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Question 170: May homeowners oppose rezoning to allow nearby lower-cost housing?

When we bought our home in the suburbs four years ago, the county’s master plan for the area extending more than half a mile in every direction from our house required single-family homes on lots at least 75 by 160 feet. Most of the area has been developed accordingly. However, the plan was amended just after we moved in to allow a commercial strip a little over a third of a mile east of us, and the land between that strip and the street that intersects ours, just five houses away, has remained undeveloped. Now that land’s prospective developer is asking for a zoning variance to allow narrower blocks and much denser housing: six-unit sets of small town houses along the streets near us and solid rows of three-story apartment buildings along those ending at the commercial strip. The town houses would sell for about two-thirds the value of our house, and the apartments would rent with subsidies for low-income families.

If the rezoning is approved, the would-be developer would reap far more profit than under the present requirements; he claims the rezoning is necessary to allow a reasonable profit, since the development will require more grading than other parcels in the area. He has gained the support of several regional employers, who hope the availability of cheaper housing will attract applicants for lower paying jobs. They argue that their contribution to the local economy entitles them to the county’s cooperation. The rezoning also has the well-financed backing of a local group called “The Affordable Housing Alliance,” whose president, Aarona Zyx, also is the chair of our parish’s justice and peace group. Mrs. Zyx and most of the others active in the AHA live in an enclave west of us, lying between a lake and a public park; it is fully developed with single-family homes worth three to six times as much as ours.

Just about everyone in our neighborhood civic association opposes the rezoning. The denser, lower-cost housing not only will result in a larger population, making the area more crowded and busier, but will create an economically poorer neighborhood, with all the usual problems. That will reduce our properties’ value, because most buyers prefer a neighborhood without nearby lower-cost housing. The rezoning also will mean a tax increase. The new development will not enlarge the tax base enough to pay for the new schoolrooms and additional county services its residents will require.

I think these concerns are reasonable. My husband and I chose to live here to raise our children outside the troubled urban environment. We work hard and limit our other spending to meet our house payments, which go up when taxes increase. We relied on the county’s master plan when we decided to buy, and I regard it as a promise that should be kept.

The AHA maintains that all new developments should help bring about neighborhoods with greater socioeconomic diversity, and Mrs. Zyx dismisses our concerns as selfishness. She argues that leaving people who cannot afford a single-family house living in a “ghetto of run-down housing” is unfair to them and divisive for the community. Apparently referring to our neighborhood, she says: “With homogeneous neighborhoods, diverse people, denied the opportunity to become good neighbors, go on fearing and hating one another.” Developing the regional employers’ view, she claims denying the rezoning would be unfair to those who would come to work and live here if there were affordable housing. Finally, she maintains that talk about the troubled urban environment and the problems of poorer neighborhoods is “nothing but a cryptic appeal to racial prejudice.” Speaking as chair of the parish’s justice and peace group, Mrs. Zyx also has said that the AHA’s view agrees with the gospel and Catholic social teaching, while our neighborhood civic association’s position is in conflict with them.

What do you think? I realize I am not impartial, and I am open to correction. But I am not impressed with Mrs. Zyx’s arguments and find her comments about racial prejudice annoying. By contrast with her solidly white neighborhood, ours is racially integrated, with over four percent African-Americans and nearly as many Asian-Americans, sprinkled fairly evenly among the whites, and all of us getting along very well together.


This question calls for the application of norms of social justice and for judgment by the Golden Rule. A reasonable judgment on the matter can only be made by considering all the facts and competing interests from the points of view of all those concerned, not least the people who would occupy the new housing. The community has a serious responsibility to help meet the need of less affluent families for affordable housing. God gave humankind the land, like other created goods, for everyone’s use, and the poor deserve others’ special consideration. Then too, everyone should seek to establish and build up communion among people of diverse gifts and potentialities. Moreover, Christians should be not only fair but merciful, and so, when other responsibilities permit, should subordinate their own legitimate interests to those of others. Still, these general norms do not clearly entail that the questioner and other members of the neighborhood civic association should support the proposed rezoning. Some compromise might well be fair.

The reply could be along the following lines:

I understand and sympathize with your concerns about the possible adverse effects of the proposed development on your family’s interests. In view of those legitimate concerns, your readiness to entertain another, disinterested view of the problem is commendable. I hope my reflections will help you form your conscience in accord with your faith, as you plainly desire to do.

The moral issue on which proponents and opponents of the proposed rezoning disagree is whether proceeding with the planned development would be fair to all concerned. One cannot reasonably judge about that without considering all the facts and competing interests from the points of view of all the concerned parties.

Arguments on both sides involve questionable factual claims that should be examined critically and, if possible, made more precise. Additional information probably would establish or rebut some claims; others are more or less plausible, but hardly open to definitive proof or disproof.

The claim of the potential developer that the rezoning is necessary to allow a reasonable profit hardly deserves consideration if he gambled on rezoning in obtaining the land. His claim also can be tested by determining the prospective margin of profit likely to be realized in this way and comparing it with the margin realized by other developers in the area. The employers’ claim that lower-cost housing is needed so that they can attract an adequate number of applicants for lower-paying jobs can be tested by investigating the availability of unemployed people who already live in the area or could commute from surrounding communities.

Your claim that the increased population will result in excessive crowding is vague. Exactly what burdens would be placed on present residents in their use of various facilities? The claim that the new, less affluent neighborhood will have “all the usual problems” of economically poorer neighborhoods also is vague and will be fallacious unless the comparison is with closely similar neighborhoods. Try to identify serious problems that regularly occur in new, suburban neighborhoods as comparable as possible in density and other respects with the one to be created by the proposed development. Evidence also is required that the proposed development will reduce the value of current residents’ properties, and showing the probable extent and persistence of that loss. Similarly, the claim that your taxes will go up should be tested by analyzing the costs and revenues the development will generate, not only in the short term, but over an extended period. Finally, your claim that the county’s master plan is a promise that should be kept is questionable. I doubt that the county gave assurances that it would neither amend the plan nor make exceptions. If not, in what ways and to what extent did its presentation of the plan warrant your reliance on its remaining unchanged?

Mrs. Zyx’s assumption that denying the rezoning will leave people who cannot afford single-family homes dwelling in a “ghetto of run-down housing” likewise is vague. It requires evidence about the present housing of the people likely to move into the proposed development and alternatives currently available to them. The claim that diverse people living in separate, homogeneous neighborhoods “go on fearing and hating one another” and the accompanying assumption that the proposed development would reduce fear and hatred would deserve acceptance if they were applicable to your neighborhood and verified by your experience. But you indicate that your neighborhood is not entirely homogeneous and that residents get along well together. So, that claim and assumption need not be taken seriously without substantial evidence gathered by serious sociological studies and shown to be relevant to the present issue. Finally, her argument that talk about the “troubled urban environment” and the “problems of poorer neighborhoods” is “nothing but a cryptic appeal to racial prejudice” presupposes evidence that those speaking that way are appealing to racial prejudice rather than expressing sincere concerns, perhaps reasonable and perhaps not, about the likely behavior of less affluent people of whatever race.

The arguments of the potential developer, regional employers, and members of the neighborhood civic association are self-interested, but they could be sound. Even if unsound, however, they are not necessarily selfish; some or all of these parties could be sincere and fair-minded. If Mrs. Zyx dismisses the arguments of members of the civic association as mere selfishness, that response is ad hominem and not a sound argument. But your remarks about her type and place of residence also are ad hominem. However, she could have asked: Have you and your neighbors put yourselves in the place of the people who would occupy the new housing? And you might ask her whether she has put herself in your and your neighbors’ place (see CMP, 211–14; LCL, 282–84).

The county does have a serious responsibility to help meet less affluent families’ needs, not least their need for decent, affordable housing. That responsibility might be fulfilled, at least in part, if all new developments were designed to create neighborhoods with greater socioeconomic diversity, as the AHA advocates. It is not clear, however, that socioeconomically homogeneous neighborhoods are inherently unfair to less affluent families or divisive to the community. People of different races probably live harmoniously together in your neighborhood partly because their socioeconomic similarity involves many common values and interests. Moreover, though segregation imposed on the basis of race is unjust and all discrimination on that basis should be regarded as suspect, not all separations among various groups of people need be unjust. Some are not imposed by unjust discrimination but are established by common agreement as mutually acceptable distancing to promote peace and allow similar people to associate agreeably.

Thus, while Mrs. Zyx plainly is trying to articulate a real requirement of justice, other arguments, more clearly grounded in the gospel and Catholic social teaching, can more forcefully show the community’s responsibility with regard to the housing needs of less affluent families.

God created the whole subhuman world for human beings. He provides all material goods for everyone’s use, so that all people can meet their genuine needs (see GS 69; LCL, 788–92). The poor, having great needs difficult or impossible for them to meet, deserve special consideration. The affluent and powerful owe the poor help to ensure that they receive their fair share of material goods (see LCL, 799–801). The need for decent housing is genuine and basic; the less affluent ought to have a fair share of desirable land to live on. So, while you and other members of your civic association have a legitimate interest in maintaining the value of your property and the quality of your area, you also must help less affluent people meet their need for housing.378

Moreover, as children of God called to heavenly fulfillment in the kingdom, all human beings share the same essential dignity. We are called to love others as Jesus has loved us. When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with the story of the Good Samaritan. Its point is that we ought to make a neighbor of anyone in need, not limit our concern to someone we already recognize as a neighbor (see LCL, 308–9, 365–66). You and others in your area should be ready to welcome as neighbors at least some less affluent people who need decent housing, and you should be thinking about ways to help them become good neighbors, for their sakes and yours. If you succeed in building up good neighborliness among people differing more widely in their needs and gifts, the community as a whole and the lives of all its members will be enriched. The value of that achievement will not pass away; the good fruit of your effort will serve as material for the heavenly kingdom, where good neighbors will live together forever (see GS 38–39).

Therefore, having done your best to settle the factual questions on which the various claims you describe are based, bear in mind your grave responsibility toward your less affluent potential neighbors. Do not evade this responsibility by supposing that the low-cost housing, if not built in your neighborhood, will be built elsewhere. Others in circumstances similar to yours have similar reasons for being unenthusiastic about welcoming less affluent neighbors. So, put yourself in the place of less affluent families and ask whether the rezoning is appropriate. Moreover, Christians should not only be fair but merciful, and, other responsibilities permitting, should subordinate their legitimate interests to those of others (see LCL, 360–71). Unless you judge that your responsibility for your own family—especially for the well-being of your children—requires you to oppose the rezoning, be ready to give up some advantages of your neighborhood to make room for people who need affordable housing.

These norms do not show that you may or must take this or that position on the proposed rezoning. Perhaps you should advocate a compromise—for example, rezoning to permit the narrower blocks, but developed with single-family homes somewhat less costly than yours on the blocks near your home and the small, six-unit town houses near the commercial strip. While providing some housing more affordable than development according to the county’s master plan would allow, a compromise like that surely would affect your neighborhood much less than the proposed development.

378. Used to evade this duty, exclusionary zoning is unjust; see William Tucker, The Excluded Americans: Homelessness and Housing Policies (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990), 111–39; Constance Perin, Everything in Its Place: Social Order and Land Use in America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977), 163–207.