August 8, 2019 - From the August, 2019 issue

CityLab's Laura Bliss: Bridging the NIMBY/YIMBY Divide

Published originally by CityLab, and excerpted here with permission, CityLab West Coast Bureau Chief Laura Bliss (@mslaurabliss) looks beyond the charged rhetoric of California's housing crisis to uncover what motivates both opponents and proponents of efforts to increase housing density throughout the state. Bliss dives deep into the NIMBY/YIMBY dichotomy to present a more nuanced and objective look at the issues that divide the two camps. Recognizing the legitimate concerns of local communities while acknowledging the severity of California's housing crisis, Bliss concludes both sides would be best served by not assuming the worst in the other. Excerpts from the piece are presented here, please read the full article on CityLab.

Laura Bliss

"The scale of this problem has fractured the voters of this largely progressive region, pushing Californians of varying political stripes into rival camps that don’t neatly subdivide along the usual left-right lines."—Laura Bliss

Laura Bliss: 'In California, the debate between NIMBYs and YIMBYs—that’s Not In My Backyard and Yes In My Backyard, respectively—doesn’t usually involve actual backyards. It’s about housing: By one estimate, the state is short 3.5 million homes to accommodate current and projected demand. In cities like San Francisco, this gap has raised rents to some of the highest in the nation, fueling a homelessness problem that the United Nations recently labeled a human rights violation.

The scale of this problem has fractured the voters of this largely progressive region, pushing Californians of varying political stripes into rival camps that don’t neatly subdivide along the usual left-right lines. Struggles between homeowners and newcomers over development are fixtures of neighborhood-level politics nationwide, but the Bay Area’s version of this narrative might be the most bitterly contested in the U.S., fueled by a uniquely Californian cocktail of economic and cultural factors.


But this narrative of class and generational combat is incomplete. Lower-income renters and homeowners are in this conversation, too, and their allegiance is somewhat torn. Some tenants rights groups buy the logic that an increased housing supply would benefit them, but at least as many view the prospect of high-volume, market-rate housing as a threat to already gentrifying neighborhoods.

Indeed, the NIMBY-YIMBY binary often reduces each sides’ arguments to cartoons, with neither camp spending much effort to understand the hopes and fears of their adversaries. Both factions are intensely community-minded and profess to love their cities and neighborhoods. Yet each seems convinced that the other represents an attack on their respective futures.

Is there any way to try to bridge this divide and find some common ground? One approach might be look deeper into the ostensible NIMBY instinct—to see if the forces that drive these passionate defenders of the neighborhood status quo are richer than pure self-interest and fear of outsiders.

It turns out, yes, they are. But also, there’s some of that stuff, too.


It’s hard to escape the fact that most of the communities that glommed onto Livable California represent older, whiter, and more affluent homeowners from some of the most desirable enclaves in California. That is a perception that the group itself is aware of: In an internal email that was recently picked up and tweeted by a Wiener staffer, one Livable California member wrote that “housing activists ... are deeply suspicious of ‘white suburban NIMBYs’ and the objectives of Livable California.”

[Livable California's Susan] Kirsch recognizes these less-than-ideal optics, as well as the link between old, racist redlining practices and contemporary zoning codes. But she insists that Livable California’s only interest is keeping neighborhoods intact. As proof, she points to the pro-tenant groups that have aligned with the group to defeat SB 50 and its kin, out of fears of gentrification and displacement. And she talks about “activating” her fellow retirees, awakening them to what they can still achieve for the greater good. “I’m really more in favor of advancing, or whatever the opposite is of retiring,” Kirsch said.

Critics might object to this framing, but California’s suburban defenders can indeed be said to be fueled by a kind of altruism, at least for one another and for future residents who share their values. Indeed, the upzoning bills show that Livable California’s resistance is not entirely about protecting narrow economic interests: Kirsch and her neighbors would make great money selling their lots to a developer looking to build a few midrises.

But they’re not. Established residents often see themselves as long-term shareholders in their community, said Clayton Nall, a political scientist at Stanford who has studied grassroots community organizing. As such, they feel a responsibility for protecting the community against perceived threats, which might include pollution, crime, and the undesirable effects of over-development. Indeed, back in the 1960s and ’70s, NIMBYs were the people fighting highways and oil refineries in their backyards, not fourplexes. In battling upzoning, some NIMBYs are animated by the fear of a takeover of their neighborhoods by commercial interests.


“The possibility that their property interests will then be defined by corporate actors like landlords is frightening to them,” Nall said. “And it complicates their effort to protect their common interest as homeowners defending a shared way of living in their particular neighborhoods.” In other words, the distant landlords of a multi-unit building may not see the local value, of, say, tending lovely front-yard gardens.


One big problem with SB 50, Nall believes, is that its beneficiaries aren’t clear, other than the real estate developers who back it, and, perhaps, the young white-collar renters who might easily afford to move to Austin instead. Housing isn’t a pure supply-and-demand problem; location is a huge factor. Some say that the amount of demand to live in the Bay is literally insatiable, and that costs will never come down naturally. And the jury is out on whether “trickle-down housing”—also known as filtering—brings down rents. You could fill a basketball court with the economists and policy wonks who are arguing about this right now.

This is not to say that upzoning isn’t called for, along with (say) tenant protection laws and funds for low-income housing. It’s gaining traction nationally as one tool that can close housing gaps: Minneapolis has a new plan to allow for denser development citywide, and Oregon passed a bill that allows duplexes and triplexes to replace detached houses in urban areas across the state. The champions of these plans were successful, in part because they found ways to unite communities around shared values that went beyond attachments to their own blocks. Oregon’s bill is built on the state’s long history of conservation-minded urban growth management; in Minneapolis, upzoning proponents highlighted the racist origins of zoning codes and the importance of working to erase them.

In contrast, it seems California’s upzoning advocates have struggled to show how such unlocking more market-rate (read: expensive) apartments in suburban neighborhoods would help those with the biggest housing challenges. While Kirsch applauds their commitment to civic engagement, YIMBYs also strike her as whiny. “Few of us have had housing just handed to us at the level that we might havewanted,” Kirsch told me. (She compares them to her CEO daughter, who bought a house in Oakland, with financial help from mom.) California’s YIMBYs now find themselves in a difficult position: They’ve whacked a hornet’s nest full of some of the nation’s most powerful voters.


But the zoning reformers have succeeded in introducing a big, bold idea for addressing a crisis that demands all kinds of different solutions. Livable California, on the other hand, is short on fixes. Part of its stated mission is to “empower communities to take action to support local community planning and decision-making with the goal of an equitable and sustainable future for California.” Yet its website offers no examples of how else to accommodate Californians who would also like to live, “livably.” Instead, it’s full of links to articles and materials opposing various state housing bills.

One could not be blamed for noticing that such politics serve to protect the single-family status quo. And this is where the NIMBY principle draws its clearest line: Fundamentally, it begins with saying no.

That’s why so many housing activists view Livable California and its platform in such cynical terms. The group may share a few strands of DNA with Marxist critiques and use the language of citizen empowerment, but to critics like Nall, it is a force of elitism. Proposition 13, California’s property tax freeze of the 1970s, and the appreciation of urban land in coastal communities created what he terms a “bizarre middle-class aristocracy” that’s based almost solely on homeownership. “Single-family zoning has a lot of parallels to aristocratic land-holding systems,” Nall told me. “It’s, ‘Protect our regime from these predatory outside capitalists who don’t have the noblesse oblige that we have for our communities.’”


Here, I think, lies the great YIMBY-NIMBY divide: a matter of intention versus outcome. While some selfish or bigoted actors may be sheltering their property values behind calls for “local control,” the desire to protect local communities, by using slow and incremental processes, is legitimate. But the single-family zoning codes that NIMBYs champion aren’t working for California circa 2019, and nor are they biblical. YIMBYs are justly impatient for progress, and they’re appealing to democratic processes for change, too. Perhaps both sides of the housing debate would be served by not assuming the worst in the other."

For the full story, please read the article on CityLab


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