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The civic obligation to understand our neighbours

Controversy over low-income housing in Rosedale points to a larger problem

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When you hear of a wealthy neighbourhood trying to keep out affordable housing, what’s your first response?

Anger? Frustration? Judgment? Empathy?

For me, it’s usually a combination of the first three, and not so much the fourth. But a degree of empathy is important even here.

This has come up again in recent weeks, with news of Rosedale residents opposing a city plan to develop eight narrow lots in that neighbhourhood as affordable housing.

It seems mean-spirited. It’s easy to quickly ascribe all kind of nasty attributes and labels to people who oppose this project, writing them off as NIMBYists who only care for their own interests and wellbeing.

And there may be some truth in such labels. In Rosedale, concerns have been raised over “the possible class of people that would be renting these affordable housing units.” It’s symptomatic of an ugly classism.

Even so, it’s too easy to apply such a judgment to an entire community. Labels are only so useful. They inevitably oversimplify the complexity of people.

They divide people into camps: the right group (which we always happen to belong to, of course), and the wrong one.

What underlies opposition to affordable housing? Fear usually plays a role. Not just the spreading of fear, but the experience of it — rational or not.

If we take time to consider that, it’s something that perhaps we can all relate to.

City life is a constant negotiation, in close quarters, with people who bother us, think differently than us and make us uncomfortable.

A natural response is to hunker down with our own people, the ones we’re comfortable and feel safe with.

There’s a place for this. We all need to carve out our own space in the city. We need boundaries.

But we also have an civic obligation to make space for each other. Ours are not the only needs.

Somehow we need to remain open to our neighbours, and not just the ones next door.

This tension, which everyone in the city experiences in one way or another, has the potential to be transformative. But it requires inner work.

What's my posture toward people outside my own intimate group? Am I afraid? Of what? Why?

Go down this path and you can no longer demonize “those people,” whether they're privileged homeowners or those on an affordable housing waitlist.

Now you’re better able to empathize with them as people, not labels and caricatures.

In all areas, it’s important to see beyond dualities. Beyond homeowner/renter, driver/cyclist, suburban/inner-city, black/white.

Looking through a dualistic lens keeps us from empathy, further entrenching us in our own group—the one that does and sees things the “right” way.

It’s easy to be smug and derisive toward those who resist urban change, but it’s ultimately counterproductive.

Our energy is better spent seeking to understand each other.

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