Confessions of a Former NIMBY

When I was a teenager, a multi-family housing development was proposed next door to my family’s home in Little Canada. The developer wanted to put two rows of townhomes where there was a small home on a large lot. People in the neighborhood resisted (including my family), and ultimately the city council decided not to approve the necessary zoning changes for it to be built. The people in the neighborhood who resisted were residents of the single-family homes rather than from the existing multi-family developments close by. What ended up on that lot was five single-family homes that were sold in the $300-400K range.

I know what a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) is because I was once one. I admittedly did not want the back walls of townhomes within a close distance from my bedroom window.

Permanent vs. Transient Residents

Townhomes can be owner-occupied, though many of them are rentals. Rental properties in general (especially multi-family properties) are often seen as troublesome and populated with “transient” residents based off my personal experiences. Depending on who you are talking to, this may lead to thinly-veiled classist and racist commentary. Rental housing is often inhabited by people who are lower-income and/or not white (see graphic below). I have encountered conversations where people were making disparaging comments about new residents that are of Hmong, Karen, or Ethiopian descent (even when they were moving into single-family homes). I have never heard these same people make similar comments with new neighbors that are white (nor do they mention them by their ancestral background such as German or Swedish). Even if townhomes are planned to be owner-occupied, nearby neighbors have questioned if owners would be allowed to rent and note that renters are “temporary” and can cause problems (in reality, homeowners can be bad neighbors too).

While some ethnic groups are similar with White households in terms of household income and home ownership, there is a stark contrast with many other ethnic groups. The groups with lower median incomes tend to be renters. Source: MN State Demographic Center – The Economic Status of Minnesotans, January 2016. Data is from American Community Survey, 2010-14 via IPMUS.


Regardless of their background, renters still invest into communities despite homeowners resisting rental properties. Renters still pay property taxes, just through a less direct method than homeowners (which is why renters can be eligible for property tax refunds). Renters are more prevalent and pay more into local taxes than you may think, though they often tend to have less political power and are less visible than homeowners at public meetings.

The Dark Side of Zoning Regulations & We Are Not That Dense

Zoning regulations can be a great way to design neighborhoods. They can also be used to ban certain types of housing in specific areas (such as apartments and townhomes). NIMBYs can use this to their advantage; the greatest impediment to the developers besides the opposition to the townhouse development was a zoning matter. The site had to be rezoned from a low-density (single-family) residential density to a medium-density residential zone. Many who live in Little Canada don’t want any more density and think we have too many apartments already. Even modestly-sized townhome development proposals faced some sort of resistance during my tenure as a planning commissioner there. People often wonder why places like Little Canada keep building senior housing, yet they don’t seem to mind when other types of housing doesn’t get built. There are small pockets of high density in the suburb, but most of Little Canada’s land that is zoned residential is occupied by single-family homes. Despite only being 5-6 miles from downtown Saint Paul, Little Canada is not dense at all for an inner-ring suburb (~2,500 people per square mile (ppsm)). Ramsey County is dense on a countywide scale due to Saint Paul, but most of its suburbs are quite spacious for being close to both Minneapolis and Saint Paul:

There is a contrast in Single Family Home (SFH) lot sizes between Saint Paul and suburbs within Ramsey County. Under 4% of Saint Paul’s SFH lots are 1/3 acres or larger in size, compared to 35% in the county’s suburbs. Most of the smaller suburban lots are in older suburbs such as North Saint Paul. Lot Size Data Source: Ramsey County Open Data – Parcels NOTE: The lot size data in this graph is based off geospatial data, which is not a legal representation of property; actual lot sizes may be slightly different.


Despite being a major city, Saint Paul (2016 pop. 302,398) is not that dense when compared to other mid-size cities in the US. I recently visited the Bay Area, where I stayed in Berkeley, CA (2016 pop. 121,240). Berkeley has a large stock of single-family homes (around 16,500 according to Alameda County’s land use codes (1100)), but they are modestly sized. Berkeley’s lots average at about 5400 square feet (~0.12 acres). An average single family home lot in Saint Paul is about 7000 sq ft (~0.16 ac). Berkeley has an overall population density (11,600 ppsm) almost more than twice of Saint Paul (5,950 ppsm), despite much of the city’s land is covered by single-family homes as well (though zoning allows two-family homes in some areas). Many of Berkeley’s neighborhoods seem similar to Saint Paul, just with smaller lots. Even if Saint Paul reaches it’s 2040 projected population of 344,000, the city’s overall density (~6,620 ppsm) will remain lower than the present density of Minneapolis (7,660 ppsm), still well behind Berkeley or even Oakland (~7,510 ppsm).

Lot Size Data Source: City of Berkeley Open Data via Alameda County – Parcels NOTE: The lot size data in this graph is based off geospatial data, which is not a legal representation of property; actual lot sizes may be slightly different.

Homes in Berkeley, CA tend to be on small lots (about 25% smaller than the average SFH lot in St Paul), but their neighborhoods are still quiet and peaceful. Most blocks had a couple open parking spots. Berkeley is no stranger to NIMBYism though. Source: Self-taken, May 2018


My current living situation in Saint Paul is in a large house that became a boarding house after the Great Depression, and is now a 7-unit apartment. It is likely that if it was still a single-family house in 2018, and was proposed to become a sevenplex now, it would likely get shot down due to current zoning regulations. Loosening regulations such as granting more fourplexes are being proposed in Minneapolis, while Saint Paul has a ways to go to reform zoning laws that impact housing affordability. My home is affordable because I was able to take advantage of it being grandfathered in so it could bypass the current zoning regulations. The people who aren’t able to take part in these advantages are stuck with limited housing options. We aren’t building enough new housing to match the demands, all while our current affordable housing stock is dwindling.

Where Will They Go?

It is very easy to keep your neighborhood the way it is through blocking new housing. There are many valid concerns with new developments, though some people seem resistant to any sort of change in their neighborhood. Even a modest development likely will face some sort of opposition. The “BANANA” crowd does often has the loudest voice. Luckily there are strong community groups out there promoting growth, like in Highland Park in Saint Paul and Neighbors for More Neighbors. Many developments still end up getting shelved though. People don’t vanish out of thin air, and most people aren’t going to pack their bags and head out of town. They will just end up living in poor housing conditions in cramped spaces. I’ve seen overcrowding at rental properties, and it is highly doubtful that the inhabitants are fond of that themselves – they are just getting by with what they can in a tight housing market.

People wonder where their children are going to live and how expensive their living situations can be, yet ironically tend to be the ones who block more housing from being built. Many people rent because they cannot afford to own a home. A 20% down payment one of those $300-400K homes next door to my family is $60-80K. Even a 3.5% down payment would be about $10.5-14K; closing costs and other fees would add thousands of more dollars to the upfront cost. The townhomes would have likely been cheaper and would have better met our market’s housing demand. Little Canada is diverse and nearly half of the households made under $50K according to the 2012-16 American Community Survey (Saint Paul has similar characteristics). Based off median household incomes and racial income inequality, we need to provide more affordable housing options. You can’t achieve income mobility if you’re constantly bogged down by basic living expenses.

Mid-rises can easily blend with low-rise buildings in urban neighborhoods. Source: Google Street View, 2017

Townhomes are a good middle-ground approach for adding more housing in suburbs with little impact. Source: Google Street View, 2012


Overall savings deposits are up, though personal savings rates are much lower than they were in the 1970s and 80s. People who are under 35 often have little savings. With debt (college, medical, etc.) combined with high rents due to low vacancy rates is leading us to a financial disaster. These high prices cause people to rely on secondary financial sources such as having second jobs or their parents to pay for their housing needs. Some people don’t have the option of parental support and/or the ability to work multiple jobs, and likely will be stuck renting for their entire lifetime. We can’t encourage home ownership if we keep adding roadblocks for first-time homebuyers.

Change is Inevitable, Yet We Fear It

Since NIMBYism happens in most places, it seems that people are mainly concerned of any of sort of change. We fear what seems unknown, but fail to realize that are our current places of habitation were the result of a change occurring. Saint Paul was once undeveloped before it became a major city. My current home has only existed since the 1880s. That is considered old in Minnesota, but many homes on the East Coast or Europe are older than that. Most cities will grow and change over time, and will end up with a mixture of old and new structures as the years progress. You can still support historic preservation yet still support new development even if it might take down an older property. Wiping out entire districts isn’t smart (e.g. Gateway District), but gradual changes like adding medium-density development can help us grow in a sustainable way. Saint Paul’s Merriam Park neighborhood would not be ruined if more students were able to live there.

We fare much better on house affordability than other major cities, but many households here don’t make anything close to $65,000/year (see upper graphic). Upper Graphic Source: Metro Council – Income Inequality in the Twin Cities Region: Part II, 2017 | Lower Graphic Source: Unison Home Affordability Report, 2018


There is more to life than property values. Our fixation on home ownership being the primary investment asset for middle-income households to increase their net worth came at a great cost to low-income households, especially from a racial standpoint. People who had the ability to afford to own have more social and economic power than the ones who don’t. Regardless of someone’s net worth, renting does not make a person any less of a resident and neighbor of a community than a homeowner.

I live right next to a large apartment building, with my living room windows only about 10 feet away from the apartments. I seldom hear noises from that building. My block is full of apartments and I’m near popular places (Cathedral, Xcel Energy, Saint Paul College, etc.). On-street parking can be somewhat difficult at night, but its not impossible. There tends to be spots within a couple blocks away if my street is full. Those townhomes in Little Canada would have increased traffic volumes on my street, but my street only averages about 600 vehicles a day according to MnDOT. A common trip estimate used is 10 daily trips per household, which would have amounted to another couple hundred vehicle trips per day if each household did make 10 trips a day. I still would have been able to back my car down the driveway without too much delay. People seem to be alright backing out of their driveways on nearby County Road C, which sees about 6,500-8,000 vehicles a day.

We cannot afford to be resistant to change. I want to own a modest single-family home in an urban neighborhood someday, but I also would be fine with a row/townhouse or duplex. I would even consider living in a Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU), and think Saint Paul should allow them in more areas to add more housing units without needing to rely on new multi-family developments. Resources (e.g. land, cost of amenities) are finite, so we all have to make compromises with our personal preferences. I will be open to new neighbors than I was in the past, because I know at one time I was once a new neighbor myself (like everyone else). If we keep blocking housing, we are just hurting ourselves, our neighbors, and future generations to come.

A special thanks to Alameda (CA) and Ramsey counties, and the cities of Berkeley (CA) and Saint Paul for their open data initiatives.

Al Davison

About Al Davison

Al Davison resides in downtown St Paul. He grew up in Little Canada, and has also lived in Mankato, and Hibbing. He likes looking at spreadsheets and making maps, whether it is for work or for personal projects. He supports new development, especially if it involves sandwich-oriented retail.