Neighborhood Defenders, by Katherine Levine Einstein, David M. Glick, and Maxwell Palmer (Cambridge University Press, 228 pp., $89.99)

In America’s countless municipalities, many residents don’t consider the impact of local land-use decisions on the nation’s entire housing stock. Municipal-planning commissions and community boards have amassed powers to approve, block, or even delay housing construction. Despite rising housing costs, local communities remain loath to permit new housing, particularly for multifamily units. In Neighborhood Defenders, Boston University professors Katherine Einstein, David Glick, and Max Palmer provide an insightful look into the dysfunction that led to this nationwide housing crisis.

As the authors show, America’s unique zoning system resulted in residents holding virtual veto power over local construction projects. This dynamic has roots in the mid-century urban-renewal movement, when powerful city managers like New York’s Robert Moses bulldozed entire neighborhoods for highways and housing projects. The backlash against such high-handed government interventions inspired new public oversight from local community boards, which enforced increasingly rigid zoning ordinances. Over time, the balance of power shifted toward localities that entrenched their opposition to new construction.

The economics of new construction partly explain this housing restriction. Construction has negative effects at the hyperlocal level, yet positive, but more diffuse, benefits in wider metropolitan regions. The inconveniences of building projects—from construction noise and traffic congestion to limited parking—motivate dedicated residents to voice their opposition at community board meetings. Meantime, a countervailing pro-development political force struggles to mobilize supportive residents.

The authors focus on the titular “neighborhood defenders” who reject new development. Through analysis of transcripts, they examine public comments in neighborhood forums around eastern Massachusetts, connecting these comments to the demographic details of participants and local zoning ordinances. Their unprecedented data reveal that “defenders” are most active in opposing development that occurs near them, and that they use sophisticated legal arguments to sway local planners. In Cambridge, for example, one local commenter challenged multifamily development using arcane zoning regulations and housing trends.

The authors’ use of “defender” illustrates the psychological factors behind local opposition to new construction. Though property owners tend to be more opposed to new construction than renters, even most renters shared owners’ negative views of new construction. Indeed, only 15 percent of public comments were classified as supportive of new housing. While financial concerns in preserving home values likely drove this phenomenon, it’s also clear that residents were concerned about changes to their neighborhoods’ aesthetics or character.

Through mobilization in public hearings, lawsuits, and other tactics, neighborhood defenders have succeeded in blocking a substantial amount of new construction throughout the United States. As the authors note, such opponents are just as effective in blocking development when they delay housing projects or call for modifications in structural designs. They supply numerous examples of developers proposing projects, only to face demands for additional parking reviews, environmental-study impacts, and other delay tactics. In one Brookline zoning meeting, a range of public commentators with professional backgrounds opposed a new project for reasons including environmental factors, traffic, and zoning compliance. Brookline’s zoning board responded by demanding more studies.

Such delays impose high costs on developers, who may face time constraints from investors and time-limited building permits. Many projects are rendered unprofitable as a result. Restrictions on multifamily housing production help explain the luxury-oriented nature of development in high-cost metro regions. Faced with overwhelming local opposition, developers will cater to the most profitable projects for the wealthy in desirable areas. In these same cities, developers often proceed with gentrification projects in poorer neighborhoods, too, where residents don’t have the means or power to challenge new construction. Such projects radicalize local activists, who conclude that developers will serve only the interests of the hyper-rich and gentrifiers. Consequently, they oppose all future housing development. 

Housing restrictions are most salient in America’s most successful metropolitan areas, where the resulting higher costs prevent Americans from replicating the opportunity-driven mobility of previous generations. But Neighborhood Defenders also documents housing restrictions imposed on declining areas, which would benefit from new residents and a larger tax base. Even these communities, experiencing urgent housing needs often related to a growing senior population, deal with substantial local pushback to new development.

How can we correct this dysfunction? One approach would involve transferring zoning decisions to higher layers of government. Housing decisions should rest with cities and states, not local residents with the power to veto any new project. City and state government officials are better equipped to balance both the negative and positive consequences of construction. This system appears to work well in countries like Canada, where zoning decisions are made at a provincial level, and Japan, where zoning decisions are made at the national level.

For now, America’s housing debate appears to be moving in a direction that will encourage more construction. Cities such as Minneapolis and Seattle, for example, though presently beleaguered with other problems, have permitted “upzoning,” or greater building density. And states like California have been at least considering legislative efforts to allow more apartment construction. Local politics surrounding housing remain challenging, but as Neighborhood Defenders reminds us, the momentum is building for a better balance of local and national priorities.

Photo: Thomas De Wever/iStock


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