Thursday, February 11, 2016

NIMBYism Under the Microscope

Chris Bradford has a post at his new blog, also picked up at Citylab, urging a better understanding of the so-called NIMBY phenomenon. Chris' thesis, as he sets it out, is that "NIMBYism is about monopolizing access to neighborhood amenities."  This is somewhat different from other perspectives which view NIMBYism (a term I use due to lack of substitutes) as an attempt to protect property values, to exclude undesirables or to guarantee privacy.  As Chris writes:
"There are plenty of neighborhoods ... in which the value of neighborhood amenities is capitalized into home prices. These are neighborhoods with valuable amenities that lack close substitutes and which are, for lack of a better word, “under-zoned.” Homeowners in these neighborhoods have strong incentives to obstruct increases in zoning entitlements and to agitate for down-zonings in order to protect the value of club membership. And they do."
The post is very timely for me, as the city I live in is currently considering a proposal to upzone a single-family residential area around a commuter rail station that is surrounded by neighborhood commercial uses.  I won't get into the specifics of the location or the local politics, as the story could be repeated a thousand times across American towns and cities, but suffice it to say that the comments from neighborhood residents on a petition opposing this proposal are enlightening and, I think, strongly supportive of Chris' thesis.  I've excerpted a few of them below:
"I've lived here for 31 years and you are and in some ways already have destroyed the essence of our quaint village of [Anytown]." 
"I'm signing because our lovely [Anytown] is being destroyed, one building at a time. Please stop this madness. The only people benefitting from all this construction are the builders and developers." 
"Stop the intrusion to our community of apartment buildings and additional retail businesses. Our neighborhood is over-saturated. Traffic is horrendous, parking is limited, schools are over-crowded." 
"We have everything within walking distance; movie theater, skating rink, pet store, library, ice cream shop, restaurants, a great ball field. This is why our residents have chosen to live here for that small community feel. We do not need anymore apartments."
"I grew up in [Anytown] and it is a charming village and should remain that way. The streets cannot handle the traffic that would be created from any further development."
"[E]nough is enough. Think about the tax paying homeowners and not the greedy developers."
There is the clear sense here of a valuable amenity, a "quaint," "lovely" village with "everything within walking distance" that has been subjected to competition from new residents.  Because I always prefer a helping of data with my anecdotes, I charted out all the "NIMBY" comments -- more than 80 of them in this case -- based on the concerns they raise in the chart below:

Increased car traffic is far and away the most mentioned concern, with overpopulation/overcrowding second, neighborhood character third, school overcrowding fourth and parking fifth.  Notably, there were no comments citing home values or privacy concerns.  One or two comments did refer obliquely to people deciding to sell in response to the arrival of apartments, but these were linked to changing neighborhood character (a less family-friendly environment) rather than falling neighborhood property values, and implied greater rather than lesser demand.

Again, I think this is strongly supportive of Chris' thesis.  The neighborhood in question is "under-zoned" relative to its capacity, particularly in light of transit access, and enjoys amenities that are underutilized.  The repeated references to traffic, strain on schools and overcrowding are simply different ways of stating opposition to more intensive use of neighborhood amenities by additional residents.  Issues such as increased noise, crime, anxiety over renter populations and similar concerns were cited much less often.

The tone of the comments also provides a window into NIMBY psychology.  Comments are rarely measured in their language and frequently employ hyperbole.  The majority are devoid of any optimism, and one gets the overriding sense that there can be no positive change, only a constant battle against further decline and decay.  This NIMBY mindset, pessimistic in the extreme, appears to be behind the despairing tone evident in much of the commentary.  It may be that these attitudes are most prevalent in those areas where upzoning would be most beneficial for precisely the reasons Chris mentions.

Overall, these sorts of findings suggest that addressing concerns over property values may have little impact in many cases of neighborhood opposition to densification.  Understanding what motivates this opposition will require looking closely and in good faith at the concerns that are raised.


  1. I always felt that NIMBYism was an outlet for the (relative) powerless, such as the frustration of traffic which is a problem that no amount of money and status can overcome. The biggest NIMBYs are always middle class homeowners and it makes sense these are people who have a lot (good jobs, income, home, etc.), and yet still have so many stresses. You see the same stuff in politics: there are a lot of angry people under the jackboot of the one percent and everyone is lashing out where they can.

  2. "Traffic", eh? Nobody in Anytown drives, right? Based on my rules (you get to complain about traffic if you don't drive to work) I know fewer than a dozen people, total, who can unhypocritically complain about traffic, everyone else is part of the problem.

    1. Right. I read those complaints almost as cries for help of car-dependent residents. Many of them actually note that traffic is already bad.

    2. The sympathy towards the car-dependent is far higher than to everyone else (bus riders, those looking for a home in the community).

  3. This is a good insight into NIMBYism. It seems it's less about property price, and the aggregate concerns are more about resistance to change, which is a very human thing. People get into routines, like that they have a handle on their situation. Some of those concerns were what I'd call legitimate but others seem very much based on fear of the unknown.

  4. Where I am in Boston, I see NIMBYs complaining about property values all the time. Traffic is definitely the number one concern, but people also oppose new development on the grounds that it will lower property values, hurting their wealth AND raise them, increasing their tax burdens.

    Traffic definitely tops the list, though.

    1. Yeah, I was surprised to see zero complaints raised about it in this petition. Ideally I could have found several similar petitions and compared them, but that's a job for another post.

  5. Increased car traffic is far and away the most mentioned concern, with overpopulation/overcrowding second, neighborhood character third, school overcrowding fourth and parking fifth.

  6. It's not merely resistance to change. It's frustration at a lack of power to affect the changes going on around them. This dates to the 1930s.

    Not only did FDR's FHA subsidize SFHs by only insuring suburban homes, at the same time his Securities and Exchange Act of 1934 included Regulation D, or the accredited investor rule.

    This restricts private equity offerings to millionaires only.

    Most historic neighborhoods are full of vernacular architecture financed by local banks and local private equity fundraising, with neighbors pooling their resources to build their own communities. The developer business entity would issue private stocks or bonds.

    This method of building up your own community was made illegal by the New Deal. And the securities laws throughout the SEA of 1934 have resulted in the consentration of banking in America such that there are tens of thousands fewer local banks than there were 90 years ago.

    We all know what the FHA did, starving cities of capital, and particularly black neighborhoods.

    All of this has led to a concentration of finance -- both equity and debt -- that takes neighbors out of the process of building their own communities.

    They don't understand all that, but they do understand the fear of the destructiveness of a kind of change that applies nationalized business models in the same way everywhere.