A forthcoming paper in Perspectives on Politics investigates which local residents are most politically active, specifically with respect to local zoning board meetings:
Scholars and policymakers have identified neighborhood activism and participation as a valuable source of policy information and civic engagement. Yet, these venues may be biasing policy discussions in favor of an unrepresentative group of individuals. Using the case of housing policy, we compile a novel data set on all citizen participants in Planning and Zoning Board meetings concerning the development of multiple housing units in 97 Massachusetts cities and towns. We match these thousands of individuals to the Massachusetts voter file to descriptively investigate local political participation. We find that individuals who are older, male, longtime residents, voters in local elections, and homeowners are significantly more likely to participate in these meetings. These individuals are overwhelmingly likely to oppose new housing construction, and cite a wide variety of reasons. These participatory inequalities have important policy implications and may be contributing to rising housing costs.
Not only were homeowners with a financial incentive to oppose development more motivated to speak out (in the case of Arlington, MA, 39% of the town’s residents were renters compared to only 22% of meeting participants), but they were also able to employ more “sophisticated language,” such as testimony from “lawyers, engineers, architects, and other real estate professionals…to drown out other policy discussion.”
In addition to being overrepresented in public hearings, elected officials report that it is these concentrated interests that have the greatest sway over policy changes. When interviewing the mayors of cities with over 75,000 residents, the study found that “60% of mayors selected ‘small group[s] with strong views” as having a greater influence on housing development than “majority public opinion.” In all cases, the mayors who indicated the greater sway of small groups mentioned those who opposed construction.
While the thesis that NIMBYism is a special problem for the political left is losing its strength in the light of new research, the authors also find evidence for some degree of ideological inconsistency when comparing the results for repeal of Chapter 40B (a Massachusetts law that allows developers to bypass local regulations in areas with low housing affordability).
Promoting affordable housing is generally recognized as a liberal/progressive cause, and data on the failed attempt to repeal 40B support this thesis. However, even in areas with overwhelming support for affordable housing in the abstract, public input supporting specific developments is underrepresented.
For example, in Cambridge, the town with the highest support for 40B (80% of voters opposed repeal), only 40% of comments at development meetings supported multifamily housing. Indeed, almost every town in Massachusetts exhibited higher support for Chapter 40B than for the development of specific multifamily housing projects. While voters in these towns supported affordable housing construction in the abstract, a significant majority of those who attended development meetings opposed the development of specific project proposals.
What do the authors recommend to address this state of affairs?
One way to enhance renter participation is to ensure that they are aware of developments in their community. In many Massachusetts communities, notices are mailed to property-owning abutters. In other words, notices are sent to landlords, not their tenants who actually reside in the abutting properties (e.g. Town of Arlington 2016). In many cases, then, individuals who live nearby may not even be aware of proposed housing developments. Fung (2006) notes that, for institutions of empowered participation to operate effectively, they must be structured in ways that encourage participation by all.
This paper sheds light on the dark side of deliberative democracy. Based on these findings, participation shouldn’t be confused with representation. Indeed, the relationship is often reversed.