Is NIMBY a fight for residential protection?

(This is the second 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.

The short-term rental debate shows how the conflict, between economic interests and resident interests, can overlap with other justice issues in unpredictable ways. The struggle against short-term rentals is a struggle for justice in rent prices and affordable housing. But neighborhood associations can just as easily cut the other way in that debate. Renters are not always welcomed by associations. Sometimes they are even seen as something from which neighborhoods need protection. This is critical, because it provides a second layer to the monolithic struggle of development. Neighborhood associations may be a counterpoint against development while simultaneously using their powers to discriminate against potential residents.

The conflict between resident rights and economic development can spill into other realms in unpredictable ways. Sometimes the priorities of associations further the cause of affordable housing, and sometimes NIMBYism is the bane of affordable housing.

The short-term rental debate is not solely about properties bought for the express purpose of short-term rentals. Sites such as Airbnb have also made the longtime practice of renting out rooms in one’s own home during events like the CMA fest infinitely easier.

“Many of my friends chose to leave the city during the CMAs, renting out their home was a way to recoup funds,” said Louise, a Nashville executive who sometimes rents out her home. “For renters, the Fest could sometimes fund two or three months’ rent.”

This is a way for everyday residents to capitalize on the demand for tourism. For those who have rented out their homes for decades and for whom it is an important part of their cash flow, the complaints against Airbnb ring hollow because they also see it as taking away a practice that they have taken advantage of for years.

Just as the ideal of neighborhood protection can come into conflict with economic development and long time practices, neighborhood protection can come into conflict with specific groups of people. Protecting the neighborhood could mean limiting the extent to which it is overrun with student housing from surrounding universities; it could mean zoning that makes the neighborhood more expensive for both homebuyers and renters, and it could mean opposing affordable housing.
These types of NIMBYism focused specifically on cohorts of people, come with a second risk, that the neighborhood protection ideal may be a color-blind way of speaking that hides racial discrimination or discrimination against other vulnerable groups. The history of neighborhood protection and quality of life has long served as an intermediary for racial discrimination, allowing neighborhood residents to claim that the issue is not really race, it is the good of the neighborhood, all while actively discriminating.

Racism need not manifest as individual discrimination or animosity. It may manifest as a preference for neighborhood continuity or skepticism of renters. There is a long history of housing and the community values that have contributed, both explicitly and implicitly, to segregation.

Neighborhood activists find themselves working across this spectrum. Some explicitly use neighborhood protectionism to hide racial preferences. Others are unaware of implicit biases that are hidden by their neighborhood defense. And still others wrestle with the racial implications of their choices, deciding either to ignore the neighborhood ideal so as to avoid negative racial outcomes or to embrace neighborhood protection despite racial consequences.

In other words, just as neighborhood protection comes into conflict with economic development and cultural heritage, it comes into conflict with racial justice, and neighborhood activists make decisions across the spectrum.

NIMBYism is deeply embedded in the psyche of the neighborhood association. Opposition to development is a powerful tool to combat ‘Disneyfication,’ to protect the rights of residents, and to ensure the long-term viability of the neighborhood. But when such opposition is aimed at affordable housing and renters, the tool is a part of wider systemic and structural racism. At its worst, it is blatantly discriminatory and xenophobic. The same neighborhood protection ideal can be used to promote justice or to undermine it. Sometimes it complements economic or racial justice, but just as often it conflicts with justice.