#NIMBY

All 5 regular readers of this site know that I enjoy me some hyperbole. Aggrandizing small things to make a point (or for sheer entertainment) is something I do here, and, frankly, when I'm engaged in motions practice in my professional life. It's sort of who I am. 

That said, my aim is typically directed at the nuance of issues and/or civic discourse. Even when I take on #BernieBros, I look to be clear that it's the bros, not all of the Sanders supporters, who are earning my ire. While that may be (or often is) lost among some, I find it an important distinction. 

One term, however, I find rather distasteful: NIMBY. For those unaware, NIMBY is an acronym for "Not In My Back Yard." Often flung at individuals protesting specific changes or types of changes in their neighborhood, and always as an epithet, I fear that it no longer has much in the way of usefulness. Instead, it is a term lobbed when there is disagreement about a process, or the edges of a policy. 

There are some clear times, I believe, where the term is appropriate. In 2014, Seattle Public Schools began moving forward with a Recovery School on Queen Anne. This is a specialized program for high school students who are recovering from drug addiction, and trying to get back on track in school. The location was near John Hay Elementary School. The teachers of John Hay wrote a letter welcoming the new students. 

But not all of the community members joined in. They signed a petition, and put up two pictures: one of the site, and one of a group of black kids. They raised alarms to the media. They expressed support for "these students," but were clear that they did not want them to be educated on Queen Anne. In fact, they came up with the preposterous idea that students in recovery on Queen Anne might bring their old dealers up to the hill. 

Really what it came down to: these folks did not want the Interagency Recovery School in their neighborhood. I recall comments about how the school should be "closer to where these kids come from," and all sorts of hullabaloo. These, my friends, are the arguments of a NIMBY. Despite education from the district about the school, the requirements for staying in, how treatment for addiction works, etc., these folks persisted. 

Another example would be Cindy Pierce and Harley Lever of the Seattle Neighborhood Safety Alliance. Here, we have a group of folks who regularly and adamantly speak out against having to see extreme poverty in their neighborhood. I remember during a meeting of theirs in 2016, I asked if they would be supportive of permanent housing for folks exiting homelessness in their neighborhood (instead of tents and RVs), and couldn't get a straight answer. However, Subhadeep Chatterjee later explained it best after the meeting: they don't care where "those people" go, so long as it isn't Ballard, Magnolia, or North Queen Anne. I believe that this also qualifies as NIMBY. (Although credit to Mr. Chatterjee - he also supported more density in his neighborhood, so there's that).

But then there is the way we see the term used most often - for people with disagreements on zoning. Don't get me wrong - there are some folks who want no changes whatsoever, and endorse putting more housing outside of Seattle, or just disallowing more births. My experience is that these are people who moved to Seattle from New York or the San Francisco Bay Area, and want it to remain a sleepy town that is one giant suburb with 11% of the city being a city. Some of these folks have a perverse belief that the longer you've lived here, the more of a voice you deserve. I reject this notion in its entirety. Every member of our community should be valued, and by ostracizing people because of when they moved here, we are simply behaving in a manner fit for the White House, not for Seattle. 

More often, however, it is the process where we find disagreement. Often wrapped in the (rightful) concern around the livability aspect of our city, when people talk about having plans in place for good transit, or addressing public open spaces, as part of zoning changes, they are immediately labeled a "NIMBY." (I mean, I do it, too, but apparently I'm a "developer shill"). Discussions regarding setbacks for high-rise construction to maintain walkable neighborhoods are chastised and disallowed because "NIMBY". Even attempts to maintain mini-downtown cores in neighborhoods is smacked down as "NIMBY." 

When I speak with folks more in depth, however, I see and hear something different. A desire to ensure that there is maximum public benefit, not for themselves, but for the new folks moving into the city. A true desire to share what's great about a neighborhood with new neighbors, not see it all sterilized and Bellevueized. Maintaining more streets to be similar to Davie Street in Vancouver isn't NIMBY, it's good for community. Whether that's University Way in the U-District, or 45th in Wallingford, or Leary in Ballard, these are the gathering places (along with parks and open spaces) for neighbors to meet each other. By insulting the intention and value set by immediately throwing "NIMBY" before learning anything else, we shut down conversation and the ability to progress with greater numbers (and sometimes better ideas). 

There is also a social justice component. When Nikkita Oliver raises concerns about development, she is initially speaking about the damage being done to historically African American communities. Working to preserve parts of the International District isn't NIMBY, it's equity. White folks created these segregated areas of the city, and the people being oppressed turned them into communities. I don't see it as "NIMBY" to want to preserve that history and heritage, especially when we continue to keep low-density housing in the SF zones off of the table. 

There are other tactics people are using to completely stop development. This 25% push, for instance, is not really designed to actually be successful. Relying on San Francisco (where it hasn't been fully implemented, and prior MIZ has yielded pathetic results) or New York (where there is no Incentive Zoning, Low-Income Tax Credits are used as part of the 25%, and there isn't MFTE, so other taxpayer subsidies go to help private developers reach the 25%...also, it isn't in Manhattan) is comparing apples to oranges. Housing policy is much more complex, after all.

But generally, I continue to find that most people that some in the urbanist community immediately tag as "NIMBY" are not anti-growth at all. They may prefer different ways to achieve production targets, and other amenities in addition to the housing, but if we keep insulting them and pushing them away because of their differing opinion or non-reliance on urbanist orthodoxy, then we risk losing the bigger picture of ensuring a more affordable and welcoming city. I like to think we can do better.