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We have a new derogatory term for our times. No, I’m not talking about “super-spreader,” or “Karen,” although they are both certainly unique to our era. I am talking about the popular new insult “NIMBY.” It has become an acronym that needs no parenthetical explanation (Not In My Back Yard, duh) and has taken on an unspoken negative connotation. NIMBYs deserve this ire. They have made it so hard to build housing, particularly affordable housing, that many cities are struggling with the homelessness and the economic hardships of not being able to find a place to live for a reasonable price.
One of my fundamental beliefs is that housing is a right. No one is better off by having parts of the population not be able to afford shelter. That means more homes need to be built. I have written enough about affordable housing to know that upward mobility comes from integrating lower income families into higher income areas, not by isolating poverty in one geographic area. But as progressive as I like to think I am, in the end, I am a NIMBY. Despite my support of infill development, particularly of subsidized affordable units, I am writing this looking out the window of my single family home in my large backyard.
When you buy your first home you have to do a bit of soul searching. Unless you are one of the lucky few that can buy any sized home in any part of town, you have to identify what aspects of a home are important to you in order to narrow your search. Some people want houses that have a certain style, others want homes that give them access to certain parts of town. Personally, when I bought my first home I wanted one that didn’t smell like dogshit.
Let me explain. Before I bought my house I lived in a dense beach community. My downstairs neighbor at the time had a small concrete patio for a yard where his dog would do his daily business. For reasons that I still have not been able to fathom, my neighbor did not clean up after his dog. Ever. I still remember lying in my bed at night smelling his dog’s excrement on the cool evening ocean breeze. So when I went house shopping there was one thing I knew for sure, I wanted enough space to not have to deal with my neighbors or their dogs or their dog’s doo doo.
And I don’t regret it one bit. The guilt I feel about my home taking as much space as 10 people in a city like Paris quickly washes away when I sit in my backyard with its glorious silence and utter lack of dog feces. I realize that my home is not as sustainable or walkable as an apartment in an urban area but I make that trade for privacy, tranquility, and peace of mind. Sure, I might not be a NIMBY in the true sense of the word, I don’t go to community planning meetings to complain about new developments, but I also don’t want to see the character of my neighborhood developed out of existence.
As easy as it is to discredit NIMBYs as selfish or classists or racist or whatever, their resistance to development is not without merit. Large scale, dense housing developments are usually built without any thought to their surroundings. Any amenities that these projects might have are almost always intended for their residents only. So what incentive do people have to say yet to new developments? Altruism is motivational but not enough to make people give up the lifestyle that they based the most valuable purchase of their lives on.
The real estate industry is also to blame for the NIMBY sentiment. The only thing more worrisome for homeowners when it comes to development than an increase in density is the resulting impact on their home value. Most people believe that lower priced homes in their vicinity will lower the price of their house. This has proven to be unfounded by numerous studies. It makes sense if you think about it. More density means more economic activity. But the way we do appraisals (and particularly AVMs) often don’t represent the long-term economic outcome of more housing and instead just reflect any lower price per square foot in the area into every other residential property in the area.
The worst thing about it all is that density would likely bring more of the one thing that suburban residents want: retail. The conversation might change if you told NIMBYs that the apartment complex being built down the street is the reason that they will get a local coffee shop or convenience store.
As much as I hate NIMBYs for their role in the housing crisis, I have to admit that I too am part of the problem. I don’t want just anything built in my backyard, I want development that helps my neighborhood as much as the pocketbooks of my neighbors. NIMBYism is part of human nature so instead of trying to stomp NIMBYs out like they were some fascist regime, let’s try to understand and educate them. We need more homes and we need them in affluent neighborhoods but expecting people to just let developers do whatever they want we need to find ways to make infill development enrich the character of an area, not change it completely.