NIMBYism and Resistance to Higher-Density Housing

NIMBY, the acronym for “not in my back yard,” is used to characterize resident opposition to new development or changes in land uses that are considered undesirable or unwanted for their neighborhood. This opposition is generally based on assumptions about the development’s physical characteristics, personalities, or traits of those  attracted to the new development, or changes in property taxes or values. This resistance to change has been a significant contributor to housing shortages in some California communities, impeding, or stopping new or higher-density housing development. 

Given California’s persistent housing shortage, local jurisdictions are under pressure to establish a more hospitable regulatory environment for additional housing. Cities and counties must allow for higher-density development to meet the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA), which is a predetermined share of the housing need that HCD mandates.  Many cities and counties must update their housing elements, general plans, and zoning codes to accommodate their share of RHNA. An effective update to the housing element sometimes requires cities and counties to balance housing needs with other competing community interests. 

For many jurisdictions, there may be a strong resistance to increased residential densities. This resistance can create challenges for decision-makers and delay necessary project approvals required to meet State requirements. Effective planning at the local level must include strategic preparation for potential resistance to housing development and a solution-oriented approach to outreach and community education.

San Joaquin Valley Experience

The survey of city and county staff found that housing opposition is a notable concern for many local jurisdictions. Of 32 respondents, over 56 percent identified neighborhood opposition as likely to play a notable role in constraining housing production. In addition, approximately 22 percent of respondents identified ‘NIMBYism’ as one of the three most critical housing issues facing their jurisdictions. By employing a strategic approach to outreach that focuses on aligning values and desired outcomes, jurisdictions can minimize certain delays and constraints.

Relevant State Law

California recently enacted several new laws to increase housing production through ministerial approval processes that avoid public review and limit the NIMBYism effect:

Senate Bill 35 (SB 35) requires a streamlined, ministerial approval process for development projects on infill sites in jurisdictions that have not met their State-mandated RHNA targets. Projects that meet certain location, density, and inclusionary housing unit criteria qualify for expedited approval processes. 

Senate Bill 330 (SB 330) aims to increase development, speed up the review process, preserve existing affordable housing, and prevent zoning actions that reduce housing availability. This law is effective through January 1, 2025.

AB 2299 (2016), SB 1069 (2016), AB 494 (2017), SB 229 (2017), AB 68 (2019), AB 881 (2019), AB 587 (2019), SB 13 (2019), AB 670 (2019), AB 671 (2019), and AB 3182 (2020) guide accessory dwelling unit development (ADUs). The 2016 and 2017 laws changed ADU size allowances, required ADUs by-right in at least some areas, and limited ADU parking requirements. More recent laws reduce application review and approval times to 60 days, remove lot size and parking space requirements, and require local jurisdictions to permit junior ADUs. These laws aim to increase by-right housing production and eliminate successful neighborhood opposition.

Senate Bill 9 (SB 9) encourages more middle-income housing by allowing single-family residential parcels in Census-designated urban clusters or urbanized areas to be divided by-right into two parcels. The law also allows two homes by-right on each parcel, with or without a lot split occurring. 

Senate Bill 10 (SB 10) allows local governments to adopt a streamlined zoning process for new, multi-unit housing of up to 10 units per parcel located near transit or urban infill areas. The bill also simplifies the CEQA requirements for upzoning.


Institute For Local Government, Housing and Public Engagement Toolkit. 

California Department of Housing and Community Development, Public Participation. 

San Mateo County, Home for All, Community Engagement Program. 

Government Community Affairs, GCA Strategies, Overcoming NIMBY Opposition (February 2010). 

California Department of Housing and Community Development, Accessory Dwelling (ADUs) and Junior Accessory Dwelling Units (JADUs).

California Department of Housing and Community Development, Updated Streamlined Ministerial Approval Process, Government Code Section 65913.4 Guidelines (March 30, 2021).