In Seattle, the neighbors don’t want apartments for formerly homeless seniors nearby. In Los Angeles, they don’t want more high-rises. In San Jose, Calif., they don’t want tiny homes. In Phoenix, they don’t want design that’s not midcentury modern.
Homeowners in each of these places share a common conviction: that owning a parcel of land gives them a right to shape the world beyond its boundaries.
The roots of this idea are as old as nuisance laws that have tried to limit how one property owner can harm another. Over the decades, though, homeowners have expanded their claim on the world beyond their lot lines. This means they look out for schools and streets in ways that are vital to American communities. But increasingly it also means the senior affordable housing, the high-rises and the tiny homes — also arguably vital to the larger community — are never built.
“One of the reasons why we always justified the mortgage interest deduction was we wanted people to be rooted in their communities,” said Vicki Been, the faculty director of New York University’s Furman Center and a former commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development in New York City.
The idea was for people to be invested in the quality of nearby schools, the safety of neighborhood parks and the outcomes of local elections. In one sense, the triumph of this idea should be celebrated, she said. But the danger of it is becoming more apparent, too.
“Communities always need to be changing,” she said, “and we can’t have a process that gives every individual sort of a veto over change.”