NYT: How ‘Not in My Backyard’ became ‘Not in My Neighborhood’

NYT, January 3, 2018: How ‘Not in My Backyard’ became ‘Not in My Neighborhood’

The expectation that homeowners should be able to reach beyond their property lines has become deeply embedded.

The new tax law has raised the possibility that homeownership may be losing some of its privileged status in American society, as the benefits of the mortgage interest and property tax deductions shrink. Those changes could dampen how attractive housing looks as an asset. But it would take much more to alter the belief that owning a home in America today means that you effectively own a neighborhood, too.

The story of how Americans came to peer beyond their own properties is also, inescapably, about race. As urbanization brought blacks and whites closer together, white communities reacted with racially restrictive covenants, aiming to keep blacks and their perceived threat to property values out of white neighborhoods. The Supreme Court ruled such covenants unenforceable in 1948, but they had long-lasting effects on how homeowners looked at the world around them, and the need to control it.

“One of them was to make white people think that the value of their homes depended on living in a segregated community,” said Carol Rose, a law professor at Yale. “That outlived racially restrictive covenants.”

These forces amount to a powerful brew: Our homes have become our wealth. Racial fears linger even if they’ve become encoded in other language. Change invariably looks like a threat. And the universe of threats has broadened from the toxic spill to the garden shadow, from the property next door to the potential development five blocks over.

“We ask home equity to do so much more for us in terms of providing retirement, providing a bridge during drought years, allowing us to have collateral for other kinds of loans,” said Nathan Connolly, a historian at Johns Hopkins University. “Then you add schools and crime into the mix.”

“To the extent that people can control anything,” he said of property values, “they try to control for that.”

No wonder it has become so hard to untangle the benefits of community “ownership” from the rising harms. We want people to be invested in their neighborhoods, but not to the exclusion of anyone else who might live there, too. We want to empower neighbors to fight a trash dump, but not to halt every housing project the region needs.

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