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The Liberals' Dilemma: NIMBY vs. YIMBY

Virtually all the major cities of the West Coast, from Seattle to Portland to Los Angeles, are embroiled in controversy about how to meet their housing crises. Some pundits have called this an issue that creates a “liberal vs. liberal” division (primarily because most of the people in these cities are liberals). It has been characterized as a fight between older, wealthier NIMBYs (Not in My Backyard), and younger less affluent YIMBYs (Yes in My Backyard), both of whom, on the West Coast, may be liberals. Everyone says he or she wants more affordable housing, but not necessarily in his or her neighborhood. The majority of urban planners and those sensitive to the ecological problems caused by swelling populations are agreed that higher density housing, particularly in cities or their immediately surrounding suburbs, paired with greater use of mass transit and walking instead of automobile driving, is the eventual answer to both housing and pollution problems. The major obstacle to achieving this end is local control of building regulations.

Large West Coast cities and even their close-in suburbs do not have an excess of unused land. New housing must replace old housing—or at least old buildings. This is a major part of the problem. Old buildings, particularly housing, represent neighborhoods and they have residents in them. Tearing them down displaces people and alters the character of a neighborhood, either by making it look different or bringing in new residents who differ in income, ethnicity, job status, education and a variety of other characteristics from those who formerly lived in the neighborhood. For these reasons, most communities have stringent local regulations regarding replacing buildings and dwellings. Unfortunately, these local regulations also serve to restrict the number of new homes that are built, particularly large multi-family structures, and are one of the major factors in not being able to meet the housing needs of the current population.

Besides the objections based on history, aesthetics, and culture, to demolishing structures and building new higher density ones, there is the problem of losing housing that is affordable. Often such housing is affordable either because of its poor condition and the deterioration of the neighborhood in which it sits, or because of policies such as rent control. Clean, new multifamily residences attract more affluent renters or buyers and price out former neighborhood residents, worsening the problem of finding affordable housing for people of limited income.

Some of these problems can be remedied and some can’t. Seattle, for instance, has allowed single-family home neighborhoods to be excused from its new higher density building policies, as well as historic neighborhoods, and it also mandates a percentage of units to be reserved for affordable housing for those with limited incomes. Proposed Senate Bill 827, the California bill that is still being discussed in the legislature, which removes restrictions on housing near transit hubs and corridors, mandates finding temporary housing for those who are displaced during new construction and guarantees a place for them in the new buildings at the same rents they paid previously (for one year, at last reading of the proposed bill). It also allows city regulations for affordable housing to remain in place if they exceed its own requirements for 10%-20% of new residential buildings to be affordable housing, depending upon the number of units in the building. Its author, San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener (D), has also changed the requirement to reduce height restrictions so that 45-foot tall buildings would be allowed instead of the 55-foot heights originally contained in the bill. The problem of losing rent-controlled apartments is not solved and neither is the disruption or destruction of the ethnic and aesthetic character of old neighborhoods. 

Some of the battles on the above issues are being fought by groups that represent limited income renters as they express their fears of losing the homes they already have. But the main objections to demolishing old buildings and building taller, higher density new multi-family structures, particularly outside of the central city, are being voiced by older residents who don’t want to see more congestion in their neighborhoods, tall buildings that they believe will mar their aesthetic landscape, and an influx of younger, less affluent renters who will not fit their profile of older, wealthier homeowners. On the West Coast, most of these people are Democrats and most are liberals. These are the people who don't mind paying more taxes to take care of the poor, but don’t want to lose the position and lifestyle they feel they have earned and which is symbolized by the neighborhood in which they can afford to live and the house they own (which for many of these people, represents their greatest source of wealth). 

Rebuilding our cities and suburbs so that they can accommodate higher population density, so they favor use of mass transit or biking or walking over commuting by car, and so they provide affordable housing for our growing, or even our present populations, is necessary to avoid making housing unaffordable to all but the rich (who aren’t the ones who actually make the cities run) and to cut down on auto emissions and make life livable for those who work in the cities and their close-in surrounds. This may be painful for those who enjoy their current environs and lifestyle, but unless people are willing to sacrifice it, we will all  eventually suffer and those with the least resources will, as usual, continue to suffer most.


Reader Comments (6)

I feel sorrow for those that can't open their hearts to the suffering and pain of others. It is not just a problem among liberals, closed corrupted hearts are found in coservatives, independents all sorts of people...and it is not just found in capitalism but also in socialism, communism and all the variations of these.
My experience is that it is actually a sickness to hold oneself above others, to think that a person has greater worth than another and should therefore have health care, food, housing when others have none or little. The impoverishment of the heart is a sad thing to see when it is so easy to share and be part of the whole of society.
I used to own and develop communities, generally resort communities, golf courses, ski facilities, residences, fractional ownership, public and private clubs, etc. I have seen NIMBY expressed often and in many ways by most every class. The most common driver of NIMBY was greed...property values. The property values were driven primarily by scarcity induced by zoning laws, descrimination on race and class and by tax and concentration of capital policies. Sometimes pure racism entered in, sometimes envy of the rich developer sometimes lots of shadow issues would be presented but environmental review would theoretically de-legitimize most all of those.
The one thing I never heard a NIMBY person say was that it was important to have development for the sake of their children. I found this amusing as every single one of them lived where a developer had made legal lots/housing for them and that I , the developer, was probably the only one in the room that had decided as a young man not to have children on environmental grounds, effectively I was providing for their children, not mine.
The only way I know to equitably resolve the dilemas described in Casey's essay above is to revert the ownership of property to a communal holding and let the people democratically decide how they will manage it...of course for that to work we would have to grow up some people that cared for each other and the earth that sustains us. No easy task, but not impossible.

May 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

Equality of outcome is an extremist position masquerading as heartfelt morality. So, the best idea being proffered to resolve a housing issue is for the government to seize privately owned property and simply divide that equally among the people? Thank you for once again promoting the progressive form of genocide where all people can become equally bereft and ultimately lack any recourse to protest.

My solution is for any person who wants equal outcome for all to be the first to step up and donate their wealth to a communal holding before being overly generous with the property of others. Militating on behalf of the less fortunate without first giving up one’s own privilege is hypocritical and morally bankrupt. Perhaps a bold action of that sort will do more than simply be a hollow proclamation of one’s alleged virtue.

May 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

The funny thing about hyopcrisy is that many of us don't realize we are hypocrites until our mythologies are examined. Making that process tougher is that sometimes that hypocrisy extends to system wide belisf systems. In the USA one of the most pervasive of those revolves around the American Dream of the self made man, through his own honesty, integrity and hard work, starting with nothing, pulling up his own bootstraps is able to create a great fortune for the benefit of all --- . HaHaHa, as they say, if you belisve that or any of the people that say it, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn for sale. Oh...I'll throw in half ownership of the Statue of Liberty and cut you a deal for controlling interest if you force me. There are other foundational myths...capitalism is the best system, America is a peace loving nation, we are a Christian nation specially blessed by God, and many others and many smaller myths that support them.

I used to rail against hypocrisy, most often the hypocrisy of others. Eventually as I busted through some of my own I recognized that most people aren't hypocrites but simply ignorant...That's a good thing because hypocrites recognize they are doing wrong against their nature but continue on the path...people who are ignorant can learn...and change. Growth requires change. Change may require effort, may be uncomfortable or even painful but has tremendous benefits attached.

In the case of Casey's article many liberals don't realize that the restrictive zoning of their communities besides protecting the environment, creates a society of same class, race and often even cultural beliefs the outcome of which is at odds to the politics of inclusion and equality they profess. Strictly because of my previous career as a real estae developer, a participant in a horrendous number of these NIMBY discussions, I feel that much of the complaint of the participants centers in maintaining or increasing real estate values. That makes it difficult for some of the folks because they might have to come to face that their liberality has a price and that price is their own sense of currently perceived comfort and value and that they have to change. Others may continue to feel quite liberal enjoying a glass of champagne at their private club's gala affair for the poor but one day their bubble might also burst where they take stock of their lives from a slightly changed frame of reefrence and begin again thae process of learning and change.

The learning curve may take more than a lifetime. I was lucky to start learning in mid life. It has been over fifteen years now that I turned my back on wealth and started giving back the hundreds of millions society had given me as a "self-made man". Today I am financially poor, penniless. And I couldn't be happier as I am no longer a taker from society but one who gives, No longer one whose heart is closed to the suffering of others but one who cares.

Water from a free mountain spring tastes so much better than any vintage wine I could ever imagine.

May 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

So if you've become bereft (financially poor, penniless) by sacrificing the wealth and ideology of "the self-made man," then who is currently paying for your existence? Egads, the need for progressives to be witnessed as morally superior on this site is stultifying in both senses of the word.

May 17, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMark Wheeler

Mark, the society and the earth provide for my existence now that I am poor just as it did when I was rich. The difference now is that the impact of my life is so much lower. (using money as a relative gauge of impact, now I use 1000 dollars per month (3.79 per hour) when before I used 20,000 per hour. Big difference, but that difference is actually just the tip of the iceberg. The real costs of concentration of wealth and power are encountered in the suffering, impovershment and early death of the people and the destruction of the planet....externalities as I used to say when I was an economist but a direct result of a system that priortizes greed over giving and self-serving behaviors at the expense of the whole.

To clarify another point Mark, I am not a progressive nor a liberal and I am afraid that the concept of moral superiority/inferiority is just one you are projecting. My belief is that every person makes their own choices and is only responsible to do no harm to other beings...to treat the other as self.

May 17, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

Casey, you might be interested in this article. Section 6 The Gilded Zip Code relates specifically to zoning https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/06/the-birth-of-a-new-american-aristocracy/559130/

May 18, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDariel Garner

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