Can NIMBYs Fight for Justice? – Next City

Many New Orleanians are on guard against "Disneyfication"  — relegating the city to an amusement park for rich tourists that caricatures what once made it distinctive.

Photo by Brad Coy via Flickr

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Can NIMBYs Fight for Justice?

In a post-Katrina New Orleans, neighborhood associations increased their political power to promote or suppress development. But to whose benefit?

Story by Stephen Danley

Published on Jan 21, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from “A Neighborhood Politics of Last Resort: Post Katrina New Orleans and a Right to the City,” by Stephen Danley, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. In it, the author analyzes the role that neighborhood associations played in the years of rebuilding following Hurricane Katrina. Danley will be speaking about the book at Rutgers University - Camden on Friday, February 1 and at Philadelphia’s Penn Bookstore on Friday, February 15.

One critique of neighborhood associations concerns legitimacy — the fundamental question of whether associations truly represent their neighborhoods. But there is a deeper critique that deals not with what associations are, but with what they do. This critique moves beyond their intentions and priorities, beyond their partnerships and ideals, to ask the question: Can neighborhood associations be just in their activism?

This issue of justice stems from the reputation that neighborhood associations have of screaming “Not in my backyard” when faced with everything from commercial development to affordable housing. Neighborhood associations have gained the potential not only to limit economic development but also to discriminate against vulnerable populations and people of color. NIMBYism is the ugly side of the neighborhood movement’s embrace of elements of the right to the city. Does empowering local geographic units mean giving neighborhoods with more resources and fewer people of color the right to discriminate against those with fewer resources and darker skin hues?

Preserving Neighborhood Integrity

A decade before Katrina, the Faubourg Lafayette neighborhood grappled with a NIMBYist controversy. Faubourg Lafayette was a food desert without a grocery store, located in Central City, a historically African-American neighborhood in a high-crime area of New Orleans. The Historic Faubourg Lafayette Association opposed the proposed development of a grocery store in 1998 on a couple of grounds. First, the sprawling suburban model of development featured a large store and expansive parking lots, inappropriate for an urban setting. And second, the development designs called for the demolition of eight historical homes. The similarities to Northwest Carrollton’s opposition, in 2006, to the construction of a Walgreens pharmacy on a vacant lot is indicative of the wider dynamics between development and neighborhood associations. In both of these neighborhoods, associations opposed a proposed development because of its physical impact on their neighborhood. In Northwest Carrollton, the association worried that the design of the development would negatively affect existing houses. In Faubourg Lafayette, the conflict was over existing historical homes that were to be demolished for the grocery store. In both locations, the expansive parking lots were seen as a suburban model of development unfit for an urban neighborhood.

In Faubourg Lafayette, the development never got off the ground, in part because of the association’s aggressive campaign. The result puts the limitations of the emphasis on neighborhood protection under the spotlight. In Faubourg Lafayette, the association helped to protect historical homes, but the central lot remained vacant. It was only years later that the empty lot became apartments, developed by a faith-based nonprofit focused on affordable housing. The neighborhood remained without a grocery store. In this case, the neighborhood preference for protection came into direct conflict with other priorities, such as economic development and even food justice.

How Short-term Rentals Box Out Affordable Housing

The conflict between values plays out not only in big-ticket development but in smaller development decisions. In New Orleans, the preference to protect neighborhood infrastructure and residential quality of life often conflicts with economic development. Other times, it conflicts with the city’s rich culture of entertainment. Those conflicts are particularly stark in neighborhoods such as the French Quarter, where Disneyfication and the constant pressures of tourism intersect with cultural gems such as live performance venues. Short-term rentals were a key issue for French Quarter Citizens Inc. and the Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents, and Associates (VCPORA). The battle over short-term rentals is, in part, one of residential quality of life. Louise, the executive director of VCPORA, struggles with properties purchased exclusively to put on Airbnb. These properties, often situated in the middle of a residential neighborhood, can have extremely disruptive inhabitants. Rather than having a long-term neighbor, residents are beset with a never-ending onslaught of bachelor parties, late-night parties, and drunken visitors that do not think twice before urinating in bushes outside. Owners of such properties have little incentive to crack down on guests, as it might lead to poor user reviews, meaning neighborhood residents are left to convince guests to be less disruptive.

Property owners protest outside of a City Council hearing to debate stronger restrictions on the short-term rental market. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Short-term rentals bring to light broader justice issues for members of neighborhood associations. Short-term rentals compete with local hotels and facilities that are more highly regulated. Some local neighborhood activists, such as the president of French Quarter Citizens Inc., own local facilities that suffer negative economic consequences from an under-regulated short-term rental market that does not meet the same health and safety requirements as hotels. For neighborhoods, perhaps the greatest impact of the proliferation of properties bought specifically as vessels for full-time, short-term rentals is that it takes properties off the long-term rental market. After Hurricane Katrina, rents shot up for New Orleans residents. Now, additional units are coming off the market and many are converted to short-term rentals. Once again rents are rising.

Affordable housing is a critical justice issue. Here, the neighborhood protection ideal intersects with the concept of Disneyfication. The core of Disneyfication is that it prioritizes tourism, and the economic development tied to it, at the expense of a living, vibrant neighborhood. The right to the city is supposed to be a locally based movement to counterbalance the economic pressures that tourism puts on a community. In many ways, this is how the short-term rental controversy in New Orleans is playing out. The economic influence of tourism is leading to an influx of investors buying homes for the explicit purpose of renting them out to tourists. Local neighborhood associations, and their fight to regulate short-term rentals, show that neighborhood associations can play a role as protector of resident interests.

But the short-term rental debate also shows how that conflict, between economic interests and resident interests, can overlap with other justice issues in unpredictable ways. In this case, the struggle against short-term rentals is a struggle for justice in rent prices and affordable housing. But neighborhood associations can just as easily cut the other way in that debate; the Coliseum Square Neighborhood Association explicitly fought scatter-site affordable housing in its neighborhood. Renters are not always welcomed by associations. Sometimes they are even seen as something from which neighborhoods need protection. This is critical, because it provides a second layer to the monolithic struggle of development — neighborhood associations may be a counterpoint against development while simultaneously using their powers to discriminate against potential residents. The conflict between resident rights and economic development is not just one of neoliberalism, it spills into other realms in unpredictable ways. Sometimes the priorities of associations further the cause of affordable housing, and sometimes NIMBYism is the bane of affordable housing.

The short-term rental struggle in New Orleans shows how that struggle over residential quality of life can come into conflict with a city’s rich cultural heritage. The short-term rental debate is not solely about properties bought for the express purpose of short-term rentals. Sites such as Airbnb have also made the longtime practice of renting out rooms in one’s own home during Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest infinitely easier. In New Orleans, many of my friends chose to leave the city during high tourist season. For those on a tight budget, renting out their home was a way to recoup funds. For renters, the two weekends of Jazz Fest could sometimes fund two or three months’ rent. This has long been part of the cultural fabric of living in New Orleans, a way for everyday residents to capitalize on the demand for tourism. For those who have rented out their homes for decades and for whom it is an important part of their cash flow, the complaints against Airbnb ring hollow because they also see it as taking away a cultural practice that they have taken advantage of for years.

And Airbnb advocates have conflated these issues, using sympathy for the cultural practice to garner support for year-round rentals. This distinction was eventually enshrined into law; short-term rentals were banned in the French Quarter but required licensing elsewhere in the city for a maximum number of nights rented each year. This was an attempt to support family-style renting while limiting the purchase of properties solely to be listed on Airbnb.

Bring the Noise (Restrictions)

The cultural conflict with neighborhood quality of life played out in other ways as well. Ulysses, the president of French Quarter Citizens Inc., was successful in advocating noise legislation to protect residents. These noise restrictions applied not only to bars blasting canned music out of windows, but also to live music – an integral and beloved aspect of the city’s cultural heritage. That meant that technically the French Quarter’s tradition of buskers was in peril, something that riled up both musicians and long-standing supporters of the New Orleans musical culture.

That conflict came to a head over the To Be Continued (TBC) Brass Band. The New Orleans brass band tradition, featuring a trumpet, trombone, saxophone, tuba, snare drum, and bass drum, is a unique feature of the musical heritage of New Orleans. These bands developed a brand of hip-hop-influenced jazz while walking in parades. The TBC Brass Band gathered at the corner of Canal Street and Bourbon Street each night to play for hours. For many tourists, it was their first introduction to New Orleans culture, and in the opinion of many residents, it was a much-needed infusion of culture to a Bourbon Street scene that reveled in clichéd debauchery.

Members of the TBC Brass Band perform at 2nd and Dryades, in Central City. (Photo by Derek Bridges via Flickr)

For some French Quarter residents, however, it was a disaster. The brass band could be heard throughout the French Quarter for hours, often past midnight, keeping children and the elderly awake. It clearly violated noise restrictions, but when the police tried to clear the band, New Orleans residents came to its defense. The lines became stark, with neighborhood associations arguing that maintaining quality of life for residents was critical to the future of the Quarter and cultural watchdogs claiming that people who moved into the Quarter knew about live-music traditions and had no right to limit the bands. Neighborhood associations thus found themselves on the opposite side of a culture battle. So many times, they had used character of place to support the neighborhood. Now they were hearing the same arguments in support of the band.

The same battle was playing out throughout the city. Bars such as Mimi’s, in Faubourg Marigny, and Bacchanals, in Bywater, occasionally were forced to stop the live music they had been playing for years because they had never sought the correct licensing for live music, and neighborhood activists had found out.

Thus, the right to the city manifests itself in unexpected ways. The neighborhood protection ethic comes into direct conflict with the city’s broader embrace of its cultural heritage, a conflict made doubly intense by the racial implications of a Bourbon Street tourism scene that culturally appropriates jazz and black culture. Development in cities such as Barcelona merges with standard waterfront development in other metropolitan cities. But neighborhood politics can also be an oppositional force in conflict with a city’s cultural ideals. NIMBYism can just as easily oppose live local music as it can oppose suburban sprawl.

Neighborhood Protection… From Whom?

NIMBYism is, in many ways, a manifestation of the way the New Orleans neighborhood movement embraces elements of the right to the city. The geographic boundedness of neighborhood associations and the neighborhood protection ideal embraced by them can both empower residents to oppose Disneyfication and enable neighborhoods to undercut cultural heritage. It is not a catch-all solution to urban politics, but another perspective in a wide negotiation of priorities. Neighborhood protection can be a set piece in a struggle against development, but it can just as easily be a set piece in a struggle against a beloved local music venue. And, at its most complicated, the neighborhood protection ideal can be a set piece designed to exclude people from a community.

Just as the ideal of neighborhood protection can come into conflict with economic development and a city’s cultural heritage, neighborhood protection can come into conflict with specific groups of people. Protecting the neighborhood could mean limiting the extent to which it is overrun with student housing from surrounding universities; it could mean zoning that makes the neighborhood more expensive for both homebuyers and renters, and it could mean opposing affordable housing. These types of NIMBYism focused specifically on cohorts of people, come with a second risk, that the neighborhood protection ideal may be a color-blind way of speaking that hides racial discrimination or discrimination against other vulnerable groups. The history of neighborhood protection and quality of life has long served as an intermediary for racial discrimination, allowing neighborhood residents to claim that the issue is not really race, it is the good of the neighborhood, all while actively discriminating.

Many of these issues play out in neighborhoods in New Orleans. Are such neighborhood protection ideals actually a Trojan horse for racial discrimination? Are the ideals themselves racially problematic? How legitimate are those ideals in neighborhoods? But these may be the wrong questions. Regardless of the intent of such neighborhood ideals, they have racial impacts. This is the heart of both structural and systemic racism. Racism need not manifest as individual discrimination or animosity; it may manifest as a preference for neighborhood continuity or skepticism of renters. There is a long history of housing and the community values that have contributed, both explicitly and implicitly, to segregation.

I argue that neighborhood activists find themselves working across this spectrum. Some explicitly use neighborhood protectionism to hide racial preferences. Others are unaware of implicit biases that are hidden by their neighborhood defense. And still others wrestle with the racial implications of their choices, deciding either to ignore the neighborhood ideal so as to avoid negative racial outcomes or to embrace neighborhood protection despite racial consequences. In other words, just as neighborhood protection comes into conflict with economic development and cultural heritage, it comes into conflict with racial justice, and neighborhood activists make decisions across the spectrum.

As such, neighborhood protection becomes a test of both intentions and the ways that discrimination is both structural and systemic. Just as a democratic analysis of associations shows them to engage in a politics of last resort, many neighborhood activists see their own protectionism as a last line of defense against systems that impact them unfairly. We know from research on color-blindness and from Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” that neutral intentions can still be damaging and that whiteness can be an asset in these communities, as politicians seeking to redevelop neighborhoods see white families as a source of capital. The history of housing makes such matters even more complex; neighborhood protectionism is mediated by a history of racial discrimination even when it is used to fight against such discrimination.

If neighborhood movements are to pursue justice, this tendency to advocate NIMBY strategies is a critical shortcoming of their interpretation of the right to the city. What we see in New Orleans is that strategies based on geographic representation are a mixed bag when it comes to race issues. Protecting residents will sometimes protect people of color and/or low-income communities. But just as often, NIMBYism manifests itself against those same groups. If neighborhood associations are further empowered, if the right to the city manifests itself as a movement of geographically bounded associations in other cities and becomes a stronger force, that would bring significant risk for rental populations, low-income populations, and people of color. Neighborhood associations are not inherently on the side of racial justice. Just as other institutions (think City Hall, school districts, development authorities) need to be pushed to consider and incorporate race into their analyses, neighborhood associations require the same push.

NIMBYism is deeply embedded in the psyche of the neighborhood association. Opposition to development is a powerful tool to combat Disneyfication, to protect the rights of residents, and to ensure the long-term viability of the neighborhood. But when such opposition is aimed at affordable housing and renters, the tool is a part of wider systemic and structural racism. At its worst, it is blatantly discriminatory and xenophobic. The same neighborhood protection ideal can be used to promote justice or to undermine it. The neighborhood protection ideal, the largest manifestation of the right to the city in New Orleans, is a competing priority. Sometimes it complements economic or racial justice, but just as often it conflicts with justice.

Excerpted from “A Neighborhood Politics of Last Resort: Post-Katrina New Orleans and the Right to the City,” by Stephen Danley (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018).