You Won’t be My Neighbor: Opposition to High Density Development

By Jessica Trounstine (University of California, Merced)

The 1926 Supreme Court decision Euclid v. Ambler upheld the right of cities to use their police powers to regulate how and where development would occur within their borders. In his opinion, Justice Sutherland famously described the apartment house as, “often a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of the district.” Today, many communities throughout the United States appear to agree with Justice Sutherland’s assessment. Virtually every city in the United States bans multifamily homes in at least some neighborhoods, and in many cities most residential land is restricted to single family homes (Badger and Bui 2019). This is the case even though many metropolitan areas are facing skyrocketing housing costs and increased environmental degradation that could be alleviated by denser housing supply. Some scholars have argued that an unrepresentative set of vocal development opponents are the culprits behind this collective action failure. Yet, recent work suggests that opposition to density may be widespread. In this research note, I provide evidence that preferences for single-family development are ubiquitous. I provide evidence that communities seek to block apartment buildings as a way to prevent a host of perceived negative outcomes from befalling their community.  

One of the most significant policy making arenas for local governments is land use regulation. In regulating the uses of land, cities can dictate what (if anything) gets built, where it gets built, what the buildings look like, and the quality of the buildings. Starting in the 1970s municipalities began to use land use regulations more forcefully to limit and exclude development (Elmendorf 2019; Been 2018; Fischel 2001). Existing research reveals that higher socio-economic status residents, who are the most vocal and active participants in local politics, generally oppose higher density development. However, while advantaged residents may dislike development more intensely, it is not clear that making the process more representative would increase development of multifamily housing.

I use new experimental survey data to analyze how development preferences vary across subgroups and whether high density development serves as a proxy for other features of development (such as the racial or poverty composition of the residents). The experiments reveal that the preference for single family development is widespread.

To determine whether housing type is associated with selection/rejection of developments, I asked respondents to select between Development A and Development B, where developments varied across six characteristics: type, size, racial composition, share reserved for low-income residents, monthly cost, and parking. Attributes for development characteristics were randomly populated. Respondents demonstrate a strong preference for single-family developments. Predicted probabilities reveal that a single-family development had about a 59% chance of being selected, compared to a 45% chance for apartments. The preference for single-family homes (and dis-preference for apartments) holds even when the racial and poverty makeup of the development is made explicit. Respondents also revealed a strong dis-preference for expensive housing and for developments that lacked parking. Developments with the highest monthly costs only had a 24% chance of selection, while developments with the median monthly cost were selected about 51% of the time. Developments lacking parking were selected about 44% of the time, compared to 56% for developments with parking.

I also analyzed the preferences for single-family housing by respondents’ race, partisanship, ideology, educational attainment, income, political participation, age, neighborhood housing density, suburban location, family size, and homeownership status. The predicted probabilities of selecting apartment developments and single-family developments are shown in the figure below. Because respondents were shown 2 developments at a time, probabilities above 0.5 indicate that the development was selected. Probabilities below 0.5 indicate that the development was not selected.

The figure reveals that all subgroups prefer single-family housing to apartments!

Finally, I assess respondents’ perceived effect of development attributes on neighborhood outcomes to clarify the underlying reasons for support/opposition. Is it the maintenance of property values? An effort to limit congestion? A means to prevent redistribution? An attempt to minimize negative peer-effects? Or perhaps, some combination of these motives? Respondents were presented with a single development (with randomly populated attributes) and then asked to agree or disagree with six statements intended to gauge different possible mechanisms. 

I find that relative to single family development, apartments are viewed as likely to increase crime, decrease school quality, increase traffic, decrease property values, and decrease desirability.[i] Perhaps equally important, there is no single neighborhood effect that stands apart from the others.  It appears that apartments are disliked for a variety of reasons, even after accounting for their racial makeup, low-income set-asides, and number of units. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that respondents reacted negatively to developments with apartments, and then simply rated these developments lower for all six statements.


[i] Developments that are 50% people of color, those that have 25% of units reserved for low-income residents and those with 150 units are also viewed as generating negative neighborhood effects.  However, the results in the previous section indicate that these attributes are not the primary determinants of support for a development. 

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Author Biography

Jessica Trounstine is the Foundation Board of Trustees Presidential Chair of Political Science at the University of California, Merced. She is the author of two award winning books, Political Monopolies in American Cites: The Rise and Fall of Bosses and Reformers (University of Chicago Press, 2008) and Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities (Cambridge University Press, 2018), and dozens of peer-reviewed articles on the topics of representation, inequality, and local politics.

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