawn. But given how pervasive categorical discrimination has been throughout the history of housing in our country, this is just one of those things that I do in my head when reading through public comments.

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11 Responses to My Category Test for Public Comments

  1. Brian Finstad February 6, 2018 at 10:29 am #

    Regarding “tipping points” of rental vs. “homestead,” I obtained my real estate appraisal license last year and found it interesting that owner occupied properties turning into rental literally is part of the definition of “declining neighborhood” in the appraisal curriculum.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke February 6, 2018 at 10:35 am #

      That’s been one of the troubling guidelines for almost a century.

    • Sean Hayford Oleary
      Sean Hayford Oleary February 6, 2018 at 1:12 pm #

      Is there still a factual basis for this? Was there ever? I don’t want to assume it’s wrong, but it’s hard to assume it’s right.

  2. Alex Schieferdecker
    Alex Schieferdecker February 6, 2018 at 11:42 am #

    I appreciate this article, Bill, and I sometimes think it ought to be taken further. I’m often uncomfortable about the ways we talk about housing as being designated for one group or another.

    The most common example of this is ‘affordable’ housing. You mention ‘student’ housing (that are not dorms). There’s also ‘senior’ housing, ‘workforce’ housing, ‘luxury’ housing, ‘artist’ housing, etc. I completely understand why we use these distinctions, and there are many extremely benign ways to use these terms, while the same cannot be said for something like ‘whites only’ housing.

    But I feel as though these terms have also really played a role in confusing and damaging the public discourse around housing. Affordable housing is just cheaper housing, usually through subsidy. But it can also simply be due to design decisions or location. Luxury housing is just more expensive housing, but a single family home is rarely ever called by the same term, even if the costs are similar. And in a city with an inclusionary zoning regime, ‘affordable’ and ‘luxury’ units may exist in the same building, indistinguishable from the outside.

    By separating housing into discrete categories, we’re making it easier for people, neighborhoods, and cities to make a la carte choices about zoning, land use, and development, and often in a way that triggers your category test. If a building is proposed and the units are entirely dedicated for affordable housing, then the neighborhood can be trusted to automatically make snap judgments about who will live there, and whether or not they want these people in their neighborhood. ‘Senior’ housing, which is often also subsidized and could be called affordable, evokes different reactions. On the flip side, a ‘student’ housing building may rent for the same price per square foot as some ‘luxury’ housing buildings.

    If I had my way, we’d all talk a bit more generically about housing. Instead of branding buildings as for a certain class, we’d talk in terms of unit sizes, price per square foot, and amenities. If we did that, it might be easier for people to conceptualize how increasing the supply of housing, even at the higher end, may relieve pressure on the middle, and then the lower end. Or how a single unit of housing may, over the course of its lifetime, serve people of different means. Or how, as demographic trends reshape family sizes or expectations, housing that was once meant for one group may in turn house another.

    I know that’s a lost cause, but I liked this post because I think that it gets at one of my frustrations with debates about housing, and the issues I have when we make our housing discussion revolve around classifying housing by the intended buyer or renter.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke February 6, 2018 at 12:42 pm #

      The politics of housing would be a lot different people called “single family housing” by the term “luxury housing” instead. Just imagine how conversations would shift…

  3. Amy February 6, 2018 at 12:21 pm #

    Thanks for this article! As a former student renter and a past renter in general, I’m really bothered by comments that lump all renters (student or otherwise) into this motley crew of people that will only bring property values down and bring nuisance behavior into a neighborhood. At one point, I was thinking of joining the neighborhood association where I was living but I didn’t feel welcome as a renter. I agree with Alex’s point about the creation of different categories though I do understand why they are needed in some situations such as affordable housing with subsidy (aka Section 8 in some areas). It seems like there’s not much of a tipping point, though, into NIMBYness when possible renters are discussed in terms of what category they are.

    • Amy February 6, 2018 at 12:38 pm #

      One more question–what’s the deal with the suggested non-opening windows in the new apartment building on Marshall Avenue? Are these windows just within the building or are they meaning windows opening to the outside? Just curious as I know per housing code there has to be at least one open-able window in a sleeping area on the third story or below due to fire code.

      • Sean Hayford Oleary
        Sean Hayford Oleary February 6, 2018 at 1:11 pm #

        I don’t know the building code in detail, but my understanding is that window escape does not need to be facilitated if the building is sprinkled, which I’m certain this one would be. In fact, many sprinkled buildings even include bedrooms with no windows at all.

        (In a single-family house, which almost never has fire sprinklers, the requirement would remain.)

  4. Anton Schieffer
    Anton Schieffer February 6, 2018 at 12:38 pm #

    Good post, Bill. Some people are very intentional about discriminating against new residents no matter who they are. Last year, supportive housing was built near me for people living with HIV. It was pretty upsetting to learn that the local neighborhood org agreed to “support” the project only if certain conditions were adhered to, the primary one being that the new neighbors would not have direct access to the alley (other stipulations included “no balconies”). I’m not sure why someone living with HIV should not be able to use an alley (or enjoy a balcony). But Concerned Neighbors’ obsession with the built form means that this housing is probably not as great as it could have been.

    But I don’t think those who opposed this housing are opposed to people living with HIV. They’d likely feel the same way whether about the building no matter who moved in.

  5. Andy E February 8, 2018 at 10:03 pm #

    I found this article very interesting – but for a slightly different reason. The proposed “Category Test” brought to my mind a different issue – gentrification. I’m curious as to how some public comments against development that would lead to gentrification would read if the category (mainly, richer and whiter people) was changed to a historically disadvantaged group.

    I’m not in anyway arguing that the historical and deeper issues are similar or that our history is not heavily in the favor of some over others. Just wanted to comment that the first thing that came to my mind with this article is that a lot of people across the racial and economic spectrum are almost reflexively against any proposal that threatens to change the “character” of their neighborhood.

  6. Lou Miranda February 18, 2018 at 10:40 am #

    I like your balanced approach, and how it’s not black-and-white.

    It’s also good to consider groups that are not currently protected.

    This will be something I think about for a long time.

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