Book Review: Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America's Housing Crisis

reviewed by W Dennis Keating

16 Feb 2023, 9:02 a.m.
W Dennis Keating

Katherine Levine, Glick David M, and Palmer Maxwell, Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America’s Housing Crisis, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019; 228 pp.: ISBN: 9781108708517, £19.99 (pbk), ISBN: 9781108477277, £72.99 (hbk), ISBN: 9781108848190, US$24.00 (eBook)


What makes this book very interesting is its look at who comprises the NIMBY anti-new housing population, as well as the tactics they employ in their opposition.

Using case studies of disputes over proposed housing developments, primarily in the state of Massachusetts, the authors have compiled demographic profiles of the Not In My BackYard (NIMBY) opposition.

In the United States, housing developments are subject to local land use regulations administered by local government officials and boards, as well as committees of appointed citizens, who rule on developer proposals. The authors have used public meetings of these regulatory bodies to identify attendees and those who speak for and against development. They then have used various databases to compare who the opposition is compared to the general population. They claim that their research ‘is unique in that it directly and systematically observes participants in neighborhood level institutions’ (p. 21).

Their findings are not surprising. They found that the Neighborhood Defenders are generally a small and unrepresentative group: older, white homeowners. They are the residents most likely to attend these public meetings and they present a wide variety of reasons in their opposition, including traffic, environmental, flooding and safety concerns. In the case of denser development proposals to be located in predominantly single-family housing neighbourhoods (typical of much of suburbia), density is said to be out of character of the neighbourhood.

The United States has a housing crisis in which a significant part of the population is unable to afford a home, with the general standard of 30% of income going towards housing. While this problem is particularly acute in the highest cost metropolitan cities on the coasts (e.g. New York, San Francisco), it is also a general problem, as the authors document. The authors cite a US mayors’ survey in which over half of those surveyed cited high housing costs as one of the top three reasons that residents left their city. The high cost of housing is not only a problem for lower income households but also for middle income households.

A major reason for this housing affordability crisis is an inadequate supply of housing, which is the factor that the authors address. They cite two major reasons for this: (1) restrictive local zoning and (2) the opposition of homeowners to housing development in their communities (widely known as ‘NIMBY’). The book’s research focus in exploring this pattern is:

 fundamentally about the people who participate in local housing politics and the institutions in which they participate. It centers on the motivated residents who show up at meetings to oppose new housing and zoning changes. (p. 4)

In the United States, land use regulations are primarily created and administered at the local governmental level. Boards and committees comprised of local government officials, both elected politicians and administrators as well as appointed residents, decide on development proposals, almost always requiring public hearings and usually the development is not guaranteed, but requires the approval of these bodies.

The authors use public meeting data from case studies, primarily in the state of Massachusetts, to compile a demographic profile of the Neighborhood Defenders and then compare that to the general population. They present a variety of reasons for their opposition, as mentioned above. One of the most questionable arguments raised by a few local governments is threats to local wildlife habitats.

When proposed developments are located in, or near to, the predominantly low-rise, single-family housing neighbourhoods that typify American suburbia, density has become an important issue for the NIMBY opposition, which usually argues that it is out of character for the neighbourhood and will threaten the housing values of homeowners. This is particularly true when the proposed housing is multi-family rental and even more so if it is intended to house lower-income tenants. In some cases, race has played a key role where the proposed occupants of the new housing proposed will be comprised of minorities in predominantly white neighbourhoods. However, this is an especially difficult factor for proponents to prove with rare exceptions.

A more recent issue has been gentrification, where the Neighborhood Defenders have opposed more expensive housing which could lead to higher property taxes for existing residents or even threaten to disrupt the neighbourhood’s population and force some residents, typically renters, to leave when rental housing is converted to more expensive owner-occupied housing.

In their opposition to new housing, the Neighborhood Defenders use a variety of tactics. These include: the testimony of hired experts, delays (e.g. multiple hearings, additional studies), the threat of lawsuits and litigation. These all can effectively add to the costs of the developer and in some cases will kill the project if extended over time. Among the many case examples are those that have gone through conflict for many years and, if not eventually abandoned by the developer, have often only finally resulted in some housing because the number of units has been drastically reduced.

Nationally, the authors also discuss the rise of a new phenomenon in some parts of the United States: pro-new housing advocates termed ‘YIMBY’ (Yes in my Backyard). These groups support the idea that by building enough new housing added to the existing housing supply, housing prices will be reduced enough to become more affordable for many currently priced out of the housing market.

While this is debatable, the authors cite the rise of this movement in the San Francisco Bay area. In 2018, state legislation was introduced by two legislators from this area which would have required California localities to permit mid-rise apartment construction near transit corridors including near train stations. It was opposed by local governments who were against state government interference in local land use regulation, NIMBY groups and advocates for affordable housing which was not mandated in the legislation (Walters, 2022). The authors explain why this legislation (introduced in succeeding years) failed due to this this powerful political opposition (Walters, 2022).

In contrast, the authors point to the Minneapolis 2040 comprehensive land use plan adopted in 2018 that abolished single-family zoning by allowing for higher density buildings through ‘upzoning’ in previously exclusive single-family housing neighbourhoods. Despite widespread opposition from neighbourhood groups, YIMBY advocates, with support from the city’s mayor, won passage of this policy. A similar process has occurred in Seattle. In her ‘New York Housing Compact’ announced in January, 2023, New York state Governor Kathy Hochul set three-year housing production goals for cities state-wide in order to produce 800,000 new homes over the next decade. In those communities that refuse to comply, she proposed creation of a state-wide permit appeals process to override existing restrictive local zoning. This has actually occurred in California. A 2022 study by the Brookings Institution (Pearson and Schuetz, 2022) identified pro-housing groups in the United States and in recent years, YIMBYtown ( national conferences have been convened, the most recent being in Portland, Oregon in April 2022.

Furthermore, in late 2022, the Biden administration’s omnibus funding legislation approved by Congress included $85 million in grants to localities by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) aimed at the identification and removal of barriers to affordable housing production and preservation. This new federal incentive programme has replaced past rhetoric about local ‘exclusionary zoning’ that limited such housing but lacked any federal authority to override it.

This book is a useful companion to the existing literature on the need for reform of restrictive local obstacles to the building of new housing in the United States, particularly in high cost cities and in low-rise, owner-occupied suburbs with entrenched NIMBY opposition. The rise of YIMBY advocacy for more housing could possibly overcome some of the opposition of the Neighborhood Defenders documented by the research in this book.



Pearson C and Schuetz J (2022) Where pro-housing groups are emerging. Brookings, 31 March. Available at: (accessed 16 January 2023). Google Scholar

Walters D (2022) Cities try to thwart state’s push for housing. CalMatters, 7 February. Available at: (accessed 16 January 2023). Google Scholar


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