Episode 42: How Not-In-My-Backyard Politics Keep Housing Costs High
Expensive housing in major cities is holding back the American economy because new housing developments commonly spark a big “Not In My Backyard” local backlash. Why can’t new housing overcome the resistance? Katherine Einstein finds that the people who show up to planning meetings where projects are discussed are very unrepresentative. They take advantage of reviews and restrictions to oppose or limit housing development. Michael Hankinson finds that renters, not just homeowners, often oppose new housing development in their neighborhood. Citizens recognize the need for supply but still don’t want affordable housing in their area.
Grossmann:This week on The Science of Politics, how local NIMBY politics can strain affordable housing. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
Expensive housing in major cities is holding back the American economy. Policy makers are trying to respond, but new housing developments commonly spark a big, not-in-my-backyard local backlash. Why can’t the broader public succeed in demanding new housing against local homeowners? New research offers two big pieces of the answer.
I talk to Katherine Einstein of Boston University about her new perspectives on politics paper, with Maxwell Palmer and David Glick, who participates in local government. In their forthcoming book, Neighborhood Defenders, she finds that the people who show up to planning meetings where projects are discussed are very unrepresentative. They take advantage of reviews and restrictions to oppose or limit housing development.
I also talk to Michael Hankinson of Baruch College, about his New American Political Science Review article, “Why Do Renters Behave Like Homeowners?” He finds that renters, not just homeowners, often oppose new housing development in their neighborhood. The dynamics are especially troubling in high cost cities, where citizens recognize the need for supply, but don’t want affordable housing in their area.
Grossmann: So, how did we get into this mess? Einstein says, “Local housing policies were designed to stop developer machines, but are not working out as promised.”
Einstein: There’s this really big strand of literature in urban politics, which shows that cities are dominated by developers and growth machines. In many of these accounts, we actually think about neighborhood institutions and neighborhood participation as really serving this valuable role, and serving as a valuable check on developer access. A lot of urban policies are actually built around these assumptions, so we can think about federal anti-poverty programming from the Carter, Clinton and Obama Administrations, that all explicitly created neighborhood institutions as a way of empowering communities, and encouraging input from the neighborhood.
This all sounds like a really good thing. It sounds good for democracy. It sounds good for deliberation. Unless, the people who capture these institutions are actually using them to entrench their privilege rather than serving broader interests. We actually think that this finding has analogs in research on electoral reform, which also finds that many reforms that are ostensibly designed to reduce participatory disparities actually just make those disparities worse, and enhance the interests of the advantage.
Grossmann: Hankinson agrees that the longterm pattern is the decline of central decision making.
Hankinson: You know, we think about why does Nimbyism matter? What’s going on today? It’s important to look at kind of a broader arc of cities and planning, and housing to go back to the 1950s and 1960s. Decisions about infrastructure and housing were made in very centralized form. You could think about, say, a very top down Mayor’s Office looking out over a map of the city and potentially just drawing lines. While that may have been very effective in “getting things done”, there were destructive consequences. As cities began to lose population, decision makers, these centralized decision making bodies, tried to re-attract capital through urban renewal, demolishing areas that were overwhelmingly low income and minority.
Now, the capital didn’t come back from the suburbs, and a lot of the replacement housing that was promised was either never funded, or never built. In response, starting in the late 1960s, there was a massive mobilization among neighborhoods to put a stop to this. Coupled with federal demands that has to be some degree of neighborhood voice, and then cities creating their own neighborhood bodies to ensure that this type of heavy-handed decision making wouldn’t happen again, we’ve seen this grow of kind of this neighborhood-level representation, or neighborhood-level institutions that shape these decisions.
What I’ll say is that when you think about this today, is that these types of institutions are designed to amplify a Nimby preference as this kind of counter-weight to the top down city planning. I think what the research that I’m focused on, as well as other scholars in this area, is questioning has this gone too far? Or, what are some perverse incentives that this type of neighborhood voice has created?
Grossmann: Einstein is challenging the conventional wisdom that participation improves representation.
Einstein: Local officials and urban planners love to tout neighborhood participation and housing development as a means of empowering groups, and especially under-represented groups, to have a say in their communities. In my research with David Glick and Max Palmer, we show that in practice these neighborhood institutions are actually amplifying the voices of a privileged group of individuals who we call “Neighborhood Defenders.”
These neighborhood defenders use these participatory forums to stop and delay the construction of new housing. What this does, is it makes housing in general more expensive in communities where these neighborhood defenders are active, and it restricts access to places with high quality public goods.
Grossmann: Hankinson is challenging the common view that it’s all about homeowner opposition.
Hankinson: I think every housing researcher in this area at one point picks up a book by Bill Fischel on this called The Homevoter Hypothesis. In it, he has a great way of describing what we would think about as the conventional wisdom, because he opens the book with this narrative of he’s on the City Planning Commission in Hanover, New Hampshire, and he sees someone he knows at the meeting complaining about a nearby development, and saying this is a risk regarding the community, and I think issues of flood control.
Fischel’s response is that, “I know this person there. They can’t seriously think this is going to have a detrimental effect on their home value, or their quality of life.” Well, what he comes up with is this idea that these homeowners are incredibly risk averse. In Fischel’s words, “It’s not the expected effect, it’s the variance.” So, this idea that even if I show you that 99 times out of 100 this won’t make a difference, the potential risk it imposes for the homeowner on their home value is a huge concern driving their behavior.
Hankinson: This makes sense when think about what a home is. It’s someone’s likely to be the largest asset they ever own. It’s fixed in terms of physical space. You can’t really move it away from something if your area changes. It’s also very hard to unload if you decide that it’s a bad investment. Selling a home can be a very difficult thing. So, the conventional wisdom is that homeowners would have this type of behavior.
Indeed, when I saw this pop up in both sets of results, both studies that composed this article, I wasn’t very surprised. I consider homeowners to be kind of the default Nimbys. What my research pushes against is how renters respond to this type of incentive structure. I think that the renters are still having a Nimbyism in these expensive cities, a measuring of Nimbyism on par, if not exceeding that, of the homeowners.
It sheds light then on this idea that these renters are similarly viewing these types of changes from a risk averse perspective, because the fascinating thing is that they understand that increase in supply brings down prices. By and large, when I put massive amounts of housing in front of them, the majority of renters support these very large increases in the housing supply. So, they kind of get supply and demand.
But, when it comes to their individual neighborhood, they’re similarly rejecting it. I think we can talk about this later on, kind of the mechanisms behind this around self interest and gentrification, but the study is really taking that conventional wisdom and showing that it exists among renters, but in a very different way than we imagined from the homeowners.
Grossmann: They both drew from personal experience, with Einstein seeing the importance of affordable housing in Wisconsin.
Einstein: Well, I grew up in the most segregated city in the country, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This gave me a really up close view about how where you live profoundly shapes your access to economic opportunities and high quality public goods. I think the second thing from my sort of personal life that made me really care a lot about housing was that I worked for a local public housing authority, and a local nonprofit that helped low income individuals and families apply for public housing and other public benefits.
Those two experiences really brought home to me how important having safe and stable access to housing is, for basically everything else, and how far we as a society are falling short of providing this basic human right for people. Those two things actually just led me down a path of going to graduate school to study urban politics and policy, and led me to have a particular passion for the politics of housing and segregation.
Thinking more about how this ended up being a collaboration with Max and David, we’re co-principle investigators on the Menino Survey of Mayors out of Boston University, which has led us to spend lots of time talking to each other about urban politics in general. They also both bring really important expertise outside of urban politics to this project. Max is an expert on how political institutions affect representation. David’s an expert on legal institutions. I think the work really reflects insights from all of these literatures and these strengths that we bring together.
Grossmann: Hankinson grew up seeing NIMBYism in practice in Pennsylvania, and enlarging his perspective.
Hankinson: I grew up in southeastern Pennsylvania, about 45 minutes west of Philadelphia, which is the kind of area where the suburbs start to, to use a loaded term, “devouring” the countryside. So, growing up, my parents kind of instilled in me this normative sense that when we see orchards and farms turn into 200 home subdivisions, that there was something normatively problematic about that.
In a sense, my parents were very much NIMBYs in their own right. They liked their community as it was, and they didn’t like the change. But, it got me thinking about the issues around suburban sprawl, greenhouse gas emissions, the environmental consequences of these land use patterns. I started thinking about, how do we solve this problem?
What I learned is that everything is connected. What was happening 45 minutes west of Philadelphia was very much the byproduct of what was happening in the suburbs closer to Philadelphia, what was happening in Philadelphia itself, the whole region as a labor market. That led to the political questions of, why is housing so hard to build? Why is it that these subdivisions are going all the way out for lengthy commute in the rural ex-suburbs around Philadelphia?
Hankinson: I’ve been chasing that ever since. This is kind of the first major research initiative that I’ve developed. So, I would say rather than building on prior work, this has kind of set a tone that I’m now exploring.
Grossmann: They both agree on the fundamental problem. As Einstein says, “We’re just not building enough housing in high cost areas.”
Einstein: We’re not building enough housing. There’s lots of different ways you can cut the data, both at the city level and nationally. But, we have more people than we do housing, and we are not keeping pace with population growth. This is not a trend that is equally felt everywhere. There are some cities that are particularly failing to keep pace with their population and job growth. So, these massive housing shortages are dramatically increasing the price of housing in these communities. They’re making it really difficult for low income and middle income individuals and families to afford to live in these high opportunity places.
But, a second really important trend that has sort of been going on concurrently with this, is a massive decades-long federal government retrenchment in subsidized housing. This has had profound effects on low income households in particular. We’re just not investing anywhere near to the same extent as we used to in providing housing for the most disadvantaged individuals and families.
Grossmann: Einstein, Palmer and Glick focus on one big determinant: Politics is about showing up, and the neighborhood defenders are the ones who do.
Einstein: In this article, what we do is we document that the people who attending Planning and Zoning Board meetings are unrepresentative of their broader communities. In the book, what we do is we take a bigger look at land use institutions in general. What we contend in this broader book, called Neighborhood Defenders, is that one of the key and underappreciated ways that land use institutions restrict development is by amplifying the voice of privileged members of the public.
We think there are a couple that are theoretical and political insights that are really important from this. First, it means that it doesn’t necessarily take a large number of regulations to restrict development. Whenever there is a request for a variance or a special permit for a new housing development that necessitates public review, there are going to be opportunities for members of the public to stop or delay the construction of new housing.
Einstein: We think that these forces fighting development are going to be most fierce in privileged communities that have large numbers of what we call neighborhood defenders. We argue that development is going to be really difficult then in these communities that have large numbers of neighborhood defenders empowered by land use regulations.
In contrast, development is going to be much easier in places that are less privileged, and where there are fewer neighborhood defenders, who have fewer land use regulations at their disposal. We find in our book that in high cost metropolitan areas, this means that communities that don’t have a lot of neighborhood defenders fighting housing developments end up being really vulnerable to gentrification and displacement, while advantaged communities remain virtually untouched by development.
We also really underscore that the power that these land use institutions provide to members of the community is profound. It’s difficult to outright block a project, but we find time and time again that members of the public have ample opportunity to delay and shrink proposals, and that this isn’t just something that’s happening for large 150 unit apartment developments, but for small projects, three unit condominium developments.
The book brings a lot of different data to bear to demonstrate these points, so we use data on regulations and permitting to show that more land use regulations and therefore more opportunities for public review, produces fewer new housing units. We also document which kinds of projects come before public review, and again, these are oftentimes really small and mundane housing projects.
You know, the politics of housing, I think a lot of times focuses on these really big housing developments, but oftentimes, and I think most of the housing that we’re getting produced in the average American community is much smaller in scope. We show that once a project is before a Zoning Board, it opens itself up to all kinds of opposition.
We also do a deeper dive into the meeting minutes that comprised the basis for the article in perspectives on politics. These meeting minutes provide extraordinarily rich insights into the tactics that neighborhood defenders use to stop the construction of new housing. We document the incredible expertise of these neighborhood defenders, how many of them are lawyers, realtors, architects. They bring that expertise and use it as a way of fighting the construction of new housing.
We document how many of them use lawsuits or legal threats. We do this both using meeting minutes data, and also looking at data from courts and actual filed lawsuits. Finally, we also look again using the lens of these meeting minutes, at how neighborhood defenders organize themselves in opposition to new developments. We highlight the role of neighborhood associations in particular in playing an important role in, again, amplifying the voices of these privileged homeowners.
Finally, I think the sort of last big contribution of our book relative to the article, is that we consider bigger policy solutions to these trends, and think about bigger strategies for coalition building around housing.
Grossmann: The people who come to local planning meetings are highly unrepresentative in many ways.
Einstein: We can talk about race, home ownership, age, gender, and proximity to a proposed housing development. We find a lot of different I think really important disparities in who shows up to these meetings, and how representative or not representative they are of their broader communities. To me, the disparities that stand out the most were related to age, home ownership, race and proximity into a proposed housing development.
People who show up to these Planning and Zoning Board meetings are much older than the population of their communities as a whole. They are 20 percentage points more likely to be over the age of 50. We find similar levels of disparities in terms of home ownership, that home owners are about 25 percentage points over-represented at Planning and Zoning Board meetings.
The racial disparities are a bit smaller, so white people are about eight percentage points over-represented at Planning and Zoning Board meetings. But, we find that to be really normatively concerning to have that kind of racial disparity. Latino voices in particular are significantly under-represented. So, they’re 8% of voters in the cities and towns that we studied, but they were only 1% of commenters. That’s a pretty sizable under-representation.
Finally, we also found that the people who attended these meetings lived very close to the developments that were being proposed. So, almost half of them actually lived on the same census block as a proposed development. The census block is a tiny unit of geography, that is just the block on which you live. It oftentimes doesn’t even include across the street from you. So, this is really hyper local politics of people showing up to fight developments that are literally right down the street from them.
I think the other sort of depressing finding that we had, we get asked this a lot, are there any cities that do a good job of this? That are good at incorporating more favorable comments? We find in almost every city and town that we study, the vast majority of commenters show up in opposition to the construction of new housing. In liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts where 80% of voters in 2010 adopted a pro-affordable housing position in a ballot referendum, only 40% of commenters showed up in support of the construction of new housing.
This is also a place where there’s been a really active Yimby, or yes-in-my-backyard movement. I think the concentrated costs of new housing weighed against the more diffuse benefits, just fundamentally make it really hard to attract a diverse coalition of housing supporters to these Planning and Zoning Board meetings.
Grossmann: They give lots of reasons for their opposition, but it’s hard to know if they’re genuine.
Einstein: One of the really cool things about studying meeting minutes, is the incredible detail that we can learn about sort of people’s positions on proposed housing developments, and the reasons they give for their positions on housing developments. For about half of the minute meetings that we studied, they provided enough detail for us to code the reasons that an individual either supported or opposed a proposed housing development.
In some cases, we were actually able to read exact transcripts. So, the data was quite rich. We found that people cited traffic and environmental concerns more than anything else as reasons for opposing housing developments. We found that supporters were relatively more likely to mention affordability. One question we might have then is, so how genuine is this? When they’re talking about traffic, do they really mean traffic? Or is that sort of the socially acceptable code word for racial or socioeconomic biases?
It’s obviously impossible for us to know this from the data alone. We can’t tell by reading meeting minutes when someone talks about traffic, or they’re actually talking about race. But, I think we have a couple of pieces of evidence to suggest that race certainly matters to these conversations. First, we are able to find in a few instances, race is present in these conversations, sometimes quite overtly.
People will talk about how they don’t want their communities, which are overwhelmingly white, to resemble other neighboring communities that are overwhelming Latino, or black. So, I think there sometimes is that kind of language where the codes are perhaps a bit more obvious. We also find in our data that when black commenters attend these meetings, they are significantly more supportive of the construction of new housing than any other racial and ethnic group.
This holds true when we control for a variety of individual and-
And this holds true when we control for a variety of individual and contextual characteristics. And so, put differently, white commenters are significantly more likely to oppose the construction of new housing. So, we think that’s another data point suggesting that race is certainly there in the background. It’s also really hard to look at the demographics of participants at these meetings, and the long intertwined history of racial exclusion and zoning, and not think that race is involved.
Grossmann: Officials listen to those who show up, even to mundane concerns that reduce housing.
Einstein: We do a lot of detailed case studies of these meeting minutes to figure out how much public officials are actually listening to these public comments. Because obviously, the participatory disparities are sort of concerning in their own right, but they become especially problematic if they’re actually impacting the decision-making of these local board officials.
And there’s lots of reasons to expect board officials to be really responsive to these kinds of concerns. You have to remember in most cities and towns, this is a volunteer position. This is not sort of a highly trained professional making lots of money serving as a zoning board official. And so, in many cases, if we’re thinking about someone who’s voluntarily serving on a board in their own communities, and maybe hearing their own neighbors showing up to oppose a housing development, it makes sense that you’re going to want to be at least somewhat responsive to sort of the angry crowd in the room.
And that is indeed what we find when we do these more detailed case studies, and look at how board officials take these concerns into account. And so, in our article, we do detailed case studies of Cambridge and Worcester to sort of see how these processes play out in a hot housing market, like in Cambridge. And in a market like Worcester, which is a sort of a more outlying, disadvantaged, old industrial city that has a very different housing market than places that are closer to the city of Boston.
And so, what we find in both of these meetings is that planning and zoning board meetings, they typically start with a developer presentation. So, just to take the Cambridge case, a developer was presenting a plan for a four-unit condominium building with each unit having one parking space. And this four unit condominium building was going to replace an abandoned commercial warehouse. So, the planning and zoning board, they listened to the developer’s presentation.
And then, the board officials moved to ask some questions. And so, in this case, the Cambridge planning board asked some pretty technocratic and mundane questions that seemed generally pretty supportive of the project, or neutral at least. And after that period of Q&A, the proceedings then turned over to members of the public. And so, in both the Worcester and Cambridge cases, the public was almost entirely opposed to the construction, these proposed developments.
So, in Cambridge, all of the commenters showed up in opposition, and they cited the concerns that I think are pretty standard at these meetings related to things like density. They felt this four unit development was too dense, and that it didn’t provide enough parking, and that the decks would impinge on neighbor’s privacy, and they cited potential concerns about structural foundation issues.
In Cambridge, this wasn’t a big development. This was a three, or rather a four unit condominium building that was replacing an abandoned warehouse, and the planning board officials in Cambridge, according to the meeting transcripts, they took these concerns quite seriously. They explicitly cited neighborhood concerns in telling the developer that they wanted to see additional parking in structural engineering studies, and that they wanted the developer to go back and talk to neighbors to come up with a solution.
And so, we found, in our look at the meeting minutes, that the developer came back a few months later. So again, this is a few months of delay of this project. And said that after conversations with the neighbors, he was going to reduce the number of condominium units from four to three, and increase the number of parking spaces from one to two per unit.
Maybe that’s not such a big deal. That was a loss of one housing unit. But when we think about that process getting repeated hundreds and hundreds of times over in cites across the country, it starts to have a really marked impact on the provision of housing in communities and neighborhoods that desperately need it.
Grossmann: Einstein, Palmer, and Glic tried to generalize their results across different communities.
Einstein: It’s Massachusetts, so these cities and towns are going to be whiter, and wealthier, on average than the country as a whole. But that said, there was enormous demographic range in the cities and towns we studied. So, there was a number of larger cities in inter-core suburbs. There were also some diverse places in there as well, and disadvantaged communities, so this wasn’t just studying sort of ultra-rich, ultra-hot housing markets in the inter-core of Boston. We also looked at places like Lawrence, Lorell, and Worcester, Massachusetts, which are all places, older industrial cities, that are farther from the city of Boston.
They’re more racially and socioeconomically diverse, and they have really different housing dynamics from the city of Boston. So, I think the first thing I’d want to flag about our data is that we’re not just looking at places, that sort of high-cost housing markets, the Bostons and San Franciscos. But, Massachusetts is still unique demographically, but also institutionally. Massachusetts is one of ten states in the country that makes it unusually difficult to reform local zoning codes.
So, in Massachusetts and these other states, you have to actually have a super-majority of two-thirds of a local legislative body to change the zoning code. So, again, there’s ten states in the country that do that. So, Massachusetts isn’t alone. But, we might think that it’s somewhat different than other states across the country. And we obviously wanted to make sure that this wasn’t just a story that spoke to the Massachusetts housing market, but one that helped us understand dynamics of housing across the country.
And so, we get at this in a couple of different ways. The first is that we use national level data from a survey of mayors, the Mannino’s Survey of Mayors, where we ask mayors a whole series of questions about local policy and housing policy. And one of the strong findings that emerged is almost two-thirds of mayors believed that housing politics in their city was dominated by a small group with strong views, very consistent with the story that we found in these Massachusetts cities and towns, and that this was a pattern that persisted both in cities with hot housing markets, and also ones that we wouldn’t necessarily think of as having a housing crisis in the same way that Boston, New York, San Francisco, Washington D.C., are having housing crises.
We also did interviews with local politicians, and non-profit advocates in cities outside of Massachusetts, and in a conversation with an alderman in the city of Milwaukee. He described dynamics that were remarkably similar to the ones that we found in our Massachusetts cities and towns. And Milwaukee is a place that has a very different housing market, and a very different institutional context than most of the places that we studied in Massachusetts.
I think the final, perhaps more anecdotal, data point that I’d provide in support of the generalizability of our results is that we’ve presented this research to a lot of different policy audiences, both in high-cost communities and also ones that have much cooler housing markets, and very different institutional context. And in every case, they have found this story to be incredibly relevant to their communities.
Grossmann: They find that the more regulations, the more extra tools neighborhood defenders have to stop development.
Einstein: Each additional regulation, we do this analysis. In our book, we find that each additional regulation reduces the supply of housing in a local community, and we think that one of the key mechanisms explaining this result is that each additional regulation essentially provides another way for neighborhood defenders to delay or stop a project, and another opportunity for public review, and perhaps most problematically, and most expensive for developers, it provides another opportunity for lawsuits.
So, lawsuits are a major obstacle to development. They’re easy to file, and they impose huge costs on cities and towns, and on developers. And so, I think these regulations absolutely provide grounds for this kind of litigious behavior.
I will also say that lawsuits themselves are major obstacles to reform. So, here in Massachusetts, we’ve had state-level reform that allows developers to bypass local zoning codes if the city and town has less than 10% affordable housing stock. And what this may have actually done in practice, at least in some places, is induced angry neighbors to go straight to filing a lawsuit. When they don’t have this public review process, and they want to stop a development, they just go straight to the legal option.
And so, I think that that always creates a significant obstacle to reform, and to producing more housing.
Grossmann: Hankison agrees that more veto points and decision makers reduce housing supply.
Hankinson: Even if I see expressed preference for a large increase in this city’s housing supply, eventually that needs to be cited somewhere, right? So, someone who may vote in favor of a proposal that is very amorphous and very kind of floating in the ether, when it comes to a specific proposal in their neighborhood, they may have this backlash too, which makes the citing very difficult.
I think when we think about the other aspects of development in politics, whether it’s environmental reviews, or zoning reviews, the general change that has happened over time is creating a series of veto points, and decisions made around specific proposals that are very, I would say, maybe ad hoc. So, what we see is that for a specific proposal, you can see community groups mobilize to try and negotiate a benefits package from that developer, and that, even if there is some sort of successful negotiation that could occur, that’s going to add a lot of time in the development process, which increases the cost of building, which dis-incentivizes new development.
You can combine that with questions of the treat of environmental lawsuits, particularly in California. There’s a concept which is very hard to study, but anecdotally, that the California Environmental Quality Act can be used by either angry neighbors, or even labor unions to slow down and hold up potential developments in order to achieve concessions by the developer saying, “We could hold you up in court for a year or more, because of some sort of environmental thing that we find, unless you play ball with us.”
I think the general trend here is that by making things so highly specific, and highly tailored to each individual development, you’re gonna provide these potential veto points, where things can be slowed down or derailed. And what I would suggest is that when it comes to questions of permitting, there should be a more standardized approach, and kind of trying to remove some of the individual questions that make each individual development a masterpiece of art, rather than realizing that this is a hole. If we set up a rules system that didn’t create this tailored negotiating around an individual development, then maybe we could help achieve this broader social goal of affordability.
Grossmann: But his research shows that the broader public may not support nearby housing, even renters.
Hankinson: When we think about public policy, our institutions to site things, like find a location for them, and to site things that particularly society needs, but nobody necessarily wants nearby. So, you can think about, say, a landfill, for instance. That’s a pretty clear case of we need this, but I don’t necessarily want to live next to a landfill.
And when we think about housing, the general belief is that homeowners have these types of preferences, but we really didn’t know about renters, and how they look at this issue of housing that’s so important to their stability. And so, the main findings of this research that I was particularly surprised by was that while renters may overwhelmingly support new housing, in expensive cities where renters are in some of those precarious positions, they also oppose it locally in their neighborhood.
And what this research also shed light on was that this wasn’t just affordable housing advocates who are going out, and very particular about each type of development. This is a systemic preference among renters in these expensive cities. And so, the takeaway I think from this is that even though these renters who are in high cases of housing instability may support housing broadly, but also oppose it in their neighborhood, what this points to is that we need to think about how we’re aggregating these preferences.
And what I mean by that is that because these preferences are scale-dependent, people think one thing when it comes to the city as a whole, but they think something very different when it comes to their individual neighborhood. Because those preferences are scale-dependent, and the scale of decision-making matters, and that’s part of future research to come.
Grossmann: Hankinson starts by observing policy making in progress in a high rent city.
Hankinson: In San Francisco, there’s this rare opportunity in Fall of 2015 where there was a city-wide election, so it was an all-cycle city election, and on the ballet were five propositions related to housing to some degree or another. California is the leading state in having a direct democracy without propositions on housing issues. Really no other state certainly comes close.
And so, I wanted to use this as an opportunity to capture people’s expressed opinions on housing policy, their behaviors when it comes to the voting booth. So, I conducted an exit poll, and my team pulled 26 polling locations. We captured over 1600 responses with a response rate of greater than 45%. And what was also very useful about this poll is that San Francisco is a very unique city in certain features, but this data is transferable, I believe, because not only is it actual policies being voted on, but the off-cycle nature of the population means that they may have been highly motivated around these housing issues, so this may be attitudes similar to those we would find in the other city showing up at a city planning meeting.
And so, what I found was the two key questions that drive this city forward are, “How do you view housing city-wide?” And, “How do you view it in your own neighborhood?” And so, what I found was that when I asked about a 10% increase in the San Francisco housing supply, how did you vote in that proposition? Not only did a majority of respondents vote in favor of this, renters expressed support at a level around in the low 80s, homeowners were in the low 70s. So, renters were more in favor of housing than the renters. And this matches what we would generally expect, that renters are pro-housing to help bring down prices.
But, the surprising finding was in response to a question about their own neighborhood. So, the unique feature of the election was that one of the propositions, Proposition I, would have been a ban on new housing, market rate housing, in the rapidly gentrifying mission district for about 18 months. So, this was a real policy, but I wanted people to think about it in their own neighborhood. So, I asked. I mentioned the proposal, or the proposition, and I said, “If a similar ban were proposed for your neighborhood, how would you vote?”
And the results were shocking. If we look at just people who said yes to the supply overall, vast majority of respondents said yes, build more housing. Even among those individuals, over 50% of renters wanted to ban in their own neighborhood, and renters’ support for the ban was even higher than that of homeowners, even when we control for ethnicity, ideology, and income.
These renters, even the pro-housing renters, were more extreme in their nimby attitudes than wanting to stop new housing in their neighborhood. And this did not line up with any of the expectations that I came in with, or that had been kind of theorized within the existing literature.
Grossmann: He then looks nation-wide using survey experiments, finding renter opposition in expansive cities.
Hankinson: The key feature of the conjoint is seeing two proposals, and just saying which of the two you prefer. So, things I varied were with these two proposals, they were two proposals for new housing developments in the respondent’s city, and I varied the number of units, how the land is currently being used, the height of the buildings, whether it’s owner or renter. But, the key features about this project were how far the building is from the respondent’s home, from two miles away, which for the vast majority of my pre-survey testing is off the map, two miles away, all the way down to an eighth of a mile away, which is just a few minute walk from where you live. So, squarely, in the respondent’s neighborhood.
I also varied what share of that building would be affordable for low-income residents, from 100% affordable to no units would be set aside for affordability for low-income respondents. And so, when we look at this, what I was able to find was how did people respond in their support for a building, as that building moved closer to their own home.
So, the expectations that homeowners have this nimby response is kind of the textbook baseline of nimby, and I need to find that. Homeowners show over a 10 point decrease in support for a building as it moves from 2 miles away to an 1/8 of a mile away. And that holds up across income. It’s generally consistent across ideology. It’s just kind of this baseline nimbyism.
For renters though, it’s kind of unclear going into this how this would play out. On average, renters show no response, no NIMBYism, or sensitivity at all to where the building is compared to where they live. It could be two miles away. It could be an eighth of a mile away. That does not change their attitudes.
This seems contradictory to what I saw in San Francisco, but if I look at the data across different types of cities when it comes to the affordability of the city, if I look at it from the least affordable cities to the most affordable cities, what I find is that in cities that are in the top 20% of the price distribution, these expensive cities very much like San Francisco or Boston or LA, in those cities, renters are as nimby as homeowners when they look at market rate housing that does not have any affordable units in it.
And this very much mirrors the behavior that we saw in San Francisco. When it comes to expensive cities where renters may be very anxious about their housing situation, they show this nimbyism toward the market rate housing. They do not show it at all though towards the affordable housing, which suggests that it has to do with potentially this threat of gentrification rather than just some sort of change in their physical environment.
Grossmann: Renters are concerned with changes to their neighborhoods, and have counter-productive price anxiety.
Hankinson: I’d ask them, along with the homeowners, about a very large 10% increase in their city’s housing supply, and for each respondent, I specified this as being the exact number of units it would be compared to where they live. I used their zip code to kind of really tailor the questions specifically to their context. So, if you were in Boston, you would see a proposal for 27,000 more housing units, making it very clear this is a very large increase in the housing supply.
But when we look at these renters, not only on average do 60% of renters support that kind of increase in housing, but as you move from inexpensive cities to expensive cities, there’s no change. So, it’s not that these renters are opposing housing broadly. What I think is going on comes from the question of gentrification and potential price anxiety
One of the questions I used was I asked the renter to think about the average housing price in their city. Do they want that housing price in the next five years to increase, decrease or stay the same? And I specified that, assume your city’s economy would stay the same. So it’s not that prices are going down because Boston is in a downward spiral. In using this, we can categorize renters as either being what I call price anxious or price neutral. If you’re a renter and you say, it would be in the best interest of the city if prices decreased. You may think that renter is very nervous and aware of the price conditions in their city. If we look at a renter who says prices could stay the same or those few ranchers that said prices could increase, I would call those very price neutral. It’s not a high salience issue. They may not really think about that much.
And the reason why I truly believe this has to do with this pricing anxiety is that the NIMBYism that I found among these renters in these expensive cities, is replicated, is found among price anxious renters in the country as a whole. So even in the entire sample of 3000 respondents, the same NIMBYism occurs among those who say prices should come down, these price anxious renters. But no NIMBYism occurs among those who are categorized as price neutral. So it seems to be that there’s this concern that while it may support housing in aggregate, I get supply and demand, and so maybe that large increase in the housing supply could help the city in the long run. I may be concerned as a renter about the specific unit that’s going in my neighborhood. That presents a short term threat, so even if I agree with supply and demand, I may be opposed to it because if something changes in my neighborhood, who knows if I’m going to be here in five years to enjoy the benefits of it.
Grossmann: Einstein says, their work on who shows up at meetings fits well with Hankinson’s finding on the broader public.
Einstein: I think Mike’s research is great and it really does suggest that just mobilizing more people to attend these meetings is not going to solve the problem. I think it can be really tempting when you hear our data about who’s showing up to these meetings to say, what can we do to make these planning and zoning board meetings more convenient? Can we change the time that these meetings happen? What can we do to motivate sort of a more supportive pro housing coalition? And I think Mike’s research is an important caution that maybe there isn’t as big of a pro-housing coalition, at least as it pertains to specific housing developments, that we might hope. But I do think that the one thing that our research shows that’s really important to take into account is that there’s huge variation in who actually shows up.
And what we show in our research is that there are some municipalities and neighborhoods that are going to have lots of neighborhood defenders show up and make their voices heard, and that those neighborhoods, they’re going to get protected from a development. In contrast, other neighborhoods where you don’t have the same kind of active neighborhood defenders, are going to be really vulnerable to development pressures. And so I think the other thing that our research shows, which is also really important to take into account, is that this kind of opposition exists everywhere. So opposition to new housing isn’t just happening in a high cost housing markets. Across sort of a variety of different demographic contexts, people seek to protect highly desirable neighborhoods in their communities.
Grossmann: And Hankinson agrees that they’re research is complimentary, showing two sides of the problem.
Hankinson: I see our work as solely kind of capturing what I think are the three moving parts of this issue. So the first one being, what are the preferences of citizens, which I think my work reflects on kind of confirming and helping to articulate what this homeowner NIMBYism that we all expect to be out there. What does that look like and how kind of robust is it across ideology and income? And then as well as showing that, hey, this type of preference structure, not an identical feature, but some strong NIMBYism can occur among renters in these scenarios. I highly admire the Einstein, David Glick, Max Palmer, their work and translating that and taking it to the next step of what are these actual behaviors looking like? Who’s showing up to the state planning meetings? What are they saying? We have to think that the elected officials who are making these decisions are working in a very low information environment.
They don’t have the ability to do very large polling studies like you could for as a senate or a congretional district. So maybe that these small interactions at these study planning meetings are kind of what is updating their preferences or at least showing who’s most active, who’s most likely to vote and potentially engage in retribution. So I think what their study highlights though, and kind of looking at the importance of this population that is non-representative showing up at these meetings, and is that extrapolating that to some of my findings. Would be that, in California there’s a lot of movements to try to mobilize renters as this kind of absent silent voice in these local housing politics. One of the Einstein findings is that a lot of these people are rare attendees when the speak up. They may maybe speaking up on a specific proposal that they don’t like.
If that translates and gets replicated among renters who are mobilizing, if you get renter coalitions that show up, not about we need more housing overall, but those coalitions show up in response to specific proposals. Then my findings would suggest that a similar type of NIMBYism would be rewarded. So I think that they’re finding shed light on how does this actually play out and these local meetings. And what mine point out is, well we find this other batch of preferences, so if we push those into the meetings as well, we could also get kind of counterintuitive findings of pro-supply renters, also opposing specific projects depending on where they’re cited.
Grossmann: To Einstein, that means you can easily fix the process by making participation easier.
Einstein: We think that mobilization alone isn’t likely to work. And so, as I said, a lot of people when they hear these findings they say, well, can we hold the meetings in a more convenient time? Maybe we could have like pizza and childcare at the meetings to induce people to come. And so I think a couple of responses to that is first, there’s no good time for three hour zoning board or planning board meeting. I have yet to hear what time of day would magically make people think that is an appealing prospect. But I think even more importantly, political science research on campaigns tells us that there’s no guarantee that even if we came up with some wonderful participation enhancing, perfect meeting time where more people could come, I think there’s no guarantee that these strategies will actually turn out housing supporters.
Some meta analysis of campaigns show us that oftentimes these interventions designed to boost turnout are just boosting participatory disparities. So yeah, they’re increasing turnout, but there’s increasing turnout among the most advantaged segments of the electorate. So a couple of reforms that we think might be more effective because they target land use institutions. So first we think one really basic intervention, which might help at the margins would be to institute waiting periods, where planning and zoning boards might wait a set period of time to make decisions about propose housing developments.
As we read these meeting minutes, time and time again, we heard planning and zoning board officials, immediately after hearing sort of all sorts of angry comments about proposed housing developments, making a decision about what kinds of parking studies, traffic studies or delays they needed to see imposed. And we wondered, it fits with a lot of what we know psychologically about recall bias and the availability heuristic that maybe if planning and zoning board officials just waited even a week, judges have these kinds of waiting periods oftentimes, that we might see a more principled approach that didn’t overvalue the most recently heard angry voices.
We think sort of a second approach that might be effective would be to think about where public input is sort of most reasonable to incorporate, and that maybe it doesn’t make sense to have extensive public review for every project in every neighborhood. But instead, ensure that the public has some sort of say in how zoning is done in a city and what kinds of land use reform is happening at the city level. But then once cities and public residents agree on what zoning should look like, we should allow developers to build up to the limit of local zoning codes, and not required these lengthy public review processes that allow an unrepresentative group of neighborhood defenders to impose delays and additional costs.
Grossmann: And Hankinson says a movement to inform people won’t work and could even backfire.
Hankinson: The salience of the issue has certainly risen within the local political context of these cities. In some states such as California, it’s achieved state level concern, which I think is a testament to how bad things are in California right now. And so, I wouldn’t be working on this if I weren’t an optimist, and so the fact that this is even on a state level agenda in a very serious way is encouraging. I think that there is a challenge among say a YIMBY movement that is very somewhat patronizing or believes that these people just don’t get it. If we do this information campaign and we can persuade them, that will open things up. As I point out, these renters support the idea of housing, they get supply and demand. And some work done by political scientists at Stanford, Clayton Noll and a grad student, William Marble, tries to use persuasive messaging around questions of affordability and if anything, it can backfire.
And homeowners who may be open to the idea of housing when it’s emphasized as will help make their community more affordable, they become less supportive of housing. So I think when it comes to this type of movement, it is encouraging. It’s encouraging that it’s moving up to the state level, which I think is the only way to really address these larger issues. And while I think that the California legislative action could come through in a way, because it’s bundling protections for a lower income individuals with these increases in the housing supply, there could be the risk that if that is able to get over the line in California, it’s the exception that proves the rule. It shows how hard it is to pull off. And so we may not see additional legislation like that.
Grossmann: They both see promise in statewide policy efforts, but the details matter for making them work.
Einstein: California is working on this right now, and as I mentioned, Massachusetts has this form of legislation already in place. Given what we know from other great political science and history works, zoning has this long history of being tied with racial exclusion. And so I think taking state levels steps to reduce the power of exclusionary zoning is great. But I think that these kinds of state level efforts have to be tied with the affordability of a community. So one of the reasons that Chapter 40B in Massachusetts is popular with a lot of affordable housing advocates is because it only puts development pressures on communities that don’t have enough affordable housing. If more than 10% of your housing stock is affordable, which is the case right now in the city of Boston, than developers cannot bypass local zoning codes. So this is only an option in those communities that have not provided enough affordable housing.
And one of the big problems with SB827, which was California’s prior effort at reforming housing, was that it made it much easier to develop a lot of low income communities that already felt like, probably rightfully, that they were bearing the brunt of a lot of development pressures. And so I think if these state level reforms are going to be politically palatable but also acknowledge that sort of disparity in which kinds of places are experiencing development pressures, they need to be tied to the affordability of a local community, which is something that SB50 is now putting on the table.
Hankinson: Well, I’m optimistic about the appeal to the higher level of government as a solution. So something that’s going through California right now is an attempt at passing a state policy that will essentially couple the increased renter protection in areas in exchange for upzoning to allow more housing near transit lines, near clusters of jobs, near areas with good schools, places that we think that more people should should be living. I think that that is probably the direction that this needs to go. Because if we think about advice for policy makers, there is a movement of people who say, people just don’t get the supply and demand question. They need to take a microeconomics course and think about how these things interact. And what my research shows is that actually, these renters are widely in favor of new housing. They get supply and demand, but the structure of it kind of also has the incentive for them to oppose it in their own neighborhoods.
So I don’t think that this persuasive campaigns in specific communities and trying to build a coalition is really going to to take off. I do think that there needs to be some sort of top down control that is also coupled with making sure that the problems of urban renewal and heavy handedness don’t reoccur.
Grossmann: But both are also sympathetic to the concerns that brought the initial problem. Einstein says the missing piece is federal housing.
Einstein: The one thing I want to really flag is we’ve have a lot of people who debate about zoning and upzoning and whether YIMBYs or rent control is sort of the right approach. It feels like oftentimes we’re almost fighting over scraps because of the federal retrenchment in this arena, that we’re having a lot of these debates about what local government could do because the most effective policy player in this policy arena has dramatically cut back in its investments in housing. And so I think fundamentally, if we’re really going to solve the housing crisis, particularly for low income households, it’s going to need to involve a massive investment from the federal government.
Grossmann: And Hankinson says centralized leaders often forced change on underprivileged communities in the past.
Hankinson: These changes occur. When they have occurred in the past, they’ve been channeled into the politically weakest areas. And so the burden of kind of bearing this change, and the externalities associated with it, are concentrated in largely minority, lower income communities. So while the whole city may benefit or the whole metropolitan area, because it’s really a metropolitan area challenge, while the whole metro area would benefit from an increase of housing in certain areas, only certain communities are bearing the brunt of it. So to address this crisis, I think that we need to find ways to more equitably distribute that burden. And it seems to be that historically, there are either certain communities that are off limits that are now highly correlated with older buildings, so a historic preservation question there. But they’re also wealthier, generally whiter homeowner areas, either of the individual city or of an entire metro region. Suburbs are generally considered to be off limits when it comes to increasing their share of that housing burden.
Grossmann: Einstein’s next stop is looking at it from the local officials perspectives.
Einstein: Both in last year’s Menino Survey of Mayors and in our upcoming Menino Survey of Mayors, we’re really gonna think about the constraints that local policy makers are facing in increasing their housing supply. And we’re also going to really think about how local elites are thinking about transit policy. So one of the things in our book that we don’t really spend a lot of time on is variations in elite decision making. We look at sort of how the public is getting involved in these planning and zoning board processes, but we don’t really take… there’s just not enough space in the book for us to really think about how local officials are handling these challenges differently. And so I think that that’s our next big step is to study how local officials think about housing policy challenges and how they link this with infrastructure.
Grossmann: Hankinson’s next work focuses on the importance of institutions in similar processes, like placing infrastructure to address the opioid crisis.
Hankinson: So right now I’m looking at the institutions, and I’m doing this in collaboration with Asia [inaudible 00:17:01], Princeton PhD candidate. And our question is, how does changing some of these institutional structures effect the amount of housing that is produced within the city as well as where that housing is distributed? Because a concern could be that this neighborhood voice is slowing down housing overall. So we should try to have more centralized decision making. But if that just dumps the housing in lower income neighborhoods, then there’s an equity concern there that some places are taking a disproportionate burden of this new supply coming online. And I think this is something with the YIMBY movement, or some of parts of the YIMBY movement largely miss, are the normative implications of just saying build baby build. And so we’re trying to measure that when cities change has this effect where the housing goes along with how much does get built.
But the last thing I’ll say is that I think this is not just a question about housing. When it comes to things that society needs, but maybe nobody wants nearby. This affects really anything that is physically built, infrastructure, energy, and the other big crisis that I’m focusing on is the opioid epidemic. So in work with Justin [inaudible 00:01:00:16], a professor out of Boston University, we’re trying to see the response of individuals to their own community’s opiod epidemic. And is there support or opposition for say, building new clinics that could provide medication. It turns out from preliminary results that the opposition to methadone clinics is bipartisan across homeowners and renters. That’s another thing that we need to find a way to expand the infrastructure, but runs into the exact same problems of risk aversion and people agreeing with the concept in theory, but the implementation and practices is an entirely different uphill battle.
Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center on Soundcloud, iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Katherine Einstein and Michael Hankinson for joining me. Please check out their papers, “Who Participates in Local Government” and “Why Do Renters Behave Like Homeowners?” And then listen in next time.