Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Alice Hayes and Affordable Housing

Alice Hayes never imagined herself as a city council member. She had retired from her job as a nurse at Kaiser Hospital, and planned to increase her volunteer work with her church in her spare time. For the previous 10 years she had taken on increasing responsibility for the homeless outreach program started by her pastor, and chaired an interfaith task force on housing for the homeless. When it looked like a council incumbent would go unchallenged in the upcoming election, she threw her hat into the ring "so he wouldn't get a free ride."

Her campaign focused on services for seniors, and the need to increase revenues to the city through economic development. The incumbent, known as a pro-development council member, ran a lackluster campaign and much to her surprise Alice was elected with 54% of the vote. The congratulatory letters poured in, mostly from residents who commended her on her "common sense" approach to things. They thanked her for her pledge to "listen to the people." Because she had lived in the community for more than 40 years, people felt she understood the importance of the city's history and counted on her to preserve the small-town feel they cherished. While her council colleagues were a little unnerved by her victory, they felt she was intelligent and hard working, and would be a good addition to the council.

The honeymoon was short. Just six months after taking office Alice and the city council were in a battle with the community over the last remaining cherry orchard in town. New Directions Housing, a consortium of non-profits that build affordable housing had successfully completed quiet negotiations with the orchard owner. They quickly submitted a zoning change request and petitioned the council for "fast tracking" the development of 200 units of below- market- rate housing. The project, Casa Nueva, was to include an on-site day care center and an office providing immigrant services.

The plan was consistent with the goals adopted by the council earlier in the year, and both the planning director and the city manager were supportive. The planning commission referred it directly to the council, saying it was too important (i.e. controversial) for them to tackle.

Alice was torn between her relationships and commitment to affordable housing, and the swell of opposition from the community. Her pastor called her almost daily urging a "yes" vote, and the clients at the homeless center were looking forward to her support.

Critics of the development said that the site should be preserved as open space and have suggested the only building that should be approved should be a historical museum. They had begun a letter-writing campaign and deluged city hall with e-mails.

Other members of the council privately supported the project, as it was in alignment with their adopted goals. Also, they knew the state could withhold funds if the city did not build its fair share of affordable housing. But three council members were up for re-election, and given the loss by the last incumbent, they feel that voting for the project would be political suicide.

Questions:

Whose interests should Alice Hayes favor in deciding how to vote on this issue? Why?

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This case has been prepared by Judy Nadler, Senior Fellow in Government Ethics, as the basis for class discussion rather than to illustrate effective or ineffective handling of a governmental situation.

Copyright © 2004 by the President and Board of Trustees of Santa Clara University. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce or post this case on a website, or electronic reserve, please contact ethics@scu.edu.


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