Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, affordable housing, labor, and technology.
A new study unpacks the many motivations behind the "evil developer" narrative.
NIMBYs—foes of new development, especially the kind that’s located near their backyards—are often described as risk averse. Building more housing in their neighborhoods, they worry, could lead to more traffic, lower property values, strained services, lost parking places, lower and/or higher rents, and all manner of undesirable changes to “neighborhood character.”
But, according to a study out of UCLA, their resistance to development might have another, more straightforward explanation: They hate developers.
More specifically, they don’t like to see developers make a buck from their efforts. Based on a survey of 1,300 L.A. county residents, researchers Paavo Monkkonen and Michael Manville found that residents were 20 percent more likely to be anti-development when they see that developers will turn a nice profit. In other words, NIMBYs might be driven to oppose building more housing not by “fear of their own losses, but resentment of others’ gains.” This, the authors write, “suggests a separate dimension of NIMBYism, centered less on risk aversion and more on enforcing community norms of fairness.”
What’s with this? We don’t wish ill upon those who make our pancakes or our hats—why all the hatred for the nice people who make our houses and apartments? The evil-developer trope seems to be baked into the culture. Movies like It’s a Wonderful Life frame builders as bulldozing antagonists; Donald Trump epitomized the brand in his real-estate career and now, the presidency. “The word ‘developer is frequently preceded by adjectives like ‘greedy’ or ‘rapacious,” reads the study, and they’re often “framed as adversaries rather than partners.”
And developer-hating isn’t just a contemporary expression of late-capitalist critique: Senators in Ancient Rome were complaining about density, and blaming developers for it.
The study also posits that the perceptions of developers as money-grubbing villains are made worse in supply-constrained, pricey, and tightly-regulated housing markets. When city policies and zoning regulations make development more difficult, the developers who prosper are more likely to be the richest, nastiest, and most aggressive. “Our system of land use regulations and permitting process—the complexity of it—has selected for people that can navigate that,” said Monkkonen. “They tend to be good at bending the rules and breaking the rules, or wealthy. We’ve created a system that selects for people who are more cutthroat.”
Cities are thus confronted with a paradox: Deregulating land use would allow developers unfettered access to space, letting them potentially wreak havoc on neighborhoods. But enacting policies that make development difficult only encourage more “evil” developers, which in turn makes developers seem more evil. From the report:
The result could be a self-fulfilling process that fulfills people’s worst expectations: communities suspicious of development clamp down on it, partly because they believe developers are rich and confrontational, and by clamping down they increase the probability that developers will be rich and confrontational.
This effect is particularly pronounced in markets where housing is out of reach for many of the area’s poorest residents—as in the Bay Area. Here, profiting off a project seems “morally inappropriate,” the study states, even if the end result is more affordable housing. This creates what Monkkonen and others call a “repugnant market.”
These preconceived notions appear to have contributed to respondents’ negative attitudes towards the YIMBY dream of building more housing.
To conduct the study, people were sorted into experimental groups based on whether they lived in primarily single-family, low-rise multifamily, or high-rise housing (and control groups of each). Then they were presented with a development pitch “framed” by one of an assortment of different arguments against it (traffic and parking, neighborhood character, strain on services, and finally, developer profit) and asked to decide whether they supported, opposed, or were indifferent to the project.
The results? Almost half (48 percent) of those who were told about the developers’ potentially large profit opposed the development, versus only 28 percent in the control group. The differences were smaller for those presented with the neighborhood character, services, and traffic/parking arguments—15, 10, and 10 percentage points, respectively.
“It was surprising that the development process elicits [almost] the same opposition as neighborhood character,” said Monkkonen. “’Neighborhood character’ captures whatever people project onto that: For different people, it could mean traffic, or density, or people coming into a neighborhood.” And it’s often a coded way to justify discrimination, driven by class- and race-based biases. Whether the developer makes any money or not doesn’t affect your life, whereas neighborhood character—whatever it means to you—presumably does. Still, it elicited a stronger personal response.
Other, less-surprising findings emerged, too, like: Buildings in their neighborhood were more offensive than buildings elsewhere. (Hence the “B”in NIMBY).
But the study wasn’t entirely conclusive, Monkkonen says. By making the development frame about the process as a whole—the question posed to respondents suggests that the city gave the developer a special permit to build at a higher density than usual—they’ve partly conflated a distrust in government with a distrust in development. The question was inspired by Measure S, a NIMBYish ballot initiative proposed last year in L.A. that would have introduced more housing restrictions and was fueled by accusations that City Hall was in developers’ pockets. (The measure was ultimately rejected.) Monkkonen and his UCLA colleagues are planning on conducting a follow-up study that would disentangle the developers’ profit with the city planners’ corruption, in an effort to better isolate each evil.
Still, there are some takeaways here for cities that want to encourage more affordable housing development. The solution, luckily, does not involve attempting to reverse the reputation of developers, as they are probably beyond redemption, brand-wise. But it could end up being the same proposals that YIMBYs put forth to achieve their pro-housing goals that could also help developers’ images. (Indeed, a common insult flung at YIMBYs is that they’re too pro-development for their own good.)
Monkkonen points to “re-regulation” as a start: removing some of the exclusionary zoning policies that even Ben Carson condemns and allowing more multi-family housing units to emerge in places like L.A. and San Francisco, where housing is expensive and supply isn’t growing fast enough to meet demand. Make less-expensive housing legal and more developers will build it, the argument goes—and not just the fat-cigar developers people know and loathe. If it gets easier to build three- or four-story condo buildings, mom-and-pop developers could find it more feasible to enter the housing market. And everyone loves moms and pops.
Another—albeit less plausibly achieved—boost to the developers’ reps would be to continue to encourage public housing development, especially in cities like L.A., where it’s increasingly uncommon. The history of public housing in the U.S. is fraught, but creating a new generation of well-built and maintained public housing “could potentially create a positive image of developers as public servants.” Potentially!
“One thing we’re trying to do is change the conversation a bit in terms of who’s making money for the housing crisis,” said Monkkonen. “Developers are the visible agents of change and seem to visibly profit off high rents, when in fact they’re making the lowest amount of money overall.” The ones who really make out like bandits, as property values rise? Those single-family homeowners who are working so hard to keep new development out.
“Virtually everyone lives in a home built by a self-interested developer,” the study concludes. “Blocking the product to punish the producer has a visible short-term consequence that might look progressive (assuming the developer is in fact rich) but a less-visible long-term consequence that lands on vulnerable people everywhere.”