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Culture War Roundup for the week of February 6, 2023

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Confession - I am a NIMBY (Part 1/2)

There, I said it. In the circles that I reside in, calling someone a “nimby” comes with a clearly negative connotation, such a strong negative connotation that it stands alone as an argument in favor of any given development or policy change. To make sure that I’m thinking clearly and not just embracing the term because I’m a contrarian (although I am admittedly a contrarian), I turned to Wikipedia to make sure I had a sound working definition:

NIMBY (or nimby),[1] an acronym for the phrase "not in my back yard",[2][3] is a characterization of opposition by residents to proposed developments in their local area, as well as support for strict land use regulations. It carries the connotation that such residents are only opposing the development because it is close to them and that they would tolerate or support it if it were built farther away. The residents are often called nimbys, and their viewpoint is called nimbyism. The opposite movement is known as YIMBY for "yes in my back yard".[4]

Well, now that I’ve got a clear definition, yes, that’s exactly me. I support good things in my neighborhood and I’m against bad things in my neighborhood. I even embrace the implied hypocrisy of saying that I don’t care if other people want to have bad things in their neighborhoods, it’s really up to them whether they accept or refuse those things. In the event that such a thing is truly necessary for both neighborhoods to succeed and that one of us must accept the bad thing, I embrace Coaseian negotiated handling of the externalities.

Let’s move on to some concrete examples of my nimbyism. The first one that pops to mind are the frequent local proposals for homeless shelters, family shelters, and similar structures and aid organizations. One of my best friends used to live in a condo that was seated next door to one of these, which gave them a rather first-hand and literal application of what it means to say, “yes in my backyard” to this sort of project, and it was about as unpleasant as you’d expect. The frequency of parking lot fights, ambulances in the middle of the night, and police presence were, again, about you might expect. Without regard to whether such organizations are actually helpful or not, should I want to accept such a similar proposed structure in my backyard? The answer that I give is a fervent no, that inviting the indigent to my neighborhood will make it a worse place to live in just about every conceivable way. I want indigent populations removed from my neighborhood as soon as practicable and legal for the police to do so, for the incredibly obvious reason that this makes my neighborhood a better place to live. Some people feel quite differently from me on this - perfect! Since I don’t want drug addicts and crazy people in the park across the street and others say they don’t mind, we have a Pareto optimal solution. If they actually do feel that there is a cost, we’ll have to come to some sort of Coaseian handling of externalities, but I’ll at least have extracted the concession that it actually does suck to have hobos in your park.

Moving on to one that’s a little less plain to see and that is even more galling to those that think the nimbies must be stopped, let’s talk a bit about housing density. Madison currently faces a housing crunch, caused by economic opportunity and geographic constraints. The city has an unusual abundance of high-skill job prospects as the state’s capitol, home to a large and prestigious university, and large software and biotechnology sectors that have spun off of that university. Geographically, the heart of the city is the largest American city situated on an isthmus, just about one mile wide, running between a picturesque pair of lakes. The city has an ordinance protecting the prominence of the state capitol building, keeping the overall aesthetic of the skyline as it has been. It is also famously tedious to deal with when it comes to historical preservation; if you’d like to enjoy some ridiculousness, check out this recent argument about a bar that Al Capone apparently went to. As a result of these factors, that slice of land is a surprisingly expensive place to live for the Midwest.

Despite the prices, I elected to settle here anyway and I really do love this city. I love the beauty of the city, the historic skyline, the lakes, the biking, the fitness culture, the breweries, the cheese, the parks, the huge farmer’s market, and much more. I even love that it’s the kind of place that a fake Indian nonbinary lunatic would set up shop for fun and profit.Others in my city share that love, but think it should be a cheaper place to live, that we should increase housing density, and this is basically a human right. One recent opinion piece on this has a decent enough piece on a rather villainous and peculiar bit of law here:

An ordinance the Madison Common Council adopted in 1966 defines a “family” as “an individual, or two (2) or more persons related by blood, marriage, domestic partnership, or legal adoption, living together as a single housekeeping unit, in a dwelling unit, including foster children,” though city ordinance does carve out some exceptions for roomers, children, group homes of people with disabilities, and so on. The implication for renters is that, depending on the zoning of an area, it might be technically illegal for more than two unrelated people to live in an apartment together. Restrictions are also tougher for renters than for people who own homes. In our scenario, if one of us had been able to buy a home, it would have been legal for us to live together, but as renters, it would be illegal in most residential districts to share a home.

The neighborhoods with the greatest opposition to this change are already some of the most expensive in the city. Homes currently for sale in Dudgeon Monroe, Vilas, Greenbush, and Wingra Park range between $625,000 and $1.3 million for a 4 bedroom home. They’re not your typical target neighborhoods for student housing. UW-Madison undergrads are a smart bunch, but likely very few of them have the time, money, and energy to hollow out your neighborhood of expensive homes. Most of them are perfectly decent neighbors, too, by the way.

The fact that the current ordinance doesn’t relate to use, but is more about who, is an indicator that it is designed to be discriminatory. While more explicit restrictions against poor people, young people, unmarried people, or students living in certain homes would certainly violate fair housing laws, these thinly-veiled discriminatory ordinances seem to fly under the legal radar. Still, one could argue it does violate city protections based on marital status, income, as well as student status. It actually could be cause for a lawsuit. Some municipalities’ family definitions have been struck down by courts in various locations around the US, and the Attorney General of Wisconsin in 1974 wrote an opinion that these ordinances “are of questionable constitutionality” under the Fourteenth Amendment. It’s discriminatory enough that housing is so gosh-darned expensive—do we really need unjust zoning ordinances on top of the price tag?

Here’s where I bite the bullet and go full nimby - yes! I am in favor of exactly that in my neighborhood. I want to live next to married couples with decent careers. My experiences with poor people and the transiently coupled have shown me that they’re lower quality neighbors. Even aside from trustworthiness, transience, investment in the property, and quality of friends and relatives, we simply don’t share the same cultural norms and preferences. I would rather be around the petit bourgeois. Back to the distinction between being a nimby and having a broader policy recommendation though - I don’t care if someone else in some other neighborhood would like to get rid of this sort of restriction, it’s not like I have some moral prohibition on there being poor people with roommates, I would just rather that my neighbors be a nice married couple that is going to stick around a while. I’ll even cop to the even more villainous take that I rather like the high property values here in part because they serve as an effective barrier against living around the kind of people I don’t want to live around.

Confession - I am a NIMBY (Part 2/2)

Zooming out to a somewhat ridiculous degree, I find that I extend my position on this all the way up and down the ladder of my preferences and politics. When I consider immigration, for example, it’s not that I’m against all immigration to my country or that I think other countries should necessarily restrict free flow of movement, it’s that I want my nation’s policy to reflect what will be good for our (rather large) neighborhood. We should identify what is good for our neighborhood and choose to do that. In the event that cooperation with other neighborhoods is required, we should sort this out by negotiations to price externalities. There are going to be some pretty obvious agreements about what’s good for the neighborhood and these disagreements can occur between reasonable and well-meaning people, but we’re going to have a tough time getting the terms of debate to even begin to make sense if we can’t agree on whether the improvement of our neighborhood is the priority.

In all of these cases, the counterargument, as I understand it, is that while these things might be good for the current residents of my neighborhood, they’re not good for the potential future residents of my neighborhood. This is where I find it difficult to rebut the argument on its own terms, as it is evidently coming from a perspective of utilitarianism with little or no discount as one moves out the concentric ring of association. I don’t share that perspective and feel little or no responsibility to make my neighborhood more accessible to those that aren’t presently members.

In pondering this a bit yesterday, the part that I find most interesting in the efficacy of “nimby” as a sneer word against an opposing position. How did it come to be that even people that hold fundamentally nimby positions mostly recoil from being called nimbies? I think I found something like an answer in a recent Reddit thread on the putative housing shortage in Madison:

NIMBYs won’t let anything be built and this is what happens. There is not enough housing in the area but Madison-area NIMBYs are fake progressives who don’t actually care about the working class. Their number 1 priority is preventing multi family units from being built near their unremarkable mid century homes.

I think that’s it - progressivism demands the sort of egalitarianism that precludes one from saying that their backyard holds any particular value to them relative to other backyards. If something is good, then it must be good everywhere, which means that you must accept it in your backyard. Opposition to development is (correctly, I think) identified as anti-egalitarian, hierarchical, and classist.

In any case, I expect that people will continue to want good things in their neighborhood and not want bad things in their neighborhood. I hope that they regain the inclination to reply simply, “not in my backyard”.

I think you're too focused on trying to win obvious rhetorical concessions against very online urbanist YIMBYs and not really dealing with the issues at hand. Except for some urbanists and WEIRD people, I think most people would love to live in a suburban neighborhood in a beautiful location with people of only their socioeconomic class and culture and a short commute to work with easily available parking. I'm on the YIMBY side, but I have no issue admitting I would absolutely love that living situation, but the issue is that maintaining such environments in the face of economic headwinds isn't done through Coasean negotiations but through government restrictions on property rights that create deadweight economic loss.

YIMBY's are mostly progressives trying to convince blue city governments so they make arguments about egalitarianism and diversity but I don't think economic development is inherently progressive or egalitarian. Logically as a city increases in population some part of it will have to increase in density or it will sprawl infinitely. The point of YIMBYism/fewer restrictions on property rights is to let the market decide where density increases, not which neighborhood is better at lobbying the local political system.

Now you may say, my backyard is special and I value it over economic efficiency because I discount the value of future/geographically distant people who may want to move there. But if everyone applies this logic to their backyard we make it impossible to increase housing density anywhere, we underproduce an important commodity, and we get a housing affordability crisis. That's great for you because it increases the value of an asset you own, but it's bad for society as a whole because it reduces economic dynamism which libertarian economists are keen to remind us has diffuse benefits

For example, the value produced by biotech firms gets siphoned off by Madison area homeowners who used control of local government to enact regulations that restrict housing supply, raising prices, so that biotech firms have to offer higher wages to induce skilled workers to move there. This slows the creation of an agglomeration effect in biotech and reduces the margins of biotech firms, slowing the rate of innovation which would be beneficial to society as a whole.

Economic geography changes all the time; the places where young talented people want to move changes as different innovative fields develop new industry clusters, the places where hardworking blue-collar people migrate from or to changes as different extractive or manufacturing industries rise and fall. If we want a dynamic economy we have to accept there will be large population transfers and we need a system of housing production that facilitates such transfers. The people who live in a place affected by such a transfer will resist the change to the place they live, they'll want subsidies for public services in half-empty cities, or to ban housing to be built for newcomers where the market determines it should be built. If everyone is allowed to impose regulation or appropriate public funds in order to preserve the character of the place they live in the way it was when they got there we get sclerosis and massive deadweight loss. You don't have to train yourself to be a self-denying online YIMBY who insists that there's no downside to living next to a homeless shelter, but you do need to come up with an argument for why NIMBYism isn't just everybody defecting in a prisoner's dilemma.

The point of YIMBYism/fewer restrictions on property rights is to let the market decide where density increases, not which neighborhood is better at lobbying the local political system.

Essentially nobody really wants the market to decide; online YIMBYs just say that to try to recruit online libertarians. But they just want opposite restrictions. Parking maximums instead of minimums, setback restrictions, tax schemes favorable to density, etc.