Why Do People Oppose Development?

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Why do people oppose development? Usually they cite noise, traffic, and congestion, but, Megan McArdle notes, there are other legitimate concerns:

In DC and New York, the two cities I am most familiar with, “Safety” is indeed a strong objection, at least to the “affordable housing” segment of the development market. The fact is that subsidized housing is associated with higher crime — not just in the fevered imaginations of affluent homeowners, but in the crime statistics.


In New York, at least, “views”, aka “light”, are also a big deal — in ways that I think it’s hard for people in other cities to imagine, though you can come close by picturing what it would be like to sell your upstairs and move into the basement. Living in perpetual shadow, as many New Yorkers do, really is depressing. I didn’t realize how depressing until I moved out of my first floor Manhattan cave and into a light-filled second floor apartment in DC.


For smaller towns, the cost of the new residents is a huge burden, particularly if the new homes are on the small side. It’s very expensive to provide schools, sewers, roads, ambulance service and so forth to a bunch of new people, and in “starter home” developments, those people are rarely paying enough in taxes to cover their costs to the community. Larger communities can absorb this pretty easily, but if a new townhome complex is going to add 5-10% to the local population, you’re essentially asking existing residents to raise their own property taxes so that other, poorer people can move in. Unsurprisingly, this is not popular, for the same reason that you do not earmark 5% of your income to support townhome development in far-flung exurbs.

Then there are the positive externalities. People benefit from having other people around them who are a lot like they are. That’s not necessarily because they dislike those who are different. Rather, living near lots of people who want the same things out of life means that more of those things will be supplied conveniently close at hand, right there in your neighborhood. Professional DINKs want lots of bars and restaurants, and retail carrying the kind of high-end goods they can afford to splurge on. Middle income families with three children want good schools, affordable day-care, plenty of parking so that you can quickly move those children around, and places where the kids can spill soda on the plastic tablecloths. Poor families want affordable retail pitched to limited incomes and convenient social service providers. Immigrants want churches that speak their language, and grocery stores that carry all their beloved favorites from home. And so forth.


But most of us do not want to say “I want to live around people who consume the same stuff I consume”, or “I don’t want to live near poor people”, or “I would rather not have more families in town because they’re just going to be a financial burden on me”, or “I think it would be better if you had fewer alternatives to shopping at my store”, so we talk about… noise, congestion, and traffic.

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