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Where NIMBYism Lurks on the Ballot

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It’s hard to escape the media coverage of the upcoming elections. Congressional, gubernatorial, and mayoral races are attracting a great deal of attention. Also on the ballot, but attracting less media attention, are candidates for city councils. Resist the temptation to overlook these candidates: They wield immense power to help or hinder progress toward resolving our nation’s housing crisis.

Most politicians express support for affordable housing, but during the municipal approvals process they are sometimes swayed by opposition from vocal NIMBYists. (NIMBY stands for “Not In My Backyard.”) There are many examples of city councils blocking proposals that would have increased affordable housing in council members’ communities. One of the most jarring scenarios took place recently in wealthy Atherton, California, home to prominent C-suite executives of tech firms – many of which claim to support affordable housing.

In this case Atherton residents opposed a proposed change to local zoning that would have allowed townhouses to be built. The City Council capitulated to the opposition and dropped the change from its housing plan. 

Even if most members of a City Council support a proposed project, it’s sometimes feasible for one member to derail it. A Slate reporter explains in a 2021 article entitled “City Councils Are Villains of the Housing Crisis” that “Theoretically, members of big-city governing bodies only have a say over big changes such as neighborhood upzonings – that is, when builders are allowed to construct taller, denser structures than before. In reality, however, thanks to outdated zoning codes and other city-run approvals, each local representative exerts a great degree of power over even minute changes to the cityscape.” The reporter identifies New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia as cities where outdated zoning and entitlements policies enable individual representatives to thwart development.

In other words, if you’re a resident of one of these cities, a single member of a city council can derail construction of much-needed housing. So choose your representative with care.  

How do you assess a candidate? First, compare the “message” to the record. Few candidates will declare opposition to affordable housing. But what does his or her record demonstrate? A review should enlighten you. If the candidate is new to the political scene, evaluate his or her platform. According to Shelterforce, the racism and classism that underpin NIMBYism emerge in concerns about “increased crime, traffic congestion, strain on sewers, overcrowded schools, and lowered property values and ‘quality of life.’ Those phrases offer some valuable hints.

The housing crisis will not be easy to solve, but local zoning laws and reforms can help to alleviate it. And voters can help by doing research on their city council candidates before stepping into the voting booth. Look beyond the congressmen, governors, and mayors. The candidates who command little attention from the media can still make a big difference.  

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