How public meetings empower neighborhood gatekeeping
Einstein, Glick, and Palmer pored through thousands of meeting minutes and matched public commenters with the voter roll to make fascinating advances in the scholarly understanding of public engagement and socio-demographic status. Unsurprisingly, they found that commenters are generally older, whiter, and more likely to own property than average among voters.
Einstein, K. L., Glick, D. M., & Palmer, M. (2019). Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America’s Housing Crisis. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge Core.
Their research finds that communities with more housing regulations—of any kind—see a lower number of multifamily housing permits. This points to the use of regulations as a deterrent for unwanted development by political jurisdictions.
There is some unfortunate irony in the finding that public meetings serve as an opportunity for high-income individuals and coalitions to stop and stall new housing development given that the rationale for creating more robust public engagement processes was to give residents a voice in redevelopment that had been overbearing and top-down in the urban renewal era.
The author’s analysis shows how “individuals use their privileged status as current members of a community to prevent new housing, and thus close its doors to prospective new members” (Einstein et al., 2019, p. 4). As they exist, land use review institutions and public input processes empower NIMBY voices over others, many of whom are not at the table and whose interests aren’t considered. These largely volunteer review boards amplify anti-development voices, which would be more “muted” without these empowering institutions (Einstein et al., 2019, p. 15).
The finding that local public processes often lead to harmful outcomes when considered from a regional scale is important, as planning practitioners are trained to be “enthusiastic about neighborhood participation” (Einstein et al., 2019, p. 31). The dominant perspective in planning is that “more opportunities for participation will yield a more just planning process” (Ibid.). However, Einstein et al. clearly show how that is not the case when it comes to housing production in Massachusetts. This should lead planning practitioners and local elected officials to both question and reconsider the meaning and design of public input processes.
Participatory institutions provide the appearance of democratic decision-making, a ruse of direct democracy in a ‘town hall’ like setting, but are in fact dominated by well-resourced special interests invested in the status quo.
Opponents of housing are much more likely to show up at meetings given the concentrated impacts of housing development—impacts to parking, increased noise, potential changes to privacy—while the potential benefits of increased housing supply are regionally diffuse and long-term. This leads to a circumstance where those likely to benefit from new housing are unlikely to show up at meetings.
Those who oppose new housing, moreover, “do not think they are being selfish” (Einstein et al., 2019, p. 35). Instead, they are likely to believe they are defending their communities from threats, often perceived and very rarely material. Of course, what exactly constitutes a “threat” to a community is entirely subjective. Multifamily housing can be construed as a threat from different angles, but results from Einstein et al. show that arguments referring to the environment, traffic congestion, and affordability are especially common.
A key theory of this research is that especially litigious and unpredictable development approvals in high-income areas lead to—essentially—gentrification.
While a mildly circuitous concept, the thought it that in neighborhoods with lower rates of homeownership and higher rates of poverty, for example, neighbors are less likely to organize against housing proposals. Even when they do organize, according to research looking at 76 community meetings by sociologist Jeremy Levin (2017) “shows that city leaders in Boston largely ignored residents of color when they invoked community concerns” (Einstein et al., 2019, p. 149). This means that well-resourced and highly engaged neighborhoods can exclude housing production, which leads to forced inclusion in other neighborhoods, funneling housing to less politically powerful parts of town while insulating the affluent from urban development.
The authors offer a few recommendations for addressing the disparity in housing production and scaling back the numerous opportunities for public comment to stop, stall, and shrink housing projects in affluent areas.
One important suggestion is to focus on affluent communities, not widespread policy reform at a regional scale. This could be similar to Massachusetts’ Chapter 40B, which effectively overrides local zoning restrictions if projects meet a certain threshold for affordable housing units. One drawback of this approach is the resulting projects often contain subsidized units for low-income households packaged with remaining units serving high-income households. This leads to the “missing-middle” phenomenon, leaving middle-income households without less housing options. Chapter 40B (part of the state’s regional planning law) enforces the principle of “regional fair share” of housing to address regional housing disparities.
In general, if at least 10% of a town’s housing units are considered to be “affordable,” they’ve already met their requirement for provision of affordable housing. If less than 10% of a town’s housing is considered affordable, developers are allowed (by right) to exceed local density standards with some affordable units. One strength of this policy approach is that communities which already have at least 10% of their housing stock considered to be affordable are not triggered by the provision, typically putting the onus on exclusionary communities rather than major cities like Boston, for example.
Another important aspect of this work is the through-line drawn from the genesis of exclusionary zoning in the twentieth century to leveraging public meetings today to exclude certain groups from particular communities:
Historical analyses of land use regulations argue that they were created by wealthy white homeowners as a tool for protecting their home values and exclusive access to public goods (Rothstein 2017; Trounstine 2018). Our research shows that the same group of people is using these regulations today to stop the development of new housing.
White homeowners, then as now, are well-positioned for continued gatekeeping of their low-density communities. The authors also broach one of the mechanisms that empower largely white neighbors to organize: civic associations. With a nefarious history of organizing to maintain racial exclusivity in the name of property value protection, civic associations today enjoy a privileged position in the housing production process in many cities. Einstein writes that the City of Minneapolis “has threatened to cut municipal funds for groups that fail to meet diversity goals” (Einstein et al., 2019, p. 134). Municipal recognition, then, of sometimes all-white civic associations can be problematic and steps should be taken to diversify voices presented as semi-official to city councils that influence their decision-making. Trounstine (2018) also discusses the historic legacy of civic associations in enforcing racially-segregated neighborhoods.
When decisions are to be made on government-affiliated boards, the contentious nature can be a stressful and negative experience for volunteer leadership unaccustomed to severe criticism.
Unlike elected officials, board members “are more easily flustered by vocal, angry critics” (Bruce Cain (2015:61) quoted in Einstein et al., 2019, p. 56). Because of this, and also because of recency bias which could leave oppositional comments fresher in the minds of board members, the authors recommend a waiting period on decision-making that “would allow board officials to more fully incorporate the full body of evidence including city staff review of proposed developments” (Einstein et al., 2019, pp. 163-164).
Lastly, the authors recommend to scale-up conversations from hyper-local neighborhood groups and immediate neighbors to a political level that considers regional housing need.
This could help reframe housing production as a shared responsibility in a metropolitan area. Housing exclusion in one community is, by necessity, forced inclusion in another. This reality could be more present if housing conversations were elevated above the neighborhood scale.