Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Not in My Backyard

By Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez

"Proposed homes for the disabled spark fears," read newspaper headlines when California state officials moved to relocate state hospital residents to a home in a suburban San Jose neighborhood last year. That same year, a proposed home for mentally retarded persons in a quiet neighborhood in Hewlett, New York, sparked more than fears. There "respectable" citizens torched the home that was under construction, claiming that they supported efforts to move mentally retarded persons out of institutions and into community housing, but . . .

The NIMBY syndrome (Not In My Backyard) is a familiar one now. Twenty years ago, public exposure of the hell-like conditions in mental institutions led to dramatic changes in society's treatment of mentally retarded persons. Instead of being institutionalized, these individuals would be placed in community homes. The public policy of finding homes for mentally retarded persons in the community was greeted with enthusiasm from the public—but only at a distance. When people discovered that persons with mental retardation were moving in next door, enthusiasm quickly waned and opposition set in.

Opposition to Group Homes
Neighborhood opposition to group homes is often justified on the basis of justice. It is argued that when society adopts a policy that will entail certain costs, these costs should be distributed fairly among all members of society. The opening of group homes in certain neighborhoods imposes great costs--costs which are not equally shared by all the community. It is argued, for example, that group homes lower property values, increase traffic, and change the character of neighborhoods. Residents of homes, critics claim, can be a nuisance, or worse, a danger to a neighborhood. While society may have a duty to provide decent homes for persons with mental retardation, it has no right to arbitrarily impose the costs of doing so on particular neighborhoods, while the rest of the community is spared.

Opposition to group homes is also fueled by those who maintain that implied agreements create a right to what is agreed. When a family buys a home in a neighborhood zoned for single-family residences, they make an implicit agreement with local government that the zoning will be maintained. If people had known that, a year later, the house next door would be turned into a group home, it's likely they would have looked elsewhere. When local officials allow a group of mentally retarded persons to move into the neighborhood, they violate these implicit agreements.

Moreover, it is argued, if town officials are allowed to make exceptions for people with mental retardation, what is to keep them from also allowing ex-drug addicts, ex-sex offenders, and others into neighborhoods. There is more than enough land in our country on which group homes can be built without invading residential neighborhoods set aside for the enjoyment of single families.

Support for Group Homes
On the other hand, those who support the establishment of group homes in neighborhoods claim that justice requires that all persons and situations be treated alike unless there are morally relevant reasons for treating them differently. They argue that there is no basis to the claims made by opponents of group homes, and, consequently, that there are no good reasons for treating group homes and their residents differently from other homes and families in a neighborhood.

First, the claim that groups homes, unlike other homes, cause surrounding property values to decline is false. Numerous studies investigating the impact of group homes on housing markets show that group homes have no significant effect on nearby housing prices. In fact, some studies have reported that property values of surrounding homes increase Nor is there evidence to support the claim that group homes harm the "character" of neighborhoods. Surveys show that group homes are maintained as well, if not better, than other neighborhood homes, and are unlikely to cause an increase in traffic or congestion.

Finally, residents of group homes are no more likely than other people to be dangerous. Studies comparing rates of arrest of residents of group homes with the general population show that it is probably safer to live next door to a group home than a more typical family residence. Like the rest of us, persons with mental retardation spend their days working, and in their free time they, like us, go shopping, are active in church or civic groups, watch TV, eat out, go for walks, and visit friends.

Those who support group homes in neighborhoods concede that traffic congestion, harm to one's property or person, and even maintaining the so called "character" of neighborhoods may be good reasons to regulate the use of land in residential areas. But when the establishment of a residence will not cause traffic congestion nor pose a threat to property values, personal safety, or the character of neighborhoods, and is still opposed, the reason for opposition can only be prejudice√Ď the unjust exclusion of people whom we perceive as different merely because this difference causes us some "psychological discomfort." We may dislike coming into contact with people whom we perceive as "not like us." But such discomfort is certainly not to be counted as a morally relevant reason for excluding persons with mental retardation from our neighborhoods.

Considerations of justice are also put forth to undermine another claim of those who oppose group residences. If justice demands that situations be treated the same unless there are relevant reasons for treating them differently, neighbors have no basis for demanding protection from (perceived or actual) "changes for the worse" in their neighborhoods. Suppose that the value of property in a neighborhood increases for some reason or that its "character" changes for the better. Neighborhood residents aren't expected to pay for these benefits; rather, they enjoy them free of charge. Similarly, then, if the value of property or the character of neighborhoods should change for the worse, homeowners can't expect to be protected from the resulting costs they must bear. When a person buys a home in a neighborhood, he or she necessarily assumes the risks of owning the home--and this includes both unanticipated benefits and unanticipated costs.

Finally, those who support the establishment of group homes in neighborhoods maintain that society should adopt those policies that bring about the greatest benefits while producing the least harm. Policies which facilitate rather than discourage the establishment of group homes in neighborhoods produce great benefits while causing no harm.

Group homes in residential areas provide persons with mental retardation with the obvious benefit of being able to live in typical community settings and participate in the normal rhythm of community life. As a result, these individuals have the equal opportunities to develop their capabilities and contribute their talents to the rest of society.

Second, establishing group homes in neighborhoods provides the public with meaningful contact with their mentally retarded peers. Such contact helps break down the stereotypes that have for so long stigmatized persons with mental retardation and unjustly excluded them from the rest of society.

Finally, the acceptance of group homes in neighborhoods promotes our social ideal of a moral community that is responsive to the needs of its members. It allows us to acknowledge our responsibility to promote the welfare of others, even when we perceive it as a burden.

While the need for housing for mentally retarded persons continues to grow, community acceptance has not. Resolving the ethical issues raised by the NIMBY syndrome is no easy task. We aspire to a society that will ensure the common good--where all persons are treated humanely and equally, and provided with the basic human necessities. But we also aspire to a society in which the burdens (perceived or actual) that must be borne to achieve this good are distributed equally among all members of society--and not to the backyards of a few.

For further reading:

Jo Ann Chandler & Sterling Ross, Jr., "Zoning Restrictions and the Right to Live in the Community," in Michael Kindred, ed., The Mentally Retarded Citizen and the Law (New York: The Free Press, 1976).

Carl J. Dahlman, "An Economic Analysis of Zoning Limits," in Bruce Johnson, ed., Resolving the Housing Crisis: Government Policy, Decontrol, and the Public Interest (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Co., 1982).

Margot Hornblower, "Not in My Backyard, You Don't" Time (June 27,1988), pp. 44-45.

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