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About NIMBYism

The following discussion of the NIMBY impulse, ways to respond to it, and some of the research which can be used to allay the concerns of local community members is a thorough overview and reference on the issue. It comes from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 2011 Advocates’ Guide to Housing & Community Development Policy

NIMBYism: Overcoming Community Opposition to Affordable Housing

By Jaimie Ross, Affordable Housing Director, 1000 Friends of Florida

The Not in My Backyard syndrome (NIMBYism) connotes objections made to the siting of affordable housing for reasons such as fear and prejudice. This is in contrast to objections over the real threat of an incompatible neighboring use, such as the siting of a hazardous waste facility near a residential area.

NIMBYism presents a particularly pernicious obstacle to producing affordable housing. Local elected officials are regularly barraged by the outcry of constituents with concerns over the siting and permitting of affordable housing. Consequences of NIMBYism include lengthy, hostile and unpleasant public proceedings; frustrated consolidated plan implementation; increased costs of development; property rights disputes; and an inability to meet local housing needs. There are tools advocates can use to avoid or overcome these objections, usually to the eventual satisfaction of all parties.

Issue Summary

Zoning and land use decisions in general are the domain of local government. Examples of such local-level decision making include whether land is zoned for residential use exclusively for single family homes or whether land can be used for multi-family homes, and whether transitional housing facilities or group homes are considered commercial uses or residential.

Local zoning and land use decisions have historically resulted in racially and economically segregated communities. These decisions continue to be made in an ever more political environment fueled by NIMBYism and NIMTOOism (Not In My Term Of Office). NIMBYs are local residents determined to maintain homogeneous neighborhoods and increase property values and will vehemently oppose the development of affordable housing. NIMTOOs are local elected officials who may or may not agree with the NIMBYs, but will not vote in favor of an affordable housing development if it will jeopardize reelection prospects.

Advocates can defend their communities from NIMBYism in the following ways: Know the law. When discrimination against an affordable housing development is really discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or disability status, it violates the federal Fair Housing Act. Litigation is usually not a meaningful remedy because housing funding cycles are short and court cases can take years to resolve. Often, all advocates need in order to benefit from the protections of the federal Fair Housing Act is a working knowledge of the law and a willingness to make these facts known to local elected officials and government attorneys. In those cases where discrimination is clear and local elected officials act in disregard of that discrimination, advocates may consider referring the incident to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). If DOJ takes the case, it could make future dealings with local government much easier.

Nonprofit developers may be reluctant to challenge a local government over land use issues because the local government provides funds to that nonprofit. A local legal services office or other local advocate for the public interest can argue on behalf of the future tenants or residents who are directly impacted by the land use decision. Developing relationships with such organizations before problems arise can be an effective way to fight NIMBYism.

Educate Elected Officials

Once a NIMBY battles ensues, it is often too late to educate. Advocates should build relationships with elected officials and educate them about affordable housing and its importance to the health of entire communities. Whenever possible, advocates should include bringing elected officials to see completed developments and share credit with them at ribbon cuttings and in news stories.

In regard to a pending development, whether advocates can meet with elected officials depends upon the ex parte rules in each jurisdiction. If advocates discover that community opposition is meeting with elected officials about a development, advocates should try to do the same.

Garner Allies from a Broad Range of Interests

Too often, the only proponents of the affordable housing development are the developers themselves. Whenever possible, advocates should ask members of the business community, clergy, and like minded social service agencies to stand up for an affordable development. Potential beneficiaries of the development, like future residents, can also be effective advocates.

The media can also be an important ally throughout the process of development approval. Whenever advocates foresee a potential NIMBY problem, it is best for them to contact the media first so that they understand the development plans, the public purpose and the population to be served.

Address All Legitimate Neighborhood and Community Opposition

Key to overcoming community opposition is addressing the opposition’s legitimate concerns. Legitimate, non-discriminatory concern around issues like traffic or project design may lead advocates to make some adjustments to a proposed development.

Concern over property values are often the root of neighborhood opposition. For that reason, included at the end of this article is a bibliography of studies that address the assertion that affordable housing decreases the property value of neighboring properties.

Once all legitimate concerns are addressed, if opposition persists, it can be stated with certainty that the opposition is illegitimate and is therefore opposition that would be inappropriate, arbitrary, capricious, or unlawful for the local government to consider in making its land use decision.

Expand Legal Protections for Affordable Housing

Advocate should work for state or local laws that make it harder for NIMBYism to prevail. For example, in 2000, the Florida Fair Housing Act (the state’s substantial equivalent to the federal Fair Housing Act) was amended to include affordable housing as a protected class. In 2009, North Carolina adopted a similar statute to add affordable housing as a protected class in its fair housing law.

Decision makers and their staffs must be aware of the law if it is to be helpful to a cause. The expansion of the state fair housing act to include affordable housing in Florida has been successful only because housing advocates have been conscientious about ensuring that local government lawyers knew about the statutory change. It is now commonplace in Florida for a city or county attorney to inform the elected body during a heated public hearing that they would run afoul of the state’s fair housing law if they deny the affordable housing developer’s application.

What Advocates Need to Know Now

The nationwide downturn in the real estate market provides fodder for opponents of affordable housing. Opposition from neighborhoods or elected officials can now be cloaked in terms of concern over low cost housing market saturation. While the foreclosure crisis and tight credit markets may cause some market saturation of lower cost homeownership housing, it is unlikely that any areas in the country have an oversupply of rental housing for extremely low income, disabled, and frail elderly populations.

A growing opportunity for overcoming community opposition to affordable housing is the adoption of inclusionary land use regulations. The advent of the Sustainable Communities Initiatives and the increasing interest in transit oriented development presents the challenge of how to ensure that sustainable communities are not only for the wealthy and that the increased property values around transit do not price out affordable housing. An inclusionary housing ordinance can be used to ensure that affordable housing is part of sustainable or transit oriented development because it directs that affordable housing be built in a certain location.

Inclusionary housing policy is an optimum tool for affirmatively furthering fair housing and assists in overcoming neighborhood opposition because the local land use law requires that a certain percentage of the housing within a particular geography is affordable. In other words, the not in my backyard argument fails because the law requires affordable housing in that backyard. For those jurisdictions without housing element comprehensive planning requirements, an inclusionary housing ordinance provides local elected officials and affordable housing advocates a clear public interest directive to weigh against neighborhood opposition. In that balance, the proponents of preservation or development of affordable housing should be able to overcome the opposition.

For More Information

The following is a bibliography of property value studies based on statistical and empirical analysis and covering hundreds of case studies from throughout the nation. Virtually without exception, affordable housing developments have been found to have no effect on neighboring market rate property values, and in some instances have increased the value of neighboring property. Local government elected officials and their staff can use these studies as evidence to counteract homeowner fears about loss of property value.

For Information on Inclusionary Housing Policies