New Orleans, LA skyline at night.

NIMBY opposition to affordable housing and shelter takes many forms

New Orleans, LA skyline at night.
New Orleans, LA skyline.
Modified photo © Gordon on

There are few places in this country that have enough affordable rental housing or shelter for people experiencing homelessness. Part of this is due to “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY) opposition in cities around the country playing a large role in halting new shelter, transitional housing, and affordable rentals.

Fair housing research in New Orleans shows how opposition to new affordable housing is led by “neighborhood associations,” frequently driven by racial bias. This has helped maintain segregated neighborhoods in that city, and made it harder to site new affordable housing and homeless shelters.

In addition, NIMBY opponents have tried to limit affordable housing and shelter resources through ballot measures.

A November ballot initiative in Denver, Colorado, would allow neighbors to sue the city if homeless encampments are not removed quickly enough. Another initiative will limit affordable housing options by repealing an expansion of rental housing occupancy limits.

The following are just two examples of recent NIMBY strategies to limit housing resources for those in need:

NIMBY Groups Lead the Charge But Do Not Reflect Their Communities

In New Orleans, research by the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Council (LaFHAC) shows that opposition to new affordable housing has not generally come from the bulk of neighborhood residents. The majority of New Orleans residents are Black, renters, and more likely to be poor than white residents.

LaFHAC’s research showed that opposition to affordable housing and shelters mainly comes from “neighborhood associations.” LaFHAC looked at public records, which include the names and addresses of board members for these neighborhood associations. By cross-referencing the board members’ information with other public data, LaFHAC found that the boards of neighborhood associations were made up mostly of white homeowners. 

The neighborhood associations were not representative of neighborhood economic or racial demographics. The overall population of New Orleans is 31% white and 58% Black. Neighborhood association board members were 60% white and 35% Black. The associations also over-represent homeowners and households earning more than $100,000.

LaFHAC also found that predominantly white neighborhood associations had a lot of weight in city planning, land use, and development decisions. They have been especially active in gentrifying and high opportunity neighborhoods.

These groups submit a large share of the public comments opposing affordable housing and shelter projects. In addition, the whiter the board, the more politically active the groups were. LaFHAC measured political activity by looking at factors like the number of meetings, calls to local officials, or events organized.

LaFHAC estimates that a total of 606 affordable housing and shelter units have been lost or delayed since Hurricane Katrina. NIMBY opposition from neighborhood associations has helped kill 422 affordable units, and delay another 184 that would be under construction or completed by now.

Denver Ballot Measures Would Leave Homeless Persons Nowhere to Go

Homeless residents in Denver are facing NIMBY opposition directly at the ballot box. One measure will make it almost impossible for unsheltered people to camp in public. The other measure will make it very difficult for people to stay with friends or relatives if they are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Cathy Alderman, with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, spoke about the Denver ballot measures on an October 18 webinar hosted by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC). 

Like many western cities, Alderman said, Denver has seen an increase in the number of people without shelter. This has been made worse by the pandemic. Although the City of Denver has a camping ban on the books, there are still homeless encampments in the city. There are also two sanctioned “safe spaces” where unsheltered people can camp.

Initiative 303, “Homelessness, Compassion and Safety,” would require the City of Denver to remove encampments within 72 hours of a resident’s complaint. It allows residents to take legal action against the city if it does not clear camps within that time. In addition, the initiative permits the creation of up to four sanctioned camping sites in the city.

Alderman pointed out that this ballot measure not only punishes people for lacking a home, it also violates federal court orders. Federal courts have said that the City of Denver must give homeless persons at least one week notice before clearing encampments.

If enacted, the measure will be extremely expensive. City resources will be tied up in litigation, and securing safe camping sites will be difficult. Alderman said that it took years of searching before nonprofit organizations could secure the two safe sites now in the city. NIMBY opposition played a big role in making it hard to find sites. 

It is also very expensive to keep camping sites clean and safe. The ballot measure provides no funds for buying or leasing sites, or for managing them.

The second ballot measure is called Question 2F, “Safe and Sound Denver.”  It would repeal a Group Living Ordinance adopted 11-2 by the City Council earlier this year. 

The Group living ordinance allows up to five unrelated people to share a dwelling, plus reforms the rules on residential care facilities. It has been a big help to seniors, people with disabilities, and others who need care.

If this measure passes, it will also take away affordable housing options for low-income and working families. As the pandemic grinds on and housing insecurity continues to rise, more renters are facing homelessness.

When they lose their homes most people first turn to family and friends, doubling up and “couch surfing.” This ballot measure will mean it will be hard for someone to stay with friends when they lose their apartment. And if Initiative 303 passes, they cannot sleep anywhere in public either.

Alderman warned that the Denver initiatives should be a warning for other parts of the country. Colorado has a very accessible process for getting initiatives placed on the ballot. Because of this, the state is often used by interest groups to test social measures through ballot initiatives.

If these measures pass in the November election, NIMBY groups in other cities and states are likely to try the same thing. These NIMBY efforts have nothing to do with “compassion” and “safety.” They are just a new tactic to drive homeless people out of sight and out of town.