Updated at 6:00 p.m. ET on April 29, 2022.
Development projects in the United States are subject to a process I like to call “whoever yells the loudest and longest wins.” Some refer to this as participatory democracy.
Across the country, angry residents and neighborhood associations have the power to delay, reshape, and even halt entirely the construction of vital infrastructure. To put a fine point on it: Deference to community input is a big part of why the U.S. is suffering from a nearly 3.8-million-home shortage and has failed to build sufficient mass transit, and why renewable energy is lacking in even the most progressive states.
Democracy is at its best when the views and needs of the people are accurately transmitted to their representatives, the representatives act, and voters express their approval or disapproval in the next election. The existing community-input system purports to improve upon this process by offering a platform where anyone can show up and make their voice heard. After all, providing input shouldn’t just happen at the ballot box, or so the thinking goes. But the process is fundamentally flawed: It’s biased toward the status quo and privileges a small group of residents who for reasons that range from the sympathetic to the selfish don’t want to allow projects that are broadly useful.
Granted, Big Government doesn’t have the best track record of respecting legitimate grievances about massive infrastructure projects. American cities still display the scars of highways that razed marginalized communities; many remember the indignities of urban renewal, a mid-century federal policy aimed at city revitalization that researchers at the University of Richmond estimate displaced roughly 300,000 people.
As the historian Paul Sabin describes in his book Public Citizens, while people watched government officials fail to adequately care for the general interest, neighborhood groups and nonprofit organizations proliferated to combat the influence of corporations and hold the government accountable. They took their cues from labor and business, and—instead of expecting the government to look out for them—lobbied in the name of the public. Part of what they wanted was a greater say in how, what, and where big projects were built. And they got it: Today, America’s development process is rife with veto points. The conventional view, moreover, is that community opposition to a project ought to result in its defeat—regardless of the broader benefits it may provide.
Let’s look at housing first. Because participation in local politics, even at the ballot box, is extremely limited, elected officials are often swayed by just a handful of emails or phone calls in opposition to, for instance, a new apartment tower. But opponents aren’t limited to petitioning their representatives directly. Anytime a developer seeks to build something outside the existing zoning code (which in most places mandates single-unit residences, often with large yards and parking spaces driving up the cost of every home), they have to get a “variance” from the local zoning board. To receive that variance, developers have to present their projects at public meetings. Community members can come and register their opinions about apartment buildings, homeless shelters, dorms, and on and on. Even someone attempting to convert her garage into a mother-in-law suite might need the approval of her neighbors. It’s like a homeowners’ association from hell, backed by the force of the law.
All of that feedback seriously impedes the production of new housing. Curbed San Francisco reported that the mayor’s Office of Housing withdrew funding for an affordable-housing project because neighborhood opposition had led the developer to believe that litigation “would have added considerable time and cost.” In Manhattan, community members recently delayed a rezoning effort intended to create more than 3,000 new housing units in the wealthy SoHo neighborhood. One resident succinctly described the opposition: “A group of housing millionaires who are mostly old and white are blocking access to an extraordinarily valuable neighborhood [for anyone] who didn’t buy an apartment here in the seventies.” Although the city council eventually approved the plan, opponents are still suing to delay the development of new housing.
In the Bronx, a neighborhood meeting on April 19 where hundreds of potential homes were up for debate devolved into chaos as residents shouted “Go home” and “Do you live here?” at the presenter. As the developer struggled to make clear that this project would bring much needed housing to the area, someone shouted “We don’t need affordable housing” as their neighbors applauded.
Bronx Community Board 10 held an in-person meeting so people who bought their homes decades ago could come and scream, “We don’t need affordable housing.” pic.twitter.com/lHOlyIP9fr— Michael Kaess (@WaluigiSoap) April 20, 2022
The drama often plays out in high-profile ways in large cities like San Francisco and New York. Less attention is paid to smaller towns across the nation, where opposition to new housing is so thoroughly baked in that it doesn’t even merit a headline.
Attempts to build mass transit also founder on the shores of community input. Neighborhood groups object to 24-hour construction, to “cut and cover” techniques, to the proposed location of entrances and routes—to pretty much anything and everything, leading to delays and expensive workarounds. I don’t mean to lay all of America’s transit-cost problems at the feet of people who show up to meetings, but they are certainly a large part of why the U.S. can’t build as efficiently as peer countries. New York’s Second Avenue subway cost $2.6 billion a mile, whereas Copenhagen built a similar project at just $323 million a mile. In San Francisco, the Central Subway totaled $920 million a mile, whereas a project in Paris went for just $160 million a mile. And Los Angeles’s Purple Line came in at $800 million a mile, whereas Madrid managed a project at $320 million a mile.
Sometimes the mere specter of community objection is enough to make a project less ambitious or less effective. According to a recent report from the Eno Center for Transportation, officials often attempt to preemptively avoid conflict with neighborhood groups by selecting “routes along freeways or industrial freight rail rights of way” instead of in dense areas where they would be most useful.
And when it comes to renewable-energy infrastructure, story after story has demonstrated the power of local opposition to delay or kill these projects, even in nominally progressive parts of the country. Last September, the Sierra Club reported that although Vermont had more than 12 wind projects in development in 2012, as of the latest count there were none: “Both anti-development gadflies and wealthy communities with big bankrolls have become adept at stopping needed projects.” One renewable-energy developer in the state told the Sierra Club that his company gave up on a turbine project “because we couldn’t afford millions of dollars and 10 years of fighting over two turbines.” Vermont is not an outlier, but the rule.
Not only do community groups block explicitly green developments; they have weaponized environmental regulations in their quest to do so. A frequent player in these fights is the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the federal government to investigate the environmental costs of its projects, and similar state and local laws. (According to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, 16 states; Washington, D.C.; Puerto Rico; New York City; and the Lake Tahoe region have similar pieces of legislation.) Although well intentioned, these rules have provided a means for disgruntled locals to pile on delays to projects they don’t like, whether or not they have a legitimate environmental complaint. As the economist Eli Dourado has noted, environmental-impact statements used to be pretty short—some just 10 pages. But after years of judicial decisions expanding what is expected from an EIS, the average length of these reports is now roughly 1,600 pages, and they can take 4.5 years to complete, all without actually requiring any environmental protection at all. The primary output of the regulation is delay.
Complying with environmental regulations can, then, add years to project timelines, and time is money for developers. The result is scarcity. As the housing researcher M. Nolan Gray wrote in The Atlantic last year about California’s environmental-review law, CEQA, “Across the Golden State, CEQA lawsuits have imperiled infill housing in Sacramento, solar farms in San Diego, and transit in San Francisco. The mere threat of a lawsuit is enough to stop small projects—especially housing—from starting in the first place. Indeed, one of the main effects of CEQA has been to exacerbate the state’s crippling housing-affordability crisis.”
Research by the George Washington University professor Leah Brooks and the Yale Law professor Zachary Liscow provides another indication of the cost of what the researchers call “citizen voice.” Brooks and Liscow looked at highway projects (which are also subject to environmental review) and found that interstate construction was three times as expensive in the 1980s as it was in the 1960s. They explored and cast aside as insufficient many of the traditional explanations for this phenomenon, including the price of labor, materials, and land. They noticed that the cost increase was absent until “the late 1960s or early 1970s,” when “institutional changes significantly expanded the opportunity for citizens to directly influence government behavior to reflect their concerns.” And they conjecture that the power of yelling loudly—with your lawyer on speed dial—became more and more effective because of three factors: a Supreme Court decision that “expanded citizens’ ability to sue administrative agencies and subject their decisions to judicial scrutiny,” the proliferation of activist organizations that amplified the power of individual voices, and NEPA. Although the researchers acknowledged the difficulty of testing such a theory, they hypothesized that the “growing citizen voice leads to more expensive routes and structures.”
The community-input process is disastrous for two broad reasons. First, community input is not representative of the local population. Second, the perception of who counts as part of an affected local community tends to include everyone who feels the negative costs of development but only a fragment of the beneficiaries.
Not everybody is a complainer, but pretty much everyone who shows up to community meetings is. Katherine Einstein, David Glick, and Maxwell Palmer, Boston University political scientists and co-authors of Neighborhood Defenders, examined zoning and planning meetings across Massachusetts. They found that a measly 14.6 percent of people who showed up to these events were in favor of the relevant projects. Meeting participants were also 25 percentage points more likely to be homeowners and were significantly older, maler, and whiter than their communities.
This representational problem is not one that can easily be solved by making these meetings more accessible. The BU researchers looked into what happened when meetings moved online during the coronavirus pandemic and discovered that, if anything, they became slightly less representative of the population, with participants still more likely to be homeowners as well as older and whiter than their communities. Relatedly, survey evidence from California reveals that white, affluent homeowners are the ones most committed to local control over housing development. Among renters, low-income households, and people of color, support for the state overriding localities and building new housing is strong.
Instead of empowering communities that most suffered under urban renewal, the local-review process has again privileged wealthier people who routinely block new projects, and many of the projects that do get built are in poorer areas. For example, construction patterns in Washington, D.C., tell a clear story of local political power. In the wealthy neighborhoods of Rock Creek West, just two affordable-housing units have entered the development pipeline since 2019; in the majority-Black neighborhoods of the far Southeast and Southwest quadrants, more than 1,100 units are forthcoming. As the local media outlet Greater Greater Washington noted in 2019, a 2006 housing-allocation plan was “designed to protect already-advantaged neighborhoods and push development away from them, to where it would presumably be less bothersome to the ‘homevoters’ who are more likely to show up in protest.”
Expanding opportunities for political participation failed to solve the problem of inequitable project distribution, because the fundamental problem wasn’t lack of community input; it was a lack of political power among disadvantaged groups. Making it easier for people to lodge their disagreements doesn’t change the distribution of power; it only amplifies the voices of people who already have it.
Even a demographically representative community meeting would systematically err on the side of blocking vital infrastructure. The downsides of new development tend to be very localized: loud noises from construction, or an obscured view. As a result, opponents can easily find one another and form a political bloc. By contrast, the beneficiaries are either unknown at the inception of the project (no one knows who will eventually inhabit a house a developer wants to build) or extremely diffuse (all the people who would hypothetically take mass transit if it existed). The political coalition broadly in favor of new housing, transit, and renewable energy exists, but not at the project-by-project level. This asymmetry means that the opponents of a new project will always have the upper hand.
Illustrating the asymmetry problem in miniature, in the middle of an interview, Einstein (one of the Boston University researchers) lost cell service. When she called me back, she explained that residents of a town she drives through on the way home from work successfully engaged in a community-input process to prevent the construction of a cellphone tower. Ah, participatory democracy.
The community-input system is unfixable and, more important, undesirable. Why would you want your access to affordable housing to depend on you brushing up on the intricacies of your local zoning code, threatening legal action, and devoting your weeknights to boring meetings where you yell at a harried city planner?
Every new development has so-called negative externalities: Construction is always annoying, trains can be loud and unsightly, wind farms may obstruct ocean views, and for some the simple knowledge that a nearby home is actually a duplex is enough to ruin the neighborhood character. Regardless of how valid you find any of these complaints, they should not by themselves be sufficient to block new projects, or else no mass transit, no new housing, no wind or solar farms could ever be installed.
Government officials should not ignore concerns from ordinary citizens and organized community groups. In fact, state and federal officials should appreciate that these entities have useful knowledge that is difficult to access from afar. But other nations are able to weigh environmental and aesthetic concerns without opening themselves up to never-ending lawsuits. According to the transit-costs researcher Alon Levy, France conducts “environmental and historical reviews in-house, without lawsuit enforcement,” and Italy “has strict laws for protection of historical and archeological monuments, but there is an administrative bureaucracy that checks that they are followed.”
In the U.S., moving decision making from the hyperlocal level to the state level is the first step to fixing the broken development process. This would ensure that a larger proportion of voters had a say, though an indirect one, in housing, transportation, and renewable-energy policy, because more people vote in these elections than hyperlocal ones. We have to let representative democracy actually work.
Local government is fundamentally not equipped to internalize and weigh the benefits and costs of large infrastructure projects, which can affect the economic and environmental prospects of the whole nation. Over the past decade, our understanding of the monumental impact of these decisions has become clear. As the Yale Law professor David Schleicher explained in 2020:
The collective effects of local land use rules in rich metropolitan areas on the broader economy are enormous. We have economic booms in some metropolitan areas—Silicon Valley, New York—but not boomtowns, as workers cannot move to the places where their labor is most valuable and best remunerated. Scholars using [a] variety of methods have attempted to estimate how big an effect this is, and the numbers they have come up with are almost incomprehensibly large. For instance, two prominent papers find that the negative effect of zoning restrictions in just three big rich metropolitan areas is larger than 8% of the U.S. economy, which is about the size of Canada’s GDP.
Others have arrived at even larger figures for lost output. In the face of this crisis, the tides appear to be turning, albeit slowly. In Oregon, California, and Connecticut, state legislatures have moved to reassert their power over the development process. Just last week in Maine, the House and Senate passed legislation to address the state’s affordable-housing crisis by legalizing duplexes and accessory dwelling units (such as backyard apartments and mother-in-law suites).
The Maine Municipal Association—the lobbying group for local governments in the state—opposed the bill, with the legislative advocate Kate Dufour telling the Portland Press-Herald that she is worried about “a dangerous (precedent) that could have a chilling effect on public engagement in the process.”
One can only hope.