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Why I Used To Be a NIMBY
Reflections on how to change people's minds in the housing debate.
I was at a conference on economic research and one of the presented papers entitled Folk Economics and the Persistence of Political Opposition to New Housing uncovered a difficult phenomenon. People surveyed in the study believed that goods and services seeing an increase in supply would result in lower prices for everything except housing. Most respondents (60 - 70%) thought building more homes would have no effect on home prices or actually cause them to increase. The good news is that this was not a strongly held opinion. Respondents had not given housing economics much thought and were open to corrective information. But whether they were renters or homeowners, desired to see home prices go up or down, two-thirds had the same, not thought out impression of housing economics.
I understand where this “folk economics” (a.k.a. feelings-based economics) is coming from because I used to be a NIMBY, too. I don’t recall if I was ever an outright supply skeptic, but I didn’t believe that new apartments had anything to do with ending the housing crisis. In 2012, my high school class had an open discussion about the prevalence of homeless encampments that were growing in the park across from our school. Few seemed to think that the proposals to build more homes downtown would do anything to solve the homelessness crisis or high housing costs. In response to a Berkeleyside article discussing NIMBY opposition against senior homes being proposed near UC Berkeley, I had questioned why the developer didn’t just move the homes somewhere else.
I didn’t see housing as a consumption like food or cars. My views on the necessity of easy mobility and thus easy access to housing solidified after I had the unfortunate experience of risking homelessness just to attend college. The same houses and apartment complexes had been on my block since I was born and had been there for generations before me. They weren’t something to be used, repaired, built on or replaced. They were as integrated and immutable to the neighborhood as the sky above, the pavement below and the trees and telephone wires in-between.
Most people are not NIMBYs because they want higher property values. This idea is an extremely common misconception and it’s also a lazy argumentation I find people with left-wing tendencies tend to deploy: I can’t or refuse to comprehend someone’s motivations so they must be financially-motivated. I don’t dispute a lot of NIMBYs are thinking about the re-sale value of their home. But I don’t think most are. Most people have an intimate attachment to their environment, no matter how bad or good it is. Many NIMBY worries are about parking, shadows and structures obscuring their comfortable lifestyle. And while one can repeat plenty studies on how infill housing reduces car dependency or studies showing very little if any impact of light and views from new homes, a lot of people are skeptical.
Part of this reflexive resentment against physical change exists because American cities and towns don’t change much. America hasn’t experienced an urban building boom in dwellings since before World War 2 and a few cities in the 1960s. People think we’re in boom times because they’re comparing it to the many decades of stagnation that has preceded today. But our historical record of aggressive re-development and urban renewal of the 1950s and 1960s, followed by an aggressive preservation and disinvestment for the remainder of the century, has made Americans unfamiliar with positive urban growth.
In the 1950s, many urban communities were told by business groups and city hall that communities like theirs had to adopt to the future by allowing federal, state and local officials to change their neighborhoods. That change often meant bulldozing whole neighborhood blocks, leaving behind vacant lots that further depressed neighborhoods.
After the promise of economic rejuvenation at their expense had failed to materialize, the 1970s led to an over-correction with hyper provincial planning. All decisions to change neighborhoods needed excessive veto points that made even improving basic infrastructure difficult. Planning capacity was outsourced from the distrusted public sector to private companies, consultants and non-profits who were tasked with understanding communities better than our tarnished representative democracy. Neighbors who were once overruled by officials were now overruled by their own neighbors. The result was that the physical environment hardly changed for decades, even as the nation added over 100 million people.
But that’s the story of areas that underwent early gentrification. In most cities, the flight of capital from the urban center was a bigger cause of stagnation. Banks invested more into new suburban communities than giving property owners the resources to maintain and grow existing ones. For years after the disaster of urban renewal and the failure of top-down growth boosterism, cities were stuck in frozen decline. Even by the 1990s when gentrification (or the return of whites to urban areas) began, it still mostly manifested in unchanged physical environments with higher rents and property values.
So when the construction crews after being nonexistent in most generations’ memories returned and erected massive structures of glossy new homes, I can understand why current residents are worried and fearful. Even in more affluent neighborhoods, planning controls restricting new housing to accommodate more people suddenly disappearing is going to make residents accustomed to the status-quo suspicious. Generations of Americans have no idea what a growing city looks like.
Experts and advocates can and should tell these residents that more homes combat the housing crisis or reduce homeowner’s tax burdens. But we must recognize that it’s hard to believe that big changes are just some altruistic effort by developers and city planners to improve their lives. Which it’s not. It’s simply that, like any other economic good, just because someone profits from producing it or a government agency gets revenue for building it, doesn’t mean it’s detrimental. It can be detrimental, like any economic good, but it’s not a given. Most good people fall for NIMBYism because if you haven’t studied housing or related economics, which most people haven’t, you’re going to be confused at why your neighborhood is changing.
I first started to connect the dots between the lack of housing supply and the housing crisis, first from researching root causes of homelessness and then getting into the affordable housing industry. I thought the answer was to just shout at any and every NIMBY on how wrong they were. And it works against the fanatics and busybodies, at least. But overtime I’ve discovered a better means of combating common NIMBY sentiment among good people who don’t know better, and it starts with realizing that most NIMBYs aren’t bad or selfish people.
In a Berkeley neighborhood that has a sizable family population, the city had proposed to buy a motel and convert it into homeless housing for encampment residents nearby. Hyped up by regular NIMBYs who were already in the business of fighting apartments, naive neighbors panicked and wrote letters to the city council opposing the project. Several businesses also protested, including the business of immigrant Americans whose family resided in a popular pizza restaurant the project would be adjacent to.
Myself and pro-housing neighbors who were experienced with this opposition wanted to be aggressive in defense of the project. But others decided to be more sympathetic as to not negatively polarize well-intended NIMBYs amid duelling accusations and insults. Which is a real risk in the housing debate that is a gift to the NIMBY camp. Nobody takes being insulted as a greeting card well.
We identified genuine, worried homeowners and had personal conversations about the merits of the homes. Personal conversation was an opportune time to start integrating empirical evidence in support of the project alongside emotional appeals. We talked up the benefits of more residents helping businesses, climate impacts building homes near transit, and fewer encampments.
Instead of ridiculing the family pizzeria owners, we assured them their business would not be harmed with formerly homeless residents nearby. To back up our talk, we threw a positive, pro-project party where everyone was encouraged to buy pizza and talk with the employees. We and the city councilmember spoke with the owner and assured them their fears were unfounded and a community was supporting them.
On the day of the vote what we discovered is that the regular fear-mongerers were largely by themselves. The skeptical residents and business owners who had initially swallowed their propaganda had taken a cautiously supportive position. It was approved, swiftly built and now fully occupied.
That homeless housing project, just like the several other apartment buildings nearby that were equally controversial for their own reasons, are no longer controversial. All the development is no longer “development.” It is as much a part of the neighborhood fabric as the parking lots and gas stations they replaced.
And that’s the irony of the whole thing. No matter how vicious the battle is, once the housing gets built, nobody cares. Very few people clamor for a time when they didn’t exist. The ones who were frightened, realize their fears didn’t materialize, and are often convinced that more housing is positive. And that’s the point: distinguish between the loud NIMBYs who have those nefarious motives and treat the well-intentioned ones with some respect. Because most NIMBY opposition to new housing is not a deeply held belief, they just need a little evidence.