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Zakir Jamal Suleman near Commercial Drive and East Broadway, where a redevelopment has been proposed for the Safeway grocery store site, in Vancouver, on Jan. 29.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

In the housing world, there might not be as politically charged a term as NIMBY, the acronym for “not in my backyard.”

The term has become the go-to for people who advocate for more housing supply as a way to address the affordability crisis, and who believe resident opposition is thwarting the process. Others believe it sows the seeds of division, a counterproductive attempt to silence one side of a crucial debate. There’s also a concerning air of ageism in the word, an acceptance that it’s okay to blame people of boomer age for the affordability crisis.

“There seems to be a universal scapegoating of baby boomer homeowners going on, here and elsewhere – scapegoating them for what is clearly a problem of the global financialization of housing,” says Patrick Condon, University of B.C. professor of urban design. “This exact same thing is happening everywhere in the world on the same time cycle. This is a worldwide crisis and thus has very little to do with what the grey hairs in our own little Point Grey or Dunbar do or don’t do.”

Arny Wise, urban planner and retired developer, takes issue with wealthy property owners who’ve formed organizations and successfully shut down projects that might impact their property values.

“NIMBY associations have become the worst kind of complainers,” he said in an e-mail. “Concerned about safety, density and immigration, with only a selfish, self-interested focus to protect their own property values.

“Neighbourhood associations have fossilized from their bottom-up progressive liberal ideals of democracy, into their new top-down right-wing conservative dogmas, opposing change of any kind, in order to protect what they have.”

A special advisory panel on housing appears to share a similarly negative view, that the NIMBY is self-involved and out of touch. As the panel’s government-funded “Opening Doors” paper puts it, these “white, older, more educated” homeowners had been in their homes for longer and “hold different policy priorities than the general population.”

In the 2021 report, a funding collaboration between the federal government and the province, there is a page devoted to NIMBYism, which says that both renters and homeowners “stand to benefit” from an increased supply of housing. It says the problem is neighbourhood opposition, particularly from homeowners.

The authors of the report give volunteer neighbourhood groups special mention:

“… There are invariably vocal groups of residents – particularly neighbourhood associations – that can make it politically difficult for local governments to implement such changes.”

University of B.C. graduate student Zakir Jamal Suleman was surprised to see the comments.

Mr. Suleman, 28, grew up in the Commercial Drive neighbourhood and lives there with his parents. He has joined many community groups in the past decade, so he falls into the NIMBY camp.

“I’m not white or older. I don’t own a home. I used to be the vice-president of Grandview Woodland Area Council. So I resent that,” Mr. Suleman says of the report’s categorization.

He says he knows self-interested NIMBYs exist, but he also knows older white people who are desperately trying to find secure housing on limited incomes.

“I think that’s an incredibly prejudiced thing to say.”

And he also took issue with the report where it states: “A growing number of homes available for purchase or rent will reduce the upward pressure on prices and give renters and buyers more options.”

The statement is made without the support of data, he said.

“That’s actually an active debate being stated as fact, and a bit concerning in a government document. It’s concerning it’s being brought up in such a clearly ideological way.”

Mr. Suleman became active in the community when he was a teenager and heard about development being proposed at a local Safeway site. The transit-oriented proposal for the site at East Broadway and Commercial Drive is for three residential towers, 24 to 29 storeys above retail, including a bigger Safeway store.

Mr. Suleman wants to stay in the neighbourhood where he’s lived his whole life, but he doesn’t believe he will ever be able to afford to purchase a home. Because he is opposed to the current iteration of the Safeway site development plan, he would be called a NIMBY, he says. So, too, are the people who care about denser housing types that aren’t towers, or non-market rental rather than market-rate housing, he says.

“Anybody who questions the paradigm of whether we should keep building in order to bring down the cost can get labelled with this. So I’m a young person, I care about my neighbourhood and my community. I see people who are not as able to participate in organizing who are going to get bulldozed by this thing and get moved out of a place they’ve lived their whole life.

“I have two options. I can either engage in the process put forward by the city, or oppose it and be called a NIMBY. And really, what’s being done there is a disregarding of people’s opinions … a way to disregard actually listening to people whose neighbourhoods they want to build in.

“Really, what you are saying when you label somebody a NIMBY is, ‘I am not going to listen to you; I don’t have to listen to you.’”

Former city planning director, planning consultant and instructor Larry Beasley says he never uses the word NIMBY and discourages his University of B.C. students from using it.

“I do this for the simple reason that it is a way to discount people’s opinions in a disrespectful way … the use of the word puts people off before one even begins a discussion.”

One of the most famous examples of Vancouver citizen activism is in the late 1960s, when the residents of Chinatown fought against a freeway, several lanes wide, that was to go through their low-income neighbourhood. They fought long and hard against what was then perceived as progress, and they won.

Shirley Chan’s family lived in Chinatown and she spent many years of her youth petitioning against the project. Ms. Chan wouldn’t call their fight an act of NIMBYism because the plan was to wipe out an entire neighbourhood. She thinks of a NIMBY as someone who would oppose a group home for teens, for example. But she says the term is pejorative, and not useful for broader discussions.

“We don’t work with neighbourhoods to address the sticking points. It’s easy when everybody agrees. When you have conflict, it takes awhile for everybody to understand how they might come to an agreement. That’s the problem – the failure of the city processes today to really address differences in perspectives, and differences in impacts and outcomes.”

The Grandview Woodland Area Council (GWAC) formed as a response to the Chinatown freeway fight, says the non-profit group’s president, Craig Ollenberger.

“They stopped a freeway in the sixties. Can you believe that? And the thing is, it was a bunch of NIMBYs who wanted their neighbourhood to stay, fighting the current dogma, and now it’s lauded as maybe the best decision made for the city,” he says.

Mr. Suleman and Mr. Ollenberger are not concerned about the height of the towers planned for the Safeway site. They are more concerned about gentrification and a revised proposal that they feel excludes the community.

“Often the voices that get lost are the folks who don’t have money and racialized groups trying to live there,” Mr. Ollenberger says. “Our neighbourhood, Grandview-Woodland, is historically low income, and those are the people facing the sharpest end of the sword. They don’t need luxury condos built so people can buy investment properties.”

Like Mr. Suleman, he is opposed to the new plan for the tower project because of a lack of public amenities. He understands towers are part of the deal, but it could have become a focal point for the neighbourhood, he says.

Mr. Suleman said he would be on board with a 60-storey tower if it were all non-market, truly affordable rental. He just wants to be fairly heard, and not called names, or conveniently categorized by those who don’t share his views.

“If you actually believe in community – and it isn’t a marketing or branding term for your building – then you are going to need to listen.”

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