Ah, NIMBYs. The middling middle-class campaigners we all love to hate. For those who are blissfully unaware, the acronym stands for “Not In My Back Yard”, referring to those implacable objectors to any development that could provide jobs or housing or energy for other people on the grounds that it spoils their view or their quiet or the “local character”. Only a few minutes spent on Angry People in Local Newspapers brings up some hilarious NIMBY campaigns: “Mother Nature ‘in mourning’ over seafront housing development” is a recent favourite of mine. In recent years NIMBYs have more and more become faux-environmentalists because of the general cultural mood, which sometimes leads to some rather deep ironies; I remember not so long ago seeing a NIMBY campaigner on the news complaining that flood barriers along one small section of a river would be bad for otter habitats, followed immediately by an expert saying that (whatever the deal with otters) climate change would flood the entire town in coming years without the barriers.
It might seem, with their Hot Fuzz / Village Green Preservation Society aesthetic and big Tory vibes, that NIMBYs would be a purely British phenomenon. But nothing could be further from the truth. The story about the otters came from the Republic of Ireland, and NIMBYism in America has recently become a big point of political discussion—especially NIMBYism of the left, anti-“gentrification” and the like. Really, NIMBYism is as much a part of the fabric of the Western world as McDonald’s, the spirit of capitalism, and an awkward refusal to confront the history of empire.
To see why NIMBYism is so common, we have to look a bit more broadly. We young liberals1 don’t typically like NIMBYs. Why don’t we like NIMBYs? Because they stand in the way of important development. Why is development so important? Because this country faces huge housing supply issues, driving up rents and cost of living and making housing less accessible for the worst off in society, and other Western countries are in a similar situation. And why do Western countries face housing supply issues? Because of various artificial restrictions on supply imposed by the state, such as the green belt in the UK, zoning laws in the US, and so on.
The question of why so many Western countries have these artificial restrictions on housing supply isn’t asked nearly enough. After all, while lots of countries have artificial restrictions, very few have the same restrictions. So it’s not that a particular policy became popular across the West. Instead of looking at policy, we should instead look at (what we might call) the political economy of homeownership.
Especially after WW2, almost every Western country made the decision to promote homeownership among its population—whether or not government policy was the initial driver of increasing homeownership (a question that can be debated), it’s clear that it soon became an incredibly powerful force. The reasons were the same in every case: as citizens came to demand a better life after the war than they’d had before it, homeownership became seen as a way to offer wealth, opportunity, and independence to the many and to promote growth. Homeownership became a strong social norm, something to aspire towards—think of the 1950s ideal of a nuclear family in a suburban home, especially strong in the US but present everywhere. Rates of homeownership rapidly increased across every Western country: while there is a common idea that homeownership is particularly high in the UK and US, and that this has something to do with 1980s “neoliberalism”, this is a myth—Italy, Belgium, Portugal, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands, and Ireland all have higher rates than the UK, and the oft-cited example of low-homeownership Germany is really an outlier. But this came with political consequences.
A house, after all, is an incredibly expensive thing: it’s typically going to be worth several hundred thousand pounds, and mortgages take decades to pay off. For the average homeowner, the vast vast majority of their wealth is tied up in their house, and the “performance” of this investment determines their whole financial standing. Even homo economicus would feel forced to take steps to keep the price of their house from falling. And for actual human beings, a house has even more importance. It’s a home, somewhere you have a real emotional connection with; the risk of losing it, or of going underwater on your mortgage when the price drops, is a terrifying thought. Of course homeowners will do what they can to push house prices up, or at least keep them from going down.
When homeownership grows to the point that it did in the postwar West, homeowners become a powerful informal political force and they begin shaping policy. Governments start taking steps to keep house prices high and push them higher. By far the easiest way to keep prices high—when demand is already sky-high thanks to norms of homeownership—is to keep supply low; and so governments instituted policies limiting the supply of housing. The exact policies instituted differed in different countries, but the political forces behind them were exactly the same: the interests of the exponentially growing number of homeowners.
Homeowners are not a unified or organised political bloc, but there’s so many of them that they don’t have to be. Massive national housing supply restrictions are the highest-level expression of their political power; small-scale local NIMBY campaigns are the lowest-level. I would bet, actually, on the following trend: for the majority of you whose parents own their own home, you’ll have seen them taking part in some kind of objection to development, even if in only the lowest-effort way; for the majority of you whose parents don’t, you’ll not have. Even if only at a subconscious level, NIMBYism is a tactic to protect homeowners from developments that would bring down house prices when these developments are not already prevented by institutionalised supply restrictions. And indeed, NIMBYism itself has become institutionalised—notably in the ways that the interests of current homeowners are represented in the planning permission process (local residents can object to developments), but the interests of those who might be served by the development are not.
All this is to say that there’s a deep irony at the heart of homeowning. The cultural norms that promote homeownership for everyone lead, inevitably, to political forces that restrict the supply of houses and limit homeownership to select few. Supply restrictions mean that, if you’re young and work in London, unless you’re set to inherit six figures of wealth you will probably never own your own home. This is a deep intergenerational injustice, as those who bought houses when they were cheaper have access to a huge source of wealth and a place to live, while those who were unable—because they weren’t born!—have less access to wealth and are stuck with incredibly expensive and increasingly precarious rental arrangements.
The injustice isn’t just intergenerational, either. This is clearest to see in the United States, where racist policies excluded so many black people from homeownership for the longest possible time. Today, while explicit policies of redlining and discriminatory lending are much less of a factor, the structural forces of the housing market reinforce racial hierarchy; meanwhile, racist attitudes mean that NIMBY campaigns are constantly fighting for continued housing segregation, as in the US integration often brings down house prices. The same issue applies throughout the western world, albeit with different disadvantaged groups affected in each country; the case of the working class in Britain should be obvious enough to think about. House prices are so high that the worst-off in society cannot even dream of making enough money to access a mortgage, and are excluded from homeownership; they are thus excluded from the main source of wealth in the country, a source of wealth which the state explicitly promotes and even subsidises, and are denigrated by social and cultural norms that hold up homeownership as an ideal.
You might think that the solution to this problem is to widen access to credit: allow people to get mortgages and buy houses with less money down and with less stringent income and wealth requirements. Indeed, the US did exactly this in the 1990s in an attempt to widen homeownership, allowing for the provision of a huge number of mortgages that didn’t meet the previous high standards. Mortgages that continued to meet the standards became known as “prime”, mortgages that didn’t were called “subprime”, and we all know what happened next. The simple fact is that a mortgage is just such a big loan that it’s incredibly risky to give one out without a significant amount of collateral or a guaranteed income; the world learned that the hard way in 2008. The problem isn’t that some people can’t access homeownership; the problem is homeownership itself.
Some people have argued that the root of the UK’s economic woes is the “Anglo-liberal model” of “debt-driven growth”, using debt (like mortgages) to finance economic growth. But there’s actually not much wrong with growth being driven by workers taking on debt to make investments—the rich do that all the time and we don’t have an issue with it! The problem is that the particular form of debt that has been driving growth in the West for so long has been mortgages. While the increase in house prices in the UK has indeed contributed to some growth, the housing crisis that has been generated by that increase has undermined so much more: talented individuals are kept away from the jobs they’d be most productive in by eye-watering rents, or else have their disposable income slashed to almost nothing, reducing spending.
NIMBYism, and restrictions like the green belt or US zoning laws, are not unfortunate but contingent political forces; they are the inevitable consequence of the centrality of homeownership in the economies and cultures of Western societies. For as long as policy is oriented towards homeownership, as long as renting is treated as an intermediate step towards the final goal of buying, and as long as homeownership remains socially valued, we will continue to face intergenerational injustice, increasing inequality, and slower and slower growth.
This problem needs a political solution, yes, but it also needs a cultural one. We can promote policies that would expand the housing supply until the cows come home, but we’ll be fighting an uphill battle as long as our culture still massively promotes homeownership at nearly every level: from something as blatant as property shows like Location, Location, Location or A Place in the Sun, to more subtle suggestions in media and discourse about the independence and freedom of owning or about idyllic suburban life. Even among dejected millennials and zoomers who will likely never own a house, you can see a huge yearning for homeownership: how else to understand cottagecore? So long as homeownership remains a social value, demand for buying houses will remain high and homeowners will continue to exert significant political pressure; as innocent as all these cultural items might seem on the surface, as long as they exist they will continue to lead—inexorably—to NIMBYism, to housing undersupply, and to deep injustice.
If you take one thing away from this post, it should be a critical reassessment about your hopes for the future, your dreams about your ideal home, and your plans for life. It’s incredibly fun to laugh at NIMBYs pretending to be more concerned about otter habitats than the potential flooding of an entire town, there can be no question. But until homeownership loses its status as policy goal and cultural norm, NIMBYs will remain, as predictably as the tides. We all have to think about that.
1 By which, to be clear, I do not mean the organisation often referred to as Liberal Youth.