The Volokh Conspiracy

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Housing Policy

The Catholic Case Against NIMBYism

Urban policy analyst Addison Del Mastro advances it in the Catholic journal America.


In a recent article in the Jesuit publication America, urban policy commentator Addison Del Mastro explains "Why Catholics Should Resist NIMBYism":

The cost and supply of housing has gone from a problem associated with a handful of high-growth cities to a national crisis. Anybody who has moved in the last three years understands this. Calls to loosen zoning restrictions and repeal parking space requirements for apartment buildings in the hope of spurring housing production have become mainstream….

Perhaps the most relevant element of the Catholic ethic here is the idea that people are good. Pope Francis affirms this in his encyclical "Laudato Si'," in which, contra Malthusian fears about overpopulation, he argues that even concern for the earth cannot be placed above the dignity of the human person….

Using the not-surprising example of abortion, Francis articulates the broader Catholic conviction that no public policy which contradicts the principle that people are good can itself be good. Likewise, no apparent good that relies on the negation of this principle is worth keeping….

This may seem easy enough. But people do not exist in a vacuum. Recognizing their dignity or accommodating their needs is not just an intellectual exercise. Their needs must be provided for concretely in the real world, and one of those needs is housing.

If people are good—if babies and families are good—the housing they need must also be good. Housing is an extension of people and of the family, and when babies grow up, they become neighbors. But in American politics, these concerns have been separated and siloed….

Does this mean Catholics should never oppose new housing? What about objections to ugly new buildings, or traffic, or rapidly increasing density leading to a sense of overcrowding? Are these illegitimate concerns? I would not argue that, and housing policy is certainly one of those matters on which Catholics may freely argue and disagree.

I would instead frame this issue this way: At least in our country's higher-growth, most housing-deficient regions, it may be necessary to choose between the needs of people and our preferences for the built environment around us. We might have an image of what a "family-friendly neighborhood" looks like: detached houses with yards, for example. But a family-friendly neighborhood could instead be a neighborhood that the average family can afford, and it may look different than our ideal. It may be the case that putting the human person and the family first requires letting go of certain aesthetic preferences…

Del Mastro omits an additional reason why Catholics should oppose NIMBYism: the Church is—rightly—supportive of migrants fleeing poverty and oppression. But, in many places, exclusionary zoning is a major obstacle to building new housing needed to take in migrants and refugees (as well as native-born Americans seeking economic and educational opportunities). This is one of the major causes of New York City's current problems with asylum-seekers, for example.

I am not a Catholic, myself, or even a religious believer at all. But many of the points raised by Del Mastro are ones that can be shared by many secular people, as well. For example, I too believe "people are good," and that NIMBY esthetic considerations should yield to that imperative (though it is also the case that current homeowners in communities with restrictive zoning often have much to gain from reform).

In a related recent Reason article, explains how zoning reform can help various religious groups survive and grow.

I have written previously about how zoning reform is a cross-ideological cause that cuts across conventional ideological and partisan lines. In this case, it might also cut across some of the divisions between the religious and the secular.