Houses fighting
Illustration: Michelle Urra

How Nextdoor Put Neighbors In a Housing Policy 'Cage Match'

The neighborhood-based social media platform notorious for stoking crime and homelessness hysteria is becoming an increasingly influential organizing tool in housing politics.

Jim Roberts, a 65-year-old retired golf professional, first heard about the neighborhood-based social media network Nextdoor in early 2013, when his wife created a group for their neighborhood of West Hills in Bend, Oregon. Initially, the site seemed like a digital bulletin board, a place where people could post about things they were giving away, look for lost dogs, or recommend an electrician in order to to “cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood they can rely on,” as Nextdoor’s website boasts. About six weeks after the group was created, people in the community who used Nextdoor helped track down an elderly man with dementia who had wandered from his house.

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But it didn’t take long for the posts to gradually stray from helpful, neighborly FYIs to nitpicky complaints about garbage and parking issues. “Fairly early on, you started to see kind of classic NIMBY complaints about things,” Roberts said, using the acronym for not in my backyard, a term that has become associated with anti-housing activists, narrowly, and people who act as if living in a community gives them veto power over anything anyone might do there, broadly. 

Gradually, the “classic NIMBY complaints,” as Roberts put it, became more overt, direct, and focused on  specific housing projects or land-use changes. Bend, like much of the country, is in the midst of a housing crisis. Employers say they cannot find people to hire because lower-to-middle income workers cannot afford to live there. Roberts advocates for new housing because he thinks this affordability crisis is eroding the city’s vitality and is unfair to people who want to work and live there but cannot. 

But many people in Bend do not agree with Roberts. Some of them oppose measures to allow developers to build denser housing—such as eliminating mandatory parking minimums for new housing developments—or build in undeveloped areas. 

“Old Bend Neighbors—we need to act FAST to save the parking in our neighborhood,” one such post said, regarding a city council meeting to discuss parking requirements.

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 And when Roberts sees a post like that on Nextdoor, he argues.

“I'm basically the attack dog,” Roberts says, “Because, you know, I try and be polite at first. But if people just kind of show their colors, then it's all guns blazing sort of thing.” 

Homeless encampment Bend OR

Bend is known for year-round outdoor activities, lots of local breweries, the last Blockbuster video rental store, and a housing crisis. Credit: George Rose / Contributor via Getty

Bend is not alone; Nextdoor has become the go-to ground on which neighborhoods fight increasingly pitched battles over housing, itself one of the greatest sources of intractable local political conflict in the country. In communities across the country—big and small, Democratic and Republican—neighbors are pitted against neighbors in what one housing activist described as a kind of permanent online cage match. 

One of the people Roberts confronts online is Roberta Silverman, the land-use chair for the Southern Crossing Neighborhood Association and chair of Save Bend Green Space, a non-profit trying to stop a wilderness area adjacent to a suburban-style development from itself becoming developed. Silverman, who agreed to answer questions via email for this article, described herself as a “60+ retired public relations consultant.” She split time between Bend and Los Angeles between 2016 and 2020, and has lived there permanently since then. She initially joined Nextdoor for the same reason most people do—“to find recommended resources such as plumbers, electricians, cleaning services, etc.” But it quickly became obvious to her how useful Nextdoor is for political organizing around housing issues. She uses Nextdoor to “keep neighbors informed about proposed developments and other urgent issues” and regularly posts on Nextdoor to tell people about upcoming public meetings and deadlines to submit comments on proposed projects.

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The housing debate on Nextdoor is not just about arguing in an online vacuum. The arguments are, themselves, a form of online organizing. Local voices build constituencies and support through the platform, which they then leverage into political power by filing hundreds of comments with city councils, showing up to hearings, and filing lawsuits. As a result, Nextdoor has quietly become one of the most consequential and important—but generally overlooked—social media sites.

For this article, Motherboard interviewed housing activists—ones both for and against new housing, zoning, and development proposals—in five cities around the country to discuss the role Nextdoor plays in the housing debates in their communities. While the specifics vary with each city, it is clear Nextdoor plays an increasingly important part, sometimes a crucial one, in how housing debates are framed, discussed, fought over, and ultimately decided in local politics, even if only a tiny minority of people actually participates in these conversations. Overall, activists both for and against more housing regard Nextdoor as an increasingly influential and even critical tool in the fight, which conflicts with the platform’s marketing as a friendly, kinder social media. Rather than being the neighborhood bulletin board, Nextdoors around the country are looking more like the local zoning commission hearing.

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In a written statement responding to a list of questions, a Nextdoor spokesperson told Motherboard, “Kindness is core to Nextdoor’s purpose: to cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood they can rely on. Earning trust from our neighbors is paramount and we want to give neighbors ways to connect and be kind to each other, online and in real life.”

Generally, the participants Motherboard interviewed regard the Nextdoor debates not as an attempt to convince the other side of anything, but as a public performance to sway the lurkers and identify supporters to recruit to their cause through direct messages. Each side suspects the other is bending the community guidelines to their favor and using friendly moderators to ban opponents—despite the volunteer moderators having no such power, a Nextdoor spokesperson says—heightening animosity and suspicion, a dynamic anyone familiar with online message boards will recognize. 

To longtime users of Nextdoor, particularly in California and the Bay Area, this dynamic will hardly be news. The housing and homelessness crises have been dominating California Nextdoor groups more or less since the platform’s inception. Conversations around housing and homelessness often begin with videos or photos of homeless people taken from doorbell cameras, which are then used to gain support for the poster’s respective movement. But media coverage of Nextdoor’s importance, even in local news outlets, has been relatively scarce given its impact. For example, in 2018 the Marin Independent Journal ran the most pointed article on the subject under the headline, “Neighbor wars: How Nextdoor is changing the Bay Area housing debate.” The article mentions how a city councilperson won her seat “after frequently weighing in on Nextdoor housing debates.”

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As goes California, so goes the rest of the country. And as the housing crisis has metastasized and become a national issue, the contentious politics of housing has infected many Nextdoor groups, which then affect the real politics of meetings and elections, a feedback loop turning decisions about who can build what where increasingly toxic and intractable.

With the West Hills Nextdoor group now a decade old, Roberts says the group has deteriorated into a constant fight about housing. On the December day I spoke with Roberts, he said there were six active threads about six different housing and homelessness issues, and that those threads “generate by far the most commentary.” He believes this is endemic to how Nextdoor works “as a megaphone and an amplifier for people that are against something.”

“There’s so much discussion happening on Nextdoor when it comes to housing policy,” Wells Harrell, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission and a housing activist in Arlington, Virginia, told Motherboard. “And it’s something that I think is not widely understood by people who aren’t involved precisely because Nextdoor is a neighborhood-only platform.”

The fact that there is so much discussion of housing on Nextdoor is no coincidence. If anything, it’s an inevitability based on the platform’s fundamental design. If one set out to devise a social network specifically for the purpose of debating housing issues and forming a political base rooted in hyperlocal paranoia, it would look an awful lot like Nextdoor.

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When Nextdoor went public in 2021, it chose the stock ticker KIND, a literal symbol of how the company views itself in the larger social media landscape. Its website is peppered with the words “neighbor” and “neighborhood,” a reminder that the people you will encounter on Nextdoor are not bots or randos from across the country or even the world, but those you might bump into at the local coffee shop. (In the statement sent to Motherboard, the company spokesperson used the words “kind” or “kinder” nine times, and “neighbor” or “neighborhood” 26 times). Users can only join a neighborhood group after verifying their address either with their phone’s geolocation or having a postcard with a verification code mailed to them. The implication is that, in such an intimate setting, people will treat others with the same respect they might afford someone in person.

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Nextdoor went public in 2021. Credit: Bloomberg / Contributor via Getty

But it is a theory without much evidence to back it. Nextdoor has long been plagued with many of the same issues of racism and harmful disinformation as any other social media platform, and if anything, the hyperlocal nature only raises the tension and stakes because you’re almost certainly arguing with a real person who lives close to you and whose views cannot be as easily dismissed as irrelevant to your own life. In the statement to Motherboard, a Nextdoor spokesperson claimed the company has “led the charge within the social media industry” to combat harmful posts, including via pop-up reminders and notifications if an algorithm detects the post may include racism, COVID misinformation, or disparaging remarks about unhoused people, prompting the user to edit or cancel the post. The spokesperson claimed that “neighbors who encounter the Kindness Reminder” edit or refrain from posting about a third of the time.

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The flip side, of course, is that two-thirds of the time people post the garbage anyways. Generally, the Nextdoor super-users interviewed for this story balked at any suggestion the platform is any kinder than other prominent social media sites. “I’m kind of shocked to learn that they market themselves as the friendly social media app,” said David Auth, a 25-year-old student at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and a local pro-urbanism advocate. 

But, because any single post is limited to its own neighborhood group, the scope and scale of those problems are on a different level than social networks built on the concept of virality. And because users are limited to seeing only their own neighborhood group, whatever problems or dynamics neighborhood groups on Nextdoor share are harder to research and document. Nextdoor users know what is going on in their own neighborhood, but not what people are talking about elsewhere.

As a result, the growing importance of Nextdoor to housing politics writ large has largely gone unnoticed, because it is difficult if not impossible for anyone to form a complete picture of the topics of conversation happening on Nextdoor without the company’s cooperation.

Motherboard sent Nextdoor repeated requests for an interview to discuss the role housing politics plays on the platform. First, Nextdoor spokesperson Shannon Toliver asked Motherboard to submit written questions because “folks are still traveling” after the holidays. Motherboard offered to extend its deadline for up to three weeks or until the relevant people were back in the office. The next day, Toliver said, “We aren’t available for an interview this time” and asked Motherboard to send written questions. When Motherboard asked again for an interview, Toliver said, “We are currently in a quiet period, which prohibits us from participating,” referring to, as she put it, “an SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] enforced period of time before the release of quarterly earnings reports. During quiet periods, we are limited in speaking about the business to ensure compliance.” (“Quiet periods are before public offerings, not earnings releases,” said Adam Pritchard, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. “It might be a good practice to hold off on disclosures when an earnings release is forthcoming, but I am not aware of any SEC regulation that would require it.”) 

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Despite its reticence, it is clear the company recognizes, to some degree, that housing is a major and controversial topic of conversation on the platform, often in ways that violate its rules and guidelines for neighborly behavior. For example, users who post about homelessness now get a pop-up message that asks, “Posting about homelessness? Check out these resources for how to help unhoused neighbors. Public shaming has no place on Nextdoor—remember to be respectful.” The notification links to the general community guidelines as well as a homelessness-specific page with book and movie recommendations such as Evicted, Nomadland, and Righteous Dopefiend. Nextdoor explicitly permits discussion of local political issues, causes, and ways to become more involved in local politics, putting platform discussions on the thinnest of lines; people are urged to care about local politics but not in a way that creates hostility or nastiness.

The Nextdoor Election

But it is precisely the way Nextdoor is designed that makes it such a hotbed for housing arguments. The group of people potentially affected or interested due to where they live are automatically sorted into ready-made buckets.

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“On Nextdoor, you're not choosing anything at all,” said Auth. “The only thing you can choose, really, is whether to go on the app or not. And so I think that might be what makes me argue more on Nextdoor. I'm seeing more opinions that I disagree with than on other social medias.”

None of the activists Motherboard spoke to for this story think Nextdoor is doing anything wrong, necessarily, even if the end result is a vibe that often feels very different from the one the company promotes. 

“This is just how people are,” Harrell said. “If there is a deep disagreement, at least, by some members of the community, Nextdoor can’t really suppress that disagreement.” 

When Anne Bodine, a retired diplomat for the State Department, returned to Arlington County, Virginia, a DC suburb, in 2010, Northern Virginia didn’t feel the same to her. “Every time I came back, it was like, I don’t know, I don’t recognize this part of town anymore, almost,” Bodine said in a recent interview with Motherboard.

In October 2019, Bodine went to a debate-style lecture about Arlington’s housing needs to learn more about why some parts of town felt so built up in her absence. There was someone advocating for the construction of more “missing middle” housing, referring to smaller multi-family buildings like duplexes or fourplexes intended for middle income people, which were popular pre-war but largely outlawed with the proliferation of single-family zoning requirements. And there was someone speaking on behalf of preserving single-family zoning. Bodine had never heard of “missing middle” housing before, but became  convinced it wasn’t right for most of Arlington County.

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Shortly afterwards, Bodine joined the leadership team of Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future (ASF), a group that wants to “put livable communities ahead of population growth,” opposes the missing middle housing plan, and regularly writes to elected officials and county boards with its own analyses.  She tried to get the group’s message out through many channels, including looking up the listservs of neighborhood associations in the county and various chat groups. But she found many of those were “on the way out, or they’re kind of dead. Nextdoor was more active.”

Bodine doesn’t dispute that enacting the missing middle plan would create more housing, but she says there is a “heated” debate about whether it will create affordable housing for various income levels. “You know, it's just like any policy debate. Both sides have their talking points. And, you know, those are fleshed out on the forum.”

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Pro-housing activists at an Arlington County board meeting where the Nextdoor debates are especially heated. Credit: STEFANI REYNOLDS / Contributor

It’s difficult to generalize about the impact zoning changes have on housing, said Yonah Freemark, research director of the Land Use Lab at the Urban Institute, because there are many different types of zoning changes, each type can be done at different scales, and the specifics of where those changes are being made will have an impact on what the changes accomplish. 

“What we do know,” Freemark said, “is that if there’s more housing available, in general, housing prices go down. However, more housing available does not automatically result from changing zoning policies.” Freemark said zoning reforms that are bigger in scale will have a larger impact than more moderate ones. Also, changes in cities with vibrant real estate markets will have bigger impacts than ones in less active markets. And he said there’s “relatively strong evidence” zoning reforms that make more types of buildings permissible, such as missing middle, tend to increase land values.

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As a former diplomat who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan in the mid-2000s, Bodine doesn’t believe arguing online is productive behavior. She considers her role to inform her neighbors on Nextdoor of “the facts” behind the county’s plan, which she believes will result in more people ultimately agreeing with her than not. She will post links or notices about various local government meetings and encourage people to speak at them. She also regularly links to ASF’s own analyses. And she will direct message people who repeatedly express their opposition to missing middle housing, asking them to testify at an upcoming local government meeting. 

Bodine’s posts on housing tend to get a lot of engagement. For instance, when I spoke to Bodine in early January, she said a post from two weeks prior was “still going strong” with hundreds of comments.

Bodine’s recruiting method is hardly unique, or specific to opponents of new housing. Alison Grady, a 32-year-old working for a public health communications consulting firm, got involved in housing issues while living in Oakland, California. She and her partner had to live with two roommates because they couldn’t afford a one-bedroom apartment. When she moved back to Atlanta in 2021, she told Motherboard, she started thinking about “how do we help Atlanta make the decisions right now that it needs to make so that it doesn’t become Oakland in 5, 10, 15 years, where people do get priced out?”

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One of Grady’s main strategies for gaining support for zoning reforms in Atlanta is to look at Nextdoor posts with lots of engagement and direct message people who support more housing. She will ask them to join the YIMBY (yes in my backyard) movement, invite people to events, and fill out official government surveys that inform decisionmaking. Recently, Grady said, she reached out to 45 people from one comment thread, initiated 10 conversations, and received 10 donations to her organization, Atlanta Metro’s branch of YIMBY Action.

“I think of Nextdoor as a real important opportunity,” Grady said. Nextdoor is a way to identify supporters and bring them into her orbit, while other social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are for communicating with people already with you.

One thing Grady does not do, or encourage her other volunteers to do, is argue with NIMBYs. Grady wants them to engage in comments in a “value-centric kind of way” such as expressing a desire to have more neighbors rather than confront other commenters on their views. “The important thing for us is to demonstrate to others watching the conversation that this person who has this negative perception is not how all of us feel, and to invite those folks who agree with us into our orbit,” she said. 

This was a key tension among nearly everyone I spoke to for this story. Almost to a person, they acknowledged the futility of arguing with people online, especially about housing, and in particular people who disagree with them about housing priorities in their neighborhoods. But, Grady was the only one who didn’t admit to still doing it. 

Auth, the student in Pittsburgh, said he’s “not really sure” why he comments on his local Nextdoor. He recalled a recent thread where he commented “20-plus times and wasted a lot of my time, to be honest.” These arguments can go on for days or weeks.  But he hopes someone who was reading became better informed based on the argument. 

In fact, many other frequent Nextdoor commenters I spoke to acknowledged and even embraced the performance aspect of their Nextdoor commenting. Back in Arlington, Harrell, the FTC attorney, was first motivated by the housing issue when a local bank was being converted into 27 townhomes. The development was a 10-minute walk from a Metro station and the bank would be relocated. To him, it seemed like a perfect place for more homes and “these are 27 families who can live here, if only we let their homes get built.” He was stunned to learn many of his neighbors didn’t agree.

When the pandemic began, Harrell found himself spending more time on Nextdoor, particularly to combat what he described as rampant COVID misinformation about masking and social distancing. But then he started arguing about housing, too, hoping to “inform a kind of broader community conversation” so people watching “from the sidelines” might say “Oh, yeah, I guess I hadn’t thought of that.” 

The debates on Nextdoor in Arlington have been particularly intense over the past year, both Harrell and Bodine say, because the missing middle rezoning proposal came out in April and has been going through the county review process. For his part, Harrell suspects he’s posted hundreds of comments in the last year on the missing middle issue alone. Bodine accused the moderators of her neighborhood forum of being biased in favor of missing middle and inappropriately suspending some of the people who agree with her. For his part, Harrell provided Motherboard screenshots of posts that show another user looked up his address and viewed his house either in person or on Google Street View, then described some features of his house on Nextdoor. (A Nextdoor spokesperson says the platform relies on “230,000+ local volunteer moderators” to review content flagged as “uncivil or disrespectful” but cannot suspend or ban users, which must be done by Nextdoor’s “in-house Operations team.”) 

This incident caused Harrell to re-evaluate how frequently he posts on Nextdoor. Lately, he’s gotten the sense that it’s become “a cage match with all the same fighters who show up all the time. And don’t leave.” 

Harrell is not alone in that view. In many neighborhood groups, these commenters, despite dominating the conversation, are such a small number of people that they all know each other. Bodine claims to know them so well that she recognizes them in other comment sections, such as on local news articles, even when they don’t use their real names. They are a community within a community, drawn together by a common issue, seemingly destined to spend their days debating minor details of arcane zoning laws, with the belief the future of their neighborhood is at stake, even though professional researchers are unsure the changes will make much of a difference.

Back in Bend, Roberts, the retired golf professional, expresses dismay over what his local Nextdoor has become. Not just because he disagrees with the politics that dominate the group—he estimates people commenting on it are against new developments by at least three to one—but because it provides a false sense of majority opinion that emboldens what is, in reality, a minority in Bend. 

In the recent city council election, voters chose the slate of candidates favoring denser, multi-family housing over the ones vowing to preserve single family zoning. Roberts sees his local Nextdoor group as no different than the city council hearing or environmental review feedback process, dominated by the people with the time, energy, and inclination to complain about things they don’t like, but unrepresentative of the views most Bend residents have. 

Silverman, the land use chair for the Bend neighborhood association, doesn’t see it that way. “Nextdoor enables me to listen to what other people are saying about housing issues,” Silverman wrote in an email, “and to stay up to speed on broader community concerns and current attitudes.” 

As for bias in the group’s moderation, Silverman has no need to be worried. Roberts says his wife, who created the group a decade ago, no longer uses Nextdoor. She’s sick of it. But for Roberts? He will still be in the comments section, waiting, “acting as a firewall,” as he put it, against ignorant opinions. Politely, of course.