Neighborhood Defenders

Participatory Politics and America’s Housing Crisis

Katherine Levine Einstein, David M. Glick, and Maxwell Palmer

Published by Cambridge University Press


In this book, we show how neighborhood participation in the housing permitting process exacerbates existing political inequalities, limits the housing supply, and contributes to the current affordable housing crisis. Participatory institutions like planning and zoning boards invite comments from neighbors on proposed housing developments. While neighbors with all viewpoints are welcome, we show that the individuals who choose to participate hold overwhelmingly negative views of new housing—far more negative than their broader communities—and are socioeconomically advantaged on a variety of dimensions. Using land use institutions, these individuals—who we term neighborhood defenders—are able to raise concerns that lead to lengthy delays, high development costs, and smaller projects. The result is a diminished housing stock and higher housing costs.

Chapter Outline

Chapter 1: Introduction

Chapter 1 uses several illustrative case studies to introduce the central argument of this book: that land use institutions ostensibly designed to empower underrepresented neighborhood groups actually amplify the power of neighborhood defenders to stop and delay the construction of new housing. We then situate this argument in the broader context of rising national housing costs, and the negative social, economic, and environmental consequences of the nationwide housing crunch.

Chapter 2: Neighborhood Defenders and The Power of Delay

Chapter 2 develops our theory, highlighting how land use regulations and participatory inequalities come together to constrain the supply of new housing. We use a detailed case study of a Catholic Church redevelopment project to illustrate how neighbors opposed to development are able to delay development and reduce what gets built by participating in the planning and permitting process.

Chapter 3: Regulations, Housing Construction, and Lawsuits

Chapter 3 uses land use regulation and housing permitting data to: (1) clearly describe how land use regulations operate and (2) statistically link their proliferation with a diminished housing supply. We show how regulations create opportunities for opponents to file lawsuits, and how these lawsuits in turn reduce development. In order to address potential selection bias in our empirical analyses, we then use the redevelopment of Catholic Church properties across the greater Boston area as a natural experiment, and show that zoning regulations of all types decreased the density of the housing built on former church sites.

Chapter 4: Land Use Regulations and Public Input

Chapter 4 directly links the regulations introduced in Chapter 3 with public meetings. This chapter focuses on why proposals end up in public meetings and what types of issues members of the public and zoning officials raise. We introduce the novel data on meeting minutes from Massachusetts cities and towns that we use in Chapters 4, 5, and 6. Using these meeting minutes, we trace 100 randomly selected proposals in which we collected especially detailed project and meeting information. We show that once a project requires a public hearing, members of the public raise any and all concerns—not just those directly pertaining to the regulations that necessitated a meeting in the first place. The regulations described in Chapter 3 provide the opportunities for neighborhood defenders to air virtually all of their concerns and objections.

Chapter 5: Who are the Neighborhood Defenders?

Chapters 5 and 6 turn to members of the public. In Chapter 4, we combine a novel data set of all citizen participants in planning and zoning board meetings in the greater Boston area with the state voter file to describe the demographic and attitudinal attributes of meeting attendees. We demonstrate that these individuals are overwhelmingly opposed to new housing and demographically unrepresentative of their broader communities across a number of important domains.

Chapter 6: Neighborhood Defense Tactics

Chapter 6 then explores how these individuals stymy housing development using a mix of quantitative analysis of meeting minutes, in-depth case studies, and dozens of interviews with government officials, developers, and community activists. We analyze the wide range of concerns raised by meeting attendees and how commenters use in-depth knowledge of local zoning regulations to raise objections to special permits and variances.

Chapter 7: Gentrification and the Future of Housing Reform

Chapter 7 investigates potential policy solutions and the challenges facing building an affordable housing coalition. It uses a mix of elite survey data, interviews, and archival analysis to explore how gentrification has made prospects for reform more challenging, exploring the state-level politics surrounding SB 827 in California and Chapter 40B in Massachusetts. It concludes by outlining: (1) prospects for successful housing reform and (2) how the insights derived from housing politics might apply to other salient policy arenas, such as environmental and immigration policy.