Beall’s Grant, a bland affordable garden apartment complex in Rockville. Photo from the property management.
I sometimes refer to those opposing any change as NIMBYs, though that’s not precisely accurate. The term NIMBY originally referred to those who wanted projects like highways, airports, or waste disposal facilities (LULUs) but wanted them to just be built elsewhere. That still describes many opponents of local projects, like the “save the environment somewhere else” contingent, but as this article in Planetizen explains, the vocabulary has grown to add such terms as BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) or CAVE people (Citizens Against Virtually
Labels aside, as the article argues, citizen participation plays an important role in development. Developers and government planners often propose bad ideas, and it’s good that citizens have a voice and the power to change them. Jane Jacobs became an activist to oppose a local highway project. This National Academy of Sciences report finds that public participation improves plans more than it damages them. The solution is not to diminish citizen involvement, but to better organize the many residents who share a vision for a better city, not just a static one, and to help the good projects while hindering the bad ones.
Empowering people is always a double-edged sword. Just look at the way anti-bike activist Rob Anderson used environmental law to block new bicycle facilities in San Francisco. But just as democracy is the worst form of government except all the others, the political process is the worst way to resolve an issue except for any other method.
Still, NIMBYism is frustrating. The Examiner reports on a campaign by some Rockville residents to block affordable housing in their neighborhood. All the same arguments show up: it’s “out of character” (four-story buildings next to one-story ones), it’ll create traffic, and the ultimate proxy of subtle racism: it’ll cause crime.
Affordable housing doesn’t mean drug dealers, despite the reputation of old-style Section 8 government projects. Most people living in affordable housing are working to make a decent living; we can’t all be so fortunate to work as attorneys at top law firms. Much affordable housing today is so-called “workforce housing” for police officers, teachers, and others doing important jobs that ought to be better rewarded. It’s in every community’s best interest to have the backbones of their society live in town.
NIMBYism puts governments like Montgomery County in a bind: either they build affordable housing near affluent areas and fight the well-organized political opposition, or they locate it all in the eastern part of the county and open up criticism that the area is “a dumping ground for affordable housing.”
Choosing between bland garden apartments in the richer parts of the county or bland garden apartments in the poorer parts isn’t much of a choice. Imagine, DC wonders if we can’t do better. Auto-dependent garden apartments isolate their residents from the rest of the community, wherever they are. How about some walkable affordable housing near existing town centers and transit, like Wheaton near the mall, by Montgomery College, or (in anticipation of the Silver Line) Tysons?
Of course, organized residents would surely shout all the louder about the loss of character, traffic, crime, school impacts, and all the rest of the standard arguments. At least if we can build near transit, there’s hope that development won’t mean paralyzing traffic.