Toward a Stronger Theory of NIMBYism

A more sound understanding of local obstructionism could be the first step to diminishing it.

Image Marco Raaphorst / Flickr
Marco Raaphorst / Flickr

The old adage about pornography from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart—that it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it—could just as easily apply to NIMBYism. If the term were merely a catch-all for development opposition, then it would fit San Franciscans reflexively blocking infill proposals as well as Jane Jacobs stopping a highway through the Village. That one is clearly NIMBYism and the other closer to heroism suggests a need for greater verbal precision.

That’s the mission embraced by Austin land-use regulations lawyer Chris Bradford at his new blog, Club NIMBY. Bradford contends that when it comes to NIMBYism we are all Justice Potter: powerless to define the practice systematically instead of ad hoc. He believes people concerned with zoning restrictions and land use regulations—and, by extension, housing affordability and income inequality in American cities—must improve their understanding of local obstructionism as a first step toward diminishing it.

Developing a sound theory of NIMBYism will, of course, enable us to define NIMBYism,” he writes. But if a theory of NIMBYism is to be useful, it must explain NIMBYism as well as define it.

The key to any strong definition or explanation, suggests Bradford, is that it must go beyond the simplistic idea that NIMBYism aims to protect home value, full stop. If that’s the case, why do some homeowners reject development projects so forcefully while others don’t? Why is California more NIMBY than Texas, for instance, or Austin more NIMBY than Houston? Why is NIMBYism more intense now than it was 40 years ago, when home value mattered just as much to personal wealth?

Bradford builds his own central thesis around the idea that NIMBYs seek to monopolize “access to neighborhood amenities”:

In the absence of zoning restrictions on the number of housing units in a neighborhood, neighborhood amenities would be a public good. Zoning converts neighborhood amenities from a public good (a partially non-rivalrous, non-excludable good) into a "club" good (a partially non-rivalrous, excludable good). Because "club" membership is bundled with home ownership, zoning causes the value of neighborhood amenities to be capitalized into home prices. NIMBYism can be thought of as the practice of objecting to development in order to protect the value of "club" membership.

The idea, of course, is not to answer the question in one blog post but to start a bigger discussion. It’s one that will have to address NIMBYism as an unfortunately rational response to a society that’s put home value at the center of wealth accumulation. It’s also one that will have to acknowledge the far more absurd NIMBY complaints, such as neighbors who get up in arms about a bike lane, that seemingly have less to do with amenities or property values than fear of change or the unknown or the Other.

As for realistic policy solutions, Bradford makes an initial go at these, too. Rather than trying to undo existing single-family zones, he says, an easier place to start would be for local planners and officials to stop automatically applying such zoning to new developments. “There is no particular constituency for zoning fringe greenfields exclusively for single-family use, so cities ought to stop doing it,” he writes. “This practice merely begets the next generation of NIMBYs.”

A better theory of what drives NIMBYism would be a welcome addition to the neighborhood of ideas. Here’s favoring its construction.

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