NIMBYs are at the heart of California’s biggest economic and environmental problems: high housing costs, sprawl, and air pollution. These not-in-my-backyard residents have too-often successfully sued, lobbied, and cajoled their local governments to kill new housing, pushing home prices and rents through the roof and any new development out into sprawl areas far from jobs.
By Ethan Elkind
Adding insult to injury for those struggling with high housing costs, many of these NIMBYs were fortunate enough to buy homes in the state back in the 1970s when housing was plentiful and cheap and property taxes were low (and still are for them, thanks to Prop 13).
So if reaching these NIMBYs (or at least out-organizing them) is the key to solving the housing and environmental problems, how should we understand their motivations? To this end, Richard Florida in City Lab recently examined a white paper by Paavo Monkkonen that explores what motivates NIMBYism. Florida summarized the four main factors in the report:
- Traffic and parking: Nothing activates wary homeowners faster than the threat of losing a parking space. People moving into new apartments tend to own cars at higher rate, and one study found traffic to be one of the most common complaints in opposition to affordable housing in the Bay Area.
- Strain on services: Other residents fear that parks and schools will be overrun, as well as the limits of sewer, power, and water resources to handle new development and more people.
- Environmental preservation: Some of the most prominent fights over development in California—like the Sierra Club’s resistance to Governor Jerry Brown’s ‘by-right’ legislation—are over possible environmental damage from added density.
- Neighborhood character: Finally, residents are often concerned over how new construction will negatively impact historic and architecturally significant urban neighborhoods.
To counter NIMBY effects, Monkkonen recommends more inclusive and regionalized planning, improved enforcement of existing land use laws, and better framing of local planning decisions through more data, in order to assuage local concerns.
From my experience observing NIMBY behavior around proposed housing and new development in cities and towns, these categories make sense. But I think they can be broadened and simplified to three main ones:
- NIMBYs with practical concerns about new development, like concern over parking and service constraints, described above. These individuals are the easiest to work with because their concerns are often valid and can be addressed with smart public policies, like removing parking requirements to discourage automobile ownership among new residents, or appropriate fees to fund services and infrastructure investments.
- NIMBYs who hate density. These are individuals who genuinely believe that even something like a three-story building is essentially a skyscraper, and that skyscrapers are ugly, terrible, and confine people to rabbit-hutch like existences. I categorize these types as essentially anti-urban. There’s not a whole lot that can be done to alleviate their fears, absent showing them photos of elegant density and exposing them to the genuine joys of urban living, with its convenience, vibrance, and exposure to cultural activities that city living can bring.
- Racists and bigots. These are individuals, usually in well-off neighborhoods, who fear that new development will bring in racial or ethnic minorities or low-income people who are not “worthy” of the benefits of an affluent neighborhood. There is not much that can be done to reach these individuals, in my experience.
What does this categorization mean for housing advocates? Well, the best option is to try to split Group #1 off from the NIMBY mass, through dialogue and openness to mitigation measures. Or alternatively, they can simply try to out-organize all three NIMBY groups, by pulling together coalitions of young people, renters, labor unions, and some smart growth advocates, for example.
That out-organizing process has been happening in Los Angeles, with the defeat of Measure S. If it continues, even members of Group #1 may find themselves left out of the process. That may not be a bad thing, if they demand excessive mitigation measures. But in the short term, they represent the most reachable NIMBY group.
Ethan Elkind directs the climate program at UC Berkeley Law, with a joint appointment at UCLA Law. His book “Railtown” was published by the University of California Press in 2014.
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