“Despite the growing consensus that New York must build its way out of the housing crisis, NIMBY voices continue to prevail over our state’s most powerful leaders from Governor Hochul and Speaker Heastie to Mayor Adams. But why is the deep strain of NIMBYism so strong, and how can we begin to assuage their fears?”
When Albany bought its legislative session to a close last month, lawmakers departed without passing a single meaningful measure to curb New York’s dire housing crisis. It marked a disappointing end to a year that began with the promise that New York would finally enact sweeping measures to fight the housing crisis.
Tuesday, in sharp contrast to the inaction of the Legislature, Gov. Kathy Hochul took matters into her own hands by announcing executive action to jolt the housing market. Still, these modest measures are far from enough to meet this moment and are indicative of a concerning trend of lawmakers buckling under NIMBY pressure.
Despite the growing consensus that New York must build its way out of the housing crisis, NIMBY voices continue to prevail over our state’s most powerful leaders from Governor Hochul and Speaker Heastie to Mayor Adams. But why is the deep strain of NIMBYism so strong, and how can we begin to assuage their fears?
After 20 years of experience in the real estate industry, I’d be hard-pressed to point to a new development that did not ignite controversy. The visceral reactions that proposed construction elicits seem rooted in something much more serious—much more primal. Perhaps we need to start to turn to sources outside of our industry for guidance.
Evolutionary biology has taught us a lot about the roots of our fears and desires. We get nervous giving a speech because the prospect of so many eyes on us was a sign of trouble if our Stone Age ancestors stumbled into the wrong neck of the woods. We see more colors because it allowed us to quickly spot snakes. We are attracted to those with whom our genes are more likely to reproduce healthy offspring. And now an emerging field suggests that NIMBYism may also have its roots in survival instincts.
While many factors including racism and parochial concerns have historically influenced such opposition, the emerging field of Evolved Navigation Theory (ENT) suggests another more primal fear may also be playing a role. Put simply, ENT research reveals that from an evolutionary perspective, risk and height have always been intertwined. When hunter-gatherer culture predominated, falling could result in serious injury and the inability to obtain food resulting in death.
As such, evolution may have ingrained in us a fear of falling that continues to influence our brains through “vertical illusions” that overestimate heights so our bodies take them seriously. Scientists at the University of Idaho have begun to call this phenomenon the “descent illusion.” Studies have shown that we share this misperception with other animals and it may be a result of natural selection. Similarly, researchers at the University of Virginia have comprehensively analyzed existing ENT research and found that fear influences our perceptions of height, noting, “People with a fear of heights report bridges and buildings to be longer and higher.”
These studies seem to arrive at the same conclusion: height can be triggering. And to the constellation of factors making NIMBYs out of Americans, we might credibly add evolutionary biology and the impact of thousands of years of human cognitive development.
This innate aversion to height is having real-world consequences on the spaces we occupy and plan to build. ENT should be surfaced as we evaluate the demise of proposals, from the governor’s Housing Compact to One45, which saw the promise of 900 units turn into a pollution-emitting truck depot.
We should raise awareness of our evolutionary aversion to height to help us overcome some of today’s largest policy hurdles limiting height and density. Few places are as constrained for land as New York and yet single-family zoning is pervasive outside of the five boroughs, putting even more pressure on New York City to house the thousands of people who move to our state annually.
The Housing Compact called for a mere 25 homes per acre—roughly the equivalent of up to three-story apartment buildings or clusters of single-family homes per lot of land. Such a measure would’ve preserved calm, suburban life while helping us meet 21st century population needs. An extra two or three stories makes a world of difference.
Similarly, antiquated policies continue to limit how densely and how tall we can build in New York City. Take the floor area ratio (FAR) cap, which has not been updated since 1961. This measure limits the size of residential developments in many areas of New York City to just 12 times the size of the lot they occupy. It’s an arbitrary measure that has no scientific basis and yet significantly dampens the height and density we need to make a dent in the housing crisis.
Lifting the FAR cap offers us a path to more affordable housing. The math is simple: the taller, more densely we can build, the more affordable units we’re able to create.
City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams recently told the New York Times, “I reject that this will be a Council that says no to housing, given the scale of the crisis we face” adding that while community input is still valued, “irrational opposition that rejects desperately needed housing” is not.
Speaker Adams is right—sometimes fears of new development are downright irrational. It’s often difficult to explain the logic of NIMBYism other than the sheer self-interested and exclusionary drive to protect housing privilege.
But data indicates that we all walk around perceiving the world differently (experiments revealed an overestimation of height ranging from 30 to 60 percent in most people)—acknowledging this is a first step in moving housing policy discussions into the field of science and out of the realm of emotion. Recognizing that we all likely carry outmoded fears around height, grounded in natural selection, should help to depersonalize the dialogue and may lead to breakthroughs in conversations around housing that have stymied solutions to the crisis our country faces.
If we look back through history we see clearly that today’s contested building often becomes tomorrow’s cherished landmark. Even the Eiffel Tower nearly tore Paris apart, with protesters decrying the now iconic structure as a “disgrace to architecture” that would be the city’s “ruination.”
The historic trend of rejection followed by acceptance is an age-old pattern. The quintessential New Yorker, Fran Lebowitz, talks of a man she knew who signed two petitions years apart. The first emphatically opposed the construction of the 307-foot Lever House in Manhattan. The second righteously demanded its preservation.
We ought to equip communities and policymakers with tools like augmented reality that compare building heights and their impact, helping strengthen understanding around urban design and planning that previously common sense failed to yield.
Policymakers must work with constituents to show the facts, that our identification as YIMBY or NIMBY may not be exclusively the realm of solidifying housing privilege, sentimental attachment to historic views, or the sinister drivers of isolationism and racism. It could simply be that we are scared of falling but don’t even know it.
Tucker Reed is the co-founder and CEO of Totem, a real estate development firm, with more than two decades of experience navigating the intersection of government and private-sector development, including as the former president of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. He is also a professor of real estate development at NYU’s Schack Institute of Real Estate.