By Paavo Monkkonen & David Adler
The cry of Not In My Backyard—of NIMBY, as the movement is known—follows a basic script. Protect the neighborhood, its children, its character. Communities around the world mobilize these concerns in order to prevent the construction of new prisons, power plants, or whichever new development is threatening to move into their backyard.
In the case of housing, neighborhood associations are the NIMBY frontline. According to these associations, new high-rise housing will erase low-rise heritage. Increased density will put a strain on local facilities. Construction will damage the environment. New people in the neighborhood will cause problems.
In many cases, these associations succeed in preventing new construction. We argue here that this presents a complicated tradeoff for the city. On the one hand, it appears to be a victory for preservation, conservation, and local democracy. On the other hand, we will show that it is a loss for housing affordability and the equal distribution of urban amenities.
With an increasing rate of urbanization worldwide, the conflicts between NIMBYs, developers, bureaucrats, and low-income urban residents are intensifying. These conflicts will, in many ways, determine how cities grow, change, and accommodate new residents and those without resources and or political agency. We use the cases of Mexico City and Los Angeles to illustrate how these conflicts are playing out across major cities—and how they will shape their urban development for years to come.
The importance of NIMBYism and local control over urban development is well known in the United States, but less so in other countries. Mexico City has a longstanding set of neighborhood associations, some of which are immediately recognizable as NIMBY groups. By comparing NIMBYism in Los Angeles and Mexico City, we gain perspective on the role of the local context in shaping the actions and outcomes of neighborhood groups seeking to block development.
In Los Angeles, NIMBY power and local control over land use has contributed to a crisis of housing affordability. Mexico City’s neighborhood associations wield far less power over land use, and as a result developers build almost at will. Together, these cases illustrate the twin perils of excessive local control of land use and excessive developer control of housing production.
The California NIMBY is infamously strong. According a local expert, California has actually “honed NIMBYism into a state specialty.” In Los Angeles, neighborhood associations fight against the construction of new and higher density housing in the name of ‘Slow Growth’—a type of urban development that favors small, low-rise housing over high-density construction. Even “mansionization” has become an object of resistance and successful restrictions have been imposed by NIMBY groups.
The numbers are not on their side. Scholars at the UCLA Luskin School have identified LA as the least affordable city in the United States. LA renters pay 48 percent of their income on rent, and homeowners pay 40 on their mortgages. This lack of affordability is directly connected to limited supply. Compared to other major U.S. cities like San Francisco and New York, Los Angeles has the lowest vacancy rate, the smallest number of housing starts, and the fewest permits per capita.
LA’s affordability crisis is in large part a result of the strength of its NIMBYs. The graph below, from the dissertation of University of Calgary Professor Greg Morrow, shows how the city’s capacity for accommodating people has been in drastic decline since the 1960s—they heyday of America’s urban expansion—when LA homeowners fought for the decentralization of planning power. At the community level, homeowner groups pushed policies that would limit density, increase lot sizes, and add miles of parking lots. Housing capacity fell from 10 to roughly 4.3 million people between 1960 and today, while the City of LA’s population has grown to 4 million.
NIMBY forces continue to exert influence on LA’s housing and land use policy. Single-family units occupy the vast majority of LA’s territory, which means that homeowners are “disproportionately represented in mayoral voting,” according to a recent poll. The result is that neighborhood organizations can push local politicians and councilmembers to fight local changes. In a time when state policy and expert consensus points to increasing density near transit neighborhood groups have railed against new developments along the Metro’s new Expo Line and won significant victories to decrease their density.
At times their complaints seem reasonable. NIMBYs complain that developers wield too much power in city hall and developers have deservedly earned a bad name. The David and Goliath narrative of fights against greedy capitalists is captured in a glowing feature on Robert Silverstein, the attorney that fought against new Hollywood developments on the basis of earthquake safety. “He has faced down the City of Los Angeles, its teams of attorneys, its deep pockets,” the LA Weekly reports. “And five times in front of five different judges, Silverstein has prevailed in his legal battle against Mayor Eric Garcetti’s push to transform Hollywood into a kind of dense, Century City-meets-Warner Center skyscraper zone.” This fight might be appealing: preserve our city against capitalist interest. Unfortunately, the larger results are not.
NIMBY groups in Los Angeles have not only contributed to the city’s housing crisis. They have also exacerbated the divide between the city’s wealthy and poor neighborhoods. Los Angeles’s low-income residents already live in high-density areas—areas where housing stock expansion has meant more affordability. It is little surprise, then, that low-income homeowners also fight for Slow Growth.
Yet, in comparison with their wealthier neighbors, they maintain far less influence in city hall. As a result, low-income communities are slotted to receive the bulk of LA’s new housing developments. Residents with resources keep the poor out. The poor neighborhoods are expected to accommodate new growth. The NIMBY movement fixes inequality in the map of the city.
In Mexico City, NIMBYism is known as vecinocracia, or rule by neighborhood association. It is also widespread. With neighborhoods that date back over five centuries—and ruins that date back over eight—preservation in Mexico City is a major urban planning project. As in Los Angeles, residents of historic neighborhoods have often fought against land-use changes or new housing developments.
As in Los Angeles, neighborhood associations point to political corruption and developer greed as the drivers of neighborhood change. In Mexico City, this is not an unreasonable complaint.
Consider the case of Norma 26, a policy introduced to “incentivize the production of sustainable housing.” Under Norma 26, the city offers subsidies to developers to construct affordable housing projects or to integrate affordable units into their new projects. Yet real estate developers cheated the policy, collecting massive profits without constructing any affordable housing. Since its introduction in 1997, developers have collected more than 2.5 billion pesos—roughly $170 million—from Norma 26 abuses. 78 percent of the “low-income” housing units constructed under Norma 26 did not comply with the rent ceilings set out by the legislation.
The resistance to Norma 26 gave rise to a strange coalition of traditional middle-class NIMBY forces and their low-income neighbors. According to the NIMBYs, Norma 26 offered developers free reign to trample their neighborhoods and construct new condos. According to low-income housing groups, Norma 26 ignored the housing needs of the poor. United against corruption, these groups joined forces to protest the policy, successfully preventing its re-introduction.
Despite fundamentally different goals, these groups often find themselves fighting the same fight. Suma Urbana, for example, is a broad network of civil society groups that mobilize around real estate corruption issues. Its twitter, using hashtags like #corrupcioninmobiliariaDF—“real estate corruption Mexico City”—is an important platform for distributing documents and organizing big protests among housing advocates.
The loudest voices of the coalition are most often its wealthiest. As in Los Angeles, community organizations in Mexico City’s rich neighborhoods—Lomas, Polanco, Condesa, Roma, San Ángel—wield some influence over local politicians. These neighborhoods are plastered with signs and posters crying for No Cambios Al Uso De Suelo—“no changes to land-use.”
The control of these neighborhood associations, however, does not match that of Los Angeles. Real estate corruption in Mexico City is more than a hashtag. Save for a few examples like the resistance to Norma 26, Mexico City’s institutions appear largely deaf to the pleas of its residents. Even in its upscale Condesa—a precious Art Deco neighborhood in the heart of the city—a recent controversy and protest over a new development was fruitless in its attempt to stop the destruction of old trees and construction of new apartment towers. Developers across the city make backdoor deals to obtain permits—very often ignoring density requirements in the process.
As in Los Angeles, low-income neighborhoods bear the brunt of this expansion process. In the construction of the Supervía Poniente—a mega-highway connecting Mexico City to the city of Queretaro—the city evicted households in several low-income neighborhoods to make way. Just this year, in the construction of a two-story tunnel in the working class neighborhood of Mixcoac, the city bulldozed hundreds of trees to make way for construction crews—and brought in hundreds of riot police to guarantee the process. These “mega-projects” mostly serve the car-owning elite while disrupting and displacing low-income residents’ lives.
As NIMBYs in Los Angeles appear to be winning their battle to keep densities low, developers in Mexico City appear to be winning out. There are no reliable courts to which citizen’s groups can appeal. There is no Robert Silverstein protecting Mexico City from developers’ misdeeds.
The comparison between Mexico City and Los Angeles is frustrating for urban planners interested in improving housing affordability.
On the one hand, in Mexico City, more democracy in city planning might mean better housing outcomes for low-income households. If politicians were accountable to the protests of Mexico City residents, then megaprojects like the Mixcoac tunnel would be scrapped, and housing built with subsidies might reach its intended low-income beneficiaries. The NIMBY here finds common cause with low-income residents to fight against the corruption and control of the real estate developer.
On the other hand, enabling community control over new development would likely create a situation like that of Los Angeles, where a surfeit of democracy in city planning has blocked new development and helped create a housing crisis.
In both cities, it is the urban poor that lose out. The real estate lobby in Mexico City has siphoned money away from social housing projects toward luxury developments. The NIMBY lobby in Los Angeles has restricted housing supply significantly, especially in the areas with high demand. Without its own lobby, the poor are often excluded entirely.
Paavo Monkkonen is an Urban Planning Assistant Professor and GPA FCL of Global Urbanization and Regional Development
David Adler is a Graduate Student in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford