Nimby Name Calling: A Developer Distraction

Nimby Name Calling: A Developer Distraction
by Andrew Chuter

As the housing affordability crisis goes from bad to worse, fingers of blame are being pointed in all the wrong directions.

The latest target are “nimbys” – so called “not in my back yard” resident activists accused of blocking new housing being built in their neighbourhoods.

Ignored by economist Chris Richardson, NSW Premier Chris Minns, Real Estate Institute New South Wales and former Reserve Bank economist Tony Richards, is the $20 billion in annual investor tax concessions which increasingly turn housing into a profitable financial instrument, rather than recognise it as a basic human need. Throw in with that declining levels of public housing through privatisation, non-existent rent controls and growing levels of vacant properties and you have far more obvious reasons for spiralling housing costs.

Let’s examine for a moment what “nimbys” have and haven’t been able to achieve in recent decades up against the massive power of the developer lobby.

At the peak of their power during the Green Bans movement in the 1970’s, resident action groups in cooperation with the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) managed to save large areas of low-cost housing or get new public housing built in areas such as Woolloomooloo, the Rocks (notably the Sirius building), Eastlakes and others.

They also managed to preserve bushland in places such as Kellys Bush and Centennial park from a huge stadium complex.

Green Bans were only ever implemented when they had the clear and direct support of the local community.

It was through alignment with the power of socially conscious unions that resident action groups managed to achieve significant gains. They came under immense pressure from the developer lobby and the BLF was eventually deregistered by the Hawke Labor government.

Since then our resident power has sadly declined.

Despite a large-scale campaign of opposition by resident groups and some major party support, the Sirius building was sold and converted to luxury private apartments. The wasteful demolition and rebuild of Sydney Football Stadium also went ahead at a cost of $800 million.

Arguably the biggest resident-led campaign of the last decade in Sydney was that waged against the $20 billion private WestConnex toll road which destroyed many homes and runs completely counter to any semblance of sustainable urban development.

Interesting to note is a City of Sydney report that proposed to use the site of the now St Peters WestConnex interchange for housing. That could have housed 11,000 people in a convenient location close to transport and jobs. Local campaigners supported the concept but instead the government barrelled ahead, evicting residents from their homes under forced acquisition.

It seems that land for homes is a much lower priority than land for cars and private toll road builders.

Liberal Premier Mike Baird sought to further weaken resident power through unpopular forced council amalgamations and legislation such as State Significant Development which overrides the usual controls.

The lesson here is that when they are strong, resident action groups are able to retain and expand public and affordable housing, but when weakened through hostile forces and the politicians in their pockets, they are unable to stop even the worst losses.

As someone who has spent countless hours involved in resident action groups for over a decade, my experience is that their general position is not to oppose development, but to seek to balance private profit-seeking development with corresponding public investments in much-needed facilities: things such as schools, hospitals, housing, transport and parks.

Overlaying the housing problem and wider urban development issues is a much more regressive force – the dark shadow of market capitalism.

Within a system dominated by the profit motive, nice places to live become expensive places to live. This is the obvious explanation for gentrification. When, on occasion, certain places retain good public facilities and access to jobs, they become highly sought after and prices rise. Eventually only the wealthy can afford to live in such areas.

The solution to this is not to make less nice places but to make more of them and provide public housing at affordable rents so people of all backgrounds can live in vibrant, diverse neighbourhoods with great amenity.

A similar dynamic is at play with the concept of Transit Oriented Development. This is nothing new and has considerable merit. The idea is to build more housing close to existing public transport. But this framing casts public transport as something that is essentially rare and expensive. The flipside is to build more public transport close to existing housing.

The former framing lets governments off the hook for their responsibility to build public transport and gives a free gift to private developers who land-bank close to train stations, wait for upzoning and then build defect-riddled apartment towers. The idea that the government can’t afford to build better public transport unless density is greatly increased is an excuse often used but with little evidence to support it.

The decisions that are playing out around the Metro are a superb illustration of the problem. Despite four senior Sydney Rail executives warning against incompatible Metro lines, the projects proceed with a station and public land for Crown Casino at Barangaroo.

When deciding the City and South West Metro station location, instead of students from less wealthy areas getting improved access to Sydney University with a new station there, the location chosen was Waterloo, conveniently where Crown Group owns a swathe of land and the government is looking to demolish and 70% privatise Sydney’s largest public housing estate.

Using the phrase “nimby” as a slur for resident-led grassroots activism is offensive to all those genuinely trying to improve their local areas. Such a term and the falsely counterposed “yimby” (yes in my backyard) are used as a mental shorthand that confuses rather than enlightens. Without being clear on what is being said yes or no to, the terms become meaningless. Wouldn’t “yimbys” have to support casinos, coal mines, motorway exhaust stacks, toxic incinerators and cruise ship terminals?

Yes to one thing sometimes means no to another thing. Does a yimby say yes to a multi-storey carpark or houses? To a golf course or open green space? To on-street parking or a wider footpath? To a community garden or affordable housing? Or can we avoid narrow binaries by planning land use more carefully and for overall social benefit? Thoughtful discussion around these issues is far more fruitful than mere name-calling.

When we look at the evidence, the real reason that we have a housing affordability crisis is the ‘nimps’ aka ‘not into my profits’. These are the huge and powerful property developers and multiple property owning landlords and politicians who won’t allow a cent to be spent on public housing and quality public infrastructure, lest it eat into their profits and generous tax breaks.

[Andrew Chuter is the President of the Friends of Erskineville and active in Action for Public Housing. A version of this article originally appeared in Green Left. These are his personal views only.]

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