Procrastinating on May 22, 2017

Monday Smackdown: Physics Professor Phil Price the NIMBYist

Must-Read I disagree with Noah Smith: reading Phil Price convinced me that Phil Price is an idiot, that for many, many people NIMBYism is not a "flawed but serious package of ideas" but rather "simple ignorance"—or, perhaps, rather, very hard work to remain ignorant, in a way that is supportive of the "selfishness of incumbent homeowners trying to feather their own nests... [and] white people trying to exclude poor minorities from their communities while still appearing liberal..."

What was Andrew Gelman thinking in giving him his microphone?

Noah Smith: The NIMBY Challenge: "NIMBY theorists like [Phil] Price... should do the following thought experiment...

...Imagine destroying a bunch of luxury apartments in SF. Just find the most expensive apartment buildings you can and demolish them.  What would happen to rents in SF if you did this? Would rents fall? Would rich people decide that SF hates them, and head for Seattle or the East Bay or Austin? Maybe. But maybe they would stay in SF, and go bid high prices for apartments currently occupied by the beleaguered working class. The landlords of those apartments, smelling profit, would find a way around anti-eviction laws, kick out the working-class people, and rent to the recently displaced rich. Those newly-displaced working-class people, having nowhere to live in SF, would move out of the city themselves, incurring all the costs and disruptions and stress of doing so. 

If you think that demolishing luxury apartments would have this latter result, then you should also think that building more luxury apartments would do the opposite. Price should think long and hard about what would happen if SF started demolishing luxury apartments....

I think Price's posts have the following lessons for YIMBYs:

  1. Econ 101 supply-and-demand theory is helpful... but don't rely on it exclusively... use a mix of data, simple theory, thought experiments, and references to more complex theories.
  2. Always remind people that the price of an apartment... doesn't come built into its walls and floors.
  3. Remind NIMBYs to think about the effect of new housing on whole regions, states, and the country itself, instead of just on one city or one neighborhood. If NIMBYs say they only care about one city or neighborhood, ask them why.
  4. Ask NIMBYs what they think would be the result of destroying rich people's current residences.
  5. Acknowledge that induced demand is a real thing, and think seriously about how new housing supply within a city changes the location decisions of people not currently living in that city.
  6. NIMBYs care about the character of a city, so it's good to be able to paint a positive, enticing picture of what a city would look and feel like with more development....

The YIMBY viewpoint has the weight of evidence and theory on its side. But the NIMBY challenge is not one of simple ignorance. Nor is it purely driven by the selfishness of incumbent homeowners trying to feather their own nests, or by white people trying to exclude poor minorities from their communities while still appearing liberal (two allegations I often hear). NIMBYism is a flawed but serious package of ideas, deserving of serious argument.