What Is a NIMBY, Anyway?

published Sep 11, 2020
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Nope, not in here.

You may have heard the acronym NIMBY tossed about, and may even know what it stands for: Not in My Back Yard. In the simplest terms, a NIMBY is someone who opposes some form of new development in their community or neighborhood. 

What that innocuous-sounding definition fails to capture, however, is the immense power of NIMBYism. While one ornery homeowner at a community meeting can’t single-handedly halt a construction project, a handful of them can make city councilors second-guess their support, or make the process so drawn out and difficult that a developer gives up or runs out of money.  

When harnessed for good, such resident resistance has saved entire neighborhoods from demolition—such as the community activism that spared parts of Boston and Cambridge, Mass., from being razed for yet another highway in the late 1960s and 1970s. 

But just as often, NIMBYism serves to impede progress toward fair and affordable housing, exacerbating housing shortages and strengthening and solidifying long standing patterns of inequity and segregation in our communities. 

NIMBYs often don’t think of themselves as such; in fact, they might be quite progressive on most issues, at least in theory. They may donate money to homeless shelters, support public transit and bike lanes, and vote in favor of funding for affordable housing—until such projects are proposed in their own neighborhoods. 

Then, out come the usual complaints: Yes, we need X, but it shouldn’t go here. There’s not enough parking. It’s going to cause more traffic. It’s going to create noise or public disturbances. It’s going to cast a shadow on my yard. It doesn’t fit in with the character of the neighborhood. The schools will get too crowded. 

Beyazmin Jimenez, co-founder of Abundant Housing Massachusetts, says some community pushback is understandable and can be constructive, but many of the arguments levied against housing developments can be coded in racist and classist language. Some of it is “definitely code for ‘We don’t want Black and brown people here,’” she says.

For example, Jimenez hears the “overcrowded schools” argument trotted out time and again, and notes that, while it sounds innocent enough on the surface, it often belies an uglier instinct. 

“We’ve seen that hurled at affordable housing developments, saying, ‘We don’t want our schools to be packed, because most of these people moving in here are going to have three or four children,’” Jimenez says. “It’s making that assumption that the people who are moving into this development are somehow going to be a problem, somehow going to be a nuisance, and they want to shield their children from that. That’s a much different argument.” 

The people who show up at town meetings tend to be older, whiter, and wealthier than the community as a whole, according to a Boston University study, and are much more likely to oppose whatever development is proposed. In many communities, this unrepresentative group has an outsized influence or veto power over what gets built—and what doesn’t. 

Jimenez hopes more young and minority residents feel empowered to participate in such discussions as well. “There’s that underlying note of who gets to say they belong, and who gets to claim a right to their space in their community? And oftentimes, it happens to be homeowners who have property values to protect,” she says, or lifelong residents. “Sometimes that will come up at a community meeting—people will say, ‘Well, how long have you actually lived here? And why do you feel like you have something to say?’ So it’s that type of attitude that discourages participation from younger, Black and brown people.” 

Some NIMBYism seems completely understandable. One of the first mainstream uses of the term was in the Christian Science Monitor in 1980, which noted the industry slang for communities and residents who opposed the creation of nearby hazardous waste dumps. Who could blame them? But the reality is, even most unsavory projects have to go somewhere—and NIMBYs often simply shift the burden to less advantaged communities. 

As more and more people come to recognize the intersectional relationships between zoning, racial equity, and housing affordability, a YIMBY (Yes, In My Backyard) movement has started to gain traction. But NIMBY instincts are still very much alive—indeed, boosted by the president and housing secretary—squashing everything from a forward-thinking development in Plano, Texas, to the use of hotels as temporary homeless shelters in Los Angeles and New York

During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, neighborhood NIMBYs even forced towns to shut down or relocate much-needed drive-up testing sites, citing traffic concerns. As city planner Nolan Gray wrote for Bloomberg CityLab, “At first glance, it might seem like efforts to block potentially life-saving public health screenings and complaints about community character have little in common. But in both cases, the formula is the same: Whether out of an understandable fear of the unknown or a selfish desire to shift the burden elsewhere, local impulses are given veto power over broader social needs.” 

And that, in a nutshell, is the governing power and philosophy of a NIMBY: Not in my backyard—but how about theirs?