Collective action problems

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The term ‘collective action problem’ describes the situation in which multiple individuals would all benefit from a certain action, but has an associated cost making it implausible that any individual can or will undertake and solve it alone. The ideal solution is then to undertake this as a collective action, the cost of which is shared. An allegorical metaphor often used to describe the problem is ‘belling the cat’. Wikipedia, ‘Collective action.’

The situation of ‘NIMBY’ opposition to development is often characterized as a type of collective action problem, in which local/individual opposition defeats activities which arguably would benefit the city/region overall, and possibly even for the individuals presenting opposition.

The use of regulation to unnecessarily restrict the supply of housing can be seen as an example of a Tullock transitional gains trap. In many areas, it is a particularly pernicious example because homeowners and those who vote with them may be a majority of the electorate. That makes it particularly difficult for the oppressed minority to obtain relief. Solutions have been proposed to encourage at least some homeowners to vote in favour of reform.

Note, there is a significant and intriguing question of if and to what degree individuals in the polity would personally benefit from greater development, or believe they would, or publicly admit that they believe so.  The well-established homevoter hypothesis holds that the homeowning voters who predominate in most local political bodies generally have, or believe themselves to have, a self interest in restricting housing—to reduce demands on local amenities, avoid nuisances, and to help sustain and increase property values by restricting supply.

A 2009 survey found that the literature on the political science (or political economy) challenges of achieving housing reform is very limited,1 and argued that the economic incentives and institutional support for political scientists to study housing are insufficient, despite the important contributions that could be made. A later paper by the same author noted that the longevity and physical sluggishness of the housing stock make the politics of housing particularly challenging.2

In 2017, Brian Lund notes that housing has been called a ‘wicked’ problem; ‘complex, open-ended and intractable. “It is a really big issue”, said Martin Wolf [...] “that is, of course, why no politician dares touch it”’.3 Lund goes on to quote Crookston that ‘the current housing agenda in Britain is characterised by a spectacular and jarring disassociation between a lot of analysis of serious problems, and an apparent inability to entertain or adopt credible solutions’. (p. 250)

One of the rare formal papers on the political economy of housing demonstrated that the ‘most natural way to break the vicious circle of housing undersupply is to create simple legal instruments through which local communities can appropriate windfall gains.’4

David Schleicher has examined how collective action problems arise in getting approvals to build.5  

Overcoming collective action problems

A number of authors have suggested possible mechanisms for overcoming collective actions problems in a YIMBY context. David Schleicher has suggested Tax Increment Local Transfers, or TILTs5 and imposing binding ‘zoning budgets’.6 In a UK context, the London YIMBY group has suggested allowing single streets to vote to give themselves additional development rights.7 London YIMBY has also suggested that allocating air rights (Transferable Development Rights, or TDRs) to all registered voters, rather than just homeowners, could be a way to overcome collective action problems.

Game theory of zoning and land use

Vicki Been and others wrote recently (emphasis added):

Our stringent empirical testing of the predictions we argue follow from the growth machine and homevoter theories reveals surprising support for the homevoter–based model. New York City is not Scarsdale or Greenwich, for any number of reasons, but it too pays extraordinary attention to the interests of homeowners, even when those homeowners are a minority of voters. That finding demands attention from the academics, policymakers, and judges who seek to contain the potential land use decisions have to waste precious resources, drive up the cost of housing and of doing business, and threaten the equality of opportunity available to many families. Or to frame the call more positively, those who wish to harness the power of cities to foster innovation and problem-solving, reduce energy use and the associated global warming, and improve the quality of life residents enjoy sustainably, must consider how to control the influence risk-averse homeowners have over land use decisions that will interfere with those goals.

Game theory, particularly Prisoner's Dilemma, is discussed by David Schleicher in this 2012 interview in Forbes.
"The Stagnant City: How Urban Politics Are Stalling Growth and Pushing Rents Up." This is referenced in 
"The prisoner’s dilemma of local-only planning," by Daniel Hertz, City Observatory 15.9.2015.

The Zoning Game by Richard Babcock, 1966, a witty classic of zoning literature, is not Game Theory, per se, but expresses some related spirit perhaps. 




1. Bo Bengtsson (2009) "Political Science as the Missing Link in Housing Studies", Housing, Theory and Society, 26:1, 10-25, DOI: 10.1080/14036090802704106

2. Bo Bengtsson (2015) "Between Structure and Thatcher. Towards a Research Agenda for Theory-Informed Actor-Related Analysis of Housing Politics, Housing Studies", 30:5, 677-693, DOI: 10.1080/02673037.2015.1057556

3. Lund, Brian, Housing Politics in the United Kingdom – Power, Planning and Protest, Policy Press (2017), pp 249-50.

4. Ortalo-Magné, François and Prat, Andrea, The Political Economy of Housing Supply: Homeowners, Workers, and Voters (January 2007). LSE STICERD Research Paper No. TE514. Available at SSRN:; later published as Ortalo-Magné, François and Prat, Andrea, On the Political Economy of Urban Growth: Homeownership versus Affordability, American Economic Journal: Microeconomics 2014, 6(1): 154–181

5. Schleicher, David, City Unplanning (January 23, 2012). Yale Law Journal, Vol. 122, No. 7, pp. 1670-1737, May 2013; George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper No. 12-26. Available at SSRN: or

6. Schleicher, David, Balancing the "Zoning Budget" (2011). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 4955

7. London YIMBY campaign, Yes in my back yard – How to end the housing crisis, boost the economy and win more votes, Adam Smith Institute, August 2017