Proposing a stronger theory of NIMBYism

A lawyer in Austin is working on a more-encompassing theory of explaining NIMBY responses to development:

The key to any strong definition or explanation, suggests Bradford, is that it must go beyond the simplistic idea that NIMBYism aims to protect home value, full stop. If that’s the case, why do some homeowners reject development projects so forcefully while others don’t? Why is California more NIMBY than Texas, for instance, or Austin more NIMBY than Houston? Why is NIMBYism more intense now than it was 40 years ago, when home value mattered just as much to personal wealth?

Bradford builds his own central thesis around the idea that NIMBYs seek to monopolize “access to neighborhood amenities”:

“In the absence of zoning restrictions on the number of housing units in a neighborhood, neighborhood amenities would be a public good. Zoning converts neighborhood amenities from a public good (a partially non-rivalrous, non-excludable good) into a “club” good (a partially non-rivalrous, excludable good). Because “club” membership is bundled with home ownership, zoning causes the value of neighborhood amenities to be capitalized into home prices. NIMBYism can be thought of as the practice of objecting to development in order to protect the value of “club” membership.”…

As for realistic policy solutions, Bradford makes an initial go at these, too. Rather than trying to undo existing single-family zones, he says, an easier place to start would be for local planners and officials to stop automatically applying such zoning to new developments. “There is no particular constituency for zoning fringe greenfields exclusively for single-family use, so cities ought to stop doing it,” he writes. “This practice merely begets the next generation of NIMBYs.”

It sounds like the argument is that property values are part of a deeper desire to protect the neighborhood from use by others. People buy a property with the expectation that they will have exclusive use of particular features, whether that is parks, roads with less traffic, or nearby open spaces.

The policy solution offered above is intriguing. If buyers don’t have any knowledge of how the land nearby might be used, it lowers their expectations about what might be there some day. Still, they might object to any changes – home buyers on the fringe become quite enamored with empty fields. Additionally, this recommendation doesn’t help deal with infill or redevelopment situations.

I wonder if some developer could up the value of their properties by writing into the deed or through some other contract that the land nearby will not change for a certain number of years. Would buyers be willing to pay a premium if that land was controlled and they knew they had exclusive rights to amenities? If a developer couldn’t be sure of the actions of a municipality, perhaps they could purchase a buffer zone that they would control.

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