You Do Not Have To Like Apartments

Luca Gattoni-Celli
5 min readDec 27, 2021

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An essay-length rebuttal to online comments is probably not advisable, but I feel compelled by context. In early December my favorite blog, Marginal Revolution, linked to a study showing that NIMBY (not in my backyard) sentiment and hostility to density are quite popular. I was not surprised since earlier this year Pew released polling showing that, in the U.S., only a clear majority of liberal Democrats prefer walkable communities and small homes to car-dependent sprawl and big houses.

Without getting into the reasons (cough status quo bias cough cough widespread ignorance cough), I concede that many — likely most — Americans prefer sprawl. However, the Marginal Revolution commenters, who are obnoxious and contrarian on a good day, broke heavily in favor of single-family zoning and by extension sprawl and restrictions on housing density. It was bizarre to see so many ostensive free market proponents defend a status quo of mind numbing municipal regulation as a valid “democratic outcome” or even a kind of social contract. An MR commenter is equally likely to be an anarchist, neo-reactionary futurist, or crypto bro. These are the people defending the suburban wasteland? Weird! Their basic reason was that Americans have demonstrated a preference for spacious, quiet homes.

I found some of the same hostile reaction to density on Boxing Day in a neoliberal Facebook group, where I shared my own reframing of this somewhat alarmist post showing a dense Hong Kong apartment complex:

“I don’t get the neoliberal obsession with forcing people into oppressive apartment blocks,” one fellow groused. Plus a classic response I found pretty funny: “Thanks, I hate it.” Which brings me to my thesis. These are folks who generally support market mechanisms and free competition, so maybe they just need a little reminder: “I don’t like it” is not a valid reason to support regulating or banning something. Apartment buildings and other forms of dense housing should be permitted to exist regardless of your opinion.

The near-absence of three important elements in the comment chatter mirrored defects in the typical public debate. Few if any status quo defenders will ever acknowledge there is a housing affordability crisis, not to mention an underlying shortage, which NIMBYs and their apologists never offer a solution to. If anything they might complain it is unsolvable. One hopes they would not exhibit the same attitude toward a famine.

Barely mentioned is the counterfactual of letting the chips fall where they may without land use restrictions, beyond basic public health and safety. (Never mind the huge social cost of sprawl, starting with pollution.) A few MR commenters mentioned Coasian bargaining but I struggle to see a negative externality that requires it. Dense housing can be built in a manner that prevents neighbors from disturbing each other. I live in a row house with soundproof shared walls. But what about apartments? Are they humane? The Hong Kong mega block might be photoshopped, but assume for the sake of argument it is real. Here I turn to a member of the Northern Virginia YIMBY group I founded in August, who kindly shared her own experience:

I’ve raised my kids for most of their lives in high rise apartments. It’s great. When they were younger I spent hours most days at parks with them- me on a laptop working while they played with friends. We live near a metro so walking distance — we’re ~1/2 mile from the Smithsonians with a fun train ride in the middle. Dense urban living is not what single-family-lifestyle people think it is. But because concrete and steel have emissions issues, I’m more of a fan of mass-timber buildings which typically aren’t as tall as Hong Kong style structures. And from a livability perspective, I’m more of a fan of having most of a city at a more gentle 5–8 story size with trams and bike lanes connecting everything, keeping high rises clustered around train stations. Families can live quite pleasantly in small square foot spaces. In America most people think they need a lot of stuff and all sorts of rooms for different activities. We think we need yards and garages. But living without a bunch of stuff and living close to a lot of things is actually a really great life. Our small home is cozy and easy to clean. From the data I’ve seen, living in a Manhattan high rise — your lifestyle has a ~75% lower carbon footprint than the rest of America. Dense urban living is the route to solving climate change. The only reason we don’t have more people living like this is regulation preventing it from being built.

Quite right! If you are going to argue against the existence of an entire class of housing, particularly the most affordable, ecological type, you will have to do a lot better than, “I don’t like it,” “People don’t like it,” “It’s ugly,” or “It looks cramped.” Opinions are cheap, especially when you have no skin in the game.

The most glaring omission from the discussion is auto-centric transportation infrastructure. Poor sidewalks and a default absence of protected cycling infrastructure are not “the free market at work.” The optimal proportion of transportation spending dedicated to cars is probably not close to 100%.

Walkability is unfortunately assumed to be a luxury amenity rather than a normal condition of human life. I have gone back and forth on the issue but find myself firmly believing that human beings are meant to walk outside. Something has gone terribly wrong in the last hundred years for so many people to find walking near their home impractical, unpleasant, or even unsafe because the built environment is so comprehensively designed for cars. I do not necessarily object to people wanting to be able to drive everywhere, but why should it be the only way to get anywhere? I have kids and that is not the future I want for them. It is very obviously ridiculous. A large minority of Americans live in rural areas where driving is the only way to get around, but in a town of more than, say, 30,000 people it just makes no sense.

And — full circle — dense housing lets enough people live in the same place to support a vibrant local community of shops and shared spaces. People are entitled to a decent place to live, and to decide what that can look like.

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Luca Gattoni-Celli

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