A study released last week by three Boston University professors puts hard data behind something we have long assumed: NIMBYism is real, and it’s driving up housing costs and keeping a generation of families mired in economic insecurity.
The report should be required reading for anyone sitting on a city council, board of selectmen, planning board or zoning board of appeals. Researchers Katherine Levine Einstein, Maxwell Palmer and David Glick analyzed three years of meeting minutes from 97 cities and towns in Massachusetts, and used Census data and other public records to get an idea of who was doing the talking.
About two thirds of residents who spoke at housing-related public meetings were against new developments, the trio found. By contrast, only 14 percent spoke in favor. Those numbers are out of whack with local and statewide polling, which shows a clear majority of citizens recognize the need for adding affordable housing.
To be sure, public meetings are often an important tool for city and town officials to hear from the public. But those having their say represent just a sliver of the citizenry -- generally affluent white homeowners.
“Even in highly diverse communities, development meetings are dominated by whites who oppose new housing, potentially distorting the housing supply to their benefit,” the professors wrote in their report.
Those who favor new housing -- including renters and those with young and growing families -- often do not have the time or resources to attend meetings. And even if they can make it to one event, there are often dozens of meetings related to a single housing project. The people who can make it to all of these meetings are the ones who have time and money to spare.
“Rather than empowering underrepresented interests, these meetings amplify the voices of older, home-owning, and male residents who have lived in their communities for longer periods of time,” the researchers wrote. “What’s more, these individuals are overwhelmingly -- and disproportionately -- opposed to the construction of new housing.
“These voices have real policy import,” the report said. “Citizens who attend these meetings have a variety of avenues to stymie developments, ranging from persuasion of local planning officials to filing lawsuits on the development in question. NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) sentiments predominate in these venues.”
You can see that delaying tactic at work in Hamilton, where a mere 3 percent of the housing stock is deemed affordable, a local record exceeded only by Boxford, which has less than 1 percent. A small handful of townspeople have done all they can to oppose efforts by the Harborlight Community Partners and the Hamilton Affordable Housing Trust to address the problem, even in a modest fashion. The NIMBYs have been frustratingly effective -- not a single affordable house or apartment has been added in the past three years, according to state Housing and Community Development records.
Even those housing projects that do gain approval are often delayed by months and smaller in scale than what was originally proposed.
Make no mistake, the region needs more affordable housing. Near-record low vacancy rates in the Greater Boston area have pushed single-family home prices to record highs. Median prices in Essex County increased about 6 percent from a $415,000 in 2017 to $439,900 through July 2018, according to the Warren Group. Working-class communities aren’t immune. Peabody’s median home price has gone up 6 percent over the last two years, according to the Boston Foundation. Lawrence saw a 14.2 percent jump.
To be sure, not all affordable housing projects are created equal. And the more affluent members of our communities have a right to be heard. But their voices can’t drown out those of their neighbors.