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Nimbyism on the Apartment Front: Danger Signals for Us All

Sam Newberg / Jul 31 2010

For Release Sunday, August 1, 2010

Sam Newberg“That site is going to sit vacant for a decade.” That was the comment made to me by a frustrated developer as we left a public hearing after the city council voted down his planned apartment project. Although this scene occurred in a suburb of the Twin Cities, it could have happened anywhere. Unfortunately, it’s replicated time and again across the country.

This begs the larger question: if city after city continues to shoot down economically viable rental housing projects, where exactly we are going to accommodate the expected growth in this country in the coming decades? Furthermore, why are cash-strapped cities passing up economic development opportunities? I’m all for local decision-making, but the result of these decisions, multiplied across our metro areas, simply pushes more growth to the urban fringe — an ecologically and economically wasteful choice.

The plan called for an attractive apartment building in a city that has seen little new rental housing in recent decades. The market study indicated that the project could “pencil out,” or be financially feasible. Furthermore, the site in question was located along a transit line and close to freeways and employment. Everything seemed to line up.

The sticking point was leadership. Like so many other inner ring suburbs, this one has a stock of rental housing that averages 40 years old. They often suffer from functional obsolescence, plus increasing crime. Result: in the eyes of the suburb’s public and elected leaders, all rental housing has a bad reputation, and any new project is unacceptable — even with a willing developer, a good design, a market study that supports the project, and the absence of any request for public subsidy.

The city council listened as the development team gave a presentation as to why it believed the project would succeed and bring a $20 million investment to the city, all at a time when revenue is badly needed.

But the reaction? A steady stream of residents who, one-by-one, got up to oppose the project. Over a three-hour period, every single resident, save one, stood up to speak against the project.

Sound familiar?

All opposed were existing homeowners in the city and all were older than 50. One gentleman even reported that he not only owned a home in the city, but also several apartments. The fact that he kept his home in better shape than his rental properties was proof, he asserted, that rental housing is bad for the city!

The lone person to spoke in favor of the project was about 30, a recent home buyer in the city. Reinvesting in this project would be good for the future finances and demographics of the city, she said. One could tell she was having second thoughts about her home purchase as she explained how she’d formerly lived in a neighborhood where renters were embraced. But here, even as a homeowner, she was unable to meet new neighbors, the area seemingly unfriendly with shades drawn and nobody about.

Something is out of balance. A recent Urban Land Institute publication, Housing in America, predicts the coming years’ demographic and economic trends will mean substantial demand for rental housing nationwide. But concurrently, millions of acres will become available for redevelopment on greyfields, often obsolete retail centers. More often than not, rental housing of some kind is an appropriate use for these sites. Developers and many city planning departments are there. But where’s the local leadership?

Michael Carliner, visiting fellow at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard, is researching issues surrounding rental housing for a report scheduled for release later this year. He agrees that my story is not uncommon in suburbs (and sometimes core cities) across the country. “It is more common for suburbs to zone it out,” he says, referring to multifamily housing in general. “They don’t make it easy to develop it. These are very local decisions.”

Local decisions, indeed, and I can sympathize with the city council’s perspective. Like those residents opposing the project, the council members were older, and remember building their home when the city was a growing suburb, everything was new and shiny, kids played in the parks, schools were full and crime was low. Now the kids have grown up and the homes need some renovations. The apartments built in the late ’60s for young baby boomers have become run down, and full of people the city founders don’t recognize. Crime festers. Even the old drive-thru on the drag is closed and falling down. (This is like a Bruce Springsteen song.)

Multiply this scenario by the hundreds of American cities and suburbs that act against the welfare of their region and their city itself. One’s led to agonize: what is the future of our metro areas?

I’m all for local decision-making and public process. But one has to fear for the future of our country when real estate development decisions are driven by an angry and vocal few. One thing is certain: if that lone 30-year-old woman in favor of the project wants to run for city council, I’ll contribute to her campaign.

Sam Newberg is a Twin Cities-based writer and real estate consultant. His e-mail address is columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Marc Brenman
    Posted August 1, 2010 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    There are some assumptions in this column, such as that growth is inevitable and must be tolerated everywhere. As a person who lives in a older suburb and is surrounded by new giant apartment buildings, I can testify that there are problems. These include the fact that infrastructure has not kept pace with the additional population– the roads are saturated, the schools are crowded, the Metrorail is full, breaking, delayed, and crashing. Every bit of green space and every tree that used to exist is chopped down. The new tall buildings loom over the existing houses. No new parks are being preserved, and existing ones are threatened. Traffic lights proliferate and it takes longer to get anywhere. I wish my area had voted down some of these giant apartment buildings like the people in the column, who exercised democracy to preserve their quality of life. Good for them. We do not need to surrender to real estate developers.

  2. Posted August 1, 2010 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Christopher Leinberger is the author of “The Option of Urbanism”. From his position, there is a distinct shift in consumer preference toward walkable urban settings. Others, such as Joel Kotkin author of “The Next Hundred Million” concede this possibility. He does not believe older urban centers will play much of a role – there is simply too much demand despite effective advocacy. Creative retrofit thinking about the old urban world originated by Jane Jacobs, storied by Roberta Gratz or routinely described by Richard Florida, the Brookings Institute, Urban Land Institute, and others is fine, but the market for suburban areas will continue grow much faster. One reason is there is nothing to stop it, but the main reason is there is so much more of it and there is of the old centers. The development errors that the Brenman comment on refers to is about the failure of regional planning not urban development. RPA, Brookings, Lincoln, Harvard Housing, are all screaming 2050 like Chicken Little” — this means nothing to the 50+ crowd running thousands of micro-municipalities of the nations megaregions.

    The idea of urbanizing and retrofitting the suburb is a continuation a long-standing process. I live in a community (house built in 1915) that was a suburb in New York City called Flatbush. The city/suburb is not the dichotomy that many picture. The national expansion and annexation by cities reduced urban density from 1970 to 2000. Growth continues as an “out not up” process. It is cheaper to build and faster for cash. Aside from tiny investments in regional planning for transit oriented development and private initiatives to spot incentive sites, there is little else. The question of linking affordable housing and transportation policy did not occur officially until 2010.

    These rejections come at a price. Measure it by the need for (or the lack of) effective regional planning to pick where the battles for density, affordable housing, and a quality urban life must be won. Without it, all we will have are the poor examples that Brenman clearly illustrates.

  3. R. John Anderson
    Posted August 2, 2010 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    It will take further decline and dis-investment for some suburban municipalities to figure out what is right in front of them. Fear and NIMBYism trump common sense and the fiscal health of a community. It is often easier to get people to show up to fight something they don’t understand than to gather them to build a place worth caring about.

    Where are the elected officials with the integrity needed to talk their city off the ledge?

  4. Posted August 2, 2010 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    A bias against apartments is a problem in many small American cities (although not in our successful big cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco). Working in Gentilly and the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, this was one of the biggest problems we had in trying to plan walkable neighborhoods.

    But if we only look at this as a quantity issue, and don’t also talk about quality, we’re not going to make much progress. Outside of our biggest and economically most successful cities, the quality of apartments built today is usually abysmal. In New Urban projects, finding a developer who will make an apartment building that’s not downright ugly is very, very difficult.

  5. Gloria Bruce
    Posted August 2, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for a thought piece. I can relate to that lone project supporter. When I served on my neighborhood council as the only tenant, the only person under 30, and the only person of color, I was stunned by how my usually kind and liberal neighbors fought tooth-and-nail to keep out multifamily buildings. This was not a downmarket neighborhood, but an affluent inner-ring suburb where developers presented well-designed buildings and even innovative, affordable options like co-housing. I’ve since moved to a nearby neighborhood that’s more racially and socioeconomically diverse and in need of investment – and it’s heartening to see my neighbors welcome a planned transit village and new units. We have some legitimate concerns about how this massive new development will affect our gentrifying neighborhood, but I suspect that in 10-15 years in it’s our district, not the beautiful but staid anti-growth zone where I used to live, that may be the most desirable place for the broadest number of people. Yes, growth needs to be responsible and resident participation should be encouraged. But even urbanists need a continuing process of education – our cities must evolve and welcome denser, affordable housing to stay relevant, prosperous and sustainable. (For the record, I’m a homeowner now and still would fight for more rental housing!)

  6. Posted August 9, 2010 at 5:25 am | Permalink

    I read with great interest Sam Newberg’s piece on rental housing NIMBYism in the August 1, 2010 issue of Barry Bluestone, Dean of the School of Public Policy at Northeastern University and I were two of the authors, along with Ted Carman, President of Concord Square Development, of the report leading to the passage of the Chapter 40R Smart Growth Zoning Act in Massachusetts, signed into law in mid-2004 and fully operational at the beginning of 2006. Since then we have witnessed the passage of 33 40R districts—requiring a 2/3 vote of the local governing body—in 31 different (and very diverse types of) communities in Massachusetts, resulting in more than 12,000 units zoned as of right for multifamily housing, almost all of it rental, with 20 percent required to be affordable. We are, of course, very proud of this record and continue to “sell” 40R to any community that will listen.

    As I read Sam Newberg’s very on-target piece, it occurred to me that (beyond local leadership), two things are generally missing from the mix at the local and state level:

    1. An incentive for cities and towns to allow rental and affordable housing. Chapter 40R includes both financial and non-financial incentives: up-front State cash bonuses, further cash bonuses upon the issuance of building permits, a school cost “insurance policy”—called Chapter 40S, and more. AND

    2. A concentrated effort to keep older rental housing in good repair so that it doesn’t poison the local view of such housing forever. In Massachusetts, since there has been such a high barrier to production of rental housing for more than 40 years, most rental housing has been built under the auspices of Chapter 40B (the Anti-Snob Zoning Act, now under serious attack) and financed by quasi-public agencies (MassHousing, Mass. Housing Partnership, MassDevelopment) which then invest a lot of time and effort in monitoring and management oversight. Those developments look almost as good 40 years after they were built as when they were new. When I ran MassHousing with Marvin Siflinger (1983-1995), management oversight was a major focus of the Agency and it has remained so to this day; these tens of thousands of rental affordable housing units can be shown to dubious local leaders as evidence that well-designed and well-maintained rental housing can be a continuing asset to a community.

    For more information about Chapter 40R, please check out , the Commonwealth Housing Task Force’s website on the Boston Foundation portal. A good summary of current progress is in every Quarterly Report, the most recent of which is from June 30, 2010. Full disclosure: I’m a Co-Chair of the Task Force and the primary author of the Quarterly Reports, even from Oslo, where I am currently living and working during my husband’s service as U.S. Ambassador to Norway.