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Read NIMBY's lips: no new housing.

Whatever the merits of Mayor Dinkins' proposal to create scattered residences for the homeless throughout New York City, he learned that the powers of the City's chief executive might very well be no match for the forces of NIMBY. NIMBY has no official members, no by-laws, it doesn't pay taxes, and is accountable to no one, NIMBY is not the acronym of any organization, but it stands for something far more powerful - a state of mind, a knee-jerk fear of the future and a resistance to change.

NIMBY stands for "Not In My Back Yard," but the name is deceiving. Its goal is not to thwart development in one's own backyard, but on the property of others. In NIMBY parlance, a "back yard" is considerably more expansive than the homey phrase suggests. The "back yard" in question need not be adjacent, visible from, or even in the same zip code as the people who object to its development. It can be anywhere within the NIMBY-ite's perceived sphere of influence or interest.

"NIMBY" has become the rallying cry of opponents of everything from waste treatment facilities to simply more of the same type or income range of housing they themselves live in. Middle class workers, such as police officers, fire fighters, teachers, and others who bought 10 to 15 years age, were able to purchase larger homes, often fully detached and on more sizable sites. These very same workers now often oppose the construction of the townhouse and condominium housing that their younger colleagues must today seek, in light of current housing costs.

But, it would be naive to assume that their only objection to new housing is architectural or environmental. One of the ironies of NIMBY is that, because today's work force is more multicultural than ever, keeping out the nouveau middle class in the name of doing good has emerged as the only "politically correct" form of housing discrimination.

The NIMBY syndrome wouldn't be nearly as powerful as it is, if its principal goal was understood to be to keep real estate values as high as possible in order to keep newcomers out and to enrich the old-timers. But, it seldom is seen for what it is. There are two reasons for this. The first is that not all development proposals are desirable or particularly well-sited or thought out. But the primary reason for the success of opposition to nearly every bit of significant construction being contemplated is that opponents are able to couch their exclusionary biases as a love of the environment, old buildings, "architectural context," light, air, or anything else that is handy. In so doing, no-growth advocates are able to avail themselves of various laws, interest groups and cooperative regulatory bodies to help them in their desire to stop development.

Public agencies have caught the NIMBY bug as well. Apparently there is no shortage of public agencies willing to sacrifice housing development to seemingly any other goal - such as preservation of historic districts and wetlands, which have the advantage of sounding "politically correct". Dare I say that these goals, however enlightened, are overridden by the fact that real people still stubbornly need real places to live?

Last July, the HUD Advisory Commission on Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing issued a report titled "Not In My Back Yard" on removing barriers to affordable housing. Its points included:

Remove bureaucratic roadblocks. Any would-be housing builder must secure many permits from a variety of public agencies, each with its own, often competing, agendas. In one glaring example in the HUD report, a housing development on Staten Island took approvals and permits from 28 government agencies over 12 years and two different developers. The effects of a dozen years of inflation plus costs incurred in running this regulatory gauntlet made the housing much more costly than it should have been.

Limit creation of historic districts. Over 17,000 buildings and over 600 blocks in New York City are under jurisdiction of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, an agency which is not even supposed to consider the chilling effect of its actions on housing availability and affordability.

Lift wetlands restrictions. Thousands of acres in New York are designated as wetlands, mostly on Staten Island - the borough with the most potential for housing growth - which has seen a 300 percent increase in wetlands since 1981. Since any activity other than agriculture, fishing, hunting or recreation requires approval from the Department of Environmental Conservation - whose mission seems to be to frustrate a builder by losing him in a bureaucratic morass without overtly denying him a permit - building a handful of homes can be a task of herculean proportions. In a supreme irony, thousands of trees are being felled to fill the DEC'S voracious appetite for paperwork and endless requests for information - all in the name of protecting the environment.

Rentregulations. Government-dictated price controls helped bring about the collapse of the economics of much of Eastern Europe, and will do the same for the New York real estate industry unless the foolishness of rent controls - enacted as a post-wartime emergency - are lifted.

R. Randy Lee is the president of the Building Industry Association of New York City and an attorney with Lee, File & Amtzis, a Staten Island-based law firm.
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Title Annotation:Review and Forecast, Section IV; real estate development comes up against attitude of, "not in my back yard"
Author:Lee, R. Randy
Publication:Real Estate Weekly
Date:Jun 24, 1992
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