OnlySky Quick Take

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Solving the problem of homelessness is a longstanding issue with widespread public support in the San Francisco Bay Area. There is also strong support for the obvious solution of building affordable housing, with one huge asterisk: just don’t build it in my neighborhood.

“Not in my backyard” (NIMBY) has become a powerful political movement of mostly upper-middle class, mostly white homeowners to prevent the development of new properties in their neighborhoods—especially multi-family homes or affordable apartments, properties that might dilute the “upper” in their “upper-middle.” The goal of these groups is to keep their neighborhoods as mainly low-density single-family homes. Extensions of light rail and other transit projects into affluent suburbs are regularly NIMBYed by homeowners, despite multiple studies showing zero increase in crime from such extensions.

The fact that many of these movements spring up in highly progressive areas from San Francisco to Amherst, Massachusetts, where even innovative solar energy projects are getting NIMBYed by Democrats, puts some fundamental progressive values on a collision course with stark self-interest.

NIMBYism has a massive impact on local politics and the types of politicians who can succeed and win at the local level. And despite not holding state or federal office, these politicians wield enormous power in determining what gets built and what doesn’t. This in turn leads to consequences for home affordability, homelessness, and other issues.

So why, exactly, is there a loud segment of homeowners that don’t want to have any affordable apartments or multi-family housing in their neighborhoods? The first reason is that NIMBY proponents tend to be focused on their own property values. They believe that as the housing supply rises in their neighborhood, that the value of their own properties will decline. Academics and policy analysts have debated whether increasing the housing supply actually has a negative impact on home prices. But many homeowners believe so. Homeowners tend to be wealthier and more likely to vote than renters, so they are more likely to have outsized political influence in local elections. 

“Racial composition strongly predicted the preferences of whites in neighborhoods that were otherwise identical.”

There is also the depressing reality that race plays a major role in NIMBYism. A Brookings research paper found that “racial composition strongly predicted the preferences of whites in neighborhoods that were otherwise identical,” meaning that all things being equal, whites preferred to live in areas where Black people did not live. Black people tend to have less wealth than whites on average. So this generally means that affordable apartments and multi-family housing will make a neighborhood more diverse, something that a sizable percentage of white Americans oppose. This is even the case in liberal cities, many of which remain segregated decades after the Civil Rights movement. 

The result of NIMBYism and homeowners strong influence on local elections is that you have a bias against developing affordable housing where it is most needed. That leads to sky-high rents that are unaffordable for many younger, diverse Americans. It also leads to homelessness, which is something that is becoming more visible in places such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.  

Even in cities with strong Democratic leadership, NIMBYism is a major problem with no easy solution. It may require politicians at the state and federal level to craft legislation to increase the development of affordable housing and multi family homes. The California state legislature recently did just that by passing a bill allowing the development of multi-family properties on land zoned for single-family homes. Time will tell if state and federal-level politicians can effectively provide more affordable housing for Americans who desperately need it.

Marcus Johnson is a political commentator and a political science Ph.D. candidate at American University. His primary research focus is the impact of political institutions on the racial wealth gap.

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