Books | House arrest

A review of Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate by Lisa Prevost.

The hot-headed title Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate (Beacon Press, $25.95, excerpted here) belies author Lisa Prevost's prudent reportage. With short sentences and progressive paragraphs, Prevost delivers a calm analysis about how posh communities repond to proposals of affordable housing.

Prevost, a writer for The New York Times, compiles six in-depth case studies of construction clashes in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island and New Hampshire (where she grew up).

A journalism adage suggests that angry people will always talk. Since Prevost's beat is the rise of the "one percent," the crash of the housing market, and who has the right to live where, she collects plenty of scalding opinions.

"We're not after McDonald's workers. We're after the young professionals just out of college who might otherwise leave [the state] if they can't afford it," notes developer Charles Mirrione, who wanted to build moderately priced cottages in Easton, Mass., in one anecdote.

Prevost quotes the response of Easton resident Cecilia Mahoney after watching Mirrione's Powerpoint presentation. "I think it's going to look like a really cute trailer park/condo community. I've named them 'tondos,' " Mahoney says.

The cottages never happened.

According to Prevost, Mahoney's sentiment exemplifies "NIMBYism," real estate-speak for "not in my backyard." One successful legal tactic to defeat legal expansion is known as "death by delay."

In a chapter about Roxbury, Conn., homeowners view the dwindling population as a positive product of natural selection. "People who would like to stay in the town have to leave and people who would like to come into town can't afford it," Prevost said in a radio interview with Marketplace.

Roxbury, a town without a gas station, is so expensive in part because each home must sit on a four-acre lot. Robert Falconer, former chairman of Roxbury's zoning commission, has a talent for circumlocution. He tells Prevost: "We're not excluding. We're trying to slow down the growth."

Snob Zones examines instances of classicism, racism, ageism, childism, religious intolerance, bullying and even discrimination against dog owners. It's a book about numbers, with pleasingly few numbers. It's a story of plaintiffs versus defendants, visitors versus home teams, us versus them. It's A Raisin in the Sun and Clybourne Park.

For everyone directly involved, there is a clear right and wrong side. At times, as an outsider, I could only guess which was which.

We know how Prevost feels. "For a housing market, it is always healthy to have a range of housing so that people can move up the ladder," she told Marketplace. Yet she keeps a low profile in her own book.

She seems too subdued to have an agenda. Her sarcasm sounds like chiding. And Prevost never calls anyone a bad guy. Thanks to her tape recorder, she never has to.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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