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.

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16 Responses to Confessions of a Former NIMBY

  1. Trudeau Courts June 11, 2018 at 3:14 pm #

    A LOT of people feel that the rentals in Little Canada give the city a bad name. The Provinces and ESPECIALLY Montreal Courts are in stark contrast to the rest of the city, which is actually quite pleasant. Drug busts are not uncommon in Montreal Courts. The buildings are also falling apart, and are desperately in need of a renovation.

    Given past experiences, I can see why city residents would be wary of rentals.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 11, 2018 at 3:34 pm #

      That might be, but poverty and petty crime are a common problem in lots of places. At the same time, the manufactured home park on Rice Street seems just fine to me. A lot depends on the exact place and how it’s managed, not whether or not someone is renting or owning.

      • Trudeau Courts June 11, 2018 at 4:07 pm #

        I’m not in disagreement, but the generalization is really easy to make because it is observable on any given day just by walking down Labore Rd. People take notice when cars are regularly broken into, police are frequently at a property, parking lots have potholes, etc. Montreal Courts is a huge, highly visible property, and until someone starts taking steps to clean up the //existing// rental properties and finds renters who truly are more invested in the neighborhood, the homeowners of the city will continue to resist building more rental housing.

        https://www.apartmentratings.com/mn/saint-paul/montreal-courts_651484843455117/

        • Bill Lindeke
          Bill Lindeke June 11, 2018 at 4:53 pm #

          I admit I have never been down Labore Rd. Sounds to me like a bad landlord / owner.

          • Al Davison
            Al Davison June 11, 2018 at 8:56 pm #

            I wouldn’t disagree with that most homeowners do think rental housing in Little Canada hurts our reputation. Regardless, renters still amount to a large amount of the city’s population (~37%) and they are still residents regardless of homeowner’s disdain towards them. It would be hypocritical for me to have maintained my NIMBYism when I was younger since I have became a renter myself. If I do ever own, I want to be more open towards housing developments than I was in the past.

            I attended Little Canada Elementary which is right near Labore, so I had quite a few friends who lived over in Montreal Courts. I spent a lot of my childhood over in that area, and have known of the poor conditions in that complex for years. I will not deny that it isn’t a pleasant place to live (or nearby). It’s very unfortunate, though blocking more rental housing will just make those types of properties more prevalent. I would like to see people have more housing options, so the market can become more affordable to more people. When people have choices, that could put pressure on management companies to improve their properties.

            I grew up near multi-family rentals and there are issues with crime, which does negatively impact my family’s neighborhood. It is one of the reasons why homeowners resisted the townhomes. A few years ago, someone in a rental home went through people’s cars (including my own) and burglarized residences. It does feed the hostility towards renters, but despite that I’d rather not block more renters from living here. Like with the reviews on ApartmentRatings, I would like to see those renters have more nearby rental choices to pick from. I find it similar to mobile phone companies; there are only a few big providers, but at least you get options to pick from and there is some level of completion in the market (at least for now before more mergers). The housing market currently seems like the internet/TV market, where most people have only 1-2 providers to choose from. People need more options to choose from if we want housing to become more affordable.

            If we do prefer homeowners, then we do need to consider more owner-occupied townhomes and condos. Even a $200-250K townhome at least more affordable than $300-400K home. Renters will not become homeowners if we limit their ability to rent at an affordable price, otherwise they will be unable to save up money for a down payment.

            If the homeowners down the street from my current apartment blocked it from being a sevenplex, I’d probably be in a worse housing situation myself.

            • Al Davison
              Al Davison June 11, 2018 at 10:47 pm #

              completion in the market > competition in the market*
              The [low-income] housing market currently seems like the internet/TV market*

              I need to proofread my articles and comments better.

            • Al Davison
              Al Davison June 11, 2018 at 11:34 pm #

              I thought this was an interesting article regarding crime and rental properties and management:

              https://www.researchgate.net/publication/23949141_Rental_Housing_and_Crime_The_Role_of_Property_Ownership_and_Management

              I would generally agree with the summary stating that only a small percentage of rental properties are sources of crime, which is I am trying to move my mindset away from associating renters with crime. Most renters like homeowners are not criminals. The report does state that enforcing housing laws on tenants is essential for properties to screen out bad tenants.

              Sadly all it does take is one crappy tenant to make the entire property look bad to neighbors. For example, the other residents in that rental house where the thief lived caused no problems and the rental home next door does not cause problems either.

            • Bill Lindeke
              Bill Lindeke June 12, 2018 at 11:24 am #

              Well said!

  2. Daniel Hartig
    kingledion June 11, 2018 at 5:45 pm #

    Great article!

    Sort of a tangentially related point, but what with my parents being from the Bay Area, I can tell you why the lots are smaller: it is hard to maintain grass. It doesn’t rain much, there are periodic droughts and you can’t get water for your lawn regularly in the summertime.

    If you look at urban areas built since ~1970, there is a striking pattern: urban developments in places like San Diego, Las Vegas, and Phoenix build up at 2000-3000 people per km^2 (about the density of St. Paul) over scales of 10+ km^2, whereas developments in the East Coast rarely get past 1000 people per km^2 (about the density of Eden Prairie or Bloomington).

    The difference is basically that your extra yard area can look nice in Minnesota or anywhere East of the Mississippi where it rains all year round; but in California and the southwest, unless you are really rich you are just going to be looking at a pile of dirt and rocks in the sun. So, that is what allows denser single family homes out West; people won’t pay a premium for dirt they way they will for a yard.

    • Frank Phalen June 11, 2018 at 9:18 pm #

      Is it significantly more difficult to grow grass in Chicago than in Saint Paul?

      Is the average size lot in Chicago smaller than in Saint Paul?

      I don’t think it has anything to do with grass.

      • Daniel Hartig
        kingledion June 13, 2018 at 7:56 am #

        You’ve got to compare apples to apples, Frank. If Minneapolis is an apple, then Chicago is a watermelon. Do a zipcode by zipcode comparison of density between Minneapolis and Phoenix or San Diego and you will see what I am talking about. Despite Minneapolis having more downtown density than either of those cities, suburban density trails off into yard and forests and farmland. None of those things are competing with subdivisions for space in the desert Southwest.

        • Nicole Salica
          Nicole Salica June 16, 2018 at 12:21 pm #

          Berkeley is hardly the desert southwest. The lots are smaller because the land value is higher, so even well-to-do white people can’t afford the same square footage.

    • Al Davison
      Al Davison June 11, 2018 at 11:15 pm #

      The East Coast does seem more sprawled out than the West, especially places like western Connecticut and Westchester County. It’s interesting to think about how the ability to have grassy yards can influence lot sizes, since many people do like their big yards here in MN.

      I was going to analyze suburbs in the West such as in Denver and outer suburbs in the Bay Area and compare them to Ramsey County’s suburbs as I noticed that even their newer suburbs commonly have densities of 3,000 – 4,500 ppsm when I researched them, which is usually just seen here in older suburbs such as St. Louis Park.

      I was having issues getting parcel data separated by land use for many counties and suburbs, so I decided to exclude them from my already verbose article. Berkeley had their parcel data available with Alameda County’s land use codes, which fueled my decision to compare it to Saint Paul.

  3. Al Davison
    Al Davison June 11, 2018 at 9:25 pm #

    I had noticed on Twitter that someone noted that Berkeley is not a good comparison city to Saint Paul. I had compared Berkeley to Saint Paul since I had stayed there during my vacation to the Bay Area. Despite Berkeley’s higher density, I had noticed that the city was still full of neighborhoods filled with single-family homes when walking around the city, giving it a suburban feel. It reminded me of Saint Paul a bit.

    I thought it would be interesting to compare it with Saint Paul. They are definitely distinct cities, though they do bare some similarities with each other in my opinion.

    • Aaron Berger June 11, 2018 at 10:41 pm #

      It me! https://twitter.com/berge314/status/1006256294725062656

      I don’t have any objection at all to comparing St. Paul to Berkeley, but cross-municipal comparisons are very challenging and it’s good to be upfront about what the differences between the municipalities are. So as I mentioned, in the case of Berkeley, it’s a small city that includes a world-class university, and a comparable amount of land around the University of Minnesota actually has a very similar population density. It’s not that St. Paul couldn’t or shouldn’t aspire to be more like Berkeley, but there are important reasons why developed so differently from each other. In the context of St. Paul’s economic peer cities, St. Paul is actually the second most densely populated. So while it would be nice if St. Paul could be more like Berkeley, I think we could really shame St. Paul by asking why it hasn’t achieved the same population density as Buffalo, New York.

      • Al Davison
        Al Davison June 11, 2018 at 11:19 pm #

        No worries, I thought you made a good point. I’ve never been to Buffalo, but it is very strange how a Rust Belt city that has lost more than half of its peak population is still denser than Saint Paul.

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