Sunday Commentary: The Left Split over Housing

If you have been following local politics in Davis for any period of time, you will know that the town at times is bitterly split over the issue of growth and housing.  What has made the dividing line most interesting and perhaps most intense is that the cleavage is not formed over partisan or normal ideological lines.

In short, you see folks who agree on national issues, who agree on social issues, but who are bitterly divided over where and how fast to grow in Davis.

We are seeing similar lines in the state and even nationally.

An article this past week in the Economist captures the split in the Democratic coalition over housing costs in cities.

The Economist notes: “San Francisco liberals are the kind of people who abhor nativism in all its forms and recoil at statements, like those recently made by President Donald Trump, that America “is FULL!” Yet in their own neighbourhoods, they often act as if the country were packed to the brim.”

Meanwhile, in Berkeley, “Local residents in a posh part of the city have raised over $100,000 to contest plans for a new homeless shelter, claiming that the new ‘megashelter’ will breed crime and violence (‘drug users’ and ‘”pets, including those designated as “vicious” will be allowed’ they warn).”

The article points out that San Francisco, with its median monthly rent for a one-bedroom flat estimated at $3500 per month, “is only the most pathological example.”

They write: “West Coast cities, which are under near-total control of the leftiest Democrats around, rank among the least affordable for middle-class Americans and most inhospitable to the poor.”

There are consequences for these policies: “Every morning traffic in the Bay Area is clogged by service-sector commuters, some of whom live far off in the state’s Central Valley and must make three-hour long treks in each direction. The smog from the cars settles in the valley, resulting in some of the worst air quality in the country.”

The article argues that, while Democrats are unified on national issues, with surveys showing the majority self-identify as liberals, “the politics of land use in thriving cities scrambles this harmony.”

They identify three distinct coalitions.

First, “there is the landed gentry, older residents who bought at the right time and are precious about maintaining their housing value.”

Second “come the leftist activists who favour rent control, massive public-housing spending and who think gentrification is terrible.”

Third “are the market-oriented urbanists who want cities to fix their housing-supply shortages by building more.”

The article raises an interesting point, although I see it slightly differently.  The first group is definitely present.  But the second and third groups are probably more divided along the lines of what is the more salient social issue: people or the environment.

For many on the left, housing has become a social justice issue.

But it’s more complicated than that, because there are those who believe that land protection is vital to environmental protection and those who believe that the key to saving the environment is smart growth – more work-live, putting people closer to jobs to reduce commute time.

The Economist argues: “The rent-control faction appears newly emboldened.”

Again, have to question that a bit – in California, the rent control measure went down in flames.  As the article points out, advocates argue such measures would “provide immediate relief” to those struggling “to keep up with rising rents and a tight rental market.”  The downside of rent control is that it also works “to constrain housing supply, hurting future renters.”

They cite: “A study by three Stanford economists of a rent-control law change in 1994 in San Francisco found that affected landlords decreased supply by 15%, increasing rents citywide.”

The result is rent-stabilization or control, but rent that is “hardly cheap.”

In California, “the degree of rent control that cities can impose is limited by a state law known as Costa-Hawkins. In 2018 activists launched an effort to repeal the rule by referendum. They were defeated (the proposition attracted its highest level of support—53%—in San Francisco county). Unbowed, state legislators have proposed a suite of bills that would increase local rent-control capacities.”

Housing prices are high “because demand has grown more quickly than supply. Supporters of rent control pay no heed to the opportunities they deny to poor and middle-class people to move to thriving cities.”

The article argues “the market-urbanist coalition, which pushes for relaxed zoning rules and more building, had little sway over local politics.”

But that is changing, they argue.  The YIMBY movement is a loosely organized bloc of those who are saying “yes in my backyard” to new development.

Here is where they situate SB 50 put forward by Senator Scott Wiener, a former San Francisco City Councilmember.

They write SB 50 “would pre-empt local zoning rules and allow high-density building near transit stations and centres of job growth or high-quality schooling. For many cities in the Bay Area, this would essentially legalise high-density building citywide.”

Once again the left is split.  The mayors of San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento are in favor.

But the San Francisco City Council is opposed, as is the mayor of Pal Alto.

The article notes that SB 50 modifies the failed legislation from last year.  They write: “The new version contains concessions to activist concerns—like delaying implementation in poor neighbourhoods and adding tenant protections—and looks politically hardier as a result.”

“Rather than having these two camps, or sub-camps, divided and fighting with each other, they should be unified,” says Mr Wiener. “In the end, the common opponent is the no-growth people who do not want any development in our community. They want to freeze their communities in amber even though their children won’t be able to live where they grew up.”

The believe the success of SB 50 will depend on Gavin Newsom, who has shown a desire to fix the state’s deep housing problems and pledged to build 3.5 million new housing units by 2025.

However, they correctly point out, “The intra-party politics of housing reform remain difficult. SB 50 has cleared one committee hurdle, but has yet to emerge from the state legislature. And for all his efforts elsewhere, Mr Newsom has yet to weigh in on whether he would actually sign it.”

What I find interesting about this article is that it captures very well that the divide we have experienced locally for decades is now at the forefront of statewide debates over housing policy.

It also puts SB 50 at the center of this battle – whereas, I think a more important long-term issue is going to be what happens with efforts to create a successor to RDA (Redevelopment Agency funding) which could create another battle between the need for affordable housing and funding for schools.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Ron Oertel

    These people certainly don’t have to worry about the cost of housing.  They and their activities are the cause of the cost, in places impacted by it:

    “In places such as Silicon Valley, the slopes of Davos, Switzerland, and the halls of Harvard Business School, there is a sense that the kind of capitalism that once made America an economic envy is responsible for the growing inequality and anger that is tearing the country apart.”

    Yeap – technology, combined with capitalism is enabling a more “efficient” concentration of wealth. No wonder they’re worried about the survival of the system, according to the article.

      1. Ron Oertel

        The cost of housing, e.g., in the Bay Area.  And, anywhere else that attracts the type of economic activities that drives up the cost of housing, and increases wealth disparity.

        Did you even read the article?  Wages are not keeping up – even for those working in Silicon Valley.

        From article:

        “His days are split between meetings with billionaires and his many constituents who are struggling to stay afloat amid Silicon Valley’s success.”

        On a related note, protestors in France are concerned that a billion dollars has been raised for Notre Dame (apparently from some very wealthy people), while they’re struggling with more basic needs. Maybe another sign of increasing wealth disparity.

        1. Craig Ross

          I’ve reported this as off topic.  Given that this is a topic about views of housing on the left, I don’t see what billionaires in the Silicon Valley have to do with that particular topic.

        2. Ron Oertel

          Go for it – no need to announce it.

          By the way, the article also notes that fewer workers are needed in these new industries (e.g., compared to the industrial revolution).  Perhaps another reason that existing, lower/middle-wage populations are being forced out of higher-priced areas. And, are increasingly migrating to less-expensive areas, such as this region. Driving up the price here, as well.

        3. Alan Miller

          “I’ve reported this as off topic.”

          “Go for it – no need to announce it.”

          When you do something that will fail, it’s best to announce your intentions to show how ‘right’ you are.

    1. Matt Williams

      Ron’s cited quotation made me think of a recent Opinion published by Joseph E. Stiglitz, who is a Columbia University professor and a Nobel laureate in economics.  The whole opinion, entitled Progressive Capitalism Is Not an Oxymoron —  We can save our broken economic system from itself. can be read at  I provide a pertinent excerpt here.

      Despite the lowest unemployment rates since the late 1960s, the American economy is failing its citizens. Some 90 percent have seen their incomes stagnate or decline in the past 30 years. This is not surprising, given that the United States has the highest level of inequality among the advanced countries and one of the lowest levels of opportunity — with the fortunes of young Americans more dependent on the income and education of their parents than elsewhere.

      But things don’t have to be that way. There is an alternative: progressive capitalism. Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron; we can indeed channel the power of the market to serve society.

      Standards of living began to improve in the late 18th century for two reasons: the development of science (we learned how to learn about nature and used that knowledge to increase productivity and longevity) and developments in social organization (as a society, we learned how to work together, through institutions like the rule of law, and democracies with checks and balances).

      Key to both were systems of assessing and verifying the truth. The real and long-lasting danger of the Trump presidency is the risk it poses to these pillars of our economy and society, its attack on the very idea of knowledge and expertise, and its hostility to institutions that help us discover and assess the truth.

      There is a broader social compact that allows a society to work and prosper together, and that, too, has been fraying. America created the first truly middle-class society; now, a middle-class life is increasingly out of reach for its citizens.

      America arrived at this sorry state of affairs because we forgot that the true source of the wealth of a nation is the creativity and innovation of its people. One can get rich either by adding to the nation’s economic pie or by grabbing a larger share of the pie by exploiting others — abusing, for instance, market power or informational advantages. We confused the hard work of wealth creation with wealth-grabbing (or, as economists call it, rent-seeking), and too many of our talented young people followed the siren call of getting rich quickly.

      Reading the sixth excerpted paragraph you could replace the words “America” and “nation” with the words “Davis” and “city” and I believe you would have a remarkably good description of the current state of Davis affairs.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Yes, and without disagreement as to demonstrable facts, narrative, we do see that in public and private employment, TOTAL COMP (not just wages) are definitely disparate in the “system”… accentuated by recent tax law changes.

        It is acknowledged by many as to education workers (regardless of position/competency)… not so much for other public employees, or the private sector… the latter being dominant as to total comp, including pensions/SS benefits, for same work/qualifications, until the 1980’s, 1990’s… now has reversed, where private sector has no real pensions (only nominal 401’s, etc,) but still has SS… public sector has pensions, but most are excluded from SS (not often recognized, even when the public employee folk paid into SS) but the bulk of their employers didn’t… paid instead to CalPERS, CalSTRS, UC system, etc.

        Or, not at all, because the public agencies were told they were “super-funded”, and no contributions were necessary from the employer (or, the employee in some cases).

        Private employees only have what they contribute, some get some sort of employer match (between 0-3%), and they have SS.

        But those are only folk that have steady employment… those hourly, particularly in the “service sector”, are much less.

        Those who caught the “brass ring”, who bought/paid off their homes, have sustainable pension/SS income, are at least ‘treading water’, and/or are ‘floating’ quite nicely… what passes for the middle class… those on either side are doing really great, or need to manage when they get up to breathe.

        The disparity is real… solutions not obvious… many would drag the middle down, to even up with the lower.

        Several on this site would be fine in having others sacrifice what the others have, to bolster the struggling… parcel taxes are an example… when the parcel taxes are de minimus to those truly well off.

        Just observations, no solutions…

  2. Rik Keller

    David Greenwald states “The YIMBY movement is a loosely organized bloc of those who are saying “yes in my backyard” to new development.”. 

    Nope. They are actually  saying “yes in someone else’s backyard.” And they are saying “yes to massive developer giveaways”. And they are saying “yes to gentrification and displacement of low-income communities.”

        1. Ron Oertel

          Craig:  From the article you cited, with text bolded by me:

          “Yimby groups have received funding from founders of several hi-tech companies, including tens of thousands of dollars from Jeremy Stoppelman, a co-founder of Yelp, and the Open Philanthropy Project, which is partly funded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.”

          “Deepa Varma, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, says it has been frustrating to see a new group come in and portray Latinos fighting for preservation of their neighbourhood as nimbys.”

          And yet, you fail to see the connection with the other article I posted, above.

          Seems to me that you’ve (ironically) aligned yourself with a view that is more closely aligned with Republicans.


        2. Alan Miller

          – most are millenials, most have no ties to developers or unions (other than campus ones)…

          Most are tools to developers and unions, and don’t even know it.

      1. Rik Keller

        “This statement is from a group of organizers associated with the LA Tenants Union, DSA-LA, and/or the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, in response to an event hosted by the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles on March 19, 2019 titled “The Growing YIMBY Movement.” We also organized a protest inside/outside of the event.
        As Angelenos committed to housing as a human right, we are disappointed that the Hammer Museum would provide a fawning and uncritical platform to Sonja Trauss and other spokespeople of YIMBYism. It is not simply that we disagree with their ideology, or recognize it as an astroturf campaign; YIMBYs undermine the true movement for housing justice and tenant power.
        “Yes In My BackYard” advocates a deregulatory, trickle-down framework for housing policy that does more harm than good. The thread uniting YIMBYs is that we should just “build baby build” to solve our housing crisis, despite abundant evidence — including studies by MIT academics and the Federal reserve, in addition to historical evidence from cities that have pursued this approach — showing that merely adding market-rate supply does not lead to lower housing prices, but rather spurs gentrification and displacement. By empowering the real estate industry, which has long served as a vanguard of structural racism and segregation, YIMBY policies hasten the construction of cities only accessible to the rich…”
        The rest of the statement is worth clicking to:

        1. Rik Keller

          most are millenials, most have no ties to developers or unions (other than campus ones)…
          Alan Miller said “Most are tools to developers and unions, and don’t even know it.”
          This is such an accurate characterization of the YIMBY crowd! The developers/realtors are seeking massive giveaways in their carefully crafted astroturf campaigns. The people who do not have direct connections and who buy into the rhetoric are tools (but in some cases are willful dupes).

          [P.S. it is possible to be a “good” liberal and pro-union while also pointing out that building/trades unions might just have a bit of self-interest in getting into bed with big developer money interests.]


        2. Craig Ross

          As opposed to saying the same about teachers on an educational topic?  Can you imagine a true liberal (not a conservative like Bill Marshall, Jim Hoch, or Alan Miller) but an actual liberal making the same comments that Rik Keller did about teachers?

    1. Richard McCann

      “They are actually  saying “yes in someone else’s backyard.” And they are saying “yes to massive developer giveaways”. And they are saying “yes to gentrification and displacement of low-income communities.”

      Rik, do you have actual evidence to back up each of these statements?

  3. Bill Marshall

    Small, but very important matter…

    Bee article today challenged all “sanctuary Cities”, including his hometown of Davis, to “put up” as to taking in refugees/immigrants/asylum seekers, in proportion, as well as “workforce” and “students”… that means, housing and employment opportunities…

    I second that thought… many liberals would reject, although they want to posture as to supporting needs of refugees.  I don’t.  I embrace it.

    Yes, this would be in our own backyard/front yard… are we serious?  I am.

    In addition to the other needs!

    Those folk will need both housing (affordable) and employment opportunities… I welcome both.

    Or, does the majority want to back out of the “sanctuary City” thing?

    Fish, or cut bait.  No middle ground, no equivocation… yes/no.

    Be real…

    1. Rik Keller

      Bill M. said “Fish, or cut bait.  No middle ground, no equivocation… yes/no.” I’m on board with you there. Here’s the Sac Bee editorial you referenced:

      The author,Antonio De Loera-Brust, is a Davis High grad and recent college graduate. His editorial ends with:

      It’s also an opportunity for liberal but exclusive towns like Davis to reckon with our own failings and entrenched inequalities. It’s an opportunity for everyone in California to think about how to build a state that actually provides sanctuary to everyone.
      So, to the leadership of my hometown, my home state and every other sanctuary city across the country, big and small: Put your money where your mouth is. Walk the talk.
      Send the president a letter saying: “Yes, please. We welcome the immigrants you send our way.”
      Then prove it by investing in immigrant housing, services and outreach.

      I made some of the same points about discrimination and the need to specifically provide for housing for underserved groups in this article:

      “2) It is central to the Fair Housing Act to “affirmatively further fair housing” through housing and land use policy. The wealth disparities in communities and between communities that were accentuated by the policies and practices outlawed by the Act and other legislation persist today with residential patterns and housing opportunities distributed along particular racial/ethnic lines and ongoing discrimination…


      What policies and programs have had or would have the effect of continuing these exclusionary patterns? How do we enact policies and programs to avoid continuing these past patterns and make the community more inclusive? How can Davis start to “affirmatively further fair housing” and seek eliminate disparate impacts in the housing projects it approves?

      …One of the primary things to address in terms of land use policy affirmatively furthering fair housing is low-density sprawl: primarily single family development that excludes by income/class and race/ethnicity (because the latter is so intertwined with former in the U.S.)….

      …Another thing to address is the weakening of the City of Davis’ affordability requirements. Earlier this year the 25-35% requirement for inclusionary/affordable housing in the City’s Affordable Housing Ordinance was reduced to 15% temporarily because of a need to respond to State rules. When the City modifies its Ordinance again by the end of 2018, it needs to ensure that it is adequately addressing the need for affordable housing among the lowest income groups in the city and that it eliminates the kinds of loopholes in the requirements as well as fee assessments that developers have taken advantage of in the past….

      …Keeping with Measure R directives, project proposals that seek voter approval to develop protected agricultural land should be evaluated based on whether the proposed conversion of agricultural land to other uses is necessary and whether it meets the directive of addressing the city’s internal housing need—the housing need for the city’s workforce, particularly underserved low- and moderate-income households…

      …Land use disputes are a central civil rights issue. We need to change our thinking about what discrimination really looks like at the systemic level and start to try to address these issues in our land use planning for a more equitable and inclusive community.

      “As long as we define social life as the sum total of conscious and deliberate individual activities, we will be able to discern as racist only individual manifestations of personal prejudice and hostility. Systemic, collective, and coordinated group behavior consequently drops out of sight. Collective exercises of power that relentless channel rewards, resources, and opportunities from one group to another will not appear “racist” from this perspective, because they rarely announce their intention to discriminate against individuals. Yet they nonetheless give racial identities their social meaning by giving people from different races vastly different life chances.” (George Lipsitz, “The Possessive Investment In Whiteness” in Readings For Diversity and Social Justice (4th Ed., 2018))

  4. Ron Glick

    I was Yimby before it was Yimby and funded by Donald Bren and other development interests. Too bad I didn’t monetize my desire to provide more housing to try to moderate prices. I guess you could call me OY for Original Yimby or better yet Oy Vey for its enough with the high prices for housing already.

    As for dismissing Yimby as astroturf I see it more as politics making strange bedfellows.

  5. Ron Glick

    “San Francisco liberals are the kind of people who abhor nativism in all its forms and recoil at statements, like those recently made by President Donald Trump, that America “is FULL!”

    Can’t you hear Donald’s father saying this to a minority person looking to rent a house or apartment in Queens. Oldest lie in the discrimination book. I have no doubt Donald learned the “Sorry, we’re full” line from his dad. What I find amusing is that nobody in the media made the connection. I guess it requires too much speculation for MSM but late night comics you dropped the ball?

  6. Ron Oertel

    From the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, below:

    “Sonoma County lost 3,300 people after 2017 wildfires”

    “Both arrived at the same conclusion: a drop in population that he called “alarming.”

    There are several things I find “alarming”:

    1.  That local officials would automatically view a population drop as “alarming”.

    2.  That some folks cling to the belief that the amount of development (in this case – unfortunately destroyed) has no impact on local/regional population. (Otherwise known as a “lie”.)

    3.  The photo in this article depicts new housing, that will likely burn again.

    4.  The displacement of lower-income people, who used to occupy said housing (as acknowledged in the article).  (Then again, perhaps they will be saved from danger/displacement the next time.)



      1. Ron Oertel

        If they’re ultimately being “replaced” by higher-income people (as discussed in the article), it’s not likely that there’d be an economic decline.

        The view of the local officials (in the article) seems to be more tied to the displacement of lower-income people.

        Regardless, if any official believes that continuing population growth is necessary for economic stability, there’s a problem (with either the official, or the system itself).

        1. Craig Ross

          Decline means they’re not being replaced.  You asked why they would be alarmed by this prospect, I explained it to you, you then tried to speculate your way out of it.  The point stands: population decline leads to economic decline.  That’s why they are concerned.  How it ultimately plays out is aside from the point.

        2. Ron Oertel

          The article states that they will ultimately be replaced with higher-income people.

          I didn’t ask a question.  But again, you’re reading something into the article that isn’t there – in any way, shape, or form.

  7. Ron Oertel

    Had I written this article, I might have titled it as follows:

    “Why are some (who claim to be on the left) aligning themselves with those on the right”?

    (Not that such labels mean that much in the first place – except for those using them for political purposes, perhaps.)

    1. Richard McCann

      None of the political groups are monolithic, and there’s so single set of philosophies that can be defined simply as “left” and “right.”

      1. Ron Oertel

        Richard:  I assume you’re making that comment in reference to the title of the article, which was underlying my point. (In other words, I pretty much agree.) More importantly, an individual might have views that encompass opposite categories – as they’re usually defined.

        However, I guess we’ll still have to figure out which side the “dark underbelly” belongs to – that David sometimes refers to.  😉


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