Build more houses in California? Yes! in my back yard!
In a bold statement against local development opposition groups, a new movement touts the positive aspects of providing new housing for the next generation.
Local community opposition groups, also known as Nimbys, are a potent force in California politics. Overcoming nymbyism requires local politicians to stand up to emotional and vociferous constituents and approve projects for the greater public good. Often such a move is political suicide, so politicians take the easy way out and give in to nimby demands.
A classic example of rampant nymbyism is the local opposition to affordable housing in Huntington Beach, California. In order to comply with State law, the City of Huntington Beach is required to provide affordable housing. Residents of the city strongly object allowing the riff-raff into their neighborhoods, so they show up at city council meetings to voice their opposition. The City Council caved in to nimby demands only to be strongly rebuked by a Superior Court judge who ordered them to comply with State law.
With the political system corrupted by nimbys, the courts take more aggressive action. But does it really need to be that way? Is it possible to educate nimbys and change hearts and minds?
It’s an uphill battle, but some activists are up to the challenge.
An activist who calls her group BARF is pushing for more housing, pitting cranky homeowners and the political establishment against newcomers who want the region to make room for them, too.
San Francisco does not have enough places to live. Sonja Trauss, a local activist, thinks the city should tackle this problem by building more housing.
Across the country, a reversal in urban flight has ignited debates over gentrification, wealth, generational change and the definition of the modern city. It’s a familiar battle in suburbs, where not-in-my-backyard homeowners are an American archetype.
In San Francisco, though, things get weird. Here the tech boom is clashing with tough development laws and resentment from established residents who want to choke off growth to prevent further change.
Ms. Trauss is the result: a new generation of activist whose pro-market bent is the opposite of the San Francisco stereotypes — the lefties, the aging hippies and tolerance all around.
Ms. Trauss’s cause, more or less, is to make life easier for real estate developers by rolling back zoning regulations and environmental rules.
That’s not an accurate depiction. We don’t need to roll back any laws to allow more development: we must change our hearts and minds about providing new housing. If people lobbied city councils and county governments for more houses rather than no houses, decision makers would approve more projects. Zoning and environmental laws are not as much of a barrier as local politicians.
Her opponents are a generally older group of progressives who worry that an influx of corporate techies is turning a city that nurtured the Beat Generation into a gilded resort for the rich.
Those groups oppose almost every new development except those reserved for subsidized affordable housing.
Existing homeowners feel a little guilty for the way their exclusionary policies crowd out their neighbors, co-workers, and children, so they support affordable housing policies that are as effective as fighting a forest fire with a garden hose. These owners feel Progressive and enlightened despite their obvious hypocrisy.
But for many young professionals who are too rich to qualify for affordable housing, but not rich enough to afford $5,000-a-month rents, this is the problem.
Adding to the strangeness is that the typical San Francisco progressive and the typical mid-20s-to-early-30s member of Ms. Trauss’s group are likely to have identical positions on every liberal touchstone, like same-sex marriage and climate change, and yet they have become bitter enemies on one very big issue: housing.
What’s really strange is that well-educated progressives don’t recognize the hypocrisy of their stand on housing. Opposing new development and trying to maintain an unjust status quo is a behavior they typically accuse Conservatives of engaging in.
You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Mathew 7:5
We know that the housing crises facing big American cities right now can be solved by building more housing. And we also know that for years, the construction of this new housing has been prevented by NIMBY groups—you know, those who say “Not In My Backyard.” Now YIMBY groups—yep, “Yes In My Backyard”—are organizing to counteract decades of NIMBY damage.
California needs a grass-roots movement like this to turn the tide. The selfish interests of local nimbys is difficult to overcome. Unless their minds can be opened to the greater good that results from more housing units, they will continue to lobby for their narrow self interest at the expense of the next generation.
Last weekend the New York Times profiled Sonja Trauss, the voice behind the Twitter account @SFyimby, who also heads the advocacy group BARF (that’s Bay Area Renters’ Federation), and spends her days testifying at City Hall in favor of projects that would add more housing stock to the city. Her cause has been embraced by tech leaders, and bashed by those who don’t want to see more development (I guess you might call them NIMBYs):
Today Ms. Trauss’s group is one of several pro-housing organizations (GrowSF and East Bay Forward are others) that represent a kind of “Yimby” party, built on the frustrations of young professionals who feel priced out of the Bay Area. BARF has won the backing of technology millionaires — Jeremy Stoppelman, co-founder and chief executive of Yelp, is the group’s largest individual donor — and the encouragement of local politicians.
She would also find friends at the building industry association. Because I have a long association with the building industry, some want to label me as advocating for self-serving reasons. I am not an industry shill. I strongly believe that more housing that’s more affordable is better for everyone in California.
San Francisco might be experiencing the most painful housing crunch, but Trauss is not alone in her campaign: In almost every major US city there is now a group organized behind the YIMBY label. … Even smaller cities like Santa Monica, nestled in a corner of Los Angeles, has a @SaMoYIMBY group that exclaims, “We ain’t afraid of no growth.”
YIMBY groups are benefiting from the negative perception of the term NIMBY, but also because of their unified cause. … YIMBY organizations … have quickly united around the singular issue of more housing—and an explosion of national media coverage highlighting their shared mission.
Nimby should have a negative perception, despite public relations to the contrary. One retired professor in San Diego actually declared that those who fight developers are heroes. She feels no shame for her efforts to deny homeownership to the next generation of Californians.
We owe it to our children
Where are our children supposed to live? If every new homeowner opposes new construction, and if all new construction stops, future generations of Californians will need to wait for a previous generation to die or move out of state before a home is available. Most young people won’t be willing or able to wait until then, and they will move away, never to return. Those lucky few that do find a place to live will pay so much for the privilege that they won’t have money left over to live a life.
Is this what we really want for our children?
Do we want to raise our children in a closed society where only the landed gentry live and transient renters survive?
Is making a few pennies more on home price appreciation worth the price paid by future generations?
We owe our children something better.