KICKING THE HABITATSOUTH PHOENIX HOMEOWNERS RESIST LOW-INCOME HOUSING DEVELOPMENT
It isn't unusual to see upscale Phoenix neighborhoods fighting tooth and nail to prevent the slightest encroachment of the poorer masses on their suburban turf. Many local homeowners' associations have been created expressly to stand astride the path of blight, trumpeting the well-worn battle cry--Not in My Backyard!"
The latest adherents to the NIMBY doctrine are Otis Jackson and Jessica Sanchez, a husband-and-wife team who have formed a loose-knit group of residents that virulently opposes construction of a 192-unit, low-income housing development on a 36-acre lot near 16th Street and Southern Avenue.
"We don't need the kind of trouble that kind of development will bring," Jackson says. "We don't need these people in our neighborhood, bringing their crime and their drugs."
Just another day in the rhetorical trenches of the class war, right?
Wrong. This is the class civil war--a conflict not between wealthy homeowners, hiding behind walled estates, and the impoverished and homeless, but one that is pitting poor against poor in one of the most poverty-stricken areas of South Phoenix.
The battle began when Bank One--stung by 1992 revelations that detailed its poor record on providing loans to minorities--decided to shore up its public image as a good corporate citizen by donating the 36-acre parcel to Habitat for Humanity.
The nonprofit Habitat, which bills itself as a "Christian housing ministry," erects neat--if boxy and bland--little homes, using mostly volunteer labor. The houses are then sold "at cost" to the poor for about $45,000.
Wink Dickey, the director of the local Habitat office, explains that the idea is to promote "pride in ownership."
"When people live in public housing, they tend to not take care of it and let it get run down, because it doesn't belong to them," he says. "But with a Habitat home, it is theirs forever. They feel proud of it, maintain it, and often gain a new sense of responsibility."
The program, which has been touted as a "Point of Light" and praised by Mother Teresa, seems to have no downside. More than 30,000 of the houses have been built nationwide, giving shelter and stability to those who might otherwise never be able to own a home.
One would think a development of 192 new, tidy little homes would be welcomed with open arms by residents of the bleak urban landscape of South Phoenix. Not so, say Jackson and Sanchez.
"South Phoenix has always had a dark cloud around it," Jackson says. "It is an area famous for crime, drugs and blight. It's taboo to come here. Another low-income development will just bring more of the same."
He points out that not only do "poor people generally bring more crime and drug abuse," but that the schools in the area are already woefully underfunded and overloaded with students.
"Who is going to pay to educate all the [Habitat residents'] kids?" Jackson asks. "The new houses won't generate high enough property taxes to provide their fair share of the cost."
In addition, Sanchez says, there are no guarantees that the lawns of the new Habitat neighborhood will be maintained, making it likely that they will go to seed like most front yards in the area.
"Our property values will drop like a rock with more ill-kempt houses in the area," she complains.
"Let em build this in Glendale, or Mesa, or Scottsdale, even. Why does South Phoenix have to have a monopoly on the poor? This just isn't the kind of development we need."
The kind of development South Phoenix does need, the couple says, is more houses like their own. Jackson and Sanchez have escaped from the poverty that pervades South Phoenix by moving into a small subdivision of new, comparatively opulent tract houses--valued at more than $60,000--built by Elliot Homes. It is a suburban oasis surrounded by a desert of decay, and lies adjacent to the Habitat site.
Jackson, a retired department-store salesman, has a vision of a gentrified South Phoenix, with more Elliot-type developments housing yuppies and moderately well-off retirees like himself--and with far fewer "slums," which is what he predicts the Habitat development will become.
Jackson and Sanchez, who describe themselves as "poor folks," are sensitive to the criticism that, having achieved a measure of material success themselves, they are now trying to freeze out others who want a chance at the American dream. The irony of their position, further highlighted by the fact that Jackson himself resided in low-income housing several years ago in his home state of Indiana, is not lost on them.
"We're not against poor people, we are poor people ourselves," Jackson says. "We just think that the money for this development would be better spent on fixing up run-down homes in the area, rather than building a whole new ghetto.
"The fact that I've lived in places like [Habitat] just confirms my belief that they are no good for people and no good for the neighborhood."
Jackson and Sanchez have attracted quite a following, drawing 170 people to a recent neighborhood meeting and gathering 500 signatures on petitions aimed at stopping the Habitat development.
Since those efforts have failed to deter Habitat from breaking ground and putting in initial infrastructure, project foes are now pledging to picket the construction site when the walls begin to rise this summer.
Although Dickey has met with groups of the disgruntled residents to stress the merits of the Habitat project, he has made little progress.
"But the project is going forward anyway," he says, "and I will attempt to continue to answer community concerns."
For instance, Dickey says residents can be assured that the yards of Habitat homes will be properly kept up and that maintenance rules will be strictly enforced by a Habitat homeowners' association.
In addition, Habitat doesn't let just anyone move into its homes. Prospective residents go through a screening process, and must prove they are able to make monthly payments on the property. Habitat reserves the right to reject tenants, and tends to favor young families with aspirations to better their lot in the world.
But such assurances don't seem to mollify Jackson or Sanchez, perhaps because there is more to their opposition to the Habitat development than concern over property values and mowed lawns. They are against the on-the-cheap homes because the concept, well . . . just galls them.
"We worked hard to get what little we have," Sanchez says. "We struggled and saved money. Why should someone come along and get something for nothing? Life doesn't work that way, and people need to learn that lesson."
"That's right," nods Jackson. "Ain't nobody ever given me anything. I've worked for it.
"And if those people want the right to live in my neighborhood," Jackson says, "they have to earn it, just like I did.