OPINION: Shooting down debate by the ‘NIMBY’ bullet

BY LYNN ELLSWORTH | If you disagree with some or all of Mayor de Blasio’s affordable housing strategy, you now risk being shot with the rhetorical bullet of NIMBY in an effort to take you out of the policy debate.

Sadly, such weaponized use of the NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) insult has spread like a plague from the real estate and planning community to journalists. Ginia Bellafante’s column in the Times of last Sunday is just the latest example among many. In the piece, Belafonte accuses supporters of the Elizabeth St. Garden and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden of a crude NIMBYism.

That’s weird.

Marchers braved the bitter cold earlier this year to protest residential displacement in the Two Bridges area and elsewhere in the city. (Photo by Rainer Turim)

In each case, garden supporters found an alternative site that the city appeared ignorant of, either of which would provide more affordable housing than the garden site in question. And if Belafonte had spoken to the Crown Heights groups opposing the 39-story tower, she might have learned about other ways to build affordable housing in Crown Heights.

At Human-Scale NYC, we favor an alternative to de Blasio’s “shock and awe” style of overbuilding: namely, constructing 100-percent permanent affordable housing at countless sites across the city at a human scale, while respecting historic fabric, light, libraries and public green space. Win-wins among these public goods are possible when developers aren’t in charge of policymaking.

De Blasio and the real estate industry love the game they control, in which they get to unnecessarily pit various public goods against affordable housing. They get to define what affordable housing is, and they get to declare affordable housing as the winner in any trade-off — just like Trump gets to declare his right to build a wall. Anyone who resists any part of this gets shot with a NIMBY bullet.

All this started early in de Blasio’s administration when then-Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen told incoming appointed commissioners to the Landmarks Preservation Commission to “stand down” regarding the public good of historic preservation in the face of the affordable housing “crisis.”

Such a style of operating is the real estate industry and de Blasio’s M.O.: Blow a problem up to DEFCON 1 red-alert levels with fuzzy demographic data, questionable industry-sponsored reports, and a huge amount of lobbying and public-relations money. While the sirens are blaring and pols are running for cover, use the ensuing panic to get what you want out of the politicians: less regulation and the right to build towers anywhere you want to, all while falsely claiming to be solving your version of the crisis.

Long ago, NIMBY referred to taxpaying, homeowning voters who disputed the location of “public goods.” Often they proposed a better location. Sometimes they were wrong — but just as often, they were right. But their very existence infuriated planners, economists and boss politicians who had convinced themselves that they alone had Godlike perfect wisdom in where to build public goods.

Sometime later, Jane Jacobs’s book on the disaster of urban renewal and Robert Caro’s book about Robert Moses came out. Both put a decisive end to the quaint notion that expert planners and “Honest Joe” politicians knew best about public-good trade-offs. Or so we thought.

In 2005, conservative economist William Fischel published a book accusing suburban taxpayers and voters who own their own homes — and then bother to engage in battles over public goods — of being greedy bastards merely working to protect their property values in the old cul-de-sac. Planners who hated suburbia jumped on board with Fischel’s “Homevoter Hypothesis,” even though there wasn’t much data to back it up. Anti-regulatory, free-market-style planners also liked the idea.

The upshot is that the word NIMBY is now everywhere embedded like a carbuncle into what planners read when they become planners.

Fischel and his followers have taken away the status of “citizen” from suburban homeowners and turned them into a kind of contemptible golem — people without rights, the villains of the planners’ version of events.

Who now enters the scene but anti-regulatory planner Vicki Been, who works at the Big Real Estate-funded Furman Center at New York University. She is also de Blasio’s former housing czar. Just last year, she came out with a rambling paper called City NIMBYs, in which she argues that anyone who disagrees with de Blasio’s affordable housing strategy must not be a thinking, voting, taxpaying citizen of the city with a brain, but instead an urban version of Fischel’s infamous suburban NIMBY, incapable of understanding the public good as laid out for them by herself, Alicia Glen, and de Blasio.  

To all this history we have to add another character, first described in the 1970s as “the growth machine,” in a book by Harvey Molotch. The growth machine is the union of self-serving real estate interests, architects, engineers, construction unions and corrupt politicians who sold out the public good and built all the horrifying strip malls, subdivisions and sprawling car-dependent disasters that James Kunstler in 1993 described as “Clusterf— Nation.” In New York City, we would recognize that growth machine as the Real Estate Board of New York and its associated skyscraper cheerleaders who claim that their way is the only way to the public good. With vast amounts of money behind them for lobbying and public relations, it is hard not to see that the growth machine has long been in charge of land use in New York City, regardless of who is elected.  Thinking voters therefore have a reason to smell a rat whenever land-use ideas pop up here in Gotham.

In such a situation, the weaponization of the word NIMBY raises a huge conundrum: Who is the guardian of the public good when special interests like the growth machine fund the politicians, get their own people appointed to all the regulatory agencies that deal with real estate, fund the think tanks and also buy monthly real estate supplements in the “independent” press?

What do we do when those with power respond to legitimate, fair, intelligent disagreement with contempt and name-calling?

Obviously, there is much to be done to rectify the situation. But we can always start by being more civil and thoughtful merely by retiring the word NIMBY from our public policy discourse.

Ellsworth is chairperson, Tribeca Trust, and president, Human-Scale NYC

15 Responses to OPINION: Shooting down debate by the ‘NIMBY’ bullet

  1. Everyone is a NIMBY when it is THEIR backyard.

    NIMBY is a pejorative term, a brainless non-thinker, used by developers and haters to vilify those who seek to better our city and its communities.

    So-called NIMBYs are our Community Activists, who love their neighborhood and devote their time. energy and money towards its improvement.

    Community activists plant trees, advocate for zoning changes, get neighborhoods landmarked, interact with elected officials, get laws change, do things to foster good government, etc. They are the people who improve our city and our society.

    For the likes of the Times or Peg Breen to belittle these activists speaks much to their motivation.

    When was the last time you saw a real-estate developer plant bulbs, prune trees, volunteer to do something to better the community instead of just coming in, often ruining a neighborhood, taking their profits and then run?

    • Peg Breen is a strong preservationist who has been working for decades to preserve NYC's historic building. Vicki Been is the former head of HPD and a proponent of the Mayor's ambitious growth agenda.

    • Bill De Blasio is the worst mayor Ever! He's trying to be Bloomberg 2.0, and that's a very bad look on him. But it seems Y/NIMBY depends on the issue. Lots of folks don't want homeless shelters near them, but here on the Bowery, we hate to see them go. Others like being near luxury, but those buildings are putting more and more pressure on my landlord to get me out. I hate that, but I don't get to pick my poison.

      What I don't get is: What is De Blasio trying to build our way out of? What crisis? How many new buildings, new units, would it take before every person who wants to live in NYC is living in NYC? It's not possible! We've made NYC too popular for our own good. We've lowered crime and shinied up our attractions. Everyone wants to live here and that's just not possible. Supply can never meet demand when we're talking about this small island. Try as we are, we can't build THAT tall, and even if we could, who'd want to live in it. That can't be the only way to bring our town back down again.

      So, I'm not sure what De Blasio is trying to fix, but he's doing a very bad job at something that is just not possible. Stop it, Sisyphus, just stop it!

  2. This City is overcrowded. The only construction needed is repair and reuse. What we do need is parks and open space. If we get rid of vacancy decontrol and senseless evictions we will have enough affordable housing.

  3. And more crowded by the second. Our elected officials are out-of-town, those so-called liberals (ugh). Way to go Olive.

  4. If the Real Estate Board of NY had hired a pricey PR firm-which its members do with knee-jerk regularity-it could not have come up with a more snarky condemnation that seems to have legs enough to reach the NY Times!

    The nomenclature ‘NIMBY’, comes from self-interested acolytes whose own nests gets feathered by their association with predatory developers. The ‘hacking’ of objective fact-based & collaborative discourse from REBNY henchmen exacerbates the Messianic claims of virtue-even as reality refutes their assertions that the public good is being served.

    Adding insult to injury-those whose very own bank balances are enriched or pols whose kindred campaign funders shape the conversation-get to define the criteria for “affordable”. REBNY and even small time ‘hack’ landlords leverage deBlasio/Glen’s MIH’s disingenuous template- justified as for a ‘public purpose’. They get it done because there continues to be an incestuous relationship nurtured from the days of Bloomberg-where ‘Think Tanks’, Wall St, and various and assorted “Consultants” move about our city administration like musical chairs. “Loopholes R Them”

    Moralizing as champions of ‘public good’, even as more and more harm is being done to New Yorkers under their mission statement, is the last refuge of scoundrels.

  5. Name calling is a great short cut that displaces intelligent cogent argument. The use of the term NIMBY should be outlawed and anyone who uses it should be called out as a lazy thinker who refuses to engage in discussing meaningful issues.

  6. William Raudenbush

    Terrific take and a much needed clarification. The use of “NIMBY” is a lazy and clumsy rhoetorical device similar to other blundering rhetorical devices like ”fake news.” Seeing “NIMBY” used by supposedly credible people to dismiss essential elements of our democratic and civic space is contemptible to say the very least.

    I’d also add that that rhetorical fallacies damage our ability to move forward on substantive solutions based on facts and evidence.


  7. Great piece which begs the question: when are we going to have an honest discussion, based on facts, about what this massive building boom has done to the city–rents, prices, residents, businesses, the environment, and our overall quality of life? We need an independent evaluation done without any financial backing from interested parties. Any time you undertake a huge project, such as the current one of building hundreds of thousands of housing units, at regular intervals you want to try to understand if it is being effective or not. Where is that study?

  8. This opinion piece was written by Lynn Ellsworth, the same person who claimed that Nomiki Konst (former candidate for Public Advocate) was pure as the driven snow when it came to taking donations from anyone connected to the Real Estate industry. But she didn't do her homework and got bent out of shape when it became clear that Konst had indeed taken some Real Estate money.

    • wow, Marci, kinda nit-picky aren't ya? Konst seemed to organize her fund raising so that it became more about how you define "Real Estate money" (RE companies vs. people who work at a RE company), and clearly, you and Lynn disagree on that. But Lynn, but forth some great information in this publication about All of the Pub Advo candidates that I did not read you or anyone else doing for us. So, props to Lynn, and you can stop complaining and Do Something next time.

      Truth is Mr. Williams owes his election to Cynthia Nixon. She provided him with incredible name ID during the Gov/Lt Gov race. (Otherwise a Republican would have won.) He should do fine at the Pub Advo job, even though historic preservation, retail business and building scale & character will probably not be as important to him as incarceration, no-$ bail, and racial discrimination. So we're going to need more Lynns, and fewer Marcis, so time for you to get on board, no?

    • Jane Jacobs Lives

      Lynn Ellsworth has created coalitions, takes action and makes a positive difference for NY now and for the future.

    • Marci,
      Get this bee out of your bonnet. In no way did I get bent out of shape, but instead politely invited you to a public meeting to go through Kunst's campaign donations and you ignored me. I asked you to provide proof of what you were saying and you refused and welcomed the chance to correct the record. Stop trying to malign me via internet trolling.

      Obviously, you are the one with your knickers in a twist over this.

  9. Katherine O'Sullivan

    Hit the nail of bs "NIMBY" on the head

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