In this post, Travis Quigley (U. Arizona) discusses his article recently published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy  about the issues at stake and justifications for and against restrictive zoning policies.

You might think that zoning policy should be politically boring. Instead, there is a high-stakes and high-intensity debate between defenders of restrictive zoning regulations, which currently set aside huge swaths of land for single-family houses, and those who wish to abolish most such restrictions. Defenders of restrictive zoning often are called NIMBYs, for Not In My Backyard; reformers are then called YIMBYs, for Yes In My Backyard. As such things go, each term can be an insult or a point of pride, depending on who’s speaking. In the housing context, the rationale of increasing supply to decrease prices is pitted against neighborhood preservation; the climate context pits ecological conservation against large-scale climate change mitigation projects. The two issues intersect: new, dense housing is far more energy efficient. I focus especially on residential zoning here.   

The stakes really are high. Liberals and progressives are internally divided on the question of where and how the United States should build things — apartment buildings and duplexes, solar farms and transmission lines. NIMBYism, in all these contexts, stands opposed to what Ezra Klein has helped popularize as the abundance agenda for liberalism. Abundance liberals are in favor of building, and building fast, to address crises of housing costs and climate change alike. But building fast requires a tolerance for change, and a tolerance for error.

I’m firmly in the abundance camp. But a central task of philosophy is to charitably understand your opponents. NIMBYism, especially regarding housing, is easy to dismiss as a thin disguise for racism: limiting housing supply maintains high costs, and high costs disproportionately keep out minorities. And there is surely truth to the accusation. There is also truth in the idea that NIMBYism is (perhaps misguided) selfishness on the part of homeowners who wish to keep their property values high. But neither racist nor selfish claims are a good basis for public policy. Is there a more defensible way to understand NIMBYism? And, if so, might addressing the best version of NIMBYism help the public debate progress?

Those are the animating questions of my recent paper in the Journal of Applied Philosophy. I understand NIMBY resistance to the housing abundance agenda in terms of “legitimate expectations.” That piece of philosophical jargon is meant to call out cases when people have expectations that deserve respect. Not all expectations do. When my friend expects me to meet her for lunch, I owe it to her to follow through. But when a savvy thief expects to get away with his crime, we don’t owe him anything, even if he has good reason. When someone buys a house, they generally do so with certain expectations about the surrounding neighborhood: it has certain schools, a certain amount of parking, and, most simply, a certain number of people. The nature of buying a house, typically on a 30-year mortgage subsidized by the federal government, is to make a commitment the area. It only makes sense to make such a commitment on the basis of a certain degree of stability. Consider an analogy to marriage: no one should expect that their spouse will stay exactly the same, but we choose to marry due to certain core character traits that we expect to remain stable.  

The core idea is that expectations about the nature of the neighborhood one lives in seem to be legitimate. There’s nothing clearly unreasonable about feeling undercut if you’ve bought a house in part due to its school district, and then YIMBYs propose re-zoning the area in a way that will have unpredictable (or predictably bad) effects on the schools. So, on this construal, there is a real and defensible rationale for NIMBYism.

The fact that there is some good reason for NIMBYism does not at all mean that YIMBYs should simply concede. In the climate case, building wind farms really will lead to the deaths of some birds. But climate change leads to massive harms as well, including the deaths of birds and other animals. Our ultimate task is to weigh up the reasons on both sides of an issue. Identifying various good reasons is only the first step.

The next step is to compare the good reasons in favor of NIMBYism with the actual power held by NIMBYs. Most zoning policy is conducted at the local level: in districts already zoned for single-family houses, this gives homeowners serious veto power. But, even if my argument about legitimate expectations is right, the interest in neighborhood stability is only one relevant consideration. We also need to consider the broader interests that everyone, and especially the poor, have in affordable (and environmentally friendly) housing. There is no path from a legitimate expectation to a right to fully control the political process. So the charitable reconstruction of NIMBYism reveals that current institutions favor NIMBYs excessively, even when we take their claims in good faith. What should we do? I conclude the paper with some reflections on the idea of monetary compensation for the harms of violating legitimate expectations. I suspect that there is no especially objective method for weighing the interests of NIMBYs against the broader housing needs of the community. But we could make a start on the problem by considering direct compensation for those whose expectations are likely to be overturned. (This doesn’t address, and my paper doesn’t concern, issues around gentrification, which I think are quite different.) How much compensation should be given? That question is likely one for a broader political process. Perhaps state or federal legislation should determine just how much deference we opt to show NIMBYs. But putting that question out in the open might at least reflect that there is a core part of NIMBYism to which we can be sympathetic, even if it can’t be allowed to paralyze our drive to build.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.