Author’s note: It is not without consideration that I understand the very hurtful racial use of the “N” word, which has a long and painful past, especially in regards to housing discrimination in America. I thought of using a different way of expressing the article’s intent, but for me that would be watering down something that I have been personally confronted with while working with governmental housing agencies and members of the planning professions. I know from experience, when negotiating anything, coming to the table with an open heart and mind is a prerequisite to accomplishing true mitigation of issues. The cessation of the use of pejorative labels, with those we could classify as opponents, is a necessary first step.
NIMBY, the acronym for “not in my backyard,” has become a pejorative accepted into the cannon of elite planning professions and government housing agency documents as a touchstone of all that’s gone wrong in development permit approvals. It is an unfair characterization of anyone opposing development proposals located nearby, and it’s offered regardless of whether the development proposed is good or bad.
San Diego County’s 2015 Regional Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice describes NIMBYism as a “syndrome” that is
“widespread, deeply ingrained, easily translatable into political actions, and intentionally exclusionary and growth inhibiting. NIMBY sentiment can reflect concerns about property values, service levels, community ambiance, the environment, or public health and safety. It can also reflect racial or ethnic prejudice masquerading under the guise of a legitimate concern. NIMBYism can manifest itself as opposition to specific types of housing, as general opposition to changes in the community, or as opposition to any and all development.”
Despite the city and county’s insistence in planning manuals that community members should also feel encouraged to offer input, any opposition ends up dismissed under the moniker of NIMBY. To get around this opposition, California lawmakers briefly considered SB 827, which would have made building near transit stations easier but take local control away from local jurisdictions and force all to live with the prescription.
Since the 1960s and the rise of the city’s 52 community planning groups, which make recommendations about proposed developments, it’s been a tradition to include public participation in the process. It is, after all, their future community, so residents should have a say in the planning as “stakeholders.”
As a term, “stakeholders” is a more adequate description of the community members involved in those discussions, who might have the largest actual stake in the outcome of a project. The city’s use of the term in their community plan preparation manual ostensibly sets the tone for what they wanted from its citizenry.
That said, regardless of the local project being proposed these days, the discourse quickly becomes a larger dialogue about our statewide housing and healthcare crises. These are important and informative debates, and should be fair fights, if we have any hope to solve either.
It may be difficult for officials, planners and architects to deal with residents who don’t believe building luxury apartment towers will solve our lack of housing, or that housing the chronically homeless in the neighborhood without providing them full healthcare services could be a recipe for disaster. But these are just some of larger issues that need to be mitigated when approving new developments and projects.
NIMBY is a convenient label if your goal is to ignore push-back from residents on development proposals. But these residents are the first to push-back precisely because they are located nearest the proposal and must live with it good or bad.
Residents are neither sick nor diseased, as the county housing report suggested, because they are concerned about impacts to public services, insufficient infrastructure, environment, and public health and safety. YIMBY, the acronym for “yes in my backyard,” was coined in contrast to the “NIMBY syndrome.” YIMBY with its “Y” or “yes” connotes a positive. To frame debates over project approvals with the over-simplification of “yes” or “no” doesn’t help to reach solutions that are much more complex.
The debate over a proposal does not need to descend into questions of racial prejudice, but the power of using NIMBY as a pejorative is that it can shut down conversation. Zoning and deed restrictions were, in the past, used to as a method to prevent minorities from purchasing property in all-white communities, a sick and disgusting practice. But using that awful history, in the county’s “Impediments to Fair Housing Choice” report, to condemn or pre-judge a neighborhood’s opposition to proposed development is unwarranted, unfair, and discriminatory itself.
Look closer at community opposition to the many project proposals in San Diego and you will see legitimate concerns regarding public safety, not attempts to exclude a class of people from a neighborhood.
James LaMattery is a Realtor and resident of Bay Park.