Is NIMBY a Bad Word?

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I'm a little bit late to the party, but a couple of weeks ago, local real estate journalist Lydia DePillis stirred up a firestorm when she called people in Anacostia who were opposing a homeless shelter "NIMBYs".  People pointed out that Anacostia has historically been a dumping ground for social services, and they just wanted to keep local commercial spaces that might actually house businesses for, y'know, businesses.  Her response: you're NIMBYs.  Own it.


NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard. As in, 'I don't object to this [homeless shelter/windmill/trash transfer station/Walmart/meth clinic] in principle, but I'd rather not have to deal with it in my neighborhood.' That definition holds true even for the people who would add, 'because my neighborhood is already a dumping ground for that kind of crap' or 'it's just not the right place for that kind of thing.'

Wikipedia says that the word is typically used pejoratively. I'd counter that it's only seen as a pejorative term because not wanting to have to deal with negative things, even if you're fine with putting them in some other community, is generally regarded as selfish. The other side of selfishness, though, is simply the desire to improve your community, which I don't doubt is the motivation behind those who are opposing a women's shelter in Anacostia. Therefore, to me, community activism and NIMBYism aren't mutually exclusive.

I think this is a little bit too cute.  I read DePillis pretty regularly, and I don't usually see her calling out, say, people opposing a local Wal-Mart as "NIMBYs"; they're "opposition groups".  The term NIMBY seems to be reserved for people who oppose locating things in their back yards that DePillis herself thinks are laudable.  Small wonder that when she uses the word, people take it as a perjorative.


Nonetheless, she has a point: many people oppose having necessary but potentially disruptive things located near them, even if you think those things are a good idea; if you do, you should own it, not make up ridiculously implausible stories about how those inner-city kids wouldn't really enjoy a halfway house in a nice, suburban neighborhood; they'd be much happier in a crack-infested ghetto like the one where they came from.  Don't you know you shouldn't remove creatures from their natural habitat?

In the case of people in some DC neighborhoods, they may even be justified.  Anacostia--and my own neighborhood--house an unusually large number of social service organizations, because land has been cheap, and the communities have lacked the socioeconomic power to block new projects the way that, say, Dupont and Friendship Heights have.  I don't know the statistics on Anacostia, but Eckington/Truxton Circle house thirteen social service groups, from women's shelters to So Others Might Eat, a wonderful organization that serves thousands of meals to homeless people every day.  Frankly, I haven't found them disruptive--and indeed, didn't really know they were there until controversy erupted over a plan to build a fourteenth service facilities.  But the fact remains that a lot of the homeless people hang out in what passes for the area's park space between meals, and more than a few spend the day drinking single-serving beers from the area's many liquor stores.  

As I say, I've never seen any trouble any worse than visibly drunk people in broad daylight--something that can also be regularly observed in Adams Morgan.  But you can see why the area's parents, especially, aren't thrilled about piling even more service agencies into an area where those agencies already have quite a large footprint.  It's not crazy to worry that throwing together a whole lot of people with a whole lot of problems in a pretty small neighborhood might make their problems--and those of the neighbors--even worse.

On the other hand, if Eckington and Anacostia rejects them, where will they go?  It's not like our refusal is going to force Chevy Chase to reluctantly do their part.  Land is cheap in these neighborhoods, and charities are rarely overburdened with money to carry out their mission. And of course, community opposition is relatively weak.  It seems like in many cases, not building services there means not building them at all. Whether you think that charity or government programs should be taking care of the most troubled members of our society, the fact is that whoever does it, is going to have to do it somewhere

In this case, my libertarian instinct squares with my humanitarian instinct: at least in the case of private charities, I cannot, in good conscience, oppose letting them do whatever they want with the property they buy (within reasonable limits on things like toxic fumes and all-night jackhammer parties.)  But I don't think it's helpful to brand my neighbors who do as NIMBYs.  Oversaturation of neighborhoods with social services is a genuine problem for those neighborhoods.  We should treat it with at least as much respect as we give to those who don't want to live near a big-box store.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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