NIMBYs and Regulatory Hurdles Hinder Housing Affordability… Again

By. Neil Williamson, President

Last night, I rewatched the 1993 classic movie Groundhoug Day.  This morning, reading the newspaper and a housing report I share Bill Murray’s feeling of Deja Vu.  I continue to see projects and proposals designed to increase affordable housing run into the buzz saw of NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) opposition to density as well as regulatory barriers written to maintain the status quo.  And it has all happened before.

imageLater today, (4/3) Albemarle County Board of Supervisors will receive a summary of the yet to be released Thomas Jefferson Planning District (TJPDC) commissioned report on regional housing needs assessment.  The very well written summary outlines the study data and highlights the dearth of supply of rental units available to those earning various percentages of AMI (Area Median Income).  Current AMI for our region totals $89,600.

Similar data was found regarding home ownership opportunities.

The key issues identified in the summary report included Housing supply, land development policies, transportation funding, income, and discrimination.  We are not convinced the “Tools in The Toolbox” action item will appropriately address the challenges of NIMBYism and NIMBYism that is written into the local codes.

In this morning’s Daily Progress article, Elliott Robinson from Charlottesville Tomorrow outlines neighbors pushed back a developer’s attempt to gain an increase in density that resulted in a plan for a trio of high end single family homes instead.  Robinson quotes  Charlottesville Planning Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg from their March meeting:

I think it’s appalling that City Council turned down the last application and that on a piece of land … that is assessed at $986,000 per acre [and] that we’re talking about putting giant single-family houses there that are going to be sitting on $65,000 of land alone underneath them. And the fact that we’re seeing this proposal now of just very large single-family residences that, undoubtedly, will be quite expensive, and we’re seeing the Belmont neighborhood line up in support just shows the problem we face in trying to achieve actual affordable housing

This is where Bill Murray comes in.

In July of 2013, I highlighted “Snob Zoning Request returns to City Council”:

This passage was also front of mind this morning as I read Sean Tubbs’ Daily Progress article on development projects in the City of Charlottesville and members of City Council’s concerns over their design and projected populations.

“[City Councilor Dede] Smith also wanted to know what population was being attracted to Charlottesville based on the nature of the new developments.

“Who is going to live at City Walk?” Smith asked. “Our number of families is declining in the city and it has been stated as a priority that we would like to at least maintain or grow housing for families.”

Reading between the lines, the question seems to be ‘are the right kind of people going to live at City Walk?’.  Isn’t this the very type of exclusionary thinking that could be called ‘Snob Zoning’?

In June of 2015, I highlighted the linkage between housing regulatory policy and income inequality:

In reviewing Rognlie’s work, The Economist suggests this new analysis suggests we rethink how we deal with income inequity:

“But if housing wealth is the biggest source of rising wealth then a more focused approach is called for. Policy-makers should deal with the planning regulations and NIMBYism that inhibit housebuilding and which allow homeowners to capture super-normal returns on their investments.”

In September of 2016, I wrote about ‘Snob Zoning’ Crozet Master Plan in the Works? highlighting an Albemarle developer challenges to gain increased density in the Crozet development area.

The reality is the CCAC is opposed to density in the development area that is critical to achieve the philosophical goals of the Comprehensive Plan. The community vetted plan calls for densely populated development areas filled with amenities and services surrounded by less populated rural areas that are supportive of agriculture, forestry and open space.

snob-zones-640-for-web-194x300.jpgIn her seminal book “Snob Zoning”, Liza Prevost, exposed what happens when NIMBY zealots are able to change plans and regulations. Prevost reports such NIMBYism clearly fueled the density discussion in Ossipee New Hampshire where the town enacted regulation that was so restrictive the Zoning chairman Mark McConkey said:

“‘I believe the spirit of this ordinance was to deny the opportunity for multifamily housing to go forward in this town.  I believe it is the intent of the ordinance whether it is right or wrong.’

In his book review, John Ross writes on

“Prevost sees little hope of changing entrenched attitudes about multi-family housing developments. “This is a world where facts are irrelevant,” says a demographer she spoke to. “I’ve explained over and over again that workforce housing is not Section 8 housing with welfare recipients packed in there.”

Snobs dominate local politics and are unlikely to embrace relaxed zoning codes any time soon. Change may yet come, though, as the demand for single-family homes subsides. The next generation simply isn’t as enamored of low-density living as baby boomers were. [emphasis added-nw]”


The Free Enterprise Forum sees two significant opportunities to increasing the supply of housing.  Remove regulatory hurdles (and neighbor opposition) to density or (in Albemarle’s case) increase the footprint of the development area.  If the political will is missing to allow increased density, perhaps the time is right for an initiation of a long range study group to examine the potential expansion of Albemarle’s development areas.

We recognize housing affordability is a complex issue requiring a multitude of solutions – there is no single silver bullet.  We firmly believe increasing the supply of housing (across all price points) is an important part of any affordable housing solution.

Respectfully Submitted,

Neil Williamson, President


20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa  and Nelson County.  For more information visit the website 

Photo Credit: Tenor


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