Housing USA: The NIMBY/YIMBY Age Gap

6 min read

Many polarities have been drawn in the NIMBY vs. YIMBY debate over whether or not to build more housing. It’s seen as a battle between rich and poor, homeowners and renters, white people and ethnic minorities and those with suburban versus urban mindsets.

In all cases, people who are NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) are considered an entrenched interest that wants to block new projects and inflate the value of their own homes. Those who are YIMBY (“yes in my backyard”) are seen as a marginalized group that wants to own housing but can’t afford to.

There’s another polarity that should be mentioned: age. NIMBYs seem, at least anecdotally, to be older (after all, the older someone is in the U.S., the likelier they are to own a home). The most prominent YIMBY activists are Millennials, and the movement, whether found online or at events, seems to lean young. Linnea Goderstad, a 32-year-old Minneapolis YIMBY who spoke in favor of her city’s recent comprehensive plan rewrite, noticed this when attending hearings.

“It was so stark,” she told The New York Times, about the generational divide of those testifying for or against the rezoning. “It was just so easy to guess, just judging by age, what side they were going to be on.”

It turns out statistics back these observations. Several studies have shown that when housing projects in the U.S. go up for public hearing, older people are likelier to attend, and oppose the project, than younger ones. In 2011, a survey of 1,000 people found that those aged 56 to 65 are the likeliest to oppose new projects, while ones aged 21 to 35 are likeliest to support them. A 2014 survey found that 70 percent of Santa Monica residents aged 25 to 34 viewed development in the downtown area positively, while 68 percent of those aged 60 to 64 did not, thinking it would make the city more crowded. In 2018, Boston University published a study that tracked 2,800 public meeting participants in the Boston area. It found that people who attended were over four times likelier to be against new housing than for it. Participants were older than the registered voting population, and likelier to be white, male and own a home. The Saint Consulting Group, a former company that advised on international land-use battles and published an index tracking attitudes about development, once found that 79 percent of Americans want no new development in their communities. This explains why available housing today is so much less common. Between 1959 and 2007, America generally had about 1.5 million housing starts, with an all-time high of 2.5 million in 1972. Housing starts plummeted during the Recession and never recovered, with 1.2 million units anticipated for 2019.

The Regulatory Paradigm
The act of older people making housing scarcer and more expensive for young people is symbolic of bigger trends in our economy. In recent decades, regulations have grown more common in the U.S. The Heritage Foundation’s economic freedom index, which calculates tax and regulatory climates by country, has pushed the U.S. down its list in recent years to the “mostly free” category. The federal regulatory code has expanded no matter which party is in the White House. And state and local regulations have gotten increasingly burdensome, micro-managing where and how—or even if—businesses get to grow.

This regulatory paradigm creates price inflation for consumers and barriers against entrepreneurs, for industries well beyond just housing. Following Dodd-Frank, which added thousands of pages of new regulations, the banking industry further consolidated and community banks declined, due to the added complexity. This matters, as community banks once financed the small business ecosystems in their localities, and themselves were often small businesses. After the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the health industry further consolidated, driving up costs for consumers. Rising EPA regulations, while perhaps important for protecting the environment, make natural resource industries, like farming and timber, harder to navigate legally, leading to their further corporatization. Occupational licensing, which is mostly enforced at state level, is notorious for creating barriers to entry for even routine professions, like landscaping and hairstyling.  The aforementioned real estate development industry is perhaps the biggest target: it’s hard to enter, given that building something nowadays requires hiring consultants, attending public meetings and enduring months of delay to get approvals. Major industry players are more capable of footing those costs. A recent example is Mayor Bill de Blasio, who’s pushing a law to require a special permit of developers trying to build new hotels in New York City. This will benefit entrenched hotels, and hurt the young upstarts and Airbnb hosts who have been launching niche lodging brands.

All these regulations, across so many industries, are not the fault of “old people,” per se. But there is a generational component to it. Baby Boomers entered and advanced within their professions when regulations weren’t as ubiquitous. They’ve held power as these regulations metastasized, often spearheading the trend from their corporate or government positions. Millennials are the ones bearing the costs.

Millenial Pessimism Is Growing
Median home sales prices have risen dramatically since the Recession, due in part to regulations, causing Millennials’ homeownership rates to be eight percent lower than Boomers and Gen Xers at the same age. Millennial rates of entrepreneurship are lower than previous generations. And they have less income and more debt. According to an annual Deloitte survey, Millennial pessimism is growing.

“We saw a palpable deterioration of optimism and a wide variety of both macroeconomic and day-to-day anxieties weighing on Millennials’ minds,” writes Deloitte. “They have bleak expectations for the economy – the lowest we have experienced since we began asking this question six years ago. Income inequality and the lack of social mobility were likely factors driving economic pessimism.”

The cause for much of this should be better understood by Boomers, Millennials and Gen Xers alike. When the American economy is consumed with regulations that make major purchases more expensive and starting businesses harder, it will hurt people who haven’t yet done this – aka Millennials. Homeownership is one aspect where this generation has fallen behind, and where the cost of NIMBYism and regulations are well-documented. This is something older people should think about the next time they want to oppose a new housing project.

Story Contacts:
Albert Milo, Jr.
President, Related Urban Development
Contact Jenna D’Aniello jenna@zcommunications.com

Michael Liu
Director, Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development