Jacob Anbinder: Beyond NIMBY — Antigrowth Activism, Political Ideology, and the Origins of the Housing Crisis

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aerial view of neighborhood with houses, streets, trees, and cars

image / Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash


The skyrocketing cost of living in cities from New York to San Francisco (and even, more recently, Ithaca) is an issue of enormous consequence in American life today. But how did the modern urban housing shortage come to be? Scholars have long characterized opponents of new housing as "NIMBYs" — prejudiced and economically self-interested voters whose politics derive from a fundamental stake in the value of their property.

This lecture proposes that the idea of the NIMBY has had its day. Examining the long sweep of anti-housing activism through the lens of late 20th-century American politics, it instead traces the roots of the issue to the national party realignment of the late 20th century and, specifically, the ideological transformations that took place among liberals around the issue of urban growth. Showing how debates about urban growth were central to the process by which the fragile social order of the 20th century gave way to the fractious politics of the 21st, "Beyond NIMBY" offers a new understanding of the thing that we call "liberalism," the influence of local politics in its creation, and its role in making the modern housing shortage.


Jacob Anbinder is a historian of the modern United States with a particular focus on the politics of cities and suburbs in the 20th century. His research interests include the political economy of major infrastructure projects, movements for and against change to the built environment, and the ways in which sprawl and spatial segregation create social inequities. His current book project, Cities of Amber: Antigrowth Politics and the Making of Modern Liberalism, is the first history of the modern urban cost-of-living crisis, the origins of the liberal "NIMBY," and their role in making the modern Democratic Party. Anbinder's writing has been published in The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, Business History Review, The Week, Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, and other outlets. He received a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University in 2023 and is now a Klarman Fellow at Cornell.


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