Monopolies, Cartels, and Neighborhood Associations

Why are there NIMBYs?

Anyone who follows zoning disputes has witnessed the tense drama of a zoning hearing. The actors: on stage right, a developer’s consultants, armed with pretty renderings of a new apartment building and charts of data supporting the need for his project. On stage left, neighbors decked out in matching, brightly-colored tee shirts, carrying signs, sitting in sullen rows waiting their turn to speak. The hearing begins. The developer makes his case. And then one homeowner after another tramps to the microphone to explain, earnestly and sincerely, that the development threatens his neighborhood’s character, the quiet and peaceful enjoyment of his home, and the safety of his children and small pets. The new residents will be too loud. Or too young. Or too rich or too poor. Neighbors worry about the impact of new impervious cover on water quality, or on the habitat of the state insect. If the neighbors think the hearing is going against them, they will decry the lack of public process. And then the case is put to the commission or council for decision and the hearing ends with the neighbors’ cheers or boos, depending on the vote.

But the odds are, unless you live in one of a handful of coastal states or in a select few cities in the nation’s interior, you have never been to a zoning hearing. Or know anyone else who has. Why is it that some places are hotbeds of anti-development activism? The simplest explanation is that there is no overarching explanation and each concern is separate. This explanation doesn’t pass muster. In liberal cities; development is opposed as a conservative plot; in conservative cities, development is opposed as a liberal plot. The same development is frequently opposed as both raising property values (and hence taxes) and lowering property values (and hence resale prices) at the very same hearing, sometimes in the same testimony.

Among the dazzling array of reasons people oppose new development include:

  • noise
  • traffic
  • flooding
  • loss of wildlife habitat
  • loss of views
  • new residents will bring criminality
  • new residents will like the wrong kind of stores
  • new buildings are boring or homogeneous
  • new buildings are too different from existing buildings
  • new buildings will lower property values, ruining wealth
  • new buildings will raise property values, leading current residents to no longer afford the area
  • developers will make too much money
  • new buildings will overload sewer or water infrastructure
  • new buildings will overload schools
  • new buildings will not have enough families, leading to not enough children in schools

Each of these claims may be true or false in individual cases, and each speaker who stands up at a zoning hearing may believe some or all of these claims. It is not our objective to evaluate the truth for falsity of these claims, but rather to understand why it is such a strong force in some places, but not others. 

We believe that, whatever is in the heart-of-hearts of the individuals speaking,