Sunday, August 20, 2006


Goddamn NIMBYs

I misremembered the train schedule the other morning, and passed some time waiting for the actual time of my train at Crêpes Café in Menlo Park (I will definitely add this place to my "where to eat" list below) with a cup of coffee and a local paper.

The top story in the Palo Alto Daily News was the organization of a new NIMBY group to fight for reduced housing in the to-be-redeveloped Alma Plaza shopping center. This comes after the P.A. city council has already convinced the developers to put in fewer housing units and more parking (you would think it was cars that vote in elections, not people).

I've seen NIMBY's in action, and it's not pretty. At a Mountain View council meeting I spoke at a few years ago on redevelopment of Mayfield/HP site at San Antonio CalTrain, they came out in force carrying signs with EIR in the universal circle-and-slash symbol for "no"--meaning that the city should refuse to do an environmental impact report, to prevent even consideration of the project--essentially, because didn't want it, no other arguments needed.

It's the same story up and down the Peninsula. Last year Redwood City voters stopped a new bayfront development that would have "sacrificed the character of the community" (the site is currently filled by a junkyard). As the no-on-Q graphic to the left makes clear--there is a breed of suburbanite NIMBY that loathes anything urban, and insists that residency gives them absolute veto rights over any development in their vicinity that does not meet their vision of suburban idyll.

And pretty much, our political system gives it to them. Zoning laws give a city's current residents control over what gets built, and no voice whatever to those who might want to live there, even if they work there, perhaps commuting long distances. And lest I bash the burbs too much, residents of cities like San Francisco and Berkeley have been just have adamant, and just as successful, in opposing development that would make them any more urban or denser.

Economic Downsides

The result is the extreme shortage of housing we now face. It's really quite striking how consistent the cities of our region are in their opposition to new housing. Where densification is allowed, it is always winnowed down, constrained and held up by years of review. The simple and sobering fact is, the Bay Area needs several million more housing units just to meet current demand, let alone allow predictable growth, but every community seems to hope that it will get built somewhere else.

It's important to remember that the high price of housing here is entirely artificial. Land, of course, is limited, and it's reasonable to expect that amenities such as large houses or yards should be expensive. But the scarcity of housing units--even ones that take up less land, like rowhouses, condos, or apartments, is simply due to cities refusal to allow more to be built.

The result is a distorted marketplace where the price of any unit is inflated. Recently, two houses on my street sold in the $700-800k range. Strangely, one was nearly twice as big as the other, and on twice as big a lot, but this didn't make that big a difference in the price--because the it's not land per se, or square footage of house that's in scarce supply--it's legally sanctioned housing units. Thus a shack on half-size lot has almost as much value as a big house on a double-sized one, even though, zoning aside, the latter could be split up into two of the former.

For a more methodical study with the same conclusions as my two-house anecdote, read here.


The result is a form of economic discrimination which makes cities and whole regions unaffordable to ordinary, working people. It's a subtler form of exclusion than, say, burning crosses on folks' lawns, but just as effective. It also appears to be legal. Discrimination in housing, as in other areas of life, based on race, creed, etc is against civil rights laws (see, for example, this Department of Justice webpage). Discrimination based on wealth is not. Capitalism would collapse if it were.

But shelter is widely recognized as a basic human right, for example in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Laws that create artifical shortages of the basic necessities of life are a grave injustice. But is this an injustice that our legal system offers any remedy for?

There is at least one precedent. In New Jersey, the state supreme court has declared exlusionary zoning illegal. The original case overturned the zoning ordinances of the city of Mount Laurel Township, a suburban community which had previously allowed only suburban-style, detatched housing to be built. At the same time, the city did all it could to encourage commercial development, but made no effort to ensure sufficient housing for employees of the new businesses it attracted. The court ruled this violated the New Jersey state constitution, which gives municipalities power to control land use "for the general welfare". Exclusionary zoning violates this principle both in that is denies people their basic right to housing, and because it means a city is shirking a responsibility to the greater region to take on its fair share of population.

I can't really comment on what the long term effects of this have been on the availability of housing in New Jersey. It appears that the state's reaction to this ruling has been to create processes that allow cities to avoid lawsuits by providing nominal affordable units, but probably slow down the pace of development enough to ensure a continual shortage. (See this Wikipedia Article for discussion). The original ruling is worth a read, though, especially the opinion of Judge J. Pashman, who urged the court to go farther:

With this decision, the Court begins to cope with the dark side of municipal land use regulation -- the use of the zoning power to advance the parochial interests of the municipality at the expense of the surrounding region and to establish and perpetuate social and economic segregation...

(These practices) are inconsistent with the fundamental premise of the New Jersey zoning legislation that zoning is concerned with the physical condition of the municipality not its social condition. In a deeper sense, they are repugnant to the ideals of the pluralistic democracy which America has become...

A homogeneous community, one exhibiting almost total similarities of taste, habit, custom and behavior is culturally dead, aside from being downright boring. New and different life styles, habits and customs are the lifeblood of America.

Turning back to california, state law (search here for "housing") actually puts a very specific requirement on cities' land-use planning:

Local and state governments have a responsibility to use the powers vested in them to facilitate the improvement and development of housing to make adequate provision for the housing needs of all economic segments of the community.
a requirement which most California cities are in blatant violation of. Most make no pretense of trying to comply. The city of Laguna Niguel, which I'm only picking on because they put their zoning objectives on the web, lists as goals that they will "secure social and economic benefits for residents", "ensure adequate offstreet parking", and "protect and enhance real property values", but nothing about providing adquate housting. To the contrary, Laguna Niguel strives "to prevent undue intensity of land use or development," and "to avoid population overcrowding", or put more plainly, to keep any more people from moving there.

As someone who's knowledge of the law comes mostly from high school civics and TV (and I don't think Law & Order has done an episode about zoning yet), how cities get away with what seems to be such obvious diregard for state law is a mystery to me. No doubt, other legislation sets up a process by which a few token "affordable" units are considered satisfactory; but the spirit of the law is clear enough, as is the fact that it's being broken.

Who you can Write To

Every month, millions of Californians write rent checks, and silently fume. Citizens who suffer for the lack of affordable housing, sinking obscene portions of our income into rent or enduring marathon commutes, or both, are a huge potential consituency that politicians seem profoundly disinterested in appealing to, or eveng seeing. Then again, even the victims generally don't see this as a political issue, probably buying the line that high housing costs are the result of natural market forces, and inevitable.

Most groups and individuals advocating for affordable housing seem to share this view, at least implicitly, and favor the approach of charity, proposing that the government or non-profits should provide below-market housing to the most needy. Few seem interested in addressing the underlying causes of the problem, and there are almost no proponents of a radical anti-NIMBY, or TWAYBYB (The World Ain't Your Back Yard, Bitch!) position. Here's a few good guys I've managed to find:

If you know of others, leave a comment.

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