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NIMBYism and local control

Above: the NIMBY spirit

After pointing to studies showing that “local control” over zoning means empowering a highly unrepresentative set of affluent incumbent property owners, Will Wilkinson explains the implications:

The process is dominated by pretty literal NIMBYism. Among other things, this tends to push development into poorer, less white neighborhoods where participation in public meetings is less likely and resistance to proposed projects is less stiff. This often leads to gentrification and the displacement of long-time residents who get priced out of the neighborhood.

Fear of gentrification and displacement is a major reason that input from poorer renters at planning meetings, though less negative than that of wealthier homeowners, is nevertheless more likely than not to express opposition to new development. They would benefit from a general increase in local housing supply, which would help hold their rents down, but new development in their backyard can easily lead to a big increase in rent.

Poorer renters might not need to oppose a gentrifying new condo or apartment complex if wealthier homevoters hadn’t chased it out of their neighborhood first. When a project is being considered for a posher part of town, that’s when poorer renters really need to show up to defend their interests. But how are you supposed to know about a proposed development in some wealthy neighborhood? How are you supposed know that there’s a good chance that it will end up in your neighborhood if it’s rejected elsewhere?


If you’re white and relatively wealthy, local government represents you pretty well. As Jessica Trounstine shows in Segregation by Design: Local Politic and Inequality in American Cities, this is both a cause and effect of the residential segregation zoning codes were written to enforce. Cities and independent suburbs are jurisdictions for the provision of public goods such as sewer systems, roads, schools, and police protection as well as public amenities such as parks and swimming pools. Supplying these goods and amenities is the primary function of local governments. The quality of these goods and amenities directly affect real estate prices. At the same time, property taxes are traditionally the largest single source of municipal revenue (other than transfers from the state government).

The fiscal interests of cities therefore align with the financial interests of property owners in rising property values. Because the quality of public goods and amenities is capitalized into housing prices, homeowners prefer higher to lower quality in public services. At the same time, homeowners prefer lower property tax rates. One way to prop up property values though high-quality public goods without paying exceedingly high property tax rates is to concentrate spending on high-quality services near wealthier homeowners while providing them at lower quality for renters and poorer homeowners.

But this is impossible if these populations are mixed in together. To gerrymander the quality of public goods, each population needs to be clustered together and separated in space. Because proximity to poorer populations is bad for property values anyway, the motivation of wealthier homeowners to keep their neighborhoods uniformly higher-class is overdetermined. Segregation allows them to focus public spending on themselves (they’re paying for most of it, after all!) and leave those on the “other side of the tracks” with rusty water, overflowing sewers and self-patched potholes.

As with anti-vaxxism, there is no genuinely progressive NIMBYism, just reactionary positions couched in progressive language by people who don’t want to think of themselves as reactionaries. And prioritizing “local control” is as democratic for housing policy as it is for schools, which is to say not at all.

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