How can we defeat NIMBYism? Here's a five-point manifesto

Terraced homes in Benwell show off their painted doors and windows in 2005 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. Image: Getty.

Housing in Britain is a policy cluster bomb. Millions of people now own homes which are far more expensive than they ought to be. But if the government builds more houses, and house prices fall, many homeowners will feel betrayed, their wealth and financial security inexorably bound to their ownership of a home that has seen its value inflated by the failures of the housing market.

For politicians, this matters a great deal, because homeowners vote.

There are many reasons why housing in the UK remains so expensive. Interest rates have hit rock bottom, and more people want to live alone. But the shortfall in supply still remains an explanatory factor. We now build as many houses in a year as we used to build in just four and a half months in the late 1960s. A shortfall in supply has pushed up prices.

The result is that the total market value of the UK’s housing stock now exceeds the cost of building it by some £3.7trn: a cool 40 per cent of the net worth of the entire country.

Land itself is not particularly scarce. What is truly scarce is land on which permission to build has been granted. High land costs have given us ‘generation rent’ and pushed up inequality.

The problem is that there are around fourteen million homeowners whose wealth is contained in their ownership of housing assets. This wealth is arguably illusory. Either it sits there as bricks and mortar and depreciates, or it gets passed down via the bank of mum and dad to pay for a deposit, or as an inheritance which is then deployed to buy another, equally over-priced house. But this is a tough argument to win.

And here we encounter the NIMBY problem. In principle, people may recognise the case for building more houses, but this doesn’t mean they wish to see new houses built in their town or village, let alone on adjoining green land. While this is an arguably selfish reaction, people often respond that new developments will fray over-stretched local public services, spoil the local environment, and destroy the character of their community.


Politics is about building alliances and changing minds. To tackle the problems of NIMBYism, the benefits of new housebuilding must be localised, democratised, and shared across communities in the following steps.

1: Capture value. As Labour’s recent green paper on housing noted, government should work with local authorities to enable them to buy land at a price closer to its existing use value, rather than the windfall values that are assigned once permission to build has been granted.

2: Build better, denser cities. The most attractive, walkable and popular parts of many cities are in the historic centre – think Edinburgh’s Old Town or Bath’s Royal Crescent – with many more homes per acre than in outer suburbs. The simplest way of building up city centres is by allowing residents to add new floors or extend existing properties. Higher housing density makes sense so long as it is coupled with good design codes, green space, adequate funding and municipal infrastructure to ensure that places are liveable. We should permit residents to democratically set their own design codes and determine planning permission to extend and modify properties.

3: Build more affordable housing on the green belt. Parishes generally have no right to amend their own green belts and can only allow very limited development on them. Together with other neighbourhood planning areas, they should be allowed to approve building on green belt land if they are satisfied landowners will provide high-quality homes that local people can afford, and adequate funding for the municipal infrastructure that is essential for communities.

Historically, that has been almost impossible. Building on greenbelt land is still subject to the requirement of “openness”, a nebulous stipulation around preserving the countryside’s open character that causes endless court battles and discourages building housing for those who need it most.

4: Enable councils to plan properly. Councils must have the freedom to negotiate with developers and impose real conditions upon them. Shelter has campaigned to fix the current system of ‘viability tests’ that is riddled with loopholes, allowing developers to get out of building affordable housing by saying they overpaid for land. We must give councils the powers to secure development of the standards and specifications they desire.

5: Empower councils with more devolution. As high-street shops close, many city centres are struggling. New student accommodation owned by universities and local institutions has had a transformative effect on some places, but more is needed. City councils and new regional mayors should have greater powers to spend tax revenues on addressing local housing supply and transport infrastructure.

Andrew Hindmoor is a professor of Politics at Sheffield University. John Myers is co-founder of the London YIMBY campaign. 

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.