YIMBY sign spotted in Lanier Heights, DC.  Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

As the affordable housing shortage grows increasingly dire in the Washington region and around the country, it's important to ensure that debates about this issue are accessible to everyone. However, the virtual alphabet soup of urbanist jargon can prove confounding for outsiders. In order to clarify some common attitudes towards affordable housing, I propose a classification system that defines typical strains of supporters and detractors. 

Going beyond the notorious NIMBY

For urbanists, perhaps no label is so reviled as NIMBY. It literally stands for "Not In My Back Yard" but has become a catch-all term for those who oppose new development – often, in the eyes of detractors, for selfish reasons that make things worse for everyone.

Of course, as with any label, NIMBY is too simplistic to capture a set of people who approach development from different perspectives and situations. So-called NIMBYs offer a multitude of varying – even contradictory – reasons for their anti-development stance.

A recent working paper from the Nall Research Group, Beyond “NIMBYism”: Why Americans Support Affordable Housing But Oppose Local Housing Development, attempts to delve deeper into NIMBY opposition, drawing more distinct categories based on the nature of the opposition. I think it’s a useful framework for trying to understand what is going through people’s minds.

Categorizing supporters and detractors 

The Nall paper divides supporters/opponents of development into four quadrants: Pro-Development Liberals, Anti-Development Liberals, Libertarians, and Conservatives. In addition to being a little unwieldy, I don't think it makes sense to use these kinds of political labels in housing debates which easily transcend traditional partisan lines.

While keeping their basic framework, I’ll use the following terms instead:

Image by the author.

First, for a few definitions: In the Nall framework, “development” essentially means market-rate housing. “Redistribution” means government interventions in housing, such as Inclusionary Zoning (IZ), rent control, and public housing projects.

My categories are fairly straightforward. A YIMBY (“Yes In My Back Yard”) supports both new development and policies that help address issues like displacement and segregation. The latter is the key differentiation between YIMBYs and Market Urbanists, who take a more libertarian approach and are highly skeptical of government intervention. Market Urbanists think reducing and reforming housing regulations (see: Houston) would benefit everyone without the need for specific “affordable housing” policies.

Affordable housing opposition is BANANAs

NIMBYs and BANANAs (“Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything”) are often conflated, but there are key differences. In this framework, NIMBYs are more likely to identify as politically liberal or progressive. They are especially prevalent in left-leaning urban areas. For example, a survey of Bay Area voters cited in the Nall paper found “large proportions of voters [who] are pro-redistribution and supportive of additional housing aid, but express negative sentiment towards real estate developers and private-sector apartment development.”

BANANAs, meanwhile, expressed low support for development of any kind, whether market-rate or redistributive. Their lack of support was only marginally affected by changes in the characteristics of the hypothetical project, topping out at only around 30 percent of respondents approving of a market-rate development two miles away.

This is an important thing for housing advocates to keep in mind. While it would be nice to get total agreement on any given project or policy, it’s a simple fact that some people are simply BANANAs – their views aren’t going to change based on how a housing development is designed, described, or marketed.

By contrast, NIMBYs do change their attitudes based on the characteristics of a project. Unsurprisingly, NIMBYs were not fans of market-rate housing within a quarter-mile of their own homes (in their backyard, you might say). In fact, their rate of opposition to these projects was virtually identical to BANANAs.

But, crucially, the redistributive aspects of a project made a huge difference. Remember that in this context, NIMBY refers to self-described liberals; they believe in public policies that help the poor. A majority (55 percent) of NIMBYs surveyed preferred close-in, low-income housing over farther-away market-rate housing.

That’s a striking finding: even people who describe themselves as skeptical of new housing change their tune if the project appears to help the poor.

The huge ($1.6 trillion) question is whether this survey-based NIMBY preference can make a difference in the real world. After all, time and time again we see new developments – environmentally-friendly, infill developments with affordable housing set-asides – opposed by ostensibly liberal neighbors, contributing to a housing shortage in the areas that need it most. What can housing advocates do to change the dynamic?

In my second post tomorrow, I'll explore which pro-affordable housing arguments can be convincing to Market Urbanists and NIMBYs.

Ben works in public affairs by day, does theater and improv by night, and is a nerd about transit, housing, and urban development at all times. His play CAVEAT, a comedy about four young adults searching for affordable housing in DC, ran at the 2017 Capital Fringe Festival. Like many insufferable Millennials, he lives car-free in a Capitol Hill group house.