In My Backyard ~OR~ Living In A NIMBY Nightmare Scenario

Luca Gattoni-Celli
5 min readJan 20, 2022

As the founder of YIMBYs of Northern Virginia, I expect to eventually be asked some version of, “Would you live by a giant apartment building?” People will reasonably wonder if I mean it when I say, “Yes in my backyard.” Spoiler alert: my answer to both questions is yes, and has been for about three years. Years before I discovered urbanism and delved into the dizzying array of benefits from deregulating land use to permit dense housing. Behold our backyard view:

When we first toured our home about three years ago, it was easily the nicest one we had looked at, but nowhere near the most expensive. The way our real estate agent brought it up, as the big negative of the property, she clearly thought the view out back could be a deal-breaker. I guess for some people it would be, but our reaction was essentially, “Huh, OK.” Another home we viewed overlooked a parking lot, which in my opinion was much worse.

Maybe we were influenced by how difficult reasonably appealing homes were to find. I now realize that was the result of limited housing supply. You could pay even more for a small, old house with comically tiny bedrooms.

I knew of the apartment complex, Southern Towers, because I had visited a friend when he lived there. He claimed it had its own ZIP code (which, though believable, does not appear to be correct). He can see his old apartment from our backyard.

The building behind us, apparently called Ashlawn, completely dominates our skyline. It looms behind our home (and of course listings photoshop it out). We are so close the whole thing is hard to fit in my field of view. It completely blocks the sunset. The complex’s population density is about five times greater than that of the surrounding census tracts:

And my main message to you is that living so close to so many people is fine.

I can honestly say my only annoyance with the complex is that Ashlawn’s HVAC facility is sometimes loud in the summer. I-395 is pretty loud too, and its pollution is a real concern that could actually harm our kids. The main consequence of residing near a large, diverse apartment complex, by contrast, is an exceptional Ethiopian restaurant nearby, hidden in the back of a strip mall. But day-to-day, the experience is a whole lot of nothing. No other noise except for the odd car alarm. No crime, crowding, or traffic.

Multifamilyexecutive.com, which threatens to become my new favorite website, reported September 4, 2020, that “Northern Virginia’s largest multifamily asset” at 2,346 apartments sold for a bit more than half a billion dollars. “Situated on 40.5 acres, the property includes five 16-story high-rise buildings, which were constructed between 1961 and 1965, with one tower being renovated in 2015.”

We live in one of the townhomes abutting the tower roughly in the center of the aerial photo. Not sure if I circled the right one but you get the idea:

The skeptic might reply that there is a fence between us and Southern Towers, which is true, panning out to a 20 minute walk or so, but I see folks from the towers all the time at Aldi and Fort Ward Park. An elderly gentleman from the complex wandered into our neighborhood, dehydrated and bewildered. Fortunately I was able to help him reach his daughter, who picked him up.

Living near Southern Towers is a thoroughly neutral experience, frankly, but without being overly romantic, I like it much more than I dislike it. I did not grow up in a cosmopolitan region. I get a kick out of the booming music coming from the complex’s cookout area in the summer. Maybe it would have been harder to articulate before I discovered urbanism, but that music, in a language I do not understand, helps give my home a strong sense of place. It captures what I love about Northern Virginia.

Really, I am in their backyard, not the other way around. My much smaller neighborhood of townhomes is the interloper. Southern Towers was and is here, and the rest of us need to accept it, which we do. My wife and I chose to live nearby. People from all walks of life do.

We have two young kids, so we are thinking about education. Foolishly, we did not think to check public school quality when we were searching for a home. The local elementary school rates poorly, though we have neighbors who work there or send students there. They say it is fine and I have no reason to question them, though we still need to work through our decision. We met a dad who said his family was leaving our neighborhood because of the local schools. He subtly alluded to Southern Towers as the underlying cause.

I do not want to be too hard on this gentleman. Is a white person attributing shaky schools to black and brown immigrants textbook racism? Sure, I guess. But it is also just plain incorrect. Schools are supposed to educate kids, not the other way around. Blaming unsatisfactory schools, or for that matter high crime on a high density of immigrants or residents of any kind is a cop-out. Those are institutional failures, and restricting housing will not fix them.

To be clear, Southern Towers is not a slum or a ghetto. From the inside my friend’s building seemed like an unremarkable, slightly older apartment building. And the rent could be a lot cheaper! From Ashlawn’s website:

If YIMBYs do not make housing affordable for everyone, we will have failed. My better half points out she could not afford that rent with what she used to make as a public school teacher.

Without Southern Towers, would George Mason Drive have a strip mall with signs in Amharic? Probably not, and we would all be much worse off for it. People need places to live. I would have to search for reasons that living near the largest apartment complex in Northern Virginia makes me worse off. I encourage other Northern Virginians to stop engaging in that exercise. You are only making yourselves unhappy.

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Luca Gattoni-Celli

Recovered federal tax reporter currently working as a management consultant. Catholic, husband, father, student of economics. SDG