In a survey of 1,300 people in Los Angeles County, they found powerful evidence that negative feelings about developers drive negative feelings about development, possibly even more than the drive to avoid perceived harms.
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Locals often object to new buildings or increased density in their neighborhoods, whether we’re talking about subsidized homes, apartment buildings, or backyard cottages—and whether or not they may believe in principle that their community needs more homes. Opposition to new homes can hobble community goals for affordability and sustainability. But what if people dislike development because they don’t like to see developers profit? And what if the rules that result—ones that punish developers—in reality encourage only the most deep-pocketed, aggressive developers, preclude all but the most expensive kinds of homes, and wind up punishing the community instead?

Maybe we’ve been interpreting opposition wrong? We usually attribute motivations for objections to risk aversion, whether straightforward—like concerns about rising rent, increased traffic congestion, loss of neighborhood “character,” and strains on infrastructure—or complicated, unfounded, or contemptible, like when resentments of newcomers or race and class bias play into people’s calculus.

But in a study of neighborhood opposition to new building, UCLA researchers Paavo Monkeonen and Michael Manville find that perceived harm is just part of story. A more powerful motivator for opposing new housing may be the drive to punish someone else. Namely, developers.

In a survey of 1,300 people in Los Angeles County, they found powerful evidence that negative feelings about developers drives negative feelings about development, possibly even more than the drive to avoid perceived harms. Specifically, Monkeonen and Manville report that “opposition to new development increases by 20 percentage points when respondents see the argument that a developer is likely to earn a large profit from the building.” The research is experimental and deserves more study, but this magnitude, they report, is double the increase in opposition associated with other more commonly stated concerns like traffic.

All of the usual housing attitudes hold true in this study: People are more likely to oppose the same building when it is in their neighborhood, as opposed to elsewhere. Messages about congestion, or infrastructure, or character do help build opposition to development. But the most powerful opposition frame is about the developer. “When we told survey respondents that a developer may have received special permission to build, and that he would make a large profit, they became far more hostile to new housing—more than with any other frame.”

What’s surprising here is not that people dislike developers, but the distinct departure from risk aversion as a driver. Instead of acting in their own interest, people appear motivated to enforce community norms of fairness.To punish developers feels like one way to disrupt a pattern of winners and losers. This helps explain the popularity of regulations that impose costs on developers—such as linkage fees, exactions or inclusionary zoning ordinances. “If residents derive satisfaction from seeing developers punished,” they write, “the persistence of these programs in the face of ambiguous evidence about their efficacy becomes less mysterious.”

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  • But it could backfire. Monkeonen and Manville remind us that stopping developers—and their homebuilding—in thriving cities can punish others instead. Housing prices would remain high, which exacerbates segregation by income and race, pushes people to longer commutes, and shifts gentrification pressure from wealthier to less-affluent neighborhoods. Our progress toward affordability in cities where housing supply is short may require a shift in thinking about what’s truly fair and for whom. Could we shift away from developers to a focus on people who can or cannot afford certain neighborhoods? Could that interpretation of fairness trump indignance about developer profit?  

    To be fair, there are reasons that developers are cast as villains in everything from city council meetings to countless movies. (There’s even a database of “evil movie developers.”) Developers are the most visible—embodied—agents of change to places people care about. We remember them not for benign stuff, like developing the neighborhood or building we’re in right now, but for the kinds of devastating changes they’re associated with—from undercutting poor communities to clearcutting for golf courses.

    Plus, as the researchers point out, people may consider development an inherently “repugnant market.” When so many struggle to afford a home, in other words, the idea of profiting from housing might seem morally inappropriate. Even if the overall effect is to make more homes available and keep a city affordable, if the transaction itself seems ethically or morally wrong, the social benefits can be lost or ignored. It’s even worse if people believe developers are courting favor and bending the rules, Monkeonen and Manville say. And these narratives about developers likely play into more widespread cynicism about business and the wealthy.

    In that context, suggesting we try to recast developers as partners rather than adversaries is farfetched. But Monkeonen and Manville warn that anti-developer attitudes might lead to a vicious cycle of regulation and resentment: Preventing developers from what feels like unsavory gains prompts regulatory clamp downs that discourage all but the deepest-pocketed and most aggressive developers from building. So by punishing developers, we not only risk thwarting affordability—and punishing people who need homes—but also discourage all but the the least likable developers and most expensive projects (think: luxury). This reinforces stereotypes about developers and locks in a cycle of repugnance, objection, and stalled progress. As Monkeonen and Manville put it, “Blocking the product to punish the producer has a visible short-term consequence that might look progressive (assuming the developer is in fact rich) but a less-visible long-term consequence that lands on vulnerable people elsewhere.”

    Again, trying to change how people feel about developers will be a steep climb. But to break out of the cycle of regulation and resentment and break down opposition, we’d be wise to recalibrate our collective definition of fairness. The same good-hearted people who want to sock it to developers might be convinced that developers making a profit is a worthy trade off for communities where homes of all shapes and sizes are available and attainable to neighbors of all income levels. Could they see developers as necessary and important tools for fair and moral community goals, even if they have to hold their nose?