NIMBY Nonsense

In reading arguments against new housing, I often notice that NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) activists are unafraid to use contradictory arguments in order to keep new housing out of their neighborhoods.

Ever since zoning was invented in the 1920s, homeowners have argued that limits on density and on multifamily housing are necessary to protect property values. But today, urbanites seek to prevent new housing on the ground that new housing will lead to gentrification, which will in turn lead to increased property values, which in turn will lead to rising rents and displacement.

Similarly, I often read that New York City shouldn’t have any new housing because the city is “too dense” or “overcrowded.” (Never mind that when there’s not enough housing to go around, excluded residents respond not by leaving the city, but by sleeping on the streets, thus making the city feel even more crowded).

But at the same time, I also read that building new housing is futile, because it will all be bought up by Chinese oligarchs, who (because they aren’t quite greedy enough to rent out their property) cause the housing to be lifeless and unoccupied. It is not quite clear to me how the city can be overcrowded and undercrowded at the same time, but evidently this view seems to be common.

After reading yet another article about upzoning and property values, I had a fantasy: what if arguments about zoning took place in a trial? I imagine the following colloquy:

Counsel: Mr. NIMBY, isn’t it true that ever since zoning was invented in the 1920s, you have been arguing that zoning increases property values?

NIMBY: yes, your honor.

Counsel: so by that logic, eliminating zoning or making it less restrictive would lower property values?

NIMBY: yes.

Counsel: by contrast, today you are arguing that upzoning increases property values and causes gentrification?

NIMBY: yes, I am.

Counsel: but doesn’t upzoning make zoning less restrictive?

NIMBY: yes, that’s actually why I am against it.

Counsel: So to summarize, in the 20th century you were for zoning because it prevented property prices from falling, and now you are for it because you think it prevents prices from rising. I have just one question: were you lying then or are you lying now?

(adapted from a post at