Of course NIMBYs want a housing crisis

The San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SF-BARF, and yes the acronym is intentional) is fighting across the Bay Area to alleviate the housing crisis, using a variety of strategies. One legal victory in Berkeley was a deceptively simple one: If the City Council wants to reject zoning-compliant housing projects, it needs to provide a clear justification for doing so. This is actually the law in California, but the lawsuit compels the city to do so, very transparently. The group is confrontational and aggressive and its tactics aren’t wildly popular, but it’s cutting to the heart of a problem: NIMBYs are everywhere in California.

‘Not in my backyard’ governs planning and zoning decisions across the Bay, especially in wealthy enclaves like Berkeley. Basically, I got mine, and I don’t care if you got yours.

A lot of complex motivations surround NIMBYism. For example, many people screech that developments will bring down their property values by obstructing views or introducing ‘ugly’ buildings or the like. Loads like to complain about ‘quality of life,’ suggesting that a development will change the character of a neighbourhood and that’s not what they signed up for when they bought property.

These attitudes are heavily steeped in privilege, classism, and racism. The problem isn’t that new people will move in, but some of them might be poor (which is why many NIMBYs HATE inclusionary zoning requirements) or people of colour. The problem is that a large development might result in many more people needing parking spaces, or requesting a bus stop to service the neighbourhood. The problem is that more kids may enter the school, needing resources and attention.

Rich people like to hide behind things like claims of concern about the environment and resources and so forth, but what they’re doing is super transparent. They like their nice big single family home on a large lot and they want the whole neighbourhood to look like that, because they think it’s more attractive and appealing. Having purchased real estate (and in California, benefiting from Prop 13), they want to sit back and watch it accrue value.

And this is an important thing to talk about. This is not a novel thesis and I am not the first one to bring it up, but it’s something that merits examination in the context of the Bay Area in particular. Because here’s the thing: When housing is short, property values and rents go up, because the tight market is much more competitive. That’s good news for people who own property, especially those who are landlords, not just owner-occupiers. The value of their properties increases, they can charge more rent, and they can profit from the housing shortage, something we’re seeing at work in the Bay now. Rents are stratospheric and properties are selling for cash well above asking within days of hitting the market.

This is not a byproduct of NIMBYism. It is a deliberate and desired outcome — because the people screaming about maintaining the character of their neighbourhoods have a lot to gain from opposing development, and a lot to lose when housing prices go down because developers are adding large quantities of new housing stock. They have a vested interest in rejecting large and/or dense developments and in trying to come up with creative ways to argue that projects violate zoning or will be a detriment to the community.

Some people are openly confronting this fact, while others are dancing around it, and not facing it head-on. SF-BARF is focused on flooding the market with housing stock as quickly as possible to bring prices down, rationalising that even luxury development will help alleviate the pressure. If enough new housing goes in, it could drive the start of a slump that would make renting and buying more affordable for working and middle class people in San Francisco and points surrounding. The organisation recognises that ‘aesthetics’ for NIMBYs is really about the condition of their bank accounts, and little more.

As I watch discussion unfold about development, I think about this issue, looking at the loudest people in these conversations and their rationale for opposition. Sometimes it’s ‘we don’t want our community to look like this,’ and often there’s a lot bound up in that. People don’t want new residents moving in. They don’t want the population growing. They don’t want to see houses in differing styles and they dislike new construction. They think apartments are ‘trashy’ and chain stores are ‘tacky.’ But a lot of this comes back, in the end, to property values, with determined NIMBYism rooted in keeping property prices high so that those in positions of power can continue to profit.

Don’t get me wrong — developers aren’t poor, beleaguered members of society to be pitied as they’re stymied at every turn trying to do a public services. They’re in it for the money too, a lot of it, and they’re exerting their own pressures on planning commissions and city councils and boards of supervisors. The push to overturn NIMBYs will inevitably profit developers, and it’s important to acknowledge that too.

But when you hear someone resisting development in their area, especially their neighbourhood, take a look at the stakes they have in the game and dig into their arguments a little deeper. Do they have a sound reason for opposing a code-compliant development, especially one that’s designed with things like efficiency and density in mind, with the goal of having a minimal environmental footprint?

Image: Carpenters at Work, Brett and Sue Coulstock, Flickr