Homeowners and landlords are (usually) the big winners from restrictive zoning codes. When the supply of housing is artificially restricted, buyers and renters bid up the price of available space–a windfall for the owners of that space.
But, while renters are the ones who win from increased housing development, why is it that voters in majority-renter cities, such as San Francisco, seem to oppose new housing developments near them even if they support housing growth more broadly? A new paper by Michael Hankinson published in American Political Science Review seeks to answer this question:
How does spatial scale affect support for public policy? Does supporting housing citywide but “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) help explain why housing has become increasingly difficult to build in once-affordable cities? I use two original surveys to measure how support for new housing varies between the city scale and neighborhood scale. Together, an exit poll of 1,660 voters during the 2015 San Francisco election and a national survey of over 3,000 respondents provide the first experimental measurements of NIMBYism. While homeowners are sensitive to housing’s proximity, renters typically do not express NIMBYism. However, in high-rent cities, renters demonstrate NIMBYism on par with homeowners, despite continuing to support large increases in the housing supply citywide. These scale dependent preferences not only help explain the deepening affordability crisis, but show how institutions can undersupply even widely supported public goods. When preferences are scale dependent, the scale of decision-making matters.
The results of the study can be lumped into three main findings. First, why do renters behave like homeowners and become NIMBYs, while remaining broadly supportive of increased housing supply? Though supportive of more housing on the macroscale, renters may oppose development on the microscale due to physical disruptions, competition for nearby public goods (e.g. parks), or the inconvenience of living near a construction site.
Some of these concerns are valid (though don’t justify restricting development), but there’s a darker side to NIMBY motivations. Hankinson hypothesizes that “residents may be concerned about the demographics of the new arrivals themselves [which] may stem from either direct racism or a belief that diversity itself will lower property values.” Other research confirms the need for zoning and land-use regulations to de facto segregate.
In general, these concerns add up to “anxiety,” particularly among those who are concerned prices will increase as neighborhoods gentrify.
Second, and perhaps most interesting, renter NIMBYism disappears when renters are asked about low-income housing compared to market-rate housing. “For affordable housing, renters do not exhibit NIMBYism…for market-rate housing, renters in the top quintile [of rent paid] display NIMBYism.” It’s easy to understand why those paying the most in rent would be skeptical of “market rate” housing–to them, the market seems to have failed (anti-developer sentiment may also play a role here), when in reality the market hasn’t been given a chance to succeed.
Finally, Hankinson discusses the ways local control at the neighborhood level enables these anxieties to hamper development. Neighborhood control became popular during the Great Society, and NIMBYism first took place in urban areas in response to the construction of Robert Moses-style highways through major urban areas. Unfortunately, greater control at the microscale gives residents (particularly well-established homeowners) the ability to keep development out of their backyards.