Berkeley Homeowner NIMBYs Face National Blowback

NIMBYs in Berkeley are getting some national attention. The New York Times covered a battle over a Berkeley home that a developer wanted to subdivide into three units. Despite compliance with the zoning code, neighborhood opponents convinced city leaders to reject the project. But a local YIMBY group sued and won to overturn the decision.

The article uses the story to describe the prevalence of single-family zoned neighborhoods around the state:

Neighborhoods in which single-family homes make up 90 percent of the housing stock account for a little over half the land mass in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles metropolitan areas, according to Issi Romem, BuildZoom’s chief economist. There are similar or higher percentages in virtually every American city, making these neighborhoods an obvious place to tackle the affordable-housing problem.

“Single-family neighborhoods are where the opportunity is, but building there is taboo,” Mr. Romem said. As long as single-family-homeowners are loath to add more housing on their blocks, he said, the economic logic will always be undone by local politics.

The article rightly points out the damage done by laws that enable this kind of exclusionary neighborhood, particularly to housing affordability and the environment.

Adding fuel to the fire, former Berkeley planning commissioner Zelda Brownstein published a controversial piece in Dissent Magazine arguing that there is no credible evidence to support the claim that local opposition prevents housing from getting built, despite numerous studies, surveys and observable evidence around California to the contrary. She writes:

Developers build housing, and what they decide to build—and when and whether they decide to build it at all—depend on factors that over which local governments have no control: the availability of credit, the cost of labor and materials, the cost of land, the current stage of the building cycle, perceived demand, and above all, the anticipated return on investment.

Some of the same YIMBYs that fought the Berkeley housing decision quickly returned fire, noting Ms. Brownstein’s conflict of interest as a landlord who benefits financially from the lack of new housing:

Personally, I’m not a fan of these kind of personal attacks, as Brownstein’s arguments should be evaluated on their own merits, not based on who is making them.

But as California residents grow increasingly frustrated with NIMBY activity stifling new homes, these kinds of debates and news coverage will only increase.