Keely M. Lundy: What is keeping neighbors from caring for neighbors?

Salt Lake City residents should stand up in favor of shelters for the homeless.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tammy, who said that she's been homeless for the past 13 years, was pushing her shopping cart up a walkway in Sugar House when she met with volunteers who were counting homeless people for the annual Point In Time survey in Salt Lake City at 5 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 25, 2018.

As of 2021, Utah is home to 10,489 homeless residents, where Salt Lake County supports the majority of them, 6,906. Due to the increasing costs of maintaining homeless shelters, as well as the recent labor shortage, several nighttime housing options have been closed, causing hundreds of individuals and families to sleep on the streets.

In winter 2020-2021, there were three active nighttime shelters with few overflow resources, meeting the needs of less than 2,000 homeless residents.

Homeless shelters are vital for the survival of those experiencing homelessness, especially during the winter months when temperatures can drop below freezing. Previously, shelters have been erected mostly on the west side of Salt Lake City, rather than expanding into areas where residents with higher household incomes and property values reside.

In 2017, when efforts were made to create a homeless shelter within the Sugar House community, more than 150 residents (less than 1% of the nearly 31,000 Sugar House residents) showed up and ardently opposed its development to the Salt Lake City Council.

Why do Salt Lake City residents oppose increasing homeless resources, especially when those resources are located within their relative community? One possibility involves loss aversion, a human response where perceived losses outweigh the potential gains. An individual may experience fear and opposition to decisions that result in loss; corporations, municipalities, or institutions may likewise avoid decisions that are high-risk despite the possibility for high returns.

This may also present as the more popularized acronym NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard), where residents express opposition to new developments that support low-income or those experiencing homelessness due to the perceived risks that they associate with such development (i.e., crime, violence, etc.).

Salt Lake County residents exhibited loss aversion when they opposed a homeless shelter in their neighborhood. Their response could have been due to shelters decreasing the home values near the shelter. Researchers investigated this concern on the financial value of homes in New York between 2010-2018. They found that homes within 500 feet of adult homeless shelters were valued 7.1% lower than comparable homes greater than 500 feet from a shelter.

Salt Lake City properties increase in value by an average of 28% annually, according to the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and the Sugar House neighborhood (as one of the hottest areas to move to in SLC) likely sees higher-than average increases in property value. Compared with the 7.1% lower value, this suggests that, while owning property next to a homeless shelter may be a less lucrative investment, the overall value of a property would almost certainly increase. Homeless shelters are also rarely approved for wealthier neighborhoods, so there is little evidence to suggest that more sought-after communities would suffer equally.

How can Salt Lake City’s residents, then, curb the effects of NIMBYism? One option would be to encourage those who advocate for neighborhood equity in shelter representation to speak up at City Council meetings. As previously mentioned, the voices of less than 1% of the neighborhood’s residents prevented a shelter in 2017 from being built.

Just imagine if 1,000 proponents had let their voices be heard. Doing so during future proposals would not only meet homeless residents where they are at but may even prove to encourage understanding and compassion among those who would otherwise oppose its development.

Keely Lundy

Keely Lundy is a third-year doctoral candidate in the University of Utah’s School Psychology Program. She is originally from Nashville, Tennessee, and has called Utah her home for close to three years.