Commentary May 20, 2024

NIMBYs and the Damage They do to Communities

NIMBY is an acronym for “not in my back yard.”

It is a pejorative term, and, as I will explain, that is for a good reason. Real estate professionals with any involvement in their community will inevitably get exposure to NIMBYs, and, in my view this should be viewed as an opportunity to show some backbone.

Resisting change is a natural human behavior. Skepticism about proposed additions to the community is not only understandable, but a vital check and balance to progress and the democratic process. Once the process is followed, however, in some instances the opposition to the proposed development or addition dig in their heels. The outcome is in those cases is not the best side of humanity in my experience.

I’ll preface the rest of my thoughts with a few facts:

  1. Communities cannot have leper colonies where anything outside of single family homes with picket fences is forbidden. Healthcare facilities, halfway houses, group homes for the disabled, and related entities are why special use permits and variances exist.
  2. Fear on behalf of children’s safety should never be weaponized. The overwhelming majority of underage abuse victims suffer at the hands of someone they know or are related to.
  3. I am the father of two sons with autism who will never be able to take care of themselves. My brother was hospitalized for a year at age 4. So I have more than my share of experience with people who benefit from some of these facilities.

Some years ago I was asked to speak at a town hall meeting on behalf of a proposed group home for men in recovery from addiction. The facility would require a special use permit, variance, or some other type of approval from the town, and the hearing was to give the public an opportunity to make comments.

There was a vocal opposition to the project. People are entitled to support or oppose matters like this; the issue I witnessed was the lengths some will go to have their opinion dictate the town’s decision. I heard quite a bit of ugliness in that meeting, and when I spoke in support of the project I had a few hecklers ask how much I was being paid to speak. The answer was zero; many real estate agents will steer clear of discussions lie these because taking sides will alienate potential clients in their community. But I felt that I had to speak up, because the data is pretty clear- group homes neither adversely affect property values.

Moreover, the safety concern is also overblown. As I stated above, the vast majority of crimes against children are committed by people they know, not strangers jumping out from behind the hedges.  Of the thousands of child abductions occurring every year in the USA, only a few hundred are committed by strangers.

I wrote recently about another NIMBY situation, that time about the expansion of a children’s hospital. At that time, assertions that property values would plummet were refuted by the fact that values actually doubled, along with a higher sales volume.

NIMBYs are for some agents a touchy subject but not for me. 99% of the time I think they kind of suck. I understand the resistance to change, and a healthy dose of skepticism applied to new projects is healthy. But once the facts are on the table, doubling down on misinformation, baseless assertions, or hijacking the legitimate concerns about the safety of nearby residents and environmental concerns undermines legitimate cases where exploring alternatives should occur.

Recently, an acquaintance expressed to me a concern about the possibility of building a new school in their neighborhood. They said, and with solid evidence backing them up, that the roads were insufficient to service the two nearby schools that were there already. In that instance, I think they had a point. Moreover, their plan was simply to move away if the initiative passed.  That is a far cry from scorching the earth at town planning meetings.

No community can be just cute neighborhoods and a quaint downtown commercial center to the expulsion of other societal needs. Communities needs sewage treatment facilities, school bus parking, recycling plants, public works and garbage trucks, storage for asphalt, salt & sand, hospitals, industrial areas, and yes-affordable/subsidized housing and facilities like group homes and halfway houses for the people who can’t live in picket fence suburbia.

The protests that granting permission for some of these facilities is social engineering seem to miss the point that municipalities that only zone for single family homes on acre lots is in itself a form of social engineering.

Some of the damage caused by the pushback is as follows:

  1. The Streisand Effect: Many prospective home buyers lurk in community social media groups to get the vibe of their possible future home. When this ugliness comes out, it tends to amplify the community in an unattractive way that isn’t truly indicative of the lifestyle there.
  2. When NIMBYs get their way, essential services become hard to get. You may think a medical open door is a magnet for undesirables, but the day you or a loved one has to drive 45 minutes for a service that could have been around the corner, you’ll feel differently. Meanwhile, another town gets the jobs and commerce you could have enjoyed.
  3.  It promotes segregation and de-facto redlining. These services have to be rendered somewhere, and if enough places reject them, we are back to the same problems we faced before equal housing became the law.
  4. The Law of Unintended Consequences. Westchester County has more than its share of communities that appear to be residential utopias, but that comes at a cost beyond mere inconveniences. Among those consequences are children raised in communities where they have no experience knowing people that might look or speak differently than they do. Growing up in an echo chamber is tragic.

I totally understand the resistance to change many have, and I relate to skepticism about new plans for change in a community. But once the facts are presented, all parties need to know that while they are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.