Dismantling Democracy to Fight NIMBYism

Ryan Avent’s new book, The Gated City, provides one of the most readable summaries of urban economics available; for that alone, the book is more than worth its low price. In highlighting the work of Edward Glaeser among others, this author shows how the density of metropolitan regions can play an essential role in increasing the productivity of workers and expand the economy in general. It is Avent’s quite plausible thesis that the great American suburbanization of the past fifty years contributed to the economic circumstances in which we now find ourselves — with an economy seemingly incapable of growth — because of an inability (or unwillingness) to cash in on the benefits of urban density, which encourages higher incomes and increased productivity.*

The book’s logic suggests that those who care about improving the American economy must take a stand in favor of densification both of suburbs and inner cities — and against the NIMBYs who would do anything to prevent new projects of virtually any kind from being built anywhere near them, and who are systematically increasing housing costs by limiting supply. The market, the author suggests, is being artificially limited by significant constraints imposed by local groups. “When places like Boston and San Francisco make it hard to build new homes and offices,” Avent writes, “they reduce opportunities and productivity across the country… Our inability to accommodate people in high wage cities… has made America poorer, less innovative, dirtier, and more dependent on scarce fossil fuels than it ought to be. that’s a terrible price to pay for the right to keep neighborhoods from changing with the times.

These are compelling words, but Avent’s prognosis of a disease that afflicts American cities and perhaps the economy as a whole is followed by a series of potential cures that come across as dogmatic and sometimes even downright undemocratic.

To fight the problems associated with NIMBYism, Avent proposes a number of ideas: Allowing neighborhoods to “limit development… so long as it’s willing to either buy the land in question or pay the land’s owner to comply;” or providing cities a limited “zoning budget” or “historical preservation budget” that would force political leaders to pick only the most important battles to fight; or requiring developers to throw out offset fees for the “supposed costs of the redevelopment.”

Read more at The Transport Politic

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About Bob Voelker

Head of the Munsch Hardt (Dallas law firm) Hospitality & Mixed Use Development Group, and former developer of affordable housing. I'm i
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