What Is NIMBYism and How Do Affordable Housing Developers Respond to It?

NIMBYism is often expressed as concerns about crime, congestion, schools, property values, and “quality of life.” But when developments are built these fears rarely come to pass.

A red sign that says "Keep Out" stands in a large grassy area bordered on the far side by thick hedges. Illustrating article on NIMBYism
Photo by Jason White via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

NIMBY stands for “Not in My Back Yard.” In the housing world it’s used to describe people, typically existing residents (especially homeowners), who oppose new housing development near their homes—particularly denser or more affordable housing.

Many housing advocates reserve the term NIMBY for residents with substantial privilege who are seeking to preserve that privilege, and not residents opposing development for other reasons, such as fear of displacement. Read more:

NIMBYism is often driven, more or less openly, by racism and classism. But the concerns more commonly voiced are about increased crime, traffic congestion, strain on sewers, overcrowded schools, and lowered property values and “quality of life.” When developments are built, however, these fears rarely come to pass. Some examples:

Nonetheless, community opposition in the permitting stages frequently leads to increased costs and delays in many affordable housing projects. That’s something many developers don’t want to deal with. When NIMBYism is expressed through exclusionary zoning, it can keep affordable housing out of certain communities altogether.

The affordable housing field has many strategies it can use to try to overcome NIMBY opposition and get housing built in places where it has been kept out.

Win the Fight

At the individual project level, developers employ a range of community engagement strategies, rhetorical devices, and design choices to overcome, or at least ease, opposition. For example:

For more strategies see: “The Effects of NIMBY and How to Overcome Them

Avoid the Fight

Sometimes affordable housing organizations make choices in the development process designed to sidestep the likelihood of NIMBY responses from the start. For example:

  • Buying buildings instead of constructing new ones. “Don’t Build Mixed-Income Communities, Buy Them.” The National Housing Trust’s former executive director Michael Bodaken spoke about this approach in his interview with us. The organization had recently purchased a building in a community with highly ranked schools with the express plan of starting to accept housing vouchers there. “How long would it take to build 14 new affordable units that would take vouchers in Coon Rapids, Minnesota?” Bodaken said. “The answer is ‘never.’”
  • Thomas Silverstein in “Decommodifying Housing Without Reproducing American Apartheid” suggests looking to old malls and golf courses as locations that can accommodate significant amounts of social housing in previously exclusionary places. Alan Mallach in our roundtable on regulation and housing supply, agrees, saying: “There are large parts of these communities, especially along arterial roads, where you could build thousands and thousands of multifamily units without affecting the character of established single-family neighborhoods.” Building in places that potential NIMBYs won’t see as part of their own neighborhood, but are nonetheless well located in terms of schools, transit, and retail, could sidestep some of the worst fights.
  • In Somerville, Massachusetts, an affordable housing developer partnered with a for-profit developer of a neighboring property to build a “mixed-income” development with the same number of affordable units as originally proposed, but to less opposition. Read more: “A New Way to Diffuse NIMBYism?

Policy

Changing the playing field through policy will be absolutely necessary to make it easier to build denser and more modest housing in formerly exclusionary communities without having (or trying to avoid) these individual fights. Here are some approaches to that:

  • Fair Share laws, which require every municipality to provide its “share” of affordable housing or lose some of its control over zoning and permitting, exist in New Jersey (the Mt. Laurel decision), Massachusetts (40B), Connecticut, and California (Housing Accountability Act). Enforcement can be spotty, which is why some groups have taken to bringing lawsuits when developments are blocked.
  • Connecticut’s Incentive Housing Zones try to add carrots to a fair share law’s sticks. Austin’s Affordability Unlocked program adds density allowances for affordable projects.
  • Zoning changes to allow denser development in more areas, and with by-right development (i.e., if you match the zoning, you don’t need planning board approval) are being advocated for all across the country as a way to enable more housing in general, and could also make it easier to build affordable housing, especially in the suburbs. Sometimes the first step is merely eliminating the requirement that zoning changes be approved by supermajority.
  • Tying state and federal funding to the removal of exclusionary zoning is another policy change being discussed that can help (though it has detractors).

Other Voices

Allies—whether individual residents who understand that their own families might someday need the home you are building, or advocates from other movements—can be powerful. Allies can take a firm stand, call out bias, and say what a developer can’t say while they are seeking permits and trying to get along with neighbors.

  • The YIMBY movement can be a natural ally, given that right in its name it is formed in opposition to NIMBYism. YIMBYism is complicated, but in some places YIMBY groups have formed successful coalitions with affordable housing advocates. In Seattle, for example, a staff member at the Housing Development Consortium noted of their YIMBY allies and planning and permitting meetings: “They can take things further and louder.” Some YIMBY groups have also taken on legal strategies aimed at forcing towns to accept multifamily rental.
  • Equitable Smart Growthers are also natural allies. Many of them understand that the way to avoid both gentrification and displacement in our few dense livable urban areas, and to avoid building on greenfields, is densifying the suburbs.

Systemic Changes

In the end, the most powerful thing we can do to defuse NIMBYism is build an economy where people don’t need to rely on excessive appreciation of their home in order to retire or send their kids to college or pay off medical debt, thus reducing the obsession with anything that might affect property values. In the meantime, however, these strategies and more will be in demand.

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.

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