The Ethics of NIMBYism

Debra Stein

Community fights about affordable housing often involve a harsh clash between differing moral systems. This article is intended to review ethical conflicts associated with affordable housing, describe how anti-housing neighbors try to morally justify their position, and challenge housing providers to consider the morality of their own approach to community outreach.

Individualism vs. Social Responsibility
America's much-venerated Protestant work ethic reassures us that, through hard work, determination and self-discipline, we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and enjoy success and material rewards. In an individualistic culture, we are not to ask what our country can do for us, but instead are expected to look out for ourselves and take advantage of the many opportunities available to us.

The less-pleasant inverse of the Protestant work ethic: if you're poor or disempowered, then it's your own damn fault. Your degraded condition isn't the result of any social forces, but is caused exclusively by some personal character flaw: laziness, alcoholism, moral degeneracy. For moral traditionalists, charity to the "undeserving poor" is wrong because it leads to dependence and the moral collapse of our individualistic society.

The Judeo-Christian charitable ethic simultaneously demands that each of us offer compassion and assistance to the weak and poor. For those who uphold the "social gospel," all people are created equal, so all deserve a piece of the pie. Those who can't presently reach the pie plate must be handed their share by more fortunate, empowered members of society. The issue isn't equal opportunity, but actual equality where everyone possesses a fair share of basic resources. Poverty and social degradation aren't a reflection of one's personal weaknesses, but are caused by social problems such as the lack of jobs, affordable housing, or effective education. For social gospel adherents, responsibility toward the less fortunate is a moral requirement.

The Moral Dilemma: Guilt, Shame, Anger
Between the horns of individualism and of social responsibility, most citizens face an unresolvable moral dilemma when it comes to affordable housing projects. Supporting affordable housing may offend their moral commitment toward self-determination, but opposing affordable housing will violate their ethical duty to help the weak. When neighbors scream, "Not in My Back Yard!", they will inflict guilty feelings upon themselves at the same time for breaching their own ethical standards of sacrifice and charity. No one likes to feel guilty, so guilt often triggers anger: anger towards the project sponsor for triggering the moral dilemma and the terrible feelings.

I'm Not to Blame!
NIMBY neighbors opposing affordable housing projects often go through a lot of effort to absolve themselves of moral blame. They may offer an excuse, arguing that, "I'm not a bad person because I'm not really opposing your project." The neighbor may claim to be merely "expressing concerns" about individual issues, rather then opposing the entire project. The litany of complaints then shifts the burden to the project sponsor: if the project sponsor can't resolve all the problems, then the agency is to blame for the project's failure, not the neighbor.

A resident may admit that he or she is opposing a project, but offer a justification that makes that opposition blameless. Many neighbors say that they're "forced" to oppose affordable housing projects because the proposals will adversely affect their own personal interests: reducing property values, increasing crime, and so on. Others assert that they "have to" oppose the project in order to protect the interests of other people, or of the environment, or of their community constituents. Sophisticated NIMBY neighbors may cloak themselves in blatant compassion, claiming that the only reason they oppose the project is because the proposal doesn't meet the underlying needs of its target population. Residents protesting a senior housing project, for example, might argue that the proposal should be rejected because the site is too steep for seniors, or too far from transit, or too expensive.

NIMBY opponents often claim that concepts of justice or fairness justify their project resistance. They may claim that opposition is simply retribution for the project sponsor's lies, arrogant behavior, or failure to show respect. Demands for environmental justice can cloak more selfish and therefore less acceptable motivations. Citizens may also argue that the project sponsor is so untrustworthy that a more cooperative attitude isn't merited.

"NIMBYism": A Convenient Excuse
Project sponsors are often extremely eager to condemn all opponents as "NIMBYs", believing that categorically describing all opponents as racists or selfish protectionists somehow eliminates any obligation to address citizens' concerns. By characterizing opponents as NIMBYs, project sponsors hope they can dismiss community concerns about perfectly reasonable issues such as design, construction, or operation of the facility. A similar situation was seen at the O.J. Simpson trial, where defense lawyers argued that, because Mark Fuhrman was a racist, nothing he said on any subject merited consideration.

The Top Priority: To Do Good or Be Good?
There is a significant moral split in the affordable housing community between those who are primarily driven to achieve moral outcomes and those who are driven to fulfill moral rules. For outcome-oriented people, building affordable housing is the number one priority, and the ends may justify the means. An affordable housing builder with an outcome-orientation, for example, might agree to exclude sexual offenders from a halfway house if that's the price to be paid to get opponents to back off. For rule-oriented moralists, however, right and wrong can't be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. If discrimination against ex-convicts is wrong, then it is always wrong; rule-oriented idealists would protest that it is wholly unacceptable to legitimize discrimination by negotiating with neighbors about the type of residents who could occupy the facility. For these extremists, it would be better to build no housing at all than to perpetuate discrimination against convicted sexual offenders.

The ethics of NIMBYism and affordable housing aren't simple. Opponents of affordable housing aren't all evil, and project sponsors aren't universally righteous. Through a better understanding of citizens' moral concerns you can help neighbors appreciate that support for affordable housing is the "right" thing to do. At the same time, housing providers need to carefully evaluate their own moral position to make certain that ethical issues aren't used as an excuse to avoid responsible community outreach.