Published August 12, 2021
The “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) movement gets a bad rap from progressive activists, many of whom decry opposition to new housing as automatically racist. This approach is not only wrongheaded but counterproductive. Condemning skepticism toward development as modern-day red-lining misunderstands the root of the hesitation and leads to an errant prescription of how to get around it. Many NIMBYs have defensible concerns about property values, which for better or worse drive their retirement planning and create an instinctual opposition to major change.
More housing—of all sorts, in a variety of development patterns—should indeed be built. Housing prices are related to our decreasing fertility rate and can pose a particular burden to couples starting out in life. Many people like living in single-family houses, and many like living in apartments. But no one enjoys paying increasingly large shares of a household budget on mortgages or rent. Responding to the needs of families, particularly young parents, means increasing the housing stock both in suburbs and exurbs and in denser, walkable neighborhoods.
Regulatory barriers to new development, often erected by homeowners, constrain the housing supply. Dartmouth economist William Fischel laid out the classic economic rationale for NIMBYism, arguing that housing opponents may be concerned less about the expected outcome of new development on their property and more about unpredictability. Americans hold a tremendous amount of their net worth in their homes. While they “can insure it against burning down or having its contents stolen,” Fischel wrote, they “cannot insure it against adverse neighborhood effects.” Most community changes may not affect property values, but the ever-present chance that a homeowner could get unlucky from a dramatic change to his community leads to risk aversion. And since a person’s sense of identity and belonging is grounded in part in where he lives, abrupt or dramatic changes to a neighborhood’s look and feel can be unsettling even for the most cosmopolitan individual.
A conservative approach to housing development would respect these realities. One relatively costless method would be to prioritize a sense of place and beauty in housing plans. Housing advocates could ameliorate much of the criticism aimed at modern multifamily buildings by favoring housing that current residents will feel comfortable with and find attractive. With aesthetic considerations accounted for, local communities could smooth the path to quicker approvals and faster permitting.
Pursuing incremental change—by abolishing minimum lot sizes or instituting form-based codes—wouldn’t create a by-right development paradise but could make increasing the housing stock easier. As Tom Spencer pointed out on the Market Urbanism blog, talk about density and cities too often conjures up “large brutalist towers and the slum-like conditions that can be seen in much of the developing world.” New-housing advocates should be as clear as possible that they want the human-scaled density of Jane Jacobs, not the industrial vision of Le Corbusier. When every new apartment building is a faceless, cookie-cutter replica of the next, longtime residents start to feel like victims of development, not members of a community with agency.
The chaotic, disjointed process of community input reinforces the point. In the recent book Neighborhood Defenders, Katherine Einstein, Maxwell Palmer, and David Glick find that participants in neighborhood meetings are disproportionately older and white, a fact seized on by advocates who paint NIMBYism as motivated by racial animus. Yet in a paper, the authors provide an important caveat: “Most of the comments referencing neighborhood character, however, are not explicitly linked with race.” The look and feel of a big new building might be a jarring addition to a corner of Massachusetts suburbia. Only one in ten public commenters who cited concerns about “neighborhood character” used language that Einstein, Palmer, and Glick deemed racially coded, such as referring to Section 8 housing or expressing concerns about diversity.
The aesthetics and character of a building can make a difference in public support for development. A 2018 survey in Los Angeles found that support for hypothetical development dropped by about 15 percentage points when respondents were reminded that “introducing a larger and different building could undermine the look and appeal of your neighborhood.”
Good aesthetics can alleviate such concerns. Earlier this year, the British government adopted some proposals from the “Building Better, Building Beautiful” commission, inspired by the late philosopher Roger Scruton. The move was an important step in recognizing the importance of “building beautiful” not just for its own sake but as a way of surmounting opposition to new development in London suburbs. Some of the commission’s ideas may be too prescriptive to work in the U.S. context, but others, such as its admonition to “create places, not just houses,” should be a guiding principle for local zoning boards. The authors write that “new development should be designed to fit into the life and texture of the place where it occurs” and “should aim to be an improvement of that place, regenerative not parasitic.”
As in Britain, the U.S. approach should seek to combine efficiency with a preference for the familiar. The lowest-hanging fruit for housing advocates would be to eradicate minimum-lot sizes, which effectively ban the close-knit housing style that characterized prewar suburbs. Developers, too, may find advancing plans through local zoning boards easier if they designed blueprints to match the local vernacular, rather than plopping down the usual stick-built, mid-rise apartment buildings. Adopting form-based codes, which focus on standardizing external appearances, in exchange for allowing developers greater freedom could also be a promising approach.
Addressing concerns about building character and aesthetics may not be dramatic enough for progressive reformers, but it offers a more promising and stable base for housing reform than accusing opponents of racism. To be successful, the pro-housing movement must respect the desire of homeowners to influence the look and feel of their neighborhood. Showing such flexibility will help smooth the path for more housing, in more styles, and in more neighborhoods, across the United States.
Patrick T. Brown is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.