Research & Policy | August 30th 2018

For decades, conventional wisdom has cast America’s cities as growth machines and looked on suburbs as exclusionary, growth-limiting enclaves whose citizens are known for cries of “not in my backyard” (NIMBY). Today, though, city NIMBYism is ascendant, and many urban renters worry that new development will make their homes less affordable and impel them to leave their neighborhoods, or cause significant changes to them.

In a recent article in the Journal of Land Use, City NIMBYs, NYU Furman Center Director Vicki Been explores the differences between city and suburban NIMBYism and explains why rising opposition to new development, and its increasingly restrictive regulation, matters.

Historically, many scholars relied on a simple dichotomy to explain growth and land use patterns: cities focused on growth; suburbs focused on exclusion, often to the detriment of lower-income and minority families. Yet as cities across the country adopt more restrictive development policies, that oversimplification is increasingly dated. To describe the current landscape, NYU’s John Mangin coined the term “the new exclusionary zoning,” and he and others have argued that the recent urban aversion to development is making city life accessible to fewer and fewer people.

While Been admits that data comparing cities’ regulatory restrictions over time are scarce, recent research has shown that in many cities, housing prices are soaring while new construction stagnates. Moreover, anecdotal information suggests that homeowners and renters alike oppose new development more than in the past.

Why does cities’ newfound NIMBYism matter? In City NIMBYs, Been describes the following reasons:

  • Restrictions on supply increase housing prices, which, in turn, make housing less affordable to a growing number of American families.
  • Restrictions on supply threaten the nation’s productivity because high density results in more communication and a freer flow of information and ideas. Stringent land use regulations, prevalent in some of the nation’s most productive cities, likely impede growth in the nation’s gross domestic product, making cities and the country less competitive.
  • Restrictions on supply can contribute to wealth inequality and segregation by income and race. Seventy-three percent of White households own their homes, as compared to ownership rates of 46% for Latino households and 45% for Black households. Inadequate supply can contribute to these stark ownership disparities and reinforce racial wealth gaps.
  • Restrictions on supply are associated with increased environmental harms because, to cite one example from Been’s paper, lower density often results in more vehicle miles traveled, which contributes to increased air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Given the negative consequences of greater restriction on housing supply, particularly in cities, why has opposition to new development increased so markedly of late? Americans are moving less often, which means their housing and neighborhood conditions matter more to them, and, for that reason, they will resist change to their neighborhoods. And many city residents worry that development in their neighborhoods will increase housing costs, forcing them to leave their homes, despite evidence that additional supply will actually reduce the rate at which rents increase.

(For more on this topic, see Supply Skepticism: Housing Supply and Affordability, by NYU Furman Center’s Vicki Been, Ingrid Gould Ellen, and Katherine O’Regan.)

Even though the recent rise in city NIMBYism makes cities more like their suburban counterparts, important differences remain. Been proposes that resistance to new development in cities “may be more about expulsive zoning than exclusionary zoning.” In other words, while suburban NIMBYism often keeps out low-income and minority households, city NIMBYism seeks to ensure that they stay put, rather than be forced out or displaced by rising housing costs.

Been closes with a call to action: In the face of increased opposition to new development, city leaders must seek to better understand how new development affects neighborhoods and craft context- and community-specific responses to the threat of displacement. We must, Been argues, pay “careful attention to which fears and concerns can and should be addressed, and which must yield to the greater social need to keep our cities affordable and open to all.”

Read the full paper here: City NIMBYs.

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