“Bootleggers And Baptists”: When Community Activists Side With Nimbys

Activists who stop housing projects because they’re imperfect are basically siding with Nimbys who want to block housing altogether.

Ethan Finlan | February 16, 2018 | |
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There’s an obscure but discernable phenomenon that surrounds regulations: well-intentioned activists who want to regulate x because it is either harmful or perceived to be, and seek to prevent said harms through legislation, find themselves on the same side as people promoting the harmful effects, either because they sell this commodity and fear greater supply, or have some other vested interest in keeping it scarce.

This phenomenon was coined “Bootleggers and Baptists” in response to its development during alcohol prohibition. The “Baptists” being temperance advocates who believed that outlawing commercial alcohol sales was the way to curtail alcoholism and antisocial impacts, and the “Bootleggers” being, well, bootleggers who sold alcohol on the illicit market and stood to lose if alcohol were sold on the open market.

We see the same thing today in the housing supply debate: many community activists with valid concerns over gentrification’s impacts have come to oppose upzoning. They point to cases where new housing has appeared to result in or not solve displacement as arguments against allowing more housing to be built. However, typically this is a result of projects being limited by regulations in the first place, making luxury development the most profitable new housing possible. In taking this stance, these advocates wind up boosting the cause of NIMBYs who either wish to preserve their property values or protect their views against even the slightest infringement.

Unique circumstances impact every community, and gentrification has real consequences. But the evidence really does show that refusal to build new housing in as much of a metro area as possible perpetuates gentrification. Cities from New York to Los Angeles prove this example, while cities that allow building, such as Tokyo, and to a much lesser but still notable degree, Chicago and Miami, prove that building keeps housing affordable. Siding with the bootleggers should always make one weary – it didn’t work for preventing alcoholism, and it won’t work for preventing displacement.

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