“Not in my backyard.”
That phrase has sounded out so many times—directed at land use experts, local politicians and housing developers—that it now has its own acronym. The NIMBY phenomenon, or NIMBYism can be found in nearly every community across the country, with roots going back 50 years or more. Growth or development that is often vitally, indisputably necessary is met with virulent grass-roots backlash not based on its merits, but instead on its location. People who might support increasing diverse housing types or growth generally will adamantly oppose a development simply because it is in their town or neighborhood.
Against the backdrop of an accelerating housing crisis, this kind of exclusionary thinking has proven a huge impediment to a healthy real estate market. Even as some local officials and land use experts have begun loosening restrictions, a vocal, organized opposition from citizens is often enough to keep steering policy away from more development, which leaves many communities suffering in stagnation.
“It’s interesting that NIMBYism is still surviving in this political environment where elected officials know and the business community knows that everybody needs affordable housing, and they want affordable housing,” says Jamie Ross, President and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition.” And yet we’re still grappling with NIMBYism.”
“Almost everybody has a shortage of inventory,” says Tom Larson, SVP of Legal and Public Affairs for the Wisconsin REALTOR® Association. “We’ve produced 20,000 fewer homes every single year since the great recession than what we did the decade before that…we have this huge demographic issue, supply and demand.”
Even in the face of what has become an incredibly obvious crisis of housing, and even as many communities are desperate for a tax infusion from new business development following the ravaging effects of the pandemic, local taxpayers often throw themselves in the way of growth—residential, commercial and anything else—swarming public meetings, haranguing officials and building wide-ranging campaigns on social media. Much of their opposition is focused on multi-family constructions or any kind of dense or subsidized housing, which is in especially short supply through much of the country.
For the communities that deny, delay or scare off new development, there are consequences at home as well. Towns end up completely stagnant, with only a trickle of new homes built and Boomers aging in place. Larson points out that middle-class millennial and Gen Z families will be quickly priced out of these communities, and those communities will miss out on a cresting wave of homebuyers currently driven by these two generational cohorts.
“This housing frenzy has been driven by demographics,” he says.
Of course, not every person opposed to a development can be grouped into a single category, says Catherine Brinkley, associate professor in human ecology, community and regional development at the University of California, Davis. Brinkley balks at even using the term “NIMBY,” a label she says is often dismissive of real concerns about development and fails to capture the nuance of those involved.
“I’m not so sure that blanket-labeling folks in one big category is that useful, honestly. Because a lot of the people who are advocating to not grow are not calling themselves ‘NIMBYs,’” she says.
But that should not deflect from the negative influence of many anti-development locals, who often use dubious claims or accusations to justify blocking construction. Concerted efforts along these lines can harm the local economy and real estate markets, or even push development down dangerous, unsustainable paths, according to Brinkley.
In the complex, fractured and often highly technical world of land use, the answer might be data according to both Larson and Brinkley, who say that “changing the narrative” is the most important step real estate professionals need to take if they want to see positive growth in their towns.
“The best thing that REALTORS® can do is, they need to help tell the story as to why housing is needed,” Larson says.
Follow the Facts
One of the biggest challenges in dispelling myths and convincing people that growth is a good thing for their community is gathering the facts. Because land use is governed locally in nearly every state, every individual jurisdiction makes different arguments against growth depending on the specifics of the local landscape.
At UC Davis, Brinkley oversaw the creation of a massive, comprehensive database tracking California’s local land use regulations. The California Inclusionary Housing Programs database is only the second attempt to track and make accessible all the incredibly cumbersome data points in local land use—the first being a “Zoning Atlas” in Connecticut created in 2020 by land-use expert Sara Bronin and a coalition of nonprofits.
In Wisconsin, Larson helped put together another large-scale report titled “Falling Behind” that cast a dour outlook on the state’s long-term prospects for workforce, entry-level housing, citing NIMBYism as one of the barriers to meeting the need.
It is these large-scale data projects that can answer real questions about development that, absent a trusted voice and concrete information, leave room for a NIMBY crowd to create their own narrative.
“All of those decisions are very local and they aren’t aggregated up to the state level,” Brinkley says. “It becomes about changing hearts and minds, which is the aim of the Zoning Atlas in Connecticut and is the aim of our project as well: to make transparent how cities and counties are thinking about themselves.”
There is no one story to tell, because the unique, individual environments of every county, town and neighborhood are all so different in their history, geography and culture. But Larson says REALTORS® are already experts at turning data or facts into relatable stories, and it is their voices that can best change the oppositional, exclusive attitudes of their neighborhood NIMBYs.
“If you start telling it from the perspective of the young family who has written 10 offers to purchase and can’t find a place to live, or the person who is on a fixed income and can’t find a way to downsize to stay in the community, now you’re telling the story from other members of the community who need more housing,” he says.
At the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR), the focus has also been on following the facts. Nadia Evangelou, senior economist at NAR says that NIMBYism had contributed to housing shortages before the pandemic and the pursuit of data showing what, when and where housing needs to expand has been a priority.
“The first step is to raise awareness,” she says. “Using the data to see what is the gap between supply and demand.”
NAR tracks new jobs compared to new building permits as a measure of housing shortages, and just recently launched a Homebuilders’ Local Opportunity Index to highlight areas where there is room to grow. All of this can be used, Evangelou says, to help dispel the arguments that growth is somehow harmful or negative for a given community.
“NAR has actually developed resources for local associations to engage with others in the communities—developers, planners, builders, public officials and other stakeholders on their unique housing issues,” she says.
Consequences and Reactions
As the federal government and the NAR have called for loosening land use restrictions, some of the structural barriers to preventing development may be cracking. In Florida, Ross says the state’s fair housing act has barred municipalities from discriminating against developers based on affordability, and created avenues for developers to quickly get rulings in disputes with local land use authorities. Brinkley and Larson say that local elected officials are, for the most part, well-aware that they need to allow their communities to grow and add diverse housing.
But some simply cannot make the decisions that are beneficial to the whole community without risking their jobs—or even their careers. Ross says she has seen local officials “buckle” in the face of well-funded, politically connected citizens rallying against a new housing development.
“It is enormous pressure,” she says, “and I have great deal of sympathy for the elected officials who are sometimes told, ‘You vote in favor of this development, and we will vote you out of office.’ That is enormous pressure.”
When these projects are pushed out of one jurisdiction, they usually end up going forward in another, often poorer and more racially diverse community, according to Brinkley. In the case of housing, that means young families, disabled folks or renters who are more likely to live in the denser multifamily units NIMBYs oppose get relegated to the margins, in places with long commutes or even where there are significant safety risks.
Brinkley says some of these attitudes in affluent Northern California towns shunted development to areas that were likely to experience fires, which exacerbated the destructive consequences of the 2018 Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in California history.
“Development was being pushed into the foothills,” she says. “When you think about what that community ended up doing in terms of condemning lower-income working folks to live in high-risk areas, it’s morally reprehensible.”
According to Ross, once a group of NIMBYs get to the point of protesting meetings, making matching shirts and filing legal petitions, the damage has likely been done, and no one is going to change their minds. Successful developers reach out to neighbors behind the scenes before projects are started, she says, and before people make up their minds to oppose them.
Going even further, successful communities are open to change, Brinkley says. While many communities value ill-defined attributes like “small town character” or “charming feel” or “community preservation,” in practice these terms often translate to exclusivity and homogeneity—things that are broadly unhealthy for housing.
From a purely financial standpoint, opposing new housing growth is simply bad for the local economy as well, according to Evangelou. On average, a home sale brings in about $94,000 to the local economy, she says.
“More housing brings growth,” she says.
No matter how regulation or laws are changed, grass-roots opposition can still broadly steer the direction a given town or county is going to take in terms of housing growth. Evangelou says that it will take local voices and transparency—from trusted public figures, local news organizations, and of course REALTORS®—to help change the narrative that all or most new development is bad. Ross adds that if people who want to see growth are not involved in lobbying their officials and working with developers, rule changes really aren’t all that effective on their own.
“It’s only as valuable as the education that advocates provide,” she says. “People have to know that exist, and they have to know how to use it.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story linked to a separate housing database focusing on California land use that Catherine Brinkley did not oversee. That link has been corrected to refer to the correct database.
Jesse Williams is RISMedia’s Associate Online Editor. Email him your ideas for real estate news: firstname.lastname@example.org.