USING THE NIMBY LABEL TO DISCREDIT THE HOUSING JUSTICE MOVEMENT
"New Tower Development" by Matt Brown is licensed under CC BY 2.0
As a planning consultant, I was intrigued when my colleagues labeled residents who opposed a development project as “NIMBYs”. Sometimes the label was appropriate; in fact, planners often encounter people who are stubbornly against any kind of development in the area where they live. It is also common to encounter a more perverse xenophobic NIMBY reaction to certain kinds of development, like mosques, transitional homes, or low-income rental housing. These cases represent the conventional understanding of “the NIMBY syndrome”. But as I saw in practice, NIMBY is also used as shorthand for any local opposition to development, with little consideration as to whether the term fits the actual motivations and positions of people involved. When used in this way, the NIMBY label can effectively stigmatize organized communities as irrational, selfish, or simply wrong.
In this article, I consider how this kind of broad brush usage of the NIMBY label creates exclusion that is counter-productive to progressive and equitable solutions to the housing affordability crisis. For this purpose, I draw on the example of two sets of actors engaged in public debate around the crisis, and the discursive relationship between them. One is the Yes-In-My-Backyard, or YIMBY, movement, which advocates for new housing development, especially in high-demand urban areas, as a means of lowering the price of purchasing a home and to ‘revitalize’ struggling neighbourhoods. The other is the housing justice movement, which also supports new housing development, but especially affordable housing for people in the most need, and which fights against gentrification. In this article I speak primarily of these movements as they are in the United States and Canada, though versions exist in other nations across the world.
In debates around new housing development, some YIMBYs have used “NIMBY” to label viewpoints that, in their view, are detrimental to relieving the housing crisis. This use of NIMBY draws not on the traditional definition of the term, but on the more colloquial image of an uninformed, selfish agitator. And because housing justice advocates are often resistors of new luxury and market-rate housing development, they are specifically targeted as disruptive NIMBYs. With this ill-fitting use of the NIMBY term, YIMBY rhetoric asserts the universality of market-based framing for urban housing development. Such usage marginalizes not only alternative solutions to the housing crisis, but also the representation of working-class and radicalized communities who are most adversely impacted by gentrification and housing inequality.
Framing the Housing Crisis: YIMBY vs. Housing Justice
Both the YIMBY and the housing justice movements represent urban residents impacted by the housing crisis and support the development of more housing to alleviate the crisis. Both are engaged in public discourse around urban planning and housing development through various advocacy campaigns, blogging and activism, including involvement in formal public participation procedures. Where the movements differ is how they frame the housing crisis, who they represent and the kind of urban development they call for.
The YIMBY movement frames the housing crisis in terms of the increasing inability of people to purchase a home and enter the real estate market. The YIMBY argument stresses that housing costs are high because there is rising demand but limited supply in urban markets, and also holds supply and demand mechanisms as the central levers for alleviating the crisis. YIMBYs enthusiastically support market-rate and luxury housing, because in their view this increases supply and improves affordability. This is the idea behind YIMBY slogans like “Build more housing” and “All housing matters.”
YIMBY groups are largely constituted of, and represent, a class of people who face challenges buying a home, typically young professional workers hoping to get into the real estate market. The housing justice movement, on the other hand, advocates primarily for renters who are at risk of, or already experiencing, a high rent burden, substandard housing conditions, and/or the pressure of displacement. Even when these groups can secure housing, they are often at risk of having more of their income go to housing costs and less to food, healthcare, and education. This group of people are disproportionately people of colour, immigrants and low-income or working-class. These communities are not just kept out of the housing market, they are literally pushed around by the housing market, thus connecting the housing crisis with broader experiences of racial and citizenship status based injustice.
The housing justice movement frames the housing crisis in terms of rising housing costs, increased eviction, homelessness and displacement in high demand urban markets. In this view, the root of the crisis lies in market distortions caused by land speculation and wealth inequality. Housing justice advocates push for building new affordable housing. At the same time, they resist new market-rate and luxury development, which they see as contributing to rising rents and preventing affordable housing being developed in prime locations.
Contra to the YIMBY frame, the housing justice movement appears as a challenge to the accepted market-based understanding of urban planning. Through the YIMBY logic, resisting market-rate and luxury development exacerbates the crisis, and therefore signifies a miscomprehension of planning “reality.” It would seem that the main criterion that makes one group “YIMBY” and another group “NIMBY” is support for, or resistance to, status quo development. But it is a mistake to understand housing justice movements as simply anti-development. Nor is it true that these movements have poor knowledge of urban housing challenges and solutions. Rather, the housing justice movement is aligned with a more social economy approach to the preservation and production of affordable housing, including interventions like rent control, better protections against evictions, funding for affordable housing located near public transit and public land trusts. Any claim that housing justice movements are NIMBYs is a misuse of the term.
Whose voice is heard?
Far from a pedantic concern, labeling housing justice advocates as NIMBYs has important effects on the treatment of different voices in public discussion about the housing crisis. The NIMBY is held to be the antithesis of the expert with technical knowledge, the legitimate and authority in urban development discourse. In discursive forums, to be labeled a NIMBY is to be characterized as a bad actor. Calling others “NIMBYs” is another way of saying, “we don’t need to listen to them.”
YIMBYs, on the other hand, have an easy time participating in public discourse. They speak the language of real estate development. YIMBYism enjoys affirmation and support within planning and real estate debates where supply-side framing of the housing crisis has significant currency. What planner wouldn’t be influenced by a sharp millennial confidently saying all the right things about density, mixed-used and transit-oriented development? In the spaces of participatory planning and public discourse, YIMBY voices often count more than others.
But those ‘others’ include communities who are most in need of affordable housing and most likely to be displaced. Forums for public discourse on planning issues strive to be inclusive and democratic, yet differences in: language; education; visible minority status; capacity to volunteer one’s time …the list goes on… create persistent barriers to participating. Women, people of colour, recent immigrants, low-income and working-class people are especially marginalized in discussions about city development. The correlation between the communities who face the brunt of the negative effects of the housing crisis, and the communities who are most often left out of forums for planning discourse. is greatly concerning for the overall legitimacy of any inclusive public conversation regarding the crisis.
For these reasons, it is especially harmful how some in the YIMBY movement have used their platform to characterise housing justice advocates as NIMBYs. YIMBYism’s rhetorical use of the NIMBY label wrongly stigmatizes people who are among the most adversely affected by the crisis (or the housing justice advocates who represent them). Some YIMBYs have gone so far as to suggest housing justice advocates are partly to blame for exacerbating the housing crisis with their politics. Others have even called for reducing the degree of public involvement in planning approvals for housing development as a fix for the so-called disruption of rational planning decisions. While these statements may not be shared by every YIMBY group, they should not be taken lightly. Researchers Erin McElroy and Andrew Szeto, in their article on YIMBY and housing justice frictions in the San Francisco Bay area, argue that YIMBYism, by espousing market capitalist goals of urban “revitalization,” has attached itself to racial logics similar to the traditional white suburban NIMBYism that opposes development for racialized poor communities. It may be true that, despite YIMBY rhetoric, the movement actually has more in common with NIMBYism than it would seem.
The NIMBY Label: More Divisive than Descriptive
The effect of the NIMBY label is simple: it draws a line between “us,” the rational public-minded voices, and “them, ” the self-interested or xenophobic others. It can be necessary at times for actors in deliberative settings to draw boundaries around who or what can be considered to contribute toward appropriate and useful outcomes. But boundaries also have the effect of creating exclusion and barriers to representation. This creates a difficult situation for organizers and participants in public discourse. How does one know what boundaries are appropriate and equitable?
The situation gets especially messy when boundaries are drawn based on possession of appropriate knowledge or appropriate ways of deliberating. Principles of inclusive and rational deliberation, important as they are, are also very effective tokens for signifying whose voice counts and whose does not. If one group can label another as being irrational or against the public-interest, that group may claim a discursive ‘high ground’ over the other. Hence the YIMBY tactic of labeling the housing justice movement as irrational, self-interested NIMBYism. The solution here is not simply to counter YIMBY arguments, but to appreciate how actors in urban development will seek to establish a particular vision as the universal way to frame urban problems by drawing boundaries, thus foreclosing on other visions and the persons who advocate them. YIMBYism’s misappropriation on the NIMBY label carries the implication that market rationality should be the rubric for legitimacy of participation in debates over housing development. Considering the dominance of YIMBY style market-based framing within planning, it is worth asking whether planners and planning institutions responsible for stewarding public discourse on housing development are susceptible to delegitimizing housing justice advocates in the same way.
Discerning appropriate usage of the NIMBY label from purely rhetorical usage can be hard to do, since the meaning of “rational” or “public-interest” in any situation is as much a product of power as it is a product of reason. And, as McElroy and Szeto explain, where the line between YIMBY and NIMBY reifies racial and class divisions, the product is discrimination. Therefore, planners and organizers must proceed skeptically whenever the NIMBY label is used – or better, avoid using it at all – and seek to expand the scope of voices represented in planning discussions, specifically working-class and radicalized communities like those represented by the housing justice movement. Where these voices are not present, they must be included. Where they are present, they must be foregrounded to counter their marginalization.
I would like to thank Marie Kennedy and Kuni Kamizaki for the very useful suggestions they made to improve this article.
Andrew Morgan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Geography and Planning at the University of Toronto. His research is in the areas of deliberative planning practices and public engagement with urban development and policy.