Additional arguments for NIMBY

The fol­low­ing post was writ­ten in July of 2017 in re­sponse to a post by Ju­lia Galef, but I de­cided not to post/​finish it. I figured I’d piled on San Fran­cisco enough. With the re­cent post on the sub­ject by Scott Alexan­der, I figured I would dust it off, give it an edit­ing pass to re­flect new points, flesh out the un­writ­ten parts, and let it fly free. En­joy!

Epistemic Sta­tus: I never bor­rowed your pot, I gave it back to you in perfect con­di­tion, and when I bor­rowed it there was already a hole in it. Also, cita­tion needed.

Origi­nally a re­sponse to: Should We Build More Hous­ing in San Fran­cisco?

Yes. Also, yes. And in con­clu­sion, yes.

Wait. We’re not done.

In her post, Ju­lia pre­sents what she sees as the three ma­jor dis­agree­ments be­tween ad­vo­cates of build­ing more hous­ing (YIMBYs) and crit­ics of build­ing more hous­ing (NIBMYs). She views these as: Would adding new hous­ing no­tice­ably effect prices? Does new hous­ing help poor ten­ants? Are NIMBY ob­jec­tions (that in­cum­bents de­serve ex­tra con­sid­er­a­tion, and ex­ist­ing char­ac­ter is worth pre­serv­ing) le­gi­t­i­mate?

My mis­sion, should I choose to ac­cept it (and I do) is to come up with as many rea­sons as pos­si­ble why build­ing new hous­ing in San Fran­cisco would be a bad idea, be­cause upon read­ing Ju­lia’s list, I re­al­ized that my steel­man ar­gu­ments against hous­ing con­struc­tion mostly weren’t cov­ered, and I wouldn’t group them in this way at all. Many of them seem to never be cov­ered at all.

I will also cover the stan­dard rea­sons, to see where they fit into my or­der­ing of po­ten­tial ar­gu­ments, and be­cause some of them have a point.

Added 10/​11/​2018: Scott’s rea­sons, in his re­cent ar­ti­cle, are that San Fran­cisco is uniquely bad at build­ing houses, more hous­ing might not lower rents, YIMBYs act like hu­man garbage and show to­tal dis­re­spect for peo­ple’s lives and prefer­ences and call any­one op­posed to them names up to and in­clud­ing racist, that peo­ple mov­ing to San Fran­cisco is bad for them and that peo­ple mov­ing to San Fran­cisco is bad for their com­mu­ni­ties. I don’t ad­dress the com­pletely true ar­gu­ment that YIMBYs are of­ten ob­nox­ious, and don’t con­sider ‘we won’t be able to do X’ a very good ar­gu­ment for ‘lets ban do­ing X’ but do ad­dress the oth­ers. Scott’s fi­nal prefer­ence is for co­or­di­na­tion to move val­ued com­mu­ni­ties to bet­ter lo­ca­tions, a solu­tion I en­dorse, and even tried to start mul­ti­ple times with­out suc­cess.

Rea­son #1:

Peo­ple shouldn’t move to San Fran­cisco (re­gard­less of what it does to hous­ing costs and what it does to the rest of the city).

I’ll try to keep this sec­tion as short as pos­si­ble. No promises.

There are four types of peo­ple in this calcu­la­tion: Those in San Fran­cisco who work in tech or re­lated things, those in San Fran­cisco who don’t work in tech, those mov­ing to San Fran­cisco, and those not end­ing up in San Fran­cisco. I can ar­gue it’s bad for all four.

Rea­son #1A: Peo­ple mov­ing to San Fran­cisco is bad for those people

Many of our smartest, most am­bi­tious and most hard work­ing peo­ple, es­pe­cially pro­gram­mers, are be­ing lured and tricked by the promise of sweet uni­corn cash and var­i­ous net­work effects. Their pil­gri­mage is the new army of the wannabes, just as dreams of star­dom are pur­sued in Los An­ge­les – and just like LA and show busi­ness, they’re work­ing long hours in lousy con­di­tions and giv­ing up their whole lives mostly for not that much re­ward, hop­ing to strike it big where few ever will. Mean­while, they’re en­ter­ing a city and cul­ture that is toxic to a nor­mal suc­cess­ful life, and the gen­der im­bal­ance is in­creas­ingly bad for their so­cial lives.

See later on for the ar­gu­ment that the ‘deal’ these peo­ple are get­ting would, if any­thing, ac­tu­ally get worse rather than bet­ter even if hous­ing prices went down. That’s a sep­a­rate line of ar­gu­ment!

More ab­stractly, if peo­ple have a bias in fa­vor of mov­ing to The Bay, helping more of them move to The Bay makes the group worse off, not bet­ter off, so a tax on mov­ing there in the form of ex­pen­sive hous­ing is effi­cient.

Rea­son #1B: Peo­ple mov­ing to San Fran­cisco is bad for the rest of the world/​country

Look at who is mov­ing to San Fran­cisco. Those peo­ple are the founders of com­pa­nies, the lead­ers of in­tel­lec­tual com­mu­ni­ties (in­clud­ing the one most dear to my­self and many of my read­ers), those with drive and am­bi­tion and a tol­er­ance for risk. They have the cod­ing skills and the hus­tling and net­work­ing skills and the mar­ket­ing skills. They want it bad and they’ll do what it takes to get it. Great peo­ple! Th­ese are what the in-group calls ‘com­mu­nity lead­ers’ and the out-group would call ‘job cre­ators’ when they’re us­ing that to do some­thing real and not just code for ‘rich peo­ple’.

What hap­pens when those peo­ple leave their com­mu­ni­ties? What hap­pens when you take the su­per­stars of other cities and put them all into The Bay? Some good things, to be sure. A group of ex­traor­di­nary peo­ple can do ex­traor­di­nary things, and if we are en­hanc­ing the pro­duc­tivity of our best peo­ple, that could be pretty great.

The par­allel to im­mi­gra­tion also ex­tends to those left be­hind. The heart is ripped out of in­tel­lec­tual and busi­ness com­mu­ni­ties that never re­cover. The best peo­ple, the ones do­ing the things, leave the mo­ment their things get real. Then they tell the best re­main­ing peo­ple to come with them, and that if any­one stays be­hind they’re sig­nal­ing they’re not se­ri­ous, so no one is will­ing to fund them or take them se­ri­ously. The effec­tive pro­duc­tivity of above-av­er­age peo­ple who are not world-movers, who have roots in their com­mu­ni­ties, goes from ‘could be a valuable part of some­thing big’ to ‘guess I’ll code some stuff that these guys will pay me for and I’ll spend a lot of time sur­fing the in­ter­net.’

The brain drain is real, and so is the im­plied fu­ture brain drain. Why help peo­ple to be­come stronger, more am­bi­tious and con­fi­dent, more ra­tio­nal, when the very suc­cess you have means they will leave? How do you stay mo­ti­vated to make new friends and hold to­gether a com­mu­nity, when the best will leave?

The hous­ing cost dis­aster in San Fran­cisco is fi­nally start­ing to pre­sent an ar­gu­ment for why one would start a com­pany in Austin, or Bos­ton, or New York, or what­ever other city you ac­tu­ally want to live in, with­out be­ing kil­led by metasig­nal­ing games. That lets those peo­ple then have a shot at ac­tu­ally do­ing things that mat­ter. If we built enough hous­ing to solve the crisis, that ar­gu­ment wouldn’t work, and that would be quite bad, since we’d shut out ev­ery­one who cared about liv­ing some­where else from do­ing po­ten­tially very valuable things, even if The Bay it­self wasn’t toxic.

More ab­stractly, if mov­ing to The Bay has nega­tive ex­ter­nal­ities out­side The Bay, it is effi­cient to ‘tax’ mov­ing to The Bay in the form of ex­pen­sive hous­ing.

Rea­son #1C: Peo­ple mov­ing to San Fran­cisco is bad for the ex­ist­ing in­hab­itants of San Fran­cisco that work in Tech

For the mo­ment, ig­nore what hap­pens to hous­ing costs; we’ll ar­gue later that this effect will can­cel in any case. The cur­rent in­hab­itants have a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage against non-res­i­dents by virtue of hav­ing already moved to the area and se­cured hous­ing, and be­cause they are able to live un­der those con­di­tions. If oth­ers are able to move in and com­pete for those op­por­tu­ni­ties, ex­ist­ing tech work­ers will get less of the best jobs, and com­pe­ti­tion will drive down wages and val­u­a­tions. Mean­while, be­ing in San Fran­cisco will be less spe­cial, so the av­er­age worker or founder will be lower qual­ity, so on av­er­age it will be harder to find good op­por­tu­ni­ties and hire good peo­ple. The difficulty that gets taken away will be added back el­se­where, and this will suck.

More ab­stractly, if liv­ing in San Fran­cisco is costly sig­nal­ing, or it is a sort­ing/​as­so­ci­a­tive/​po­si­tional good, then cre­at­ing more of it can eas­ily be net bad.

Rea­son #1D: Peo­ple mov­ing to San Fran­cisco is bad for other in­hab­itants of San Francisco

They cer­tainly don’t seem afraid to share this opinion with us! They seem quite vo­cal about it. They have many rea­sons, which fall mostly into the cat­e­gories of in­creas­ing the den­sity of the city (this is rea­son #3), chang­ing the mix of res­i­dents in a way that will cause the city to give ex­ist­ing in­hab­itants less of what they want and more of what they do not want (see rea­son #4), and that they sim­ply don’t like the new peo­ple. Th­ese in­volve the na­ture of the city chang­ing for the worse (at least as far as the ex­ist­ing in­hab­itants are con­cerned), and the rea­sons are of­ten con­tra­dic­tory (similarly to the fact that their three ob­jec­tions on price grounds seem to be that prices would go up and that’s bad, prices would go down and that’s bad, and prices would stay the same which is also bad) but I think there is a le­gi­t­i­mate claim that these peo­ple would be worse off if more peo­ple move in and hous­ing costs are un­changed.

More ab­stractly, if mov­ing to The Bay has nega­tive ex­ter­nal­ities in­side The Bay, it is effi­cient to ‘tax’ mov­ing to The Bay in the form of ex­pen­sive hous­ing.

Rea­son #2:


As promised, we have three main ar­gu­ments: Prices would go up, prices would go down, and prices would stay the same. All are bad.

That may sound like a con­tra­dic­tion, but it isn’t. As I ex­plained ear­lier, change is bad.

Rea­son #2A: Prices might go up!

The ar­gu­ment that prices would go up comes from gen­trifi­ca­tion. Build­ing lux­ury hous­ing and mov­ing in the type of peo­ple who want lux­ury hous­ing means in­creas­ing the Qual­ity of the neigh­bor­hood, which means that hous­ing prices in gen­eral go up even for a con­stant qual­ity of house, thus rais­ing prices and shut­ting ex­ist­ing res­i­dents out, so those res­i­dents lose out and the ex­ist­ing cul­ture and neigh­bor­hood, which was gen­er­at­ing a lot of value, is de­stroyed. See rea­son #4 for my view of why such ar­gu­ments are le­gi­t­i­mate and im­por­tant; there are bundling rea­sons why the price move­ment might be bad even if the ‘value pack­age’ im­prov­ing is why prices are ris­ing.

Pretty much ev­ery­one agrees that if you build more hous­ing and prices go up, it’s bad for ex­ist­ing res­i­dents, and ad­vo­cates for build­ing hous­ing use prices go­ing down as their pri­mary mo­ti­vat­ing rea­son for build­ing. So this one isn’t a hard sell, it’s more about un­der­stand­ing the gears un­der­neath.

Rea­son #2B: Prices might go down in gen­eral!

This comes back to what type of good San Fran­cisco is. If San Fran­cisco is a nor­mal good, then prices com­ing down due to in­creased sup­ply is a good thing. If it is not a nor­mal good, but rather a po­si­tional good or a sig­nal­ing good or an as­so­ci­a­tive good (See Rea­son #1C) then the price go­ing down means the good re­flects that the good is now less valuable, and in an im­por­tant sense no longer fully ex­ists. The good was valuable be­cause it was scarce and valuable, and now it is less valuable and less scarce.

Those who have already bought such a good are worse off, since their good loses value, and those who have not yet bought the good can also be hurt since they may have wanted the more valuable but ex­pen­sive ver­sion more than the new less ex­pen­sive but less valuable ver­sion.

Rea­son #2C: Prices for a given house might go down on my par­tic­u­lar house! Due to sup­ply and de­mand! I own that house!

If I own my home and it loses value, I can be made worse off. In ex­treme cases my home is now worth­less since I owe more on the mort­gage than it is worth. Put­ting a home­owner un­der­wa­ter has real nega­tive eco­nomic con­se­quences; the per­son be­comes un­able to move (in an area that is chang­ing in ways they don’t even like, that drove the home value down in the first place!) or ends up giv­ing up their house to the bank, which car­ries huge ex­ter­nal­ities with it.

It’s also kind of theft. The owner had pre­vi­ously ac­quired some­thing that was valuable due to reg­u­la­tion, so tak­ing that reg­u­la­tion away is a con­fis­ca­tion of their pri­vate prop­erty (e.g. get your gov­ern­ment hands off my Med­i­care).

This also works to­gether with #2B.

Rea­son #2D: Prices for a given house might go down be­cause my house is a worse good.

This is in con­trast to the ar­gu­ment that hous­ing is not a nor­mal good; this is say­ing that your house ac­tu­ally got phys­i­cally worse – your light got blocked off, the noise level went up and so on. There’s also the ar­gu­ment from in­fras­truc­ture (rea­son #3). It all adds up to the fact that you’re do­ing some­thing on your prop­erty that is bad for what I have on my prop­erty, so you should have to fully com­pen­sate me for that ex­ter­nal­ity be­fore I let you do it.

Rea­son #2E: Prices might stay about the same!

I know. This is hor­rible! NIMBY ad­vo­cates make this claim a lot – that you can’t build enough hous­ing to move the nee­dle and in­duced de­mand is a thing, slash that other ma­jor cities are rea­son­able sub­sti­tutes for The Bay, so prices won’t change much if you in­crease sup­ply.

The im­pli­ca­tion is that, since change is bad (Rea­son #4A), if you’re not get­ting the main benefit of build­ing more hous­ing (lower prices) than you shouldn’t build more hous­ing.

Rea­son #3:

The Bay can’t han­dle more peo­ple (or ev­ery­thing I know about city plan­ning I learned from Cities: Skylines, or the ar­gu­ment from civ­i­liza­tional in­ad­e­quacy)

A city re­lies on a wide va­ri­ety of limited ca­pac­ity pub­lic goods. Roads and bridges can only han­dle so many cars and trucks. Trains can only carry so many pas­sen­gers. Only so many peo­ple can en­joy a given park, a given riverfront. There’s only so much wa­ter, only so much power. San Fran­cisco has a bunch of unique and spe­cial things that can’t be ex­panded and have limited through­put. Each res­i­dent uses a share of these pub­lic goods. Ad­ding more peo­ple can stretch those goods past the break­ing point where they get dra­mat­i­cally worse.

One can say ‘fine, then build more’ and in the­ory that works for most (but not all) of these things. Man can cer­tainly build more power plants and roads and bridges and train tun­nels, run more buses and so on. But can Amer­i­cans in the 21st Cen­tury? Can Cal­ifor­nia? Can San Fran­cisco? Even if they can, will they? At what cost and with what de­lay?

An on-ramp to the Golden Gate Bridge was re­cently added. It cost dra­mat­i­cally more money, and took dra­mat­i­cally more time to build, than the en­tire Golden Gate Bridge. We are los­ing our abil­ity to build things.

Yes, you say, fix it! Don’t use that as a rea­son to build even fewer things! And I agree with you in prin­ci­ple, but these goods are com­ple­ments.

Already, traf­fic in San Fran­cisco is pretty bad, and many peo­ple have re­ally long com­mutes. The BART trains are pushed past their break­ing point. Build­ing more hous­ing in­side San Fran­cisco could in the­ory make this bet­ter rather than worse, but it seems rather un­likely things would work out that way.

San Fran­cisco can barely han­dle its ex­ist­ing res­i­dents. What makes us think it can han­dle a lot more of them?

Rea­son #4:

Ad­ding New Peo­ple To a Com­mu­nity De­stroys Ex­ist­ing Com­mu­ni­ties. Here’s Why That Hap­pens, and Why It Mat­ters. (or: the Steel­man Against Gen­trifi­ca­tion, with a click­bait head­line for no good rea­son)

There are a lot of ar­gu­ments against gen­trifi­caiton and in fa­vor of pre­serv­ing ex­ist­ing com­mu­ni­ties, but I think a lot of the ac­tual rea­son­ing al­most always re­mains hid­den. What ends up be­ing said is some vari­a­tion of ‘poor/​minor­ity peo­ple good, rich/​ma­jor­ity peo­ple bad’ but the bet­ter ques­tion is what harm is ac­tu­ally be­ing done, how and why is that harm be­ing done, and how much harm is be­ing done, so we can de­cide whether this is worth it.

Rea­son #4A: Change is bad

I made this its own post. Changes are bad. Creat­ing more houses and mov­ing in more peo­ple in­volves a lot of change, so by de­fault it is go­ing to be bad, in­clud­ing in ways that are hard to an­ti­ci­pate and/​or hard to de­scribe. It is rea­son­able to ar­gue that the bur­den of proof is on the one chang­ing things to show im­prove­ment, not the other way around!

[Added 10/​11/​2018] Let’s strengthen that and pre­view #4D. Hous­ing, liv­ing and neigh­bor­hoods are thinly traded, in­effi­cient, low in­for­ma­tion mar­kets with high search costs, lots of quirky as­pects to each of their goods, and there­fore a high level of idiosyn­cratic value even be­fore peo­ple build their lives around such value (for in­vest­ment see #4C). Thus, if some­one has a pack­age of goods they are choos­ing to con­tinue pur­chas­ing, al­ter­ing those goods in al­most any way is likely to be hor­rible for them if they are asked to pay the as­so­ci­ated costs. If they don’t have to pay, then you’re cre­at­ing bad matches and lots of waste.

Rea­son #4B: Mov­ing is bad

Mov­ing to a new city, state or coun­try is a big­ger deal (See #4C), but even mov­ing across the street sucks pretty bad. If you own your house, you’re pay­ing sev­eral per­cent com­mis­sion and en­gag­ing in two pro­tracted and stress­ful ne­go­ti­a­tions. If you are lucky enough to only rent, you still likely need to in­vest a stress­ful week of your time into find­ing your new place. You then spend an­other week on a com­bi­na­tion of putting things into boxes and tak­ing things out of boxes, and/​or buy­ing all new things. You also need to get on the phone with sev­eral hor­rible bu­reau­cra­cies mul­ti­ple times, and get all your mail redi­rected and all your forms changed, and your de­vices re­con­figured. You need to figure out how to adopt what you own, or what you need to buy, to the new space available. In the mid­dle of all that, you need to lug all your stuff from one place to the other.

For an av­er­age cou­ple, this means some­thing on the or­der of two weeks of time and sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars in ex­penses; if they are lucky, this will sim­ply eat all of their free time over a longer pe­riod, and they won’t miss work. It will of­ten be months be­fore ev­ery­thing is fully un­packed and the de­tails get back to some­thing close to op­ti­mal.

And keep in mind, that’s if the move is across the street.

If you change the neigh­bor­hood such that peo­ple are forced to re­lo­cate, there’s a rather large loss.

Rea­son #4C: In­vest­ment and net­work effects are lost

If peo­ple start mov­ing out of the neigh­bor­hood, or the neigh­bor­hood ceases to prop­erly func­tion, then things get far worse. When a per­son aban­dons a city, or even an area of a city, their friend­ships must be re­built. They could be torn away from their fam­i­lies, even their chil­dren; a large and grow­ing num­ber of Amer­i­cans liter­ally can­not move far by law or they will at least lose their cus­tody rights to their chil­dren. They of­ten need to find an­other job. It would be slightly over­step­ping to say they are get­ting a new life, but only slightly.

Be­ing in a place is an in­vest­ment, and the con­struc­tion of a net­work. You are in­vest­ing in your con­nec­tions, your knowl­edge, your rep­u­ta­tion, your fu­ture. Those effects are quite valuable, and for many, es­pe­cially the less well off, they are the pri­mary source of wealth. When that place no longer func­tions for that net­work, and that in­vest­ment loses value, they can effec­tively lose ev­ery­thing. Every­thing is chang­ing for them. And re­mem­ber, change is bad.

Even for those who can re­main, or who choose to re­main, they are still los­ing friends, los­ing fam­ily, los­ing loved ones. The places they have ex­plored, that have been op­ti­mized for their needs, face new in­cen­tives and higher rents, and will be less good at serv­ing their old pur­poses. Old so­cial spots will fall apart, wa­ter­ing holes will mu­tate, stores will sell the wrong things. The new strangers that show up might be good friends, and you might learn to like the new things, but they’re ran­dom un­ex­plored things that aren’t a nat­u­ral fit, re­plac­ing an ex­plored fit that already ex­isted. It’s pretty bad.

Rea­son #4D: Bad bundling is harmful

When one buys or rents a place to live, one is buy­ing many things.

A res­i­dent wants the cur­rent bun­dle of benefits and ser­vices, es­pe­cially prox­im­ity to fam­ily, friends, jobs and fa­mil­iar places. Of all the bun­dles out there, they’ve cho­sen the lo­cal one, which cur­rently costs them $X, so it was prob­a­bly pretty op­ti­mal for them, and then they spent time op­ti­miz­ing on that.

As we ex­plored in #4C and #4A, that bun­dle is go­ing to change. Some things in it that were val­ued will be lost, which is bad. But also some new things that are not val­ued will be added, which is also bad. Non-op­ti­mized bundling is bad.

Gen­trifi­ca­tion raises prices. The rea­son prices go up is that the bun­dle of things has got­ten ‘bet­ter’ in some sense. New things have been added to the bun­dle that some peo­ple value highly, and other bad things have been re­moved. In #4C we cov­ered that the new bun­dle might be worse for a per­son who already had cho­sen the old bun­dle, since the old bun­dle was highly op­ti­mized.

Now, we point out that even if the new bun­dle is strictly bet­ter there is still a prob­lem, be­cause it be­ing more bet­ter for other peo­ple means the price goes up more than the value propo­si­tion im­proves. If you add ESPN to a tele­vi­sion bun­dle, that is go­ing to raise the bun­dle cost by $6, since that’s what ESPN charges. It’s a lot. On av­er­age, peo­ple get more value than that, but that’s be­cause some peo­ple (my­self in­cluded) re­ally dig ESPN. If you force ESPN to be added, then any­one who hates sports is sud­denly out $6/​month for some­thing they don’t care about, and might no longer want to buy ca­ble at all. It’s the same thing for houses.

Rea­son #4E: Valuable parts of the bun­dle are de­stroyed by de­mand

Rea­son #4F: Valuable parts of the bun­dle are de­stroyed by shift­ing preferences

Rea­son #4G: Diver­sity, in­clud­ing within a ge­o­graph­i­cal area, is good

I didn’t get to finish these in the old ver­sion but they fol­low log­i­cally in similar fash­ion to the points already made, so I won’t be­la­bor the point much. The key ar­gu­ment here is that when prices are low and ex­ist­ing com­mu­nity re­sources already ex­ist, main­tain­ing those re­sources is cheap. As we all know, prox­im­ity to key places in one’s life is valuable, be­cause the benefits gained from such key places is vastly higher than their cost. Which is as it should be, as that’s how we get net benefits out of life. But it also means that when de­ter­min­ing whether Pop’s Bar­ber Shop can stay in busi­ness, we re­ally want it to stay in busi­ness. How far my fam­ily was from the origi­nal H&H bagels im­pacted our lives a lot, and we got great joy from the place, but when we’d visit all they made off us was a few bucks. If there are lots of close sub­sti­tutes, then any one of them mat­ters lit­tle, since you can sub­sti­tute an­other, but unique stuff will punch well above its profit mar­gin. Thus, when we see an­other bank or drug store open in an area already well-served by such things, we should be sad (al­though in a place that ac­tu­ally didn’t have such things within walk­ing dis­tance, we would be very happy to get one).