A few days ago, the Huffington Post ran a lengthy article that found, “Progressive Boomers Are Making It Impossible For Cities To Fix The Housing Crisis,” and “Residents of wealthy neighborhoods are taking extreme measures to block much-needed housing and transportation projects.”
They describe a meeting in Seattle, where the co-chair of the city’s homelessness task force asked for the crowd to allow her to finish. She asked, “Can I finish what I’m saying?” “No!” the audience chanted back.
It was a scene we have seen in Davis from time to time. Most recently was back in January, as neighbors of Pacifico jammed into the Montgomery Elementary Library and basically hijacked the meeting.
As the Huffington Post reports: “Seattle is not the only city where locals are losing their minds over issues related to housing, zoning and transportation. Ugly public meetings are becoming increasingly common in cities across the country as residents frustrated by worsening traffic, dwindling parking and rising homelessness take up fierce opposition.”
In recent months, the issue of housing has perhaps taken a back seat to homeless and traffic here in Davis. Angry crowds have been shouting down naysayers and public officials in meetings on the Mace traffic concerns. In the past we have seen this not only on Pacifico, but also some angry public meetings on the downtown homeless concerns.
Housing by contrast seems to have become more civil and less contentious, with more consensus developing. Okay, maybe not.
After all, last spring during a debate, a project proponent, fed up with a series of absurd comments by the opposition speaker, finally said, “We need to focus on reality and the need and the merits of the project and not all these weird red herrings. This is serious, let’s get rational. People need housing. This is good for everybody.”
Last fall, the battle over a housing development turned contentious if not ugly at times, with accusations and counter-accusations on both sides.
But in the end, the voters approved both projects – one in the June election and one in November, by healthy if not overwhelming margins. A recent survey shows that by far the largest issue for many is the affordability of housing.
Still Davis has seen contentiousness on housing, homeless, and traffic. But what we are seeing is that Davis is not particularly unique on this front these days. Across the country, the battles are brewing and being waged.
Writes the Huffington Post: “Last September, a community hearing over a proposed homeless shelter in Los Angeles had to be cut short after boos and jeering repeatedly interrupted speakers. Throughout 2018, public meetings in Minneapolis to discuss changing the city’s residential zoning code erupted into shouts and insults from audience members. At a public meeting last August on homelessness in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, audience members chanted, “Lock her up!” at a female representative of the mayor’s office.
As they point out: “These scenes are usually sparked by projects or policy changes intended to address America’s worsening housing crisis.”
The problem is not limited to California – it is just worse in California, but it seems to be spreading.
The article points out: “More than 200 American cities now have median home values above $1 million. The construction of new dwellings has lagged behind the number of new households eight years in a row. Both congestion and climate change are prompting many cities to explore expanding their public transportation networks.”
The problem should be familiar as well.
The Post points out that “despite the urgency of the need and the expert consensus on solutions, individual efforts to increase density, improve transit or alleviate homelessness can spend years bogged down by local opposition.”
What is interesting is that while “[r]owdy public hearings are nothing new in city politics,” increasingly campaigners and elected officials are saying “that the nature of local opposition has changed in recent years. Where protest movements and civil disobedience were once primarily the tools of the marginalized, they have now become a weapon of privilege — a way for older, wealthier, mostly white homeowners to drown out and intimidate anyone who challenges their hegemony.”
“Most of the abuse I got came from older suburban or retired folks, and always from people who considered themselves progressive,” said Rob Johnson, a Seattle City Council member who retired in April after three years in office.
“Housing, homelessness and transit have always been controversial, but the kind of feedback and treatment we get has completely transformed in the last five years,” Councilmember Johnson said.
What they are finding is increasing tensions between old and young, owners and renters.
The Post makes two points.
First, “Nearly every major city in America has seen skyrocketing housing costs push renters out into the exurbs while enriching longer-term residents who bought real estate before the boom.”
Second is that “job growth in urban centers has worsened traffic, filled up parking spots and launched debates over cycling and scooters. Galloping inequality and a fraying safety net have made homelessness and poverty more visible.”
This has led to the relatively privileged mobilizing against perceived threats.
The next exchange should seem familiar as well.
The article quotes Alex Baca, who is a housing program organizer in Washington state. He said that “neighborhood opposition groups nearly always claim to support public transit and affordable housing in general but use technical arguments and procedural roadblocks to make sure such projects aren’t built in their neighborhoods.”
The article points out: “Examples of this can be found in nearly every city experiencing job and population growth.”
Mr. Baca “sees the increasing ugliness of public forums as a manifestation of the widening generation gap among progressives.
“The boomer generation came of age at a time when neighborhoods were fighting back against highway expansions and power plants,” Mr. Baca said. “To them, preserving their neighborhood is progressive.”
We are seeing this in Davis. The battle over Mace Blvd. for example has often seemed to be a group of angry, older, relatively well-off people who are arguing against changes to the roadway. At times, parents have however pushed back, arguing that the road was unsafe for kids – and the city has presented data that since changes to the roadway occurred there is more bicycling by students at Pioneer.
We also see it at least somewhat in the data the city released.
When we look at the issue of affordability of housing, who is most concerned? Thirty-eight percent of those 18 to 29 view it as the biggest problem. That increases to 52 percent for the 30 to 39 group – those most likely, by the way, to have families with small children. The 40 to 49 group sees the issue tail off somewhat to 32 percent.
But over 50, the number drops to 20 percent for 50 to 64 and 23 percent for those over 65.
There is a clear generational component here. It is not absolute by any means.
On the Huffington Post, the concern is what “the unanswered question of the boomer backlash… means for the future of cities.”
They believe, at least in the short-term, “anti-growth activism is likely to increase urban inequality.”
They note, “Nearly three-quarters of the jobs created since the Great Recession were added in cities with populations over 1 million. As cities continue to swell with new workers, their inability to build dense housing and high-quality bus and train service will push low-income residents even farther away from jobs and schools.”
This is a crucial point. It is why you see economic development projects that include housing and also provisions for transportation. We need jobs, but we need places for the people who are working to live, and ways to get them to work.
—David M. Greenwald reporting