Like All Economic Forces, NIMBYism is the Product of Structures, Not Personal Choice
Reihan Salam wrote a piece for The Atlantic in which he said, hey, maybe YIMBYs would get more of what they want if they tried to engage in the compromise and coalition-building that are the core of politics. It went about as well as you can expect - online YIMBYs were too enraged by the perceived slight to their weird little social culture to ask themselves whether it’s useful to have a National Review editor publicly supporting their stated policy aims. Again, you have the necessary and righteous fight for housing abundance on one hand and the YIMBY movement on the other, and the latter seemingly refuses to effectively pursue the former if doing so means they have to drop their insularity and righteousness. I find it, as you know, a great sadness.
One of their core failings, as a group, is to forever make NIMBYism a failure of personal morals. The word “selfish” is constantly invoked by YIMBYs against NIMBYs, for example, under the theory that they’re putting their own self-interest above those of people who need homes. But in fact NIMBYism is simply a naturally emergent behavior that stems from the 21st-century macroeconomic situation. An irony that YIMBYs frequently admit to is that “the righteous throngs who need homes” have a habit of becoming “selfish NIMBYs” in exactly the time it takes for them to close on a house. Or, put another way, homebuyers want prices to be as low as they can find right up until they become homeowners, at which point they want home prices to be as high as they can be. In fact, this happens so regularly that it underlines why it’s so wrongheaded to think of NIMBY behaviors as matters of personal morality at all. Economics is about structural forces in vast systems, not individual choice. And the structural forces at play in NIMBYism can be seen in that chart at the top.
Lately there’s been some modest improvements to wages after decades of stagnancy, in part because of improving conditions at the bottom of the scale driven by greater low-wage worker mobility between jobs. Still, we’re living in a world where most people have not seen substantial growth to their paychecks in inflation-adjusted terms for a long time. Meanwhile, prices in three essential elements of human life - education and childcare, healthcare, and housing - have all risen dramatically in my adult lifetime. This is, obviously, a matter of great concern for regular people. What’s the connection to NIMBYism? NIMBYism rises because housing is the one piece of that awful chart that regular people can get a piece of. Stagnant wages make it impossible to feel like you’re getting ahead. Tuition and childcare are drains on your bank account you can’t do anything about. Navigating healthcare financing is a notoriously dispiriting bit of unpaid labor on top of actually paying for your medical care. Universities don’t have shareholders, and you can’t borrow money against the value of healthcare stocks to buy healthcare stocks. But for a substantial part of the American people (65% of Americans still own their own homes), the rising cost of housing is the one part that can actually benefit their bottom line thanks to the magic of mortgages. It’s an appreciating investment they can actually get into. They can get a place to live and, in doing so, benefit from rising asset prices just like rich people. There’s certainly something selfish about that, but it’s just the selfishness of the system.
Of course, the tactics homeowners use to protect their behavior have deleterious social effects that lead to spiraling housing costs for everyone, particularly in our urban cores. And we need policy that encourages building and drives the costs of housing down, which will inevitably disadvantage some homeowners. Yes, let’s reform and build. Protecting the property values of incumbent homeowners is certainly weighed far too heavily in the system as it currently exists. But in the big picture, the sensitivity of homeowners to those property values is deeply exacerbated by an overall unhealthy macroeconomic state of affairs. If those homeowners weren’t sending every penny to the local daycare or college for their kids, maybe they wouldn’t be so protective of their home value. If those homeowners weren’t struggling to repay medical debt, maybe they wouldn’t fret so much about protecting their only substantial asset. And if their wages had risen commensurate with productivity since the late 1970s, maybe they would worry less about how much they could get for their house if they were forced to sell in an emergency. YIMBYs just about never ask core questions about why NIMBYs are so protective of their house as an investment.
For the vast majority of homeowners, their home will be the most expensive and consequential thing they buy. Nothing they buy will have a more direct impact on their day-to-day quality of life. And the way that they determine if a given house is the right one for them is to say “Do I like this place? Is this a good area? Do I want to live here?” Then YIMBYs come in and say “Hey we’d like to totally transform most of those things that drove your choice about where you want to live, and by the way in doing so we’re going to seriously degrade the price of the single most valuable asset you will ever own.” And then YIMBYs are perpetually shocked and aggrieved that those NIMBYs aren’t on board! Again, yes, the social costs of our current housing crisis are more than large enough to overwhelm most NIMBY claims, though such questions can only ever be answered contextually. I’m definitely in favor of eliminating most of the current zoning hurdles to new buildings. I would love to do a lot of building in desirable places that would upset a lot of NIMBYs. But I would do so sympathetically because I would understand that NIMBYs are only responding rationally to a system they didn’t create under the economic conditions we’ve already discussed. But YIMBYs don’t want to do anything sympathetically. They don’t want to understand that we’re balancing conflicting legitimate interests. They don’t want to do anything but dunk and mock because that’s what’s rewarded in the social culture that is YIMBYism.
YIMBYs constantly confuse second-order tools for first-order goals. I don’t particularly care about zoning reform or new construction as such, I only care about cheaper and more accessible housing. Because these things don’t reflect directly on the zoning reform they're obsessed with, YIMBYs are dismissive of the impact of Airbnb (less than a hundred Airbnbs in Porto, Portugal in 2011, more than 11,000 now) or large corporate landlords (a third of all house sales in the Atlanta metro now going to corporate buyers) on housing costs. They’re not wrong that these are small effects on the overall price of housing, but the sum of small effects is a big effect, and there’s no reason not to talk about small parts of big problems. And to be frank I think most YIMBYs are guilty of getting fixated on the third-order effect of pissing NIMBYs off, again because it’s that third-order effect that’s actually rewarded by their social culture. Also, the YIMBY assumption is always that markets are the proper and inevitable way that housing will be delivered, but there’s no reason that has to be true, which is the basic point Ross Barkan made recently and the point left advocates for housing abundance always make. This points to the lurking issue that there are still really basic divides within the broad left-of-center about the role of markets vs the role of government in solving social problems, and we tend to paper over those divides because our coalition isn’t big enough to splinter and still make change.
Right now, we do need zoning reform; we need to end parking minimums and height caps, to sensibly reform historic district zoning and environmental reviews, and to enact a bunch of other potential beneficial changes. I don’t understand why that perspective is so often treated as antagonistic to the call for social housing that’s built at taxpayer expense, governed by the state, and distributed on the basis of need rather than through the market mechanism. I do understand that some people are just antagonistic to that kind of public venture into markets, but that’s the kind of debate that should be had rather than elided. Either way, to get the good zoning stuff you have to generate the political will to do so, and in order to generate the political will to do so, you have to moderate and build coalitions and all of that other stuff. Too many advocates for zoning and regulatory reform are antagonistic to the idea that there other people can disagree with their proposed reforms without being greedy, evil, selfish dream hoarders. I know that there are YIMBYs who are thoughtful and constructive about this stuff, but I also know that the online culture has only gotten more and more toxic over time. And I think people should ask themselves, can I keep doing this kind of advocacy if I have to stop pretending that NIMBYs are motivated by bad moral character? Would I even want to?