The first public meeting on zoning I ever attended compared micro-housing construction to bombing cities. For many urbanists, comments like this are used to identify and categorize people as NIMBYs. The NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) label is frequently used to belittle or demean but it also tells a narrative about motivations and politics. While the controversial NIMBY label is a common, well-understood term, “homevoter” is portrayed as it’s equivalent from the academic sphere. But are NIMBYs and homevoters really the same?

History Of The Homevoter Hypothesis

The word ‘homevoter’ has a distinct history and meaning, explained by the homevoter hypothesis.

In 1956, Charles Tiebout published A Pure Theory Of Local Expenditures as a direct response to Paul Samuelson’s theory about public goods. Samuelson created a model suggesting public goods couldn’t be delivered efficiently due to issues like the free-rider problem. Tiebout countered, theorizing that communities will compete for residents. Competition will result in services, taxes, and amenities that efficiently reflect what residents want, he argued.

William Fischel

William Fischel admired Tiebout’s theory and coined the word ‘homevoter.’ In his book The Homevoter Hypothesis, he explained how homevoters underpin the Tiebout theory. Although the two never met, Fischel dedicated his book to Tiebout and spent a chapter providing personal background, remarking on his personality and humor. Fischel’s book and the homevoter hypothesis attempt to explain on-the-ground mechanisms that underpin Tiebout’s model.

The book begins by observing that many people’s largest asset is their home and that it’s uniquely vulnerable. The asset’s future value can’t really be insured or diversified. People are left with few options to protect its value, and Fischel believes they resort to political activism. These politically engaged homeowners are ‘homevoters.’ Since homeowners are a majority in many communities, homevoters dominate municipal policy, supporting taxes and services that add value to their homes while opposing landfills and other uses that decrease values. Property values act as a signal to homeowners, guiding their activism. Consequently, homevoter activism guides political decision-making. Property values drive municipal competition underpinning the Tiebout model.

Fischel buttresses his argument with case studies, anecdote, and some economic evidence. He spent time walking around neighborhoods to gauge the impact of landfills. He poured over newspaper reports to understand the motivations of political actors. He recounts specific comments during his time on a New Hampshire zoning board. He presents research papers on capitalization. In the end, his supporting evidence is colorful and specific. “Local governments are in fact so skeptical of the adverse environmental effects of new commerce and industry that their behavior is better characterized as a ‘race to the top’ of the environmental pyramid,” he says.

Overall, he illustrates how homevoters create better communities. They pass school levies. They generally protect the environment. Sometimes they reject landfills. Other times they accept them for enough compensation to improve property values. Fischel acknowledges some problems with local control and his most recent book, Zoning Rules!discusses these problems. However, his overarching thesis is that local land use control is good and results in efficient government.

Homevoters As An Underlying Theory Of Opposition To Density

Given this understanding of the homevoter hypothesis, it’s a little surprising homevoter theory is a framework for understanding general opposition to development. City Observatory captures this argument in its coverage of a research paper.

If you’re in the homevoter camp, conversely, you’re likely to think that the problem is too little development, as NIMBY homeowners scare local elected officials into blocking any housing development that might compromise their property values.

The same framing can be seen in other places. The term NIMBY is commonly used to describe people who oppose development but it is often used interchangeably with the word ‘homevoter,’ implying that homevoter theory explains why people oppose development. Or that NIMBYs are generally homevoters. This supports a broader point within urbanist conversations: NIMBYs oppose density because they want to see their home values increase.

NIMBYs Versus Homevoters

This use of the term ‘homevoter’ seems inaccurate. To begin, Fischel’s hypothesis was much more specific. He was indicating how local government is efficient because people are politically motivated by rising property values.

Fischel acknowledges that the biggest shift since publishing his book was the research on how zoning impacts housing prices. “It appears zoning impacts our national economy,” he says. Fischel also discussed how workers might be less likely to move due to high housing costs. This observation jives with the view that zoning drives up home prices. At first glance, it would appear to support the theory that homevoters are interchangeable with NIMBYs, pursuing restrictive zoning to increase their property values.

Yet Fischel doesn’t indicate the reason people oppose density; the motivation is important. If people oppose density to drive up their property values, the term NIMBY is interchangeable with homevoter. But if they have other motivations, the terms aren’t interchangeable. This may seem like splitting hairs but motivations matter for implementing solutions.

While Fischel believes that people are generally motivated by their own best financial interests, he doesn’t make the explicit argument that this financial motivation causes regional housing shortages. Further, Fischel doesn’t even think his theory is very applicable to larger cities, where developer influence is much more powerful. He draws the line at 150,000 residents.

Suggesting homevoters coordinate to restrict housing supply, driving up prices, creates problems for the Tiebout model that Fischel supports. The homevoter hypothesis suggests municipalities are efficient because they compete, resulting in efficient allocation of landfills, commerce, and industry. If homevoters create regional housing shortages, this blows up the homevoter hypothesis as an explanation of how government efficiently allocates resources. On the contrary, Tiebout’s theory seems like it would predict that some municipalities would seek additional density and overall housing supply would be efficiently allocated.

Lastly, it seems contradictory to suggest people motivated by increasing property values would oppose upzones. There are cases in which people oppose specific projects and point to property values as their justification. However, this is different than generally opposing upzones. I’m not personally familiar with anyone who opposed higher residential density on the grounds it would reduce their property values. In fact, most activists concerned about displacement and gentrification make the opposite argument. They believe upzones increase property values and that’s part of the problem.

If people generally aren’t motivated to fight upzones because it decreases their property values, it means the term NIMBY isn’t interchangeable with homevoter. NIMBY opposition to density isn’t about restricting regional housing supply to increase home prices. This also means there isn’t a well researched, economic model to explain NIMBYism. If there are regional housing shortages and they are caused by local opposition to density, we don’t have decades of research and an elegant mathematical model to explain that. 

Why Do People NIMBY?

Understanding NIMBY motivations is critical to crafting strategies and solutions. So why do people NIMBY if it’s not to increase their property value? 

Fischel suggests people might oppose density because they’re risk averse. It’s true that upzones usually increase property values but because the investment is so important, people hedge against the unknown, preferring the status quo. I found this explanation unconvincing. Evidence overwhelmingly shows higher intensity uses increase property values and NIMBYs seem to even understand this when opposing density. Rational people, motivated by property values, would know this. They’d also know that upzones can’t happen at any moment. They’d want a higher density when they sell their property and they would know supporting upzones is necessary to get that. In fact, many landowners do behave this way. The people who don’t act this way likely have some other motivation.

Fischel proposed another explanation, congestion reduces property values.

If a local public project–a park, for instance, is subject to crowding, which lowers its value as more people use it, the local government must be able to limit net additions to the housing stock in order for the benefits of the park to be reflected in existing home values. Zoning and other strands in the web of land-use controls are a way of doing that.

I also don’t find this convincing. Congestion can dampen utility but the explanation fails in at least three ways. First, it can’t explain low density suburbs where opposition to development is often the worst. Second, areas where congestion impacts utility usually have stable, high values because they are in high demand. Infrastructure congestion itself illustrates this. Third, places with infrastructure congestion are often first in line for public investment, creating a virtuous cycle of increased property values.

Those explanations seem weak. A reasonable starting point to understand motivations would be to listen to density opponents. When people oppose density, they often talk about neighborhood character, aesthetics, parking, schools, noise, and affordability. All of these things point to a simple motivation; people purchase a place with particular characteristics. For homeowners, this is the largest purchase of their life. That means they spent the largest chunk of money they will ever spend because they want a community as it is when they bought their home. At that time they found the buildings aesthetically pleasing, parking was free and easy, class sizes in schools were stable, street noise was amenable, and prices were within their budget. That’s the neighborhood they want and change threatens that. Imagine having a car that the manufacturer repainted every year without your input. It doesn’t change the basic function but it’s not what you bought.

Of course, what they want isn’t limited to subjective, innocuous preferences like building heights. They likely participated in the Parable of Polygons, choosing a neighborhood with an economic and racial make-up they liked. This preference often isn’t harmless in America.

The bike lane and sidewalk are both blocked by construction.
The bike lane and sidewalk are both blocked by construction.

Further, there are real externalities from development. Everyone in Seattle is familiar with construction blocking bike lanes, creating noise, shutting off water, removing trees, and various other annoyances. Construction impacts cultural centers, popular businesses, and demographic make-up. All these things create the community people chose to live in and they sometimes change rapidly.

None of this suggests that people don’t care about property values. They do. The question is whether or not they are motivated to oppose higher density zoning because they think it will reduce property values. Certainly there are rare examples of people who believe higher densities will decrease property values, despite the evidence. There are also people who oppose specific projects, like a homeless shelter, because they think the specific project will decrease property values. However, these examples do not make up the general opposition to density, typically referred to as NIMBYs, which shows up at planning meetings to oppose upzones. NIMBYs are focused on things related to neighborhood character, not the return on their property investment.

It should be unsurprising people are hesitant to see changes to their largest investment, even if the reasons they like their neighborhood are problematic. But if these people aren’t motivated by property values, there is a ray of hope. It means work can be done to change cultural norms about what makes a desirable neighborhood. It also means efforts to directly mitigate development impacts make a difference.

How The Homevoter Hypothesis Informs Today’s Debate

Unfortunately, if we simply see density opponents as seeking to maximize property values, we fail to identify the reasons they block upzones. Fischel’s homevoter hypothesis sees homeowners as motivated by property values but does not suggest that motivation underpins NIMBYism. The homevoter hypothesis isn’t an explanation of regional housing shortages. Since Fischel brings a different view, he also prefers a solution that protects expected returns on home values, a type of insurance on future property value. Conversations among urbanists often frame perceived NIMBYism as an effort to profit from a housing shortage–and perhaps some people do profit–but this doesn’t mean NIMBYs are motivated by rising property values. There isn’t an economic model supporting this narrative. Further, Fischel’s paradigm results in solutions that urbanists likely wouldn’t support. Do urbanists really want to insure home values? Probably not.

To believe that NIMBYs are homevoters, opposing density to increase their property values, you have to believe a set of points:

  1. NIMBYs believe opposing density locally–in their backyard–results in higher property values than rezoning for higher density, contrary to the evidence and despite landowners who clearly believe otherwise;
  2. People are hiding their true motivations when they cite neighborhood character for generally opposing density, even though people often reference property values when opposing specific projects;
  3. NIMBYs are coordinating regionally to suppress housing production, even though they normally only show up for meetings locally; and
  4. The Tiebout model doesn’t efficiently allocate housing.

Alternatively you could believe NIMBYs oppose change because they have a preference for the community they bought. If you believe this, NIMBYs and homevoters aren’t the same. Greed isn’t a primary or even a significant motivator behind opposition to density. This isn’t to suggest that NIMBYism isn’t real or that opposition to density doesn’t reduce housing production. It’s simply stating that Fischel’s book and theory aren’t an intellectual foundation for that view. Fischel personally thinks zoning works to raise prices but his book isn’t the proof. Additionally, Fischel was measured regarding his theory’s applicability to larger cities. He acknowledged that the growth machine idea might be a better explanation of large city politics. There is no economic model explaining NIMBYism.

Acknowledging this and reaching accurate conclusions about NIMBY motivations is the only way to craft effective solutions. The homevoter hypothesis is a worthwhile read–I repeatedly found my views challenged by its assertions. For that reason alone it’s relevant for folks concerned about land use. While readers will learn a lot, they won’t learn how NIMBY greed causes Seattle’s housing crisis. It might even scramble some closely held urbanist assumptions, such as how local control hurts cities or that it’s obvious we should abolish zoning.

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16 COMMENTS

  1. Different people have different motivation of why they do or think like they do but mostly its just greed when you strip out the noise. Greed rules mostly everything humans do in one what or another. Everything else seems to be secondary to it.

  2. NIMBY is correctly used for things like landfills, that we are both averse to and dependent on. The author falls into the deplorable trend to apply the term to neighborhood opposition in general – opposition to anything, apparently, though of course only in particular to anything you happen to support.

    That’s deplorable because it falsely brings the connotation from correct usage, where there’s understood to be an element of something like hypocrisy if you want something but would prefer to locate it in someone else’s back yard. Communities are entitled to oppose things simply on their merits, without the semantic implication borrowed by incorrect use of epithet.

    • To clarify, I didn’t use the term NIMBY as ‘opposition to anything.’ I specifically say that general opposition to density qualifies as NIMBYism. To quote:

      “general opposition to density, typically referred to as NIMBYs, which shows up at planning meetings to oppose upzones.”

      • It is typical, but that reflects poorly on the typical person who uses the term. That usage is deplorable for the reason stated above.

        • I definitely see people who are called NIMBYs agreeing with you.

          However, I suspect the term will continue to be used that way so long as people using the term NIMBY see housing and density as good for the community. So I guess the task for people who are bothered by being called NIMBYs is to convince others that additional housing and density is bad, even when it is coupled with policies that are meant to mitigate impacts that everyone agrees are bad.

  3. I agree with this article. I have never heard anyone complain about their property value when they discuss zoning. It comes up with specific projects (as you wrote) but not upzoning in general. The folks with signs that say “No HALA” are not worried about their property values. Probably because they are smarter than that. In a city like Seattle, for the most part the value is in the land. If the neighborhood gets upzoned, then land values go up, since people who want to buy the house are bidding against those who want to tear it down and build an apartment. Even those who want to keep the house see added value, as adding a skinny house in the yard could generate a lot of money.

    The objections I’ve heard most often, in order, are these:

    1) It will be ugly. People are afraid of tall buildings and ugly buildings. I can sympathize. The building boom in the ’80s ushered in some really ugly duplexes, in areas like Ballard. Gone were charming houses that had interesting landscaping. In their place were cheap, ugly multiplexes with a lot of cement and a rhododendron or two (if you were lucky). It is just a lot less interesting to walk around neighborhoods like that. Fortunately, a lot of the newer buildings are a lot nicer. But a lot of people still prefer the old neighborhood.

    2) Parking. I can understand this complaint, but I really have no sympathy. Parking is not, nor should it be a public good. If I’m wrong — if society actually believes that parking is essential — than we should all pay for it. Pay to build underground parking structures. We shouldn’t force those without wealth (those who don’t own property) to indirectly pay for parking by requiring it with new construction. Ironically, this issue played a big part in the building ugly buildings. Look around at the nicest old apartments — especially small ones — and you can see that they don’t have parking.

    3) Traffic. More people more cars, goes the thinking. This is another example of how requiring parking runs in contradiction to the other interests. In any event, it is reasonable to assume that with more people there will be more cars and thus more parking. The problem is that if you don’t add density, then traffic gets worse, as people go farther out, and require more cars to get there.

    4) Anti-displacement fear. There is a weird, very counter productive, anti developer sentiment in the city. It runs counter to every study out there, and counter to common sense ideas like supply and demand. This is not Economics 101 — it is way more basic than that — it is obvious to any kid who has operated or even considered a lemonade stand. Add new apartments and prices go down (all other things being equal). But when people see a lot of new buildings going up and rents going up (a lot) they put two and two together, and wrongly assume the developers are causing rents to rise, instead of mitigating them. The current policies don’t help, of course. By focusing growth on areas that are fairly densely populated and developed already, the likelihood that you will replace a small apartment building with a large one is high. This wouldn’t happen if growth was allowed in single family neighborhoods, but it is hard to convince someone that each new apartment building actually pushes down the cost of rent, when rent keeps going up.

    5) Anti-renter. I rarely hear about this. Probably because you can rent out your house, so their really is no difference. Also because Seattle is a very liberal city, so the idea that people don’t want renters in
    their neighborhood is rare. I’m sure it is the case in a few, Bellevue style neighborhoods, but in most of the city — even most of the single family neighborhood areas — it is a rarely expressed sentiment.

  4. Thank you for trying to shift the conversation… It’s about time folks who identify as “urbanists” start actually listening to their opponents, and considering whether there is a way to have density also respond to those concerns in a way that winds over more supporters.

  5. I think age is part of it. Older people just have a hard time dealing with change in general. Even if the change is positive, it can cause them distress.

    In other words I think trying to come up with a rational explanation may be misguided. I think NIMBYism is really about fear and naustalgia.

    Parking is probably the most rational objection. In Seattle many single family homes have no driveway and residents park on the street. So shortages of street parking create day to day problems for people in those neighborhoods.

  6. Different people have different motivations, but I do think this analysis undersells the impact of racism, classism, and parking. Attend a zoning hearing on a new apartment building and you’ll hear lots of negative statements about renters, and “those people,” and our nice community, and greedy developers, and ruining the neighborhood, and back in my day. Some of it is an inchoate fear of change, and some of it is out-and-out racism or classism–not related to any potential change in individual property values. With regard to parking, people have a sense of entitlement to street parking and and animal territoriality that gets violated when density increases, and the curb space in front of your house is “taken” by people who look different than you. Since parking is something many people do every day, unlike checking the $ value of their homes, it really hits them hard when that routine changes, at no perceived benefit to them.

    • I hope this analysis doesn’t come off as underselling those motivations. To quote:

      “Of course, what they want isn’t limited to subjective, innocuous preferences like building heights. They likely participated in the Parable of Polygons, choosing a neighborhood with an economic and racial make-up they liked. This preference often isn’t harmless in America.”

      My main point was pretty much to shift the conversation from a debate about people motivated to create a regional housing supply to understanding NIMBYs as people motivated by the points you are raise. It seems like we’re in agreement.

  7. “they want a community as it is when they bought their home.”
    That’s really what it all comes down to. People don’t want their neighborhood to change because they moved there for specific reasons that had to do with the characteristics of the neighborhood. No one moves to Ballard and thinks, “man, I hope this turns into First Hill” because that person would, you know, move to First Hill.

    • Well, that was easy!

      Not that it wasn’t interesting to read the article, but … please, it isn’t that mysterious.

      It may help to admit that when you say “change”, you’re talking about “loss”. Places change all the time. No one minds change for the better. Hiding from this distinction helps you not understand.

  8. Is it possible some people prefer to live in neighborhoods with houses, yards, parks, off street parking, areas with less people, density, and development. A place different than where the work. A place they find more suitable to raise kids, walk the dog, engage with neighbors and the community. Others like living in dense, urban settings. Fine, Seattle has both and can continue to have both.

  9. This line is very wrong: “I’m not personally familiar with anyone who opposed higher residential
    density on the grounds it would reduce their property values.”

    In fact, opposition to apartments in high-income suburbs is explicitly motivated by property values concerns, and less explicitly by racial concerns. White suburbanites bought houses in 95% white suburbs expecting them to stay 95% white, and are not going to sit idle while developers build cheaper apartments, which might be affordable to black people. It’s strange that you ignore this aspect of zoning – the intersection of race, density, and property values – since fair housing lawsuits have decades of history, much longer than modern-day YIMBYism.

    • I think people often think a different type of housing stock will hurt home values. This is why, for example, SF zones oppose row housing – not because it’s denser, but because it’s different (and there are certainly class & racial preferences that underpin that objection).

      The density argument certainly comes into play when people object to new development because of scarcity of resources (parking, road, school, or park capacity, etc.). But when the objection is “I don’t want those people living in my neighborhood” the objection is really against a new type of housing stock, not objection of density.
      Of course, an upzone results in more density and new housing types, so these objections are often comingled.
      Rowhouse example:
      https://ggwash.org/view/63376/arlington-banned-rowhouses-in-1938.-were-suffering-the-consequences-now

    • It’s not clear to me where you are actually disagreeing with the article. The argument being made is that NIMBYism isn’t motivated by a regional effort to restrict housing supply, with the end goal of driving up property prices through a housing shortage. Rather it is better explained by other motivations. One of those motivations, maintaining racially homogenous communities as you mention, is referenced in the article:

      “Of course, what they want isn’t limited to subjective, innocuous preferences like building heights. They likely participated in the Parable of Polygons, choosing a neighborhood with an economic and racial make-up they liked. This preference often isn’t harmless in America.”

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