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:
You guessed it correctly: what these 9 rental properties (valued $32M altogether) have in common is their ownership! They all belong to: BRONSTEIN ASSOCIATES LLC C/O ZELDA BRONSTEIN. Yes, as in the Berkeley NIMBY and now infamous author of https://t.co/qQCrlA3jhS https://t.co/XMXZvpUho6
— SF NIMBY Watch (@sfnimbywatch) December 5, 2017
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.
There’s a legitimate debate to be had about housing growth in California. On the pro-housing side, you generally have millennials and smart growth environmentalists who are concerned about a long-running housing shortage and its effect on the environment and economy.
On the other side, you often have homeowners concerned about changes to their neighborhoods, as well as pro-sprawl conservatives who see the suburban lifestyle as a symbol of the good life.
Count me as firmly on the pro-housing side.
But increasingly in these debates, I see the homeowner types smearing pro-housing advocates as simply corporate tools. They charge the few brave elected leaders who champion more infill housing as politicians “bought” by large developers. Here’s an example from the San Francisco Chronicle’s new columnist, author David Talbot, about a pro-housing group in San Francisco:
[“31-year-old, bow-tied, corporate public relations man named Justin”] Jones’ club is part of a network of young, corporate-backed activists who see themselves in opposition to the city’s progressive establishment. One such Jones comrade is 29-year-old Laura Foote Clark, a vice president of the RFK Club and the founder of Grow SF, a pro-development group that attracts funding from some of the same sources as the RFK Club [“Ron Conway and his Big Tech friends, and from the real estate industry”].
Clark is spearheading a campaign to wrest control of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco chapter from its traditional, sustainable-growth leadership. She is one of four pro-development candidates running for the chapter’s executive committee.
And this from a longtime San Francisco homeowner, a self-described “progressive” who is fortunate to live in a neighborhood where low supply has pushed average house prices north of $3 million.
Of course, Talbot’s smears about “pro-corporate” policies and funding from the “real estate industry” are meant to distract from the merits of the underlying argument, which he is unable to clearly articulate or rebut. For him, it’s all about the takeover of his beloved city by wealthy interests — nothing about how to address the chronic under-supply of housing and what it has done to further inequality, economic stress, and environmental degradation.
Furthermore, Talbot exhibits no sympathy for a millennial generation that has been priced out of major job centers and urban areas by first-in-the-door homeowners who refuse to allow new housing to stabilize prices. To add insult to injury, these longtime homeowners then get to watch their home values skyrocket.
The pro-housing movement among this new generation is blossoming in San Francisco but now spreading to places like San Diego. As the New York Times reports, a new group there is successfully harnessing millennial frustration with housing:
Many of San Diego’s Yimbys [yes-in-my-backyard] are millennials who say they’re fed up with spending upward of 40 percent of their income on housing.
“The older people, they already have their house,” said Chance Shay, 28, who became a father last year. “Now that they have their homes, they’re saying, ‘Hey, I don’t want a bunch of other houses built. I like my green space.’”
Sounds like another corporate tool.