Is NIMBYism on the way out?

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NIMBYism probably had a few births: the founding of Llewellyn Park, the decision in Euclid versus Ambler, and the invention of redlining. Or maybe it goes back to the first time homo habilis drew a line in the earth. Exclusion and opposition to progress do not happen overnight.

In California, at least, we can safely trace the origin of modern NIMBYism to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. Since then, California’s political center of gravity has celebrated the suburbs, derided the downtowns -cities, used and abused the California Environmental Quality Act. Above all, he exploited the benefits of the Prop tax freeze. 13 and argued for an artificial scarcity that preserved and in many cases greatly increased real and nominal property values.

NIMBYism had a good run: multi-million dollar good fun for multi-million (relatively older, whiter, wealthier) Californians. This race is over.

Let’s count the paths:

  • NIMBY-oriented petitions to force recall elections in Los Angeles and San Diego failed to even make it onto their respective ballots.
  • Statewide ballot measures like Prop. 21 of 2020, a rent control measure sponsored by the NIMBY AIDS Healthcare group, failed hands down. Just a few years ago, Measure S in Los Angeles, one of the most massive local slow-growing measures in California history.
  • I personally spent a few days of my life earlier this year researching and writing about the “Our Neighborhood Voices” ballot initiative, put forward by a group of local elected officials who spoke loudly about the resumption of local state control. Just two weeks after I wrote my story, they withdrew their petitions, with barely enough signatures to authorize a marriage certificate, let alone a statewide proposal.
  • Many planning departments laid off veterans following the Great Recession. A new generation of young, entry-level planners and mid-career progressive planners is taking over. The same can be said for many city councils (eg Sacramento, Berkeley, Culver City, Emeryville).
  • The YIMBY movement grew from the anarchist tendencies of SF-BARF to the remarkably effective lobbying and advocacy efforts of California YIMBY.
  • Richard Close, long hailed as the King of Los Angeles NIMBYs within the incredibly powerful Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, passed away in 2021. His death is both symbolic and substantial.
  • The demise of single-family zoning in cities like Sacramento and Berkeley (pre-SB 9) illustrates a powerful convergence of social justice and housing advocacy.
  • Livable California – an organization that probably seems powerful, forceful and righteous within the echo chamber of its members – looks increasingly ineffectual and cartoonish (thanks in part to the insightful and hilarious comment from their nemesis: microblogger Jordan Grimes).
  • The state legislature has passed pro-housing laws at a remarkable pace, with relatively few failures and vetoes (despite high-profile failures like SB 827, SB 50, and AB 1401 which I believe have provided a cover for more subtle pro-housing laws).
  • The new RHNA process, which, while imperfect, is real. The attorney general is monitoring cities, calling them out for non-compliance and threatening to sue.
  • To everyone’s dismay, supervisors in San Francisco killed off a high-density apartment building that had checked all the planning boxes. It looks like a victory, except for the outcry and derision it inspired. San Francisco voters could face a ballot initiative in November that would make it harder for supervisors to turn down projects.
  • Most recently, and most dramatically, a landlord activist at Berkeley won a lawsuit that would have stopped UC Berkeley from building a new mixed-use dorm and, more importantly, forcing it to cut enrollment. Initially, it looked like a huge, potentially devastating victory over one of the largest public institutions in the world. And yet, not two weeks later, the Legislature and the Governor, in an astonishing show of unity and efficiency, passed legislation to void the trial. Classical history students at Berkeley will know this as a “Pyrrhic victory.”

In short, after NIMBYism has gone nearly undefeated and barely challenged for four decades, its losses are mounting. It’s not dead, but it spits.

None of these single events, of course, give California and its cities carte blanche to build the 2-3 million units needed. But collectively, they point to a political shift that, coupled with structural economic and demographic trends, suggests that NIMBYism is no longer what it used to be – and likely never will be.

Economically, only 54% of homes in California are owner-occupied, ten percentage points lower than the national average. By definition, everyone is a tenant or a borrower (or is homeless or dependent). These tenants may or may not actively support development. But they are very unlikely to support the NIMBY program. Anyone who aspires to buy a home is likely to actively oppose it.

Demographically, a shrinking portion of the California population is benefiting from Prop. 13. The primary beneficiaries of Prop. 13 pretended to be bandits. And anyone who’s bought a home in the past decade is probably irritated enough that they’re paying property taxes that could be, in some cases, many times those of their longtime neighbors. There are two ways (completely complementary) to remedy this: get rid of the Prop. 13 or build more homes to close the gap between a property’s tax base and its current value.

To be frank, the journalist in me is a little upset about the demise of NIMBYism. Conflict makes good copy. But, while I do not support unbridled development and appreciate the concerns of many stakeholders, I believe that this development will, overall, be beneficial to California and Californians – at least those who do not own $2 million homes they bought for $80,000 and a Bee Gees album.

Here’s what that means for California planners: They can actually plan.

Even so, today’s planners are less bothered than ever by NIMBY-inspired restrictions. From a political point of view, I think they will hear less and less strident voices of opposition at public meetings in the years to come. These voices may not be less loud, but they will be fewer. In a democracy, numbers are supposed to matter more than volume. Planners can plan based on best practices rather than political constraints.

Admittedly, some NIMBY-friendly policies and institutions will take time to catch up with public opinion. The CEQA will always complicate the work of planners and will always favor the status quo. The state funding structure (hello, again, Prop. 13) and the lack of a redevelopment authority limit housing-friendly cities. Many new housing laws are byzantine or will only be effective at the margins. Elected officials will always pursue programs that contradict those of the planning departments.

The NIMBYs will still score occasional victories, thanks to clever use of CEQA and political pressure in some slow-growing redoubts, like the San Francisco Peninsula and Orange County. But they will also lose. Their losses will lead to frustration. But the frustration is not political. And the more time passes, the more evidence accumulates that the sky remains intact. SB 9 will not destroy neighborhoods. Very few cities will adopt the SB 10; those who do will not be transformed overnight. The NIMBYs will have few arguments and little evidence.

As for the NIMBYs themselves, whether they identify themselves as such or are de facto traveling companions, we can only hope that they think carefully about how they want to wield the little power that their rest. They can, of course, continue to sue, harass planners, and spin conspiracy theories at Livable California meetings if they choose. (Everyone needs a hobby.) Alternatively, they might accept that the state’s tastes, needs, and demographics have changed. they could help ensure that cities change accordingly and for the better, by participating in consensus discussions that recognize the realities of growth, equity, sustainability and, yes, livability. California will always need dissenting voices, dissenting opinions, and civic watchdogs, of course. Many NIMBY defenders could perform these functions competently and usefully without resorting to extremism or antagonism. And they can still have fun and be grateful for their exceptional wealth and tax subsidies.

I could be wrong. You never know what the next trial will bring or what strange alliance will emerge. But, just as any sane household should plan for retirement, the NIMBY movement should too. It was time.



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