Nolan Gray is a research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a professional city planner.
Last week, residents in Darien, Connecticut, a tony exurb of New York City, successfully lobbied to shut down plans for a coronavirus testing site, despite surging demand. The reason? Complaints from neighbors. As it turns out, the “Not In My Backyard” impulse to block new development — which has been implicated in the severe affordability crisis affecting cities from coast to coast — translates far too neatly into blocking certain measures needed to stop the spread of the virus.
In a similar case in Ewing, New Jersey, a local landlord issued a cease-and-desist letter to the operator of a coronavirus testing center amid complaints about congestion in the parking lot. As The Trentonian reported, one resident who wanted to be tested in order to protect his three-year-old child wasn’t subtle about how he felt about the decision: “It blows my f**king mind.”
Community resistance from neighbors of testing sites is a rerun of the fierce NIMBY reaction to potential coronavirus quarantine sites. Back in February, California began looking for a place to shelter Americans returning from abroad with the virus and settled on an isolated medical campus in Costa Mesa. But after local residents complained, city officials sought and received a court injunction to stop the project.
As the need for quarantine sites expanded, so did the NIMBY backlash. Finding sites that won’t suffer the same fate has proven to be a major hurdle as the federal government attempts to manage the crisis. Back when the focus was still on returning cruise ship passengers, officials in Alabama went to the mat to keep passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship out of a local FEMA facility, eventually forcing the federal government to scrap the plan altogether. Similar fights have played out from Seattle to San Antonio, potentially undercutting the response to the coronavirus at key early stages. As a result, the federal government largely shifted quarantining efforts to military bases, where complaining neighbors hold less sway.
Some NIMBYs have even seized on Covid-19 as a new rationale for blocking needed housing. Despite the substantial health risks of a large homeless population amid the pandemic, Queens, N.Y. council member Robert Holden renewed his push to shut down a local homeless shelter, this time citing coronavirus fears.
This peculiar alliance between the coronavirus and NIMBYism rekindles questions about who should have a say in policymaking. The people who show up to speak at public meetings are older, whiter, and more likely to own a home than the community population as a whole, as a recent study by Boston University political science professors Katherine Einstein, Maxwell Palmer and David Glick showed. This influential minority are also far more likely than most to oppose whatever is being proposed. That’s presented a major problem for building new housing, especially lower-priced rental units. But as the current crisis reveals, a system that empowers NIMBYs might also imperil our ability to respond to emergencies in a timely manner.
At first glance, it might seem like efforts to block potentially life-saving public health screenings and complaints about community character have little in common. But in both cases, the formula is the same: Whether out of an understandable fear of the unknown or a selfish desire to shift the burden elsewhere, local impulses are given veto power over broader social needs. Under normal conditions, the inability to constructively manage this means higher rents. In a public health emergency, it could be lethal.
Not every city is sitting on its hands. In February, Raleigh, North Carolina, scrapped its neighborhood councils, which had become a hotbed for housing NIMBYism, in favor of a more systematic approach to public outreach. And in Seattle, policymakers are working to transform similar local councils from angry choke points into productive forums. More cities should consider this approach, specifically as they respond to the outbreak.
There will undoubtedly be many lessons to learn from America’s botched response to the coronavirus. From the politicization of public health to the way we regulate testing kits, there will be no shortage of debate over how policy must change. But if we are going to put our cities on a firmer footing for this and the next crisis, we can’t let NIMBYs — and the institutions that empower them — off the hook.