LIMBY: The “Live in My Back Yard” Invitation

By: Will Martin, urbanist

The Vote: Denver’s City Council voted on April 22, 2019 to pass Blueprint Denver, the city’s updated land-use plan. With a 20+ year time horizon and weighing in at over 300 pages, the document is a big deal with long term and broad reaching impacts on Denver’s future. Attendees at the public hearing preceding the plan’s vote, however, witnessed the gravity of something seemingly (and actually) small – the accessory dwelling unit (ADU). Uninitiated onlookers watched a live rerun of the weekly ADU debate rehearsed by neighborhood associations in growing cities across the country. To ADU or not to ADU? That seems to be the question. The updated Blueprint Denver has a recommendation (or two): one, to expand ADU units in all residential areas (currently they are limited to neighborhood specific zone lots) and two, to remove other barriers impeding their construction. These recommendations, albeit modest compared to other, more aggressive, municipal standards and proposals in the region (re: Englewood and Colorado Springs) and across the nation (re: Los Angeles and Portland), dominated a disproportionate amount of the air-time throughout the several hour hearing. With the documents accepted, work has just begun. For ADUs to play an important role in building “complete neighborhoods,” communities must come together to formally implement the plans recommendations. This requires broad public support, support which ADUs clearly don’t have. How can communities unlock this small but powerful agent of housing opportunity?

The problem: ADUs are strawmen come lightning rods (ie. likely to spark a fire). They amplify the familiar war chants of two irreconcilable tribes – the NIMBYs and the YIMBYs – who’s entrench positions, “Not” and “Yes,” meet violently on that most personal and private battlefield: “my back yard.” Purported battles for our families, neighborhoods, and communities (and of course the underlying but seldomly mentioned property values), however, prefigure any debate for failure. Absolute yea/nay dichotomies inherently beget bickering, gridlock, and protectionism which rarely constitute a solid platform for neighborly collaboration and, most importantly, progress. Furthermore, the underlying and prevalent insincerity which couches a concern for what happens in my back yard for what is really a concern for what happens in your back yard, further erodes any potential for common ground. Together these groups set an inadequate stage for positive change.

The solution: A more fruitful approach diverts energy away from a presupposed debate and shift our attention to the specific opportunities afforded today. Statistically, very few (under 500) Denverites live in, with, or next to and ADU. The physical proof and lived realities of their alternative housing can and will invite the public to explore a new urban imaginary. The momentum grows. A door opens to the fact that both the reality, perception, and potential of what an individual or family can contribute to their family, neighborhood, and community (and of course property value!) is limited as much by the imagination as it is by laws. This is the “Live in My Back yard” (LIMBY) invitation. LIMBYs invite a new perspective – a reimagination of personal and civic opportunity and purpose. LIMBYs ask, “how can I provide a house for someone who needs a home?” as opposed to “does zoning restrict me from building an ADU?”. LIMBYs focus on potential, not opposition.

The numbers: Analyzing Denver’s current zoning code, demographic data, and construction industry trends should fuel the engine of this new mode of imagining. Today there are nearly 18,000 homeowners who live in single family homes on properties where they could build an ADU and invite others to live in their back yard. They could provide 7,250 studio; 3,439 one-bedroom; and 7,242 two-bedroom apartments. Those ADUs could be housing for nearly 40,000 neighbors/friends/family. Rent from those units could generate an average of $20,000 in revenue for their household, an increase of nearly 33% of the average neighborhood median income per household. Construction of the over 14 million square feet of housing would equate to around $3 billion in construction costs and over $2.5 million in design fees – a boon to local businesses thanks to the openness and generosity of their neighbors. But numbers fail to communicate the real and reciprocal impact of providing a home within the city, neighborhood, and block you love.

In the future, many more Deverites may have the opportunity to invite others to live in their back yard. Those others might be refugees, aging parents, local teachers or bus drivers, previously homeless, boomerang kids, or even you! Others that will contribute meaningfully to the city with an opportunity to stay and make it home in a house that they can afford. That future, however, is not certain. It will only be achieved if we refuse to accept a limited perspective of our own capacity and accept the invitation to be the change we wish to see. That is the LIMBY way. 


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