The NITBY Problem

Usually, the barrier to new development in a neighborhood is NIMBYism: connected local community members do not want the project, saying “not in my backyard.” There’s a wealth of literature about NIMBYs’ role in restrictions on development; William Fischel’s work is a good start, and the short version is that opposition to development is local, based on fear of the risk of decline in property values. Urbanists take it for granted that decisions made with regard to regional rather than local concerns will be more pro-development: Let’s Go LA has examples from Los Angeles, and Stephen Smith explains Toronto and Tokyo’s lax rules on new development based on their high-level decisionmaking (at the provincial level in Ontario and national level in Japan). In this post, I would like to discuss the opposite problem, which I call NITBYism – “not in their backyard.”

In certain circumstances, opposition comes from people living in other areas, who are aghast that an area they don’t live in is getting so much investment. This is more likely to happen when there’s heavy public involvement in development, but, since upzoning an area is a public decision (as opposed to unthinkable across-the-board zoning abolition), opposition can sprout anytime. One common thread to NITBY opposition campaigns is that NITBYs view housing as a good thing, and want it redirected to their areas. Another is that they self-perceived as ignored by the urban elites; this is common to both right-wing populists and left-wing ones. Since the process is heavily public by assumption, the price signal telling developers to build in the center of the major city is irrelevant, and this encourages the government to build more low-value peripheral projects.

The first example of this is when the process actually is public: subsidized affordable housing. As discussed by Daniel Kay Hertz, in Chicago, affordable housing regulations require developers to pay a fee to a dedicated affordable housing fund, which then uses the money to develop or buy housing and rent it out at subsidized rates for moderate-income residents. To minimize the cost per affordable unit, the fund builds the units in the cheapest neighborhoods, i.e. the poorest ones, exacerbating housing segregation. As Payton Chung explains, the low-income housing community networks in Chicago support this arrangement, because they are based in the neighborhoods where this affordable housing is built. This is not as self-serving as the examples I will include below, since the community groups want to see the most number of housing units built at a given cost; but a common feature of NITBYism, namely that the NITBYs view housing as a good rather than as a burden imposed by outsiders, is present here.

In Israel, NITBYism does not have the cost defense that it does in Chicago. Zoning in Israel is prepared by municipalities but must get approved by the state. This means that it is geared not only toward providing services to Israelis (such as cheap and orderly housing) but also toward national goals of Judaization. The worst NITBYism is not affecting Tel Aviv, but Arab cities, where the state refuses to approve zoning plans; since independence, not a single new Arab city has been built, except to house Bedouins who the state expelled from their villages after independence, and plans to build the first new Arab city are controversial on segregation grounds. This is while the state has built many new Jewish cities from scratch, often in peripheral areas in order to ensure a Jewish majority.

However, NITBYism afflicts housing in Tel Aviv, too. Although the state could if it wanted declare a housing emergency and force upzoning in Tel Aviv, it does not. There are few permits for new apartments in the Tel Aviv District (though more new housing sales): only 5% of the national total (including settlements), as per the pie chart on page 17 of the Ministry of Construction and Housing’s report and the more complete (in English) data on page 49, compared with a national population share of 16%; the Center District, consisting of Tel Aviv suburbs (though not the richest and most expensive, such as Ramat HaSharon, which are in the Tel Aviv District), has 22% of national permits, about the same as its share of the national population. This is not just NIMBYism in Tel Aviv, although that exists in abundance. Local politicians from peripheral towns demand local construction, and view Tel Aviv construction as something useful only to outsiders, such as foreign speculators or the urban elite. During the housing protests of 2011, there was widespread debate on the left about what solutions to offer, and people representing the ethnic and geographic periphery were adamant that the state build and preserve public housing in peripheral towns and not concentrate on Tel Aviv, which they identified with the secular Ashkenazi elite. A common thread in housing and infrastructure debates to both working-class Jews from the periphery and Arabs is the demand for a policy that would create jobs and housing in their hometowns, rather than build infrastructure that would put them in the Tel Aviv orbit.

Of the above examples, in Chicago the NITBYs self-identify as leftists, and in Israel, the NITBYs who want local housing rather than Tel Aviv housing either identify as leftists or identify as economic leftists and support the right on security and ethnic identity issues. However, the populist right is not immune from this. Right-wing supporters of suburbs who oppose cities for what they represent (diversity, usually left-wing politics of the kind they associate with the liberal elite) may also oppose urban upzoning. The best example of this kind is Joel Kotkin’s opposition to upzoning in Hollywood, which sounds like a criticism of government projects until one realizes that upzoning simply means developers are permitted to build more densely if they’d like. Now, Kotkin is pro-immigration, setting him apart from the main of right-wing populism, but in all other aspects, his paranoid fear of urban liberal elites imposing behavioral controls on ordinary people would be right at home at the UK Independence Party and its mainland European equivalents. Kotkin is also just one person, but his views mirror those of Tea Party activists who equate dense urbanism with an Agenda 21 conspiracy, to the point of conflating a phrase that means building new suburbs with a plan to forcibly relocate suburbanites to central cities.

I do not know Japan’s regional patterns of politics well, but I know Ontario’s. In Ontario, there is not much us-and-them politics regarding Toronto. There is such politics regarding the inner parts of Toronto – Rob Ford was elected on the heels of an outer-urban populist backlash to David Miller’s urbanism, including the perception that Miller was fighting a war on cars. But there’s none of the hatred of the central city and all that it represents that typifies politics in both Israel and the US. Hatred of the city in the US is right-wing (though within the city, hatred of the gentrified core is often tied to left-wing anti-gentrification activism), and hatred of Tel Aviv in Israel is generically populist, but in both cases, the us-and-them aspect encourages NITBYism.

In the most expensive American cities, this is not a major problem. Anti-urban populism does not have enough votes to win in New York and California, so state control of zoning in those states would not produce these problems. The Tea Party disruption of zoning meeting I brought up above happened in San Francisco suburbs, but did not have an effect on planning; I brought this example up to show that this political force exists, even if in that specific locality it is powerlessly weak. In those areas, local NIMBYism is a much bigger problem: many New York neighborhoods were actually downzoned in the Bloomberg era by local request. The primary problems that would plague state-level decisionmaking are corruption and power brokering, in which politicians hold even straightforward rule revisions hostage to their local pet projects. The us-and-them politics of Upstate and Downstate New York contributes heavily to power brokering, but Downstate’s demographic dominance precludes ideological choking of development.

Within the US, the risks of NITBYism are different. First, in the cost tier just below that of New York and California there are city regions in more moderate states, for examples Philadelphia and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, or possibly Miami (where the county-made rules have allowed aggressive new construction, mostly urban, which Stephen Smith credits to the political power of Cuban immigrants). And second, zooming in on different neighborhoods within each expensive city, the Chicago example suggests that if New York and other expensive cities begin a major program of public housing construction, the community organizations and the populists will demand to spread construction across many neighborhoods, especially poor ones, and not in the neighborhoods where there is the most demand.

As I noted two posts ago, there is a political economy problem, coming from the fact that the politically palatable amounts of construction are not transformative enough to let the working class live in market-rate city-center apartments, not in high-income major cities. Israel could semi-plausibly double the Tel Aviv housing stock; even that requires housing forms that Israelis associate with poverty, such as buildings that touch, without side setbacks. This would allow many more people to live in Tel Aviv, but they’d be drawn from the middle class, which is being priced out to middle-class suburbs or to working-class suburbs that it gentrifies. The working class in the periphery would be able to move into these closer-in suburbs, but this cascading process is not obvious. Worse, from the point of view of community leaders, it disrupts the community: it involves a churn of people moving, which means they end up in a different municipal fief, one with leadership the current suburb’s leaders may be hostile to.

For essentially the same reasons, subsidized housing in the center produces the same problems. If Israel builds a massive number of subsidized or rent-regulated apartments in Tel Aviv, there will be immense nationwide demand for them. Few would serve the residents of a given peripheral suburb, and there is no guarantee anyone would get them. On the contrary, in such a plan, priority is likely to go to downwardly-mobile children of established residents. At the 2011 protests, the people who were most supportive of plans to lower rents in Tel Aviv specifically were people from Tel Aviv or high-income suburbs who wanted to be able to keep living in the area. The community disruption effect of offering people the ability to live where they’d want would still be there. Thus, all the incentives line up behind periphery community leader support for building public housing in the periphery, where there is little demand for it, and not in the center. Even when housing is universally seen as a benefit and there’s no NIMBYism, politics dictates that housing is built in rough proportion to current population (since that’s where political power comes from) and not future demand.

Abolishing zoning is one way to cut this Gordian knot; it is also completely unpalatable to nearly everyone who is enfranchised in a given area. Allowing more private construction is the more acceptable alternative, but leads to the same problems, only on a smaller scale. It really is easier for community leaders to twist arms to demand veto rights and local resident priority than to push for sufficient citywide upzoning to alleviate the price pressure. But in an environment with weak NIMBYs and few NITBYs, fast growth in urban housing is possible.


  1. letsgola

    I think in the US, there is some NITBYism at the governmental level in low-income cities that see investment and rising prices as a way out of social problems. For example, in Massachusetts, it’s clearly the hope that South Coast Rail will “turn around” New Bedford and Fall River, whatever that means for current residents. If you take a zero-sum view of regional development (which I disagree with, but for the sake of argument), allowing more development inside the 128 freeway delays development being forced out to those peripheral cities.

    • Alon Levy

      Ooh, that’s an interesting way of looking at it. Of course the parallel I’m thinking of is Israel’s choking of development in Arab cities, in that these are policies that are aimed at attacking a peripheral them-group and not a city-center them-group. The Israeli situation with Arabs is extreme, but it also occurs with gentrification plans: Yesh Atid, this election cycle’s fashionable center party, in control of the national ministry of finance, is promoting this in Haifa. Its plan to improve low-income neighborhoods is to encourage high-income Ashkenazis to move there, “to bring a high-quality population in” (direct translation of the quote); it claims gentrification is positive.

      • lop

        Much has been written on the problems of the concentration of poverty. Doesn’t replacing some low income residents with moderate or high income residents have the potential to improve matters for those left behind?

        • Alon Levy

          Not really. The problem is that the left-behind poor people are at risk of being displaced as well. Usually, once-but-no-more processes of pain, such as mass layoffs at a corporation or currency devaluation, work by changing the situation in such a way that removes the pressure to engage in more pain: layoffs reduce a company’s expenses and make it more profitable, making it easier to retain the remaining workers; currency devaluation makes exports more competitive and reduces speculative attacks on the currency, improving the economy and removing the pressure to further devalue.

          Displacement is not like that at all. If you replace some low-income residents with high-income ones, it doesn’t alleviate any pressure for displacement, but on the contrary intensifies it, since now there’s a significant minority of local high-income residents who want more services that cater to them, and want to kick the low-income residents out for fear of crime or high taxes; moreover, early-stage gentrification signals to other high-income people that it’s okay to live in the neighborhood, creating more demand among high-income people, who then outbid the low-income residents and displace them. It doesn’t reach a stable equilibrium until a large fraction of the neighborhood’s preexisting poor people have been displaced. In an economic model in which there’s no rent control but also no upzoning, the entire population of low-income renters will be displaced; this is more or less the situation in Tel Aviv.

          • Adirondacker12800

            So? Almost all poor neighborhoods were once at the very least lower middle class. The lower middle class displaced the farmers. The farmers displaced the forest or the velt or whatever else might be there if there were no humans.

  2. al

    There may be a way out if you tie zoning with allowances for variances if the cost of housing reaches a certain threshold. For example:
    If a entry level civil servant can’t afford to rent in the municipality they’re employed in, there should be higher density developments (not public housing) for these teachers, police officers, etc. Cost of living is a big legitimate rationale for union contract raises. If combined with TOD or sited near (easy walking distance) their place of work, it can obviate their need to drive, and allay congestion concerns.
    If a family with metro area/county/town/city/borough median income can’t afford to buy a home/co-op or pay +30% on rent, time active the relief valve and upzone.

    • Alon Levy

      Cops get paid a fair amount; they drive everywhere, so the dampener on city living costs coming from being able to not own a car doesn’t apply to them, but their incomes are high enough to let them live better than most people.

      But anyway, the problem with any upzoning scheme is that it needs to pass a vote somewhere. This includes automatic schemes like this.

      • Derek Hofmann

        Require that each neighborhood be self-sufficient in tax revenue versus city spending, and I think the NIMBYs will disappear when they realize their taxes will be lower if they’ll allow more density and commerce within their neighborhood.

        • Alon Levy

          That requirement is problematic, because low-income neighborhoods take in a lot of money in social services, additional school spending for low-income or ESL students, and policing.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Neighborhoods can have demographic waves too. All those hipsters buying decrepit townhouses in Brownsville will be senior citizens collecting Social Security and sucking up Medicare in 30 or 40 years.

          • Derek Hofmann

            When we absolve a low income neighborhood from any incentive to improve its land use patterns, we keep it trapped in the cycle of poverty.

          • Alon Levy

            I doubt there are ten low-income neighborhoods in the US and Europe combined that have land use problems. Most of the time, when an area is low-income, it does not have strong residential demand and does not have a price problem. If you go to Detroit, Cleveland, Sheffield, or Lille, you’ll find housing is quite affordable, except maybe in a small favored-quarter bubble (in the US) or a small center-city gentrified bubble (in Lille). This is true even if you go to poorer parts of rich cities: the South Side of Chicago is not zoning-constrained. The problem is largely a problem of rich regions.

            Moreover, even in zoning-constrained areas, the scarcity of housing leads to high average incomes, which lead to high tax revenues. Favored-quarter suburbs generate windfall tax revenues, and require few of the government services that low-income areas require. The Tax Foundation had data for federal tax receipts per county ten years ago, which allowed tax imbalance calculations to be made on the county level (the Census Bureau had and still has updated spending data per county). New York, with a little more than 8 million people, had an overall federal tax imbalance of $10 billion. So did each of Westchester County, with 900,000 people, and Nassau County, with 1.3 million people.

          • Alon Levy

            The IRS has tax receipt data by zip code. Counting individual income tax only, New York’s total federal tax receipts (in zip codes starting with 100-104, 111-114, and 116) are $49.2 billion a year, of which $33.4 billion come from Manhattan (100-102). Long Island’s (zip codes 110, 115, and 117-119) are $20.3 billion a year. This is higher tax revenue per capita than the city, and far higher than the non-Manhattan parts of the city. The northern suburbs east of the Hudson, from Westchester to southern Dutchess County (zip codes 105-108), generate $13.3 billion a year, more than 50% more per capita than the city.

            The active community members of Westchester and Long Island know that they pay a lot in taxes. They also know how high their property tax bills are, and what sort of schools they fund. That’s why they fight inclusive housing measures so ferociously: they do not want their housing and their schools to be affordable to the working class.

          • Derek Hofmann

            I should have been more clear. Require that each neighborhood be self-sufficient in *city* tax revenue versus city spending.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Define neighborhood spending. Someone who works in Manhattan and sends her kids to school in Brooklyn where is the revenue generated and where is it spent? Manhattan would be awash in cash if it could keep all the income taxes generated there. Manhattan wouldn’t be Manhattan without spending on the subways in the outer boroughs. Or the schools so there are literate workers.

          • Derek Hofmann

            “The rich suburbs with the $25,000/student public schools are self-sufficient in local tax revenues.”

            Citation needed.

          • Alon Levy

            If School Matters is back online, you can check what their per student spending is. Of course, in New York proper the per student spending on public schools is approximately the same… it takes a lot of mental contortion to look at the tax data and see anything other than “rich people pay more taxes than poor people.”

            But for a sanity check that this is what’s going on, read up on the connection between New England’s use of property tax as the main local tax and its NIMBYism. I think there’s a paper of Fischel about it: the property taxes lead to a focus on constructing idyllic residential suburbs. The citation I have in mind doesn’t go into the social justice implications, but the “no darkies, no poor people” mentality follows immediately.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Whenever someone bitches about how much taxes they are paying I resist the urge to blurt out “I should have such problems”. People who pay a lot of taxes have a lot of income to pay them.

        • Andre Lot

          Couple that with hyperlocal school funding and you have the perfect receipt for replicating intergenerational poverty with utmost efficiency. You’d end up with rich enclaves voting to tax themselves into all the nice things, and poor neighborhoods withering couple miles away, with no hope of reversing course whatsoever.

          Actually, one can get a glimpse of such effects on highly fragmented metro areas like Bay Area or Atlanta…

          • Derek Hofmann

            Because downtowns subsidize the suburbs, I think you’ll see the opposite: money will stop flowing from poor neighborhoods to rich ones.

          • Andre Lot

            @Derek Hofmann, I doubt that is the case in both metro areas I mentioned. The narrative of money outflowing from central city is applicable when you have a strong city concentrating the majority of business and population, and then smaller cities around it skimming services. San Francisco and Atlanta (city), however, do not concentrate the majority of either businesses, employment or population – contrary to New York, Chicago or Denver, where your argument could make sense.

  3. Andre Lot

    In The Netherlands sometimes there is a peculiar dynamic: towns (small ones) opposing developing on a nearby town fearing its increase in size might trigger an annexation process whereby the opposing town gets absorbed into the now-larger town. Reorganization of municipal (gemeente) boundaries happens with some frequency in Netherlands, almost always in the form of merges, and for that reason sometimes you have places opposing grow elsewhere in the region, especially on the fringes of bigger metro areas.

  4. Nathanael

    “The us-and-them politics of Upstate and Downstate New York contributes heavily to power brokering, but Downstate’s demographic dominance precludes ideological choking of development.”

    NY splits more ways than that, really. The political divisions are:
    (1) New York City proper, probably not including Staten Island
    (2) Long Island (Suffolk and Nassau) and Staten Island
    (3) Northern suburbs of New York City
    (4) Upstate cities (Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Binghamton, Auburn, Ithaca, etc.)
    (5) Upstate rural areas
    (6) Albany. (Albany itself is weird and I don’t fully understand it.)
    (7) The Quebec border areas (weird, but so little population they barely matter).
    Ignore 6 & 7 for now; I don’t understand their dynamics at all.

    Obviously NYC itself (1) has a strong NIMBY dynamic as well as a strong “build more” dynamic.

    The upstate cities (4) have a dynamic of “If NYC gets some, we’d like some of that too”, which can be NITBY-like, but isn’t, because it’s always “us *too*”, not “us *instead*”.

    The upstate rural areas (5) often have a dynamic of “take everything away from the evil cities”, which can be very NITBY… but they have no population to speak of, so they don’t matter electorally.

    The northern suburbs of New York (3) tend to vote to support upzoning and transportation improvements in New York.

    The Long Island / Staten Island suburbs (2) tend to vote against them. And to rail against the evils of the big city.

    I’m not sure why there’s a difference in attitude between the two groups of suburbs, but they’ve really started to diverge politically over the decades. This may change again, who knows.

    • Nathanael

      Add one more feature: NYC politicians often like the idea of improving upstate, even if they sometimes seem to treat it as a sort of theme park. This is not how they feel about Long Island.

      Due to this, and the population balances, the Long Island suburbs are actually the big problem when it comes to getting stuff for NYC *or* upstate. The power-brokering between NYC and upstate generally works OK, and the northern suburbs get bits of both pots, but Long Island is usually out there fighting against all of it, so if they can get either half on their side, they can break the deals. And there are a *lot* of people on Long Island.

    • Alon Levy

      Westchester is facing inclusionary zoning lawsuits, which Cuomo is helping the county fight. Could it be pure NIMBYism – build anywhere except in our pretty school districts?

  5. Henry

    If we don’t get a tri-state commuter rail agency up and running, how would a more territorial version of this plan work out? I’m imagining a two-tracked tunnel from East Side Access to Union Square, Fulton, and Atlantic for the LIRR, and another two-tracked tunnel from Penn South to Union Square, Fulton, and somewhere in the general vicinity of Hoboken. The central shared segment between 34th and Fulton could be a large-diameter bored tunnel, with a double-deck upper level for NJT and a single-deck lower level for LIRR (since the 63rd St tunnel can’t handle double-deck cars anyway, or the Atlantic Branch for that matter.)

    • Adirondacker12800

      By the time anything gets done the 63rd St. tunnel will be 125 years old and need to be replaced.

    • Alon Levy

      A more territorial version would look identical, but drivers would change at Penn Station, Grand Central, and either Pavonia or Flatbush.

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