Let’s Talk About ‘NIMBY’

By Peter Dorfman

When are supporters and opponents of Bloomington’s proposal to upzone neighborhoods going to stop talking past one another? An important first step will be for those engaged in the conversation to start seeing each other as individuals instead of dismissing the people they disagree with as abstract, opaque memes. 

This will get easier when we can actually address one another face-to-face again. In the meantime, we can start by acknowledging the stereotypes we’re imposing on one another. Densification opponents tend to see pro-plex advocates as naive, and the controversy as a consequence of a deep and worsening generational divide in Bloomington. We should own up to that type-casting.

This goes both ways, though. I’ve already characterized some of the arguments pro-density ideologues have marshalled in the last 18 months as “straw men,” but I won’t presume to speak for them. I’m not here to scold anyone. But we do need to have a long talk about “NIMBY.”

Too many attempts at dialog about housing in Bloomington have gone off the rails when density advocates summarily dismissed opposition as NIMBYism. Once the label is slapped onto the upzoning opponent’s position, discussion ends, the author is written off and the reader simply moves on to the next TikTok video. 

Speaking for myself…fine. Since I began speaking up about Bloomington’s growth and development plans for the core neighborhoods last year, I’ve been called worse things than a NIMBY, many, many times. The term is intended to be dismissive and derogatory, though, and it’s degrading the debate. It deserves a closer look in a Bloomington context.

Peter Kinder, writing for the Encyclopedia Britannica, describes Not In My Back Yard as “a colloquialism signifying one’s opposition to the locating of something considered undesirable in one’s neighborhood. The phrase seems to have appeared first in the mid-1970s. It was used in the context of the last major effort by electric utilities to construct nuclear-powered generating stations, especially those located in Seabrook, New Hampshire, and Midland, Michigan.”

I like the quote because it cites the classic scenario where NIMBY arises — and indeed, the use of the term has an appropriate context. 

The Context for NIMBYism

The controversy surrounding nuclear power generation was intense in the 1970s. But setting that aside, the Seabrook example is apt because it represented a societal need everyone could agree on. Nuclear or not, the US needed power generating capacity. It had to go somewhere. Wherever it did go, someone would be living within sight of it. And some of those power plant neighbors were bound to object and ask, “Why here? Why us?” 

As long as those prospective power plant neighbors acknowledged the societal need for electricity generation, theirs was a NIMBY argument — we need to have this, but I don’t want to have to be the one to live on its doorstep. 

That doesn’t invalidate the neighbor’s concern, necessarily. A lot of very reasonable people were scared to death of nuclear power in the 1970s, and some of their fears were and are legitimate. But their objections clearly arose from self-interest first and foremost. Then again, all conflict over public policy starts with self-interest.

Power plants, like all industrial installations, are universally considered undesirable neighbors. Richard Rothstein’s 2017 book “The Color of Law,” which we’ve been hearing about a lot in Bloomington lately, documents America’s troubling history of deliberately siting heavy industry next to majority-Black neighborhoods, and away from majority-White neighborhoods. In general, America has been much more accommodating to White NIMBYs than to African-American NIMBYs. 

But NIMBY objections are not solely about proximity to industry. They arise all the time in land use controversies, including disputes over housing, especially the siting of low-income or racially integrated housing. Rothstein exhaustively documents America’s long history of racist-tinged NIMBY objections to housing integration; it’s a disturbing re-education.

But having acknowledged all of that, is the NIMBY stereotype relevant to Bloomington’s current controversy over increased rental apartment density in the core neighborhoods? I don’t think so and I’d like to explain why.

Why ‘NIMBY’ is Off Base in Bloomington

Much of the local opposition to the city’s upzoning plan stems from the fact that it asks Bloomington’s core neighborhood residents — renters included — to make a quality of life sacrifice, by shouldering the burdens of new density (burdens that would not be shared equitably by wealthier, more lightly populated subdivisions on the East Side). So self-interest is a factor.

What’s missing, though, is the universally agreed-on societal need. Generally, opponents of upzoning believe the city’s rationalizations for densification don’t hold up to objective scrutiny — especially the suggestion that dense development will make it any easier or cheaper for low-income Bloomingtonians, or people of color, to find affordable housing. Nor has the city shown that the core neighborhoods are the only logical places to put new density, or the best places, or even the most sensible places.

In particular, the city asked residents in 2019, and asks us again now, to believe that profit-driven, Wall Street-backed developers will convert naturally occurring affordable housing (i.e., old, small houses) into new multi-unit plexes containing market-rate rental apartments, and that this will somehow create affordable housing for marginalized Bloomingtonians. The city has never explained how this works without a large-scale program to subsidize lower-income tenants so they can afford market-rate rents.

The Hamilton Administration has allowed advocates for upzoning, including its new allies on the City Council, to provide the justification. They suggest throwing the neighborhoods open to plex development will generate new affordable housing, make these neighborhoods accessible to residents of lesser means and help Bloomington reduce its impact on climate change. 

Upzoning opponents aren’t buying this. They believe it was resolved in 2019 that upzoning the core will have no foreseeable impact on Bloomington’s affordable housing needs, carbon footprint or economic/racial justice priorities. Upzoning will, however, aggravate the equally urgent problem of wealth inequality in the city, by eliminating the affordable home ownership opportunities found in the core neighborhoods and driving displacement of low-income tenants who live in those older houses now. 

No one with a below-market-rate income will benefit, because Indiana state law prohibits the city from requiring that housing be set aside for low-income tenants, or for owner-occupation. The reality of real estate economics is that all the legal and market incentives drive luxury rental apartment development — not affordable rentals or condominiums.

Developers and their private equity backers will transform the neighborhoods with out-of-scale, overpriced rental apartment structures, securitize their investments in this overdevelopment, and then leave. 

The city will get new apartments generating new tax revenue — which is, despite all the altruistic rationalizations, the real underlying motivation for upzoning the core. The core neighborhoods have built lots, with existing utilities, sewers and streets. Developer costs are cheaper; building is a more attractive opportunity and likelier to happen, sooner than it would if development were located in the many underdeveloped areas of the city where dense housing could go

Is Self-Interest Driving the Opposition?

If upzoning opponents argue against turning Bloomington’s core over to developers and their investors, does that mean they oppose economic or racial diversity in their neighborhoods? Not at all. Consider the Near West Side, where Bloomington Cooperative Living, a non-profit co-op housing operator, is currently renovating a long-vacant property on West 9th Street.

The project will put 18 people in a single 7500-square foot house. You would think a neighborhood that has fought densification since the start of the UDO review process would vehemently oppose such a plan — but it has supported BCL’s project almost unanimously. Why?

Because the co-op is immediate, literally affordable housing. BCL will be able to house families at $500 a month, give or take. Actual low-income residents will actually be able to live in our neighborhood, and everyone can see clearly how this works. Yes, the neighborhood gets a little denser. But it gets genuine additional diversity, which new luxury apartment development will never generate.

If you’ve read this far, are you still convinced upzoning opponents’ arguments can still be casually dismissed as one-track, self-interested NIMBYism? I suggest a deeper introspection.

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