Can NIMBYs fight for justice?

The preference to protect neighborhood infrastructure and residential quality of life often conflicts with economic development.

(This is the first of the Nashville PRIDE’s exploration of the debate between NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) and YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) and how it affects the Nashville housing market.)

One critique of neighborhood associations concerns legitimacy: the fundamental question of whether associations truly represent their neighborhoods. But there is a deeper critique that deals not with what associations are, but with what they do. This critique moves beyond their intentions and priorities, beyond their partnerships and ideals, to ask the question: Can neighborhood associations be just in their activism?

This issue of justice stems from the reputation that neighborhood associations have of screaming ‘Not in my backyard’ when faced with everything from commercial development to affordable housing. Neighborhood associations have gained the potential not only to limit economic development but also to discriminate against vulnerable populations and people of color. NIMBYism is the ugly side of the neighborhood movement’s embrace of elements of the right to the city.

Does empowering local geographic units mean giving neighborhoods with more resources and fewer people of color the right to discriminate against those with fewer resources and darker skin hues?

A classic example is how a decade before Katrina, the Faubourg Lafayette neighborhood grappled with a NIMBYist controversy. Faubourg Lafayette was a food desert without a grocery store, located in Central City, a historically African American neighborhood in a high-crime area of New Orleans. The Historic Faubourg Lafayette Association opposed the proposed development of a grocery store in 1998 on a couple of grounds. First, the sprawling suburban model of development featured a large store and expansive parking lots, inappropriate for an urban setting. And second, the development designs called for the demolition of eight historical homes.

The similarities to Northwest Carrollton’s opposition, in 2006, to the construction of a Walgreens pharmacy on a vacant lot is indicative of the wider dynamics between development and neighborhood associations. In both of these neighborhoods, associations opposed a proposed development because of its physical impact on their neighborhood. In Northwest Carrollton, the association worried that the design of the development would negatively affect existing houses. In Faubourg Lafayette, the conflict was over existing historical homes that were to be demolished for the grocery store. In both locations, the expansive parking lots were seen as a suburban model of development unfit for an urban neighborhood.

In Faubourg Lafayette, the development never got off the ground, in part because of the association’s aggressive campaign. The result puts the limitations of the emphasis on neighborhood protection under the spotlight. In Faubourg Lafayette, the association helped to protect historical homes, but the central lot remained vacant. It was only years later that the empty lot became apartments, developed by a faith-based nonprofit focused on affordable housing. The neighborhood remained without a grocery store. In this case, the neighborhood preference for protection came into direct conflict with other priorities, such as economic development and even ‘food justice.’

The conflict between values plays out not only in big-ticket development, but also in smaller development decisions. The preference to protect neighborhood infrastructure and residential quality of life often conflicts with economic development. Other times, it conflicts with the city’s rich culture of entertainment. Those conflicts are particularly stark in some Nashville neighborhoods where Disneyfication and the constant pressures of tourism intersect with cultural gems such as live performance venues. Short-term rentals are also a key issue for city dwellers. The battle over short-term rentals is, in part, one of residential quality of life.

Louise is a Nashville executive who says she struggles with properties purchased exclusively to put on Airbnb. These properties, often situated in the middle of a residential neighborhood, can have extremely disruptive inhabitants.

“Rather than having a long-term neighbor, residents are beset with a never-ending onslaught of bachelor parties, late-night parties, and drunken visitors that do not think twice before urinating in bushes outside,” said Louise.

Owners of such properties have little incentive to crack down on guests, as it might lead to poor user reviews, meaning neighborhood residents are left to convince guests to be less disruptive.

Short-term rentals bring to light broader justice issues for members of neighborhood associations. Short-term rentals compete with local hotels and facilities that are more highly regulated.

Some local facilities suffer negative economic consequences from an under-regulated short-term rental market that does not meet the same health and safety requirements as hotels. For neighborhoods, perhaps the greatest impact of the proliferation of properties bought specifically as vessels for full-time, short-term rentals is that it takes properties off the long-term rental market causing a spike in rent prices.

“Affordable housing is a critical justice issue,” said Louise. She feels that sometimes the city “prioritizes tourism, and the economic development tied to it, at the expense of a living, vibrant neighborhood.”

“The economic influence of tourism is leading to an influx of investors buying homes for the explicit purpose of renting them out to tourists.” Local neighborhood associations, and their fight to regulate short-term rentals, show that neighborhood associations can play a role as ‘protector of resident interests.’