The “Not in my backyard” phenomenon is America’s biggest barrier to constructing new apartment homes — but does it have to be?
America faces an apartment shortage. To meet growing demand and losses to the existing stock of apartments, the nation needs to build 328,000 new apartment homes each year. Yet annual production consistently falls short, and as a result, rents are rising in many parts of the country.
There are many reasons for the shortfall. Topping the list, according to survey results released this year by the National Apartment Association, is NIMBYism, the “Not in my backyard” mentality that fuels much community opposition to new development of apartment homes.
In high-rent cities, like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, renters support the idea of more housing across the city but oppose new housing in their own neighborhoods.
So, what do we know about the phenomenon? We asked several experts who’ve studied it from different angles, and here are some of the things we learned:
Homeowners aren’t the only NIMBYs. For years, the conventional wisdom among researchers has been that homeowners, motivated to preserve the value of their homes, are more likely to be NIMBYs while renters, for whom more supply will lead to lower rents, are more likely to support new development.
But Michael Hankinson, assistant professor of political science at Baruch College, City University of New York, found the truth is a bit more complicated. In high-rent cities, like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, he found, renters support the idea of more housing across the city but oppose new housing in their own neighborhoods.
“That suggests something systematic is going on, something we can’t just attribute to a vocal anti-gentrification crowd,” he says.
Bias toward developers motivates some NIMBYs more than opposition to new development does. Paavo Monkkonen and Michael Manville of UCLA found this to be the case in their survey of people in Los Angeles County. They tested various hypothetical situations regarding a new apartment building. Respondents who were told developers would earn large profits from the project were 20 percent more likely to oppose it than were members of a control group.
“There’s a stigma against land developers because they are fundamentally people who alter other people’s lives by changing their environment, but it’s particularly virulent and acute when you’re building multi-family housing in or near single-family housing,” says Monkkonen. “But, to meet our housing needs, that’s exactly what we need to do.”
Our public processes have evolved in a way that tends to enable NIMBYism. “On its face, it sounds good to have neighborhood representation in [public] forums,” says Boston University political science professor Katherine Levine Einstein. Along with colleague Maxwell Palmer, she examined three years of meeting minutes from public meetings in 97 towns across Massachusetts. In practice, they discovered, structural elements at play in local government meetings — such as zoning regulations, local officials’ electoral interests and the ability to mobilize — largely aligned with the motivations of development opponents rather than those of supporters.
“If [the meeting] is captured by the most privileged homeowners and these neighborhood groups are using their position of institutional power to stop the development of new housing, then that may not be in the community’s interest,” Einstein says.
NIMBYism can stop affordable housing in its tracks. Corianne Payton Scally of the Urban Institute, in Washington, and J. Rosie Tighe of Cleveland State University surveyed developers about opposition to affordable housing development. Two-thirds of respondents who had faced negative outcomes from community opposition said they experienced construction delays. One-third said they were able to move forward only by making aesthetic improvements; 29% were denied approvals.
“Construction delays are costly,” Scally says. “And when you’re trying to build affordable rental housing that’s a terrible impact, to have your costs go up if you’re trying to keep rents low.”
More work is needed to find solutions to NIMBYism. Hankinson says we can’t rely on cities or suburbs to change zoning and building policies. “It’s going to have to come from the state level,” he says. “But we have to put guardrails in place to make sure the weakest neighborhoods don’t take the bigger share of development.”
Palmer encourages local government officials to be more mindful of who they appoint to zoning boards and to wait — “a few days or even a week” — to approve or deny a project, rather than deciding at the conclusion of a public meeting when the angriest voices have just spoken.
In Scally’s survey of developers, formal public hearings scored low in terms of their effectiveness in overcoming community opposition. Informal meetings with community leaders and activities were more successful at tempering NIMBYism.
“I think there’s also a lot of local nuance and context and history that needs to be taken into account to balance who’s saying what and what’s their history in the community and how everyone’s history and experience can be honored in the process,” Scally says.