NIMBY, in a Nutshell

The NY Times has an op-ed-ish piece about California NIMBYs (NIMBY stands for Not In My Back Yard). The article focuses on an anti-building activist, but once you clear away all of the rhetoric, this is what it’s all about (boldface mine):

“From my backyard I see the hillside,” Ms. Kirsch wrote from her Hotmail account. “Explain how my property value is not deflated if open space is replace(d) with view-blocking, dense, unsightly buildings.”

I have no desire to rehash the housing wars here, but having made housing most people’s primary savings vehicle has really fucked up the ability to build new housing which many places desperately need. Yes, she brings in all the other arguments, but as long as homeowners have a vested interest in the status quo*, we will continue to have a housing shortage.

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3 Responses to NIMBY, in a Nutshell

  1. Ralston Elko says:

    I have made this comment in other places, but I’ll repeat it here cause I’ve never gotten a good answer to this question: In what universe would more intensive land use decrease this lady’s property value?

    To me, this whole thing rests on a taxonomic error. Real estate is actually 2 things, a building (which is a depreciating asset that should be worth nothing at the end of its useful life) and land.

    As demand to live in a given place grows, it seems obvious to me that the land values will rise whether you construct multifamily or single family dwellings on it! .

    Not only that, but the right to build at higher density on a plot of land has been shown to result in higher land values not lower. Thus property owners in high land value areas advocating SFH zoning are making themselves poorer by doing so not richer. If we were playing in the logical realm here, SFH zoning should be viewed by property owners as an unjust imposition on the land owners ability to fully realize the capital appreciation of the land they own.

    The way I see it, the gordian knot of zoning actually arises from two sources

    1. owners of dwellings that don’t include land and real estate rentiers should really like restrictive zoning because a restriction on the number of housing units means apartment / condo prices are higher than they would otherwise be
    2. the natural conservatism (the pervasive idea that a neighborhood should never change) of almost everyone, aided and abetted by the tragedy of the anti-commons that enables individual landowners to prevent any change in existing land use decisions.

    Number 2 here is really the key I think. The way we do land use in this country gives those of us who hate change the most substantial power to prevent it. This is an emotional thing not a financial thing. But you cant tell the NYT that “I don’t want to live around condos because that’s not what I had in mind 30 years ago when I bought my house” because no one would take that argument seriously (and rightly so!). The property value thing is utterly pretextual and it doesn’t stand up to logical scrutiny if you really think about it.

  2. jrs says:

    I don’t think liking the view of the hillside is always about property values. It can just be liking the view of the hillside. I mean if it’s just urban infill, one can get attached to a vacant lot, but it’s also kind of par for the course it will get dwellings. So sure, I also like vacant lots, but getting attached to a vacant lot *too much* is kind of silly. But getting attached to still rather wild land is another thing entirely. I just don’t think it’s always about property values, with her it may be a focus, but one may not own the property, one may not own a spec of real estate on the planet, and still like the view on the drive to work or whatever. Because much urban/suburban views are so harsh.

    Of course the suburban/natural interface in CA and fire prone states is it’s own thing. It’s mostly a bad idea to build on it period, unless you 100% pave it over (pave paradise and put up a parking lot, which may be the plan), just due to the fire risk.

    • Ralston Elko says:

      Ok, but…. the lady specifically says she’s worried about property values.

      If you’re agreeing with me that her stated concern is transparent bullshit, then we’re on the same page, which is that It’s never actually about property values with these people, it is instead about making sure that the places they live never change.

      The “OMG Property Values” thing is an incoherent lie that comes from the blockbusting era. It was repeated endlessly then and has since become embedded as a thing everyone “knows”, e.g. if we allow a neighborhood to change than the property values will fall, unless of course that change actually increases property values in which case we have a different name for it… gentrification.

      Laughably, the solution to gentrification is the same solution people want to deploy to “protect property values”, which is to use the land use regulation to make sure that no change is ever allowed.

      Whether the rationale is to protect the traditional residents from displacement or to protect the views of the existing residents, It’s all the same bullshit and the point of all of it is to obscure the primal scream coming from people who cannot abide the idea that places naturally change with time.

      The actual solution to this is to allow by-right incremental development with the idea that no neighborhood should experience radical change, but no neighborhood can be exempt from change. Strong Towns has actually thought about this in systems terms, and if you’re interested they’ve done a summary post on it today actually:

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