Housing Complex

What I Talk About When I Talk About NIMBYism

In reporting the news of neighborly dissatisfaction with a women's shelter coming to Anacostia, as with the now-dead effort to bring at-risk young people to the J.F. Cook School in Truxton Circle, I've offended some people by calling them NIMBYs. So I think it's worth defining what I mean by the term, which I use intentionally and deliberately.

NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard. As in, 'I don't object to this [homeless shelter/windmill/trash transfer station/Walmart/meth clinic] in principle, but I'd rather not have to deal with it in my neighborhood.' That definition holds true even for the people who would add, 'because my neighborhood is already a dumping ground for that kind of crap' or 'it's just not the right place for that kind of thing.'

Wikipedia says that the word is typically used pejoratively. I'd counter that it's only seen as a pejorative term because not wanting to have to deal with negative things, even if you're fine with putting them in some other community, is generally regarded as selfish. The other side of selfishness, though, is simply the desire to improve your community, which I don't doubt is the motivation behind those who are opposing a women's shelter in Anacostia. Therefore, to me, community activism and NIMBYism aren't mutually exclusive.

It's not like I don't understand the NIMBY impulse. Early on in my time at City Paper, Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School flyered its Columbia Heights neighborhood—where I live—with a notice that it would be requesting zoning relief for an affordable apartment complex to be built on its parking lot. The neighbors, fearing for their property values, reacted with shock and outrage that the school wanted to build low-income housing right behind their expensively renovated rowhouses. I thought this was a somewhat ugly sentiment, but being honest with myself, had to realize: I wasn't happy with the prospect of a years-long construction project in my back yard. Of course, as a renter, I had the freedom to make it not my back yard anymore.

It does get more complicated when we're talking about issues of oversaturation. You can objectively argue that lots of social services may doom a neighborhood's chances at revitalization, while spreading them throughout a city would keep the collective impact low enough to allow all of their host neighborhoods to thrive. But you also have to understand why social services locate where they do: Nonprofits don't have a lot of money, and land in depressed areas is cheap. Plus, it's where many of their clients who aren't homeless tend to come from. By those metrics, putting a women's shelter in Georgetown becomes less realistic.

So I don't use NIMBY as a value judgment, but as a consistent way to describe a certain type of opposition. If you see it as an insult, maybe that's because you recognize the nature of the definition as negative. And then you should truly ask yourself what you think about the fact that it applies to you.

Prince of Petworth also had an interesting discussion on the subject recently.

  • Jes’ sayin’

    It sure does get a lot more complicated when you are dealing with oversaturation.

    You can't really accuse someone of being a NIMBY when they've accepted several homeless shelters/halfway houses/big box stores/windmills and they say their neighborhood is oversaturated. That's because those contested items are already IN their backyard.

    That's a heckuva lot different from groups that don't want ANY licensed liquor establishments/homeless shelters/halfway houses/big box stores/windmills in their neighborhood.

    When you use a word, Lydia, it means exactly what you want it to mean. To you, that is. NIMBY is a widely viewed as a negative term. To me. And, I would imagine, to a majority of readers.

    You are an excellent writer, Lydia, and a solid reporter. But others' reaction to your use of the acronym NIMBY has clearly struck a nerve with you. Maybe YOU should truly ask yourself whether you should more narrowly define NIMBY in your own vocabulary to confirm it to the more widespread understanding of this negative term.

  • Alice

    I would just like to know why it's automatically considered OK to stick every kind of aid agency/shelter/etc. in neighborhoods that are trying to improve. I'm sure if somebody tried to stick a shelter in Friendship Heights, they wouldn't put it smack-dab on Wisconsin Avenue and think it's OK.

    I'm not opposed to shelters, but for God's sake, 1) putting one right on the main drag would take away whatever dignity there remains for these folks, and 2) putting YET ANOTHER non-profit in a neighborhood besieged with non-profits (the last, the least and the lost) just says to incoming businesses, "go away, there's no money."

    That's why it wasn't fair for Cenral Union Mission to try to move to GA Ave. from Columbia Heights b/c CH was improving faster, and it's just as unfair to Anacostia.

    You're beating people over the head for not continuing to accept every single aid agency that exists in the city. Why can't a shelter be more off the beaten path, give these folks a little privacy?

  • Alice

    Sorry if I came across harshly, it just seems sometimes that there are folks who don't want to see the area improve; but I live here, and I do.

    I also spent several years volunteering at a local shelter, and my oldest daughter did so recently to get some community service experience.

    We both noted that the women then, as now, have practically no privacy, and are preyed upon by men who know where the shelter is (including abusive husbands/boyfriends) because the shelter is in a very public location.

    I'll shut up now.

  • Paul

    Perhaps a fair point, Jes, but then how should "activists who oppose locating social services in their neighborhood out of a concern of oversaturation" be described? Of course there's a distinction between residents of Georgetown who wouldn't even allow a Metro stop and community activists in Anacostia concerned that adding yet another shelter downtown might not be best for the neighborhood, but they're both saying "not in my backyard!"

    Lydia is right that the community activists in Acostia are acting selfishly, but that their selfishness is much more justified than in Georgetown. If "NIMBYism" is too associared with an upper-class suburban elitism, then what would be the right word to describe those who hold "NIMBY-esque" fears of undesirable oversaturation in lower-class neighborhoods?

  • Drez

    Solid post, Lydia.
    Solid response by Alice, too.

  • DC Guy

    I thought there was a shelter on Wisconsin Avenue?

    I like the Tenleytown NIMBYs who claim they like 'smart growth' except they want it on the east side of town.

  • Dan

    Lydia, your argument appears finely tuned but if these neighbors were to protest the womens shelter creatively, would you grant them recognition instead of scorn, as you did with these Nimbys:


    Different issue, but same idea. In this case, the Nimby is a bar (Asylum) that is protesting something literally its backyard. And in doing so using hyperbole - devils tower? One of the significant community benefits of that future shadow will be millions of dollars in new tax revenue for the city in the form of lodging taxes and new jobs for low income residents. Just like the proposed homeless shelter in Anacostia provides community benefits, potentially at the expense of some neighbors.

    In any case, I follow your nuanced definition of a Nimby. And I know you were relaying that sign as you said, without comment, but please apply that standard consistently.

  • Hillman

    I can understand the neighbor concern. Especially since apparently Calvary considers themselves above having to communicate with neighbors.

    If there's no communication on this, does anyone think this group will communicate well with neighbors on other issues that are sure to arise?

    Beyond that, though, I do have to say that this area keeps election Marion Barry. So in some ways you get what you ask for. Barry has been at the forefront of making sure DC stays in such a condition where social services are so prevalent. He's been a great advocate for DC providing social services for the entire region, never arguing for the suburbs to begin shouldering their fair share.

    And his policies and rhetoric have helped maintain DC (and his ward in particular) in the sorry state that it has been in for so long, making for neighborhood conditions where social services are able to retard neighborhood growth and stability.

    I realize not everyone votes for Barry, but it sure sucks when voting has consequences, doesn't it?

  • http://none tommie123

    This seems not very well informed or based in common precepts about siting facilities with strong negative externalities (look it up). Familiar with "environmental justice or equity"? Not seeing it factor in to your opinion piece. Jes' sayin' it is different when those who live in communities most commonly afflicted with these facilities begin to say 'why us, why not "share the burden?'"

  • Tyro

    Just like the proposed homeless shelter in Anacostia provides community benefits, potentially at the expense of some neighbors.

    I don't think it will provide any significant community benefits,especially when you regard the community as the immediate area. Furthermore, this will be at the expense of economic development on Anacostia's main commercial strip, which needs to be revitalized. Stymieing that development will do more damage to the overall prospects and economic health of Anacostia than turning away Yet Another Social Services outlet.

    For DC, I can understand the dilemma here-- on one hand, this is going to strangle Good Hope Road. On the other hand, the alternative is people, maybe those who live in the suburbs, opening actual businesses there which might attract people from outside the Anacostia neighborhood to visit and engage in commercial activity, which a lot of DC people complain about when it happens.

    Outside of a few self proclaimed "business leaders" in Anacostia, is there really that much interest in commercial development along Good Hope Road, or are residents pretty much happy with an economy focused on non-profits and churches?

  • Lydia DePillis

    @Dan - Yup, the anti-AdMo hotel people would fall under my definition of NIMBYs.

    @Tommie123 - I know what an externality is, thanks. And yes, I'm familiar with environmental justice. Which is why I said things get more complicated when you're talking about oversaturation. Poor neighborhoods made nearly unliveable by highways, bus garages, trash facilities, etc certainly have a legitimate complaint. And yes, you're right, things change when people in those neighborhoods start to make the kind of noise that rich people would if city governments attempted to put those kinds of facilities in their neighborhoods.

    I do, however, also think it's fair to make a distinction between those environmental undesirables and social service facilities. It's difficult to ameliorate the environmental effects of a bus garage. It's totally possible, however, to manage a homeless shelter in such a way that it's not a drag on the neighborhood around it. As far as I know, Shaw's Bread for the City and Logan's Central Union Mission are hardly baleful influences. Before La Casa in Columbia Heights was destroyed to make way for the second phase of Highland Park, most people didn't even realize it was there (and now they probably notice more homeless men sleeping on the streets). It's important to get information before lashing out--which Calvary certainly didn't help with.

  • SEis4ME

    If bullshyt had a theme, this silly response attempting to clarify another silly term mostly used by those who see "their" form of development is good would be it.

    Look, it's a negative and you meant it as a negative. Plain and simple.

    You could have easily substituted the word "community activist"(since you know who's protesting and why). You didn't. You chose to. But, the latter is less sexy, less controversial, and less likely to get you much coverage. But please don't insult me and my EOTR neighbors by trying to strike a distinction between pulled pork and pig's feet, no matter how they are prepared, they are both heart attacks waiting to happen.

  • er

    i don't understand how the term NIMBY could not be considered an insult.
    and yes, people complained a lot about La Casa and Central Union Mission. i never heard a complaint about Bread for the City though.

  • Ward1

    @Lydia - You are spot on. Keep doing what you're doing. (No need to change your perspective because people suddenly don't like a term when it applies to them.)

  • http://none tommie123

    So Lydia, would you accept the idea that a dip in real estate values or a lengthened "time on market" of listings would constitute a "negative externality?" Are you so capable of sorting when neighborhood complaints are "legitimate" or "illegitimate"? If so, i can now accept the idea of philosopher queen and we can do away with this messy "democracy" or "republican form of government" stuff. All hail Q Lydia! (I'm applying for court jester....)

  • Ward2

    Lydia, I always find your stories to be very informative and I don't think you need to explain or apologize for using the term NIMBY. I can understand opposition to destroying a historic building or paving a huge infrastucture type of project through a residential area but these days the NIMBYism we seem to see over and over is a small group opposed to anything coming into a vacant, blighted building or empty lot because of their fear of "parking, cars, trash, etc. I've attended some meetings of a group opposing a building on 14th and I along with many others have concluded that their opposition is based on a fear of other people of economic classes possibly living near tem.

  • http://distcurm.blogspot.com/ IMGoph

    Lydia: I'll be interested to see if Dan gives you credit for referring to his website in a positive light.

  • Bob

    I think mamy people in Tenleytown see through the "smart growth" buzz phrase. (It would take a pretty dumb developer today to label its project anything other than "smart growth.") The more interesting question is why developers won't consider building any true "smart growth" projects (mixed use with housing, retail near transit) east of the river.

  • Truxton Resident

    "By those metrics, putting a women's shelter in Georgetown becomes less realistic."
    Really? SOME on O St doesn't serve with the neighborhood (the neighbors would argue the opposite)They have hundreds of people bused in every day.

  • m

    When NIMBYs identify a problem with something proposed for their neighborhoods, they don't then attempt to improve/fix the problem. So I think if the problem is over-saturation, they need to figure out how to fix the already-existing similar things, so that the new thing won't be too much.

  • Mrs. D

    How many "local" residents did SOME serve when it located on O St. in 1978, Truxton? I live in 5D, I see the complaints going out. Bottom line: those people were there before you, and there's little evidence as far as I can see that the criminals are SOME clients. They may PREY on SOME clients, but that's a whole different ball game. The protests against SOME's very existence in the neighborhood it has existed in for far longer than most local residents is the epitome of NIMBYism.

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  • Tom M.

    Can negative externalities ONLY occur with "saturation" or can they occur in the first instance if a project is poorly designed, implemented, or managed? Is there a difference between "oversaturation" as you are using the term and "saturation" as commonly defined? Do you have an editor?

  • EH

    Lydia, I do appreciate your attempt to define what you mean by NIMBYism, although I find your rhetoric behind it, and your justification to be based upon an idealized point of view. And that's fine.

    The problem is, once you begin owning property, you become open to other points of view. You have other priorities. Other concerns. Sometimes, social idealism takes a back seat to what is best for you, your family, or your neighborhood - not what is best for a developer, social service agency or the broader "humanity."

    I am not ashamed to say that I don't want a homeless shelter, methadone clinic or low income housing in my back yard. It would negatively impact my property values and I believe it would not have a positive net effect on my neighborhood. I am sure some of you will say that makes me a bad person. I don't think so, rather I think it shows I'm honest.

    You have already said you are a renter in CH, and if you don't like something - you are free to leave without severe economic consequences. For many of us, our homes represent our largest single investment. I don't have the luxury of selling my "expensively renovated" (or otherwise) rowhouse at a loss because something is constructed that is considered by the market as less desirable. Just as you have the right to an idealists point-of-view, I have the right to a different one, because I have skin in this game.

    Does this make me a NIMBY? By your definition, I guess so. But I'll embrace it, because I refuse to let someone make the decision what is best for my community without hearing my point of view, and I will utilize every tool at my disposal to protect my investment, my family, my home, and my neighborhood.

    For the record, I am not against homeless shelters, methadone clinics or low-income housing. However I do believe that their placement should be carefully considered with the input from the entire community. After all, we end up paying for it - whether it is through direct subsidies from our taxes, or through tax-free real-estate, or other public resources. And I believe that debate should be free and open to recognizing multiple points of view.

  • Lydia DePillis


    I really appreciate your comment, because that's what I was trying to get across: If you don't want something in your back yard because you think it would negatively impact your quality of life, you shouldn't object to being called a NIMBY. I told the Carlos Rosario story to demonstrate recognition of the fact that owners have a different set of incentives and restrictions than renters. It's still important, though, for owners to determine whether a given new thing will necessarily have a negative effect. Peter Tatian, of the Urban Institute, suggests that social services needn't: http://blog.metrotrends.org/2011/08/nimby-wimby/

  • http://none tommie123

    So, Lydia remember alice in wonder land? "Words mean what i want them to mean"? Or should words have a common agreed upon meaning? Saturation = oversaturation. NIMBY means???

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