This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.

Is Seattle’s political process the root cause of NIMBYism?

Roger Valdez seems to think it might be.  He really likes Matt Yglesias’ post about a David Schleicher paper.  Schleicher argues that the absence of political parties in largely Democratic cities results in lower density: because city council members don’t have a party to be loyal to, they never have to take uncomfortable votes that would result in the greater good even at some personal cost to their re-election.  The result is that NIMBYism rules.

Seattle is an interesting case, since we’ve actually had two competing, but informal, movements in Greater Seattle and Lesser Seattle since at least the 1960s. You could see these two interests morphing into two distinct parties, if there was some reward for doing so.

That said, while I’m compelled by the thesis, I’m not sure Seattle is the best example of Schleicher’s argument.  He writes:

Individual legislators frequently face prisoner’s dilemmas, preferring the achievement of citywide goals like increasing the housing supply to universally restrictive policies, but preferring restrictions on new development in their districts regardless of what happens elsewhere. [Emphasis added]

Trouble is, Seattle doesn’t have districts at the city council level. If you read Schleicher’s paper, that really is the thrust of his argument: district-centered provincialism is the root cause of NIMBYism.  Here in Seattle we have a different dichotomy, one you might call “neighborhoods” vs. “downtown”  (and I use quotes because I’m using the terms quite loosely).

The “neighborhoods” are where the people live, where NIMBYism is more prevalent, and where the votes are. “Downtown” is where you get the reelection money needed to run a city-wide campaign.  Seattle’s council members aren’t torn between constituents and political party, they’re torn between constituents and their donors.

Ironically, the easiest way to reduce the influence of money in our council elections is to go back to the district system, which might actually result in more NIMBYism if Schleicher’s theory is correct.

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