As I conservationist, I’m committed to protecting nature. Like many conservationists in this region, I’m also deeply concerned about the housing crisis. Yet until I attended The Intertwine Alliance’s recent “Housing & Habitat: Mobilizing for the Affordable Housing Bond” event, I didn’t fully grasp the extent of this crisis. There I had a chance to hear directly from advocates from the Welcome Home Coalition and JOIN about the regional affordable housing measure on the ballot this Nov. 6.
"Oregon has the third highest rate of unsheltered homeless people in the nation," said Kari Lyons, Director of the Welcome Home Coalition, "with child homelessness growing at an alarming rate. Communities of color are extremely burdened by the cost of housing – almost 59 percent of Latinos in Washington County are cost-burdened, paying 30%+ of wages on rent. This creates doubling up (two or more families per unit), homelessness and elevated levels of stress, violence and health issues among families, while decreasing educational performance among youth."
At the event I was able to say a few words about why I feel this issue – and the ballot measure – is important to the conservation community. Despite some arguments emanating from the “no” side, the simple fact is we can’t and won’t simply sprawl our way to housing affordability. This is a national housing crisis, affecting communities with solid land-use planning as much as those without. As a conservationist, I don’t want sprawl eating up nature. Nor do I want to see my community economically segregated, forcing residents to drive long distances to workplaces and services, with associated greenhouse gas impacts.
Yet as a conservationist I won’t achieve my goals in isolation. Citizens of this region routinely express support for conservation and open space, but consistently rank this support below pressing economic and social concerns, such as homelessness and housing affordability. So on one level, the answer to “why” is simple: for conservationists, success will only happen if we work in coalition.
This is true, but to me it’s a shallow and incomplete reading. There is a deeper reason why this measure matters, vitally, to the conservation community.
As conservationists we are all searching – urgently – to find a healthy balance between people and the rest of the natural world. We increasingly recognize that if this balance only includes the fortunate among us, it’s no balance at all. This realization forces us to stop and consider the broader landscape.
We conservationists advocate for nature’s place in our community. Our actions affect our community, mostly for the better. But sometimes they have unanticipated consequences, as when they contribute to gentrification and displacement. We have, at times, been blind to these impacts. My own organization, the Trust for Public Land, routinely touts the benefits of parks and greenspaces by referring to, among other things, the boost to home values that a nearby park provides. While this is a great reason for local governments to invest in parks, and for housing developers to make space for parks in their developments, it’s obviously problematic for the people who can’t afford a home.
In short, conservation can, and at times does, work at cross purposes to others’ efforts to create a just and equitable society. The history of conservation writ large bears that out. Moreover, we conservationists have too often trapped ourselves in an unresolvable debate about whether we should value nature primarily for its own sake or for the benefits it provides people. Our ambivalence, set against the sheer enormity of our challenge, has at times tempted us to focus too narrowly on “our” issues: habitat, endangered species, climate change, etc.
Not always, however. Conservationists in this region have at times worked in coalition, as the legacy of the Coalition for a Livable Future attests. It’s time to do that again. We conservationists increasingly see that big-picture, existential challenges like climate change are fundamentally linked to long-standing social, economic and racial inequities. That linkage has become ever clearer to me, thanks in part to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) work that The Intertwine Alliance has engaged with in recent years. I can simply no longer focus on my chosen work without seriously questioning how it relates to the ongoing, daily crisis experienced by those in my community who lack housing.
This brings me back to the deeper reason why conservationists should – and do – care about housing. The reason is contained in that simple but slippery word: community. Simply put, we conservationists conceive of our community broadly to include the nonhuman parts. It’s clear to me, and to nearly every conservationist I know, that when some people in our community can’t find a place to live, the very nature of our community is at risk.
Nature, after all, isn’t some force or thing independent of people, any more than “the market” is. People are deeply implicated in the creation and maintenance of both. A housing crisis and the loss of habitat are both failures of the imagination. Both can be solved.
My work for the last decade demonstrated this again and again. There was little difference between a project that protected habitat for endangered species and one that transformed a vacant lot into a community garden. Both entailed using our collective will and resources to create the kind of place we want to live in.
Equitable and inclusive communities don’t simply happen, any more than flourishing ecosystems simply happen. We create or degrade them by choice – even, and especially, when we don’t realize we’re making a choice. Half the challenge of land conservation lies in convincing people they actually can choose; that the landscape they see, for better or worse, is not inevitable.
A housing crisis is not an inevitable byproduct of population growth, any more than habitat destruction is. We can, in fact, do something about it. This measure does something.
This measure doesn’t solve the housing crisis – not by a long shot. But it does send a crucial signal. I hope the money is leveraged to the hilt through community partnerships and maximal engagement. And I hope the leaders in charge of implementing the measure keep reminding us that we, all of us, are doing more than correcting a market failure. We’re doing the hard and necessary work of building community piece by piece. It should be – will be – a community with room for everyone, human and nonhuman alike.