Earlier this month, the California Supreme Court chose not to lift a lower-court order to the University of California, Berkeley, ordering the prestigious public university to decrease enrollment by at least 2,500 students for the fall 2022 semester. Led by former investment banker Phil Bokovoy, a group known as Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods successfully sued UC Berkeley in 2019, citing alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act. The group claimed that the university has not realized the effect that increasing the size of the student body has had on non-college residents of the town. Fortunately, less than two weeks after the ruling, California lawmakers passed legislation to override the court order and return enrollment to normal levels. Although the lawsuit against UC Berkeley has failed, the fact that California’s NIMBYs succeeded for even a short time period should be worrying to everyone concerned with increasing access to affordable housing and education in California and beyond.
NIMBY is a popular acronym that stands for “Not in my backyard.” In the world of housing policy, so-called NIMBYs are generally homeowners who resist the development of new housing within their neighborhoods. NIMBYs tend to especially dislike housing that is concentrated or more affordable than the average house price in their neighborhoods. While coating their opposition to affordable housing in terms of maintaining the character of their neighborhood or increased crime, NIMBYs are generally resistant to any effort to diversify their neighborhoods. Despite their often ferocious protests against affordable housing, most of the fears commonly expressed by NIMBYs rarely happen. However, their opposition does “[lead] to increased costs and delays in many affordable housing projects,” according to Miriam Axel-Lute for shelterforce.org. As demonstrated by the lawsuit brought against UC Berkeley, the noxious effects of NIMBYism can be far-reaching.
In Berkeley, the Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods group nearly defeated one of the most prestigious and well-known public universities in the United States. If they had gotten their way, UC Berkeley would have had to tell a number of high school students who were offered admission that they could not attend the university in person in the fall. For reference, around 16,400 students were accepted in fall 2021. Bokovoy has stated that he simply does not want more people living in the town of Berkeley. He and other NIMBYs in Berkeley were perfectly fine with forcing a flagship university to cap enrollment to keep Berkeley “special.” Of course, many of the arguments NIMBYs have made in Berkeley are largely unsubstantiated in fact or reason. One of the things Bokovoy complained about in Berkeley is the somewhat higher level of disorder caused by the concentrated number of college students living in the town whose partying leads to noise complaints and littering. It is unclear exactly what else residents expect sharing a town with a university whose student body numbers more than 45,000. Similarly to other NIMBYs, many of Bokovoy’s arguments against more housing have racist and classist undertones. Speaking to The Atlantic, Bokovoy said there are neighborhoods “full of new homeowners who were immigrants, who lived in crowded, dense places.”
Of course, NIMBYs think the solution to the systemic problems in the American housing system is somehow less housing, not more. But that does not help homeowners or those looking for affordable housing. As NIMBYism has grown more influential, an opposition movement known as “Yes in my backyard” (YIMBY) has emerged. NIMBYs tend to be older, entrenched homeowners, whereas YIMBYs are younger millennials and members of Generation Z who tend to be renters or new residents. Frustrated with high rents and housing prices, which have increased massively in the past year, YIMBYs often push for more development of affordable housing. Unlike those against building more homes, YIMBYism offers a clear solution to increase access to affordable housing. Building more residencies should drive down the costs of housing as it becomes less of the hyper-valuable commodity it is currently.
Clearly, there are ways to fight the beliefs espoused by NIMBYs. In the case of UC Berkeley, the California Legislature was able to thwart the lawsuit through legislation. The YIMBY movement has also continued to grow in popularity and power. Another potential solution to the various housing crises in American neighborhoods is through government action. Local or state governments can provide developers with incentives to build more concentrated and affordable housing in the towns or cities that need it. Current U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge recently “became the first sitting U.S. secretary of housing and urban development to declare housing a human right,” according to Camille Squires for Quartz. Her announcement was praised by housing advocates and provides a roadmap to ensuring affordable housing for all Americans. If her attitudes continue to become more pervasive, that goal will be within reach.
Theodore Brita is a sophomore majoring in political science.