Sunday Commentary: The Expansion of NIMBYISM into Zoning

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A reader pointed us back to a 2018 commentary from the New York Times, “How ‘Not in My Backyard’ Became ‘Not in My Neighborhood’,” in which Emily Badger notes, “The expectation that homeowners should be able to reach beyond their property lines has become deeply embedded.”

Beyond the housing shortage, one of the most interesting policy issues emerging now is the notion of restrictive zoning.  Part of this is a byproduct of racism – which I think is still a largely untold story in all of this.  The other issue that this gets into is local control – and how much should a local community, a local neighborhood, and a local property owner be able to restrict, in effect, who moves into a given area.

In a way, this piece, published January 3, 2018, was ahead of the curve.  This is a core issue in Senator Scott Wiener’s legislation as well as a series of articles across the country we have discussed in recent months.

Ms. Badger points out land use debates in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Phoenix and argues there is a common theme: “[E]ach of these places share a common conviction: that owning a parcel of land gives them a right to shape the world beyond its boundaries.”

There are two sides to this of course.  One is to prevent the type of development that can harm someone else.  Whether you agree or disagree on the issue of Trackside, that was at the heart of that controversy.

On the other hand, Ms. Badger argues that “increasingly it also means the senior affordable housing, the high-rises and the tiny homes — also arguably vital to the larger community — are never built.”

Vicki Been, the faculty director of New York University’s Furman Center and a former commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development in New York City, points out that on the upside here, “The idea was for people to be invested in the quality of nearby schools, the safety of neighborhood parks and the outcomes of local elections.”

The triumph of this ideal should be celebrated on the one hand, but there is a danger as well.

“Communities always need to be changing,” she said, “and we can’t have a process that gives every individual sort of a veto over change.”

“As people are increasingly living in urban areas really close to each other, it starts to be the case that so much of the value of your property is bound up in things that are happening outside of your parcel,” said Lee Fennell, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

Here the story becomes about race.  Ms. Badger writes, “As urbanization brought blacks and whites closer together, white communities reacted with racially restrictive covenants, aiming to keep blacks and their perceived threat to property values out of white neighborhoods.”

While restrictive covenants were ruled unenforceable in the 1940s, they have had a long-lasting impact on communities.

“One of them was to make white people think that the value of their homes depended on living in a segregated community,” said Carol Rose, a law professor at Yale. “That outlived racially restrictive covenants.”

The issue of zoning itself becomes interesting.  In Davis and California, we take it for granted.  But in many places, it doesn’t exist, and probably to the detriment of neighborhoods and communities.

Ms. Badger notes, “Zoning, rather than punishing people for proven harms that came from their property, told people what they could do on their property in the first place. And it prohibited many things — like buildings of a certain height — that had never been considered nuisances before.”

She adds: “Zoning effectively invited homeowners to look beyond their properties in ways they hadn’t. And it helped create the expectation that communities would change little over time — or that homeowners would have a say if they did.”

This is a key point as well.

“Prior to zoning, you didn’t ask yourself if you were buying a piece of property, ‘What’s the use of the land next to me, or down the block, or half a mile away?’ ” said William Fischel, an economist at Dartmouth. “Zoning becomes an opportunity for you to think outside the box of the lot lines of your own property. And people definitely start doing it.”

Vicki Been points out that, beginning in the 1990s, “neighbors increasingly defended not just individual buildings against change, but also a broader sense of neighborhood ‘character,’ with fights couched in the language of rights.

“It’s moved from just being ‘I should have a right to confront something that hurts my house’ to ‘I have an interest in this neighborhood as a whole,’ ” Ms. Been said.

Emily Badger points out, “These forces amount to a powerful brew: Our homes have become our wealth. Racial fears linger even if they’ve become encoded in other language. Change invariably looks like a threat.”

As she concludes, “it has become so hard to untangle the benefits of community ‘ownership’ from the rising harms. We want people to be invested in their neighborhoods, but not to the exclusion of anyone else who might live there, too. We want to empower neighbors to fight a trash dump, but not to halt every housing project the region needs.”

That becomes the line of debate – where to draw the line between a legitimate objection to a nuisance and where it becomes a total resistance to any change, to the point where these laws are in effect used to exclude others.

So we end up with restrictive zoning that keeps certain people out and prevents certain types of development.  A key question may become in this debate not whether we draw the line, but where we draw it.

—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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40 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: The Expansion of NIMBYISM into Zoning”

  1. Ron Glick

    “That becomes the line of debate – where to draw the line between a legitimate objection to a nuisance and where it becomes a total resistance to any change to the point where these laws are in effect used to exclude others.”

    In Davis we have drawn that line at the city limit through Measure R. Without a reliable source of additional land for development Davis has exacerbated all of these conflicts by trying to relieve the demand for housing through dense infill.

      1. Ron Oertel

        We also saw something similar to this, in regard to WDAAC:

        From article:  ” . . .one of the most interesting policy issues emerging now is the notion of restrictive zoning.  Part of this is a byproduct of racism – which I think is still a largely untold story in all of this.”

  2. Ron Oertel

    I’m waiting for the day when folks will finally acknowledge that you can’t continue growing “up”, or “out” indefinitely.  You can try to do so, until the planet itself “tells you” otherwise.  It’s already giving us clues.

    Prior to that point, quality of life will degrade for everyone – and for all other life forms. That’s already happening, as well.

    1. Alan Miller

      I’m waiting for the day when folks will finally acknowledge that you can’t continue growing “up”, or “out” indefinitely.

      I guess you’ve never been to southern California.

    2. Richard McCann

      Ron,

      Agreed, but the solution will NOT occur at a local level. In fact local restrictions exacerbate the problem because it can prevent the increased urban density that is required to reduce environmental impacts. (And I can supply many references to back this up, starting with those from Davis’ Chris Jones who works on the issue at UC Berkeley.) The real solution is a collective region, state, nation and global wide push to move more people into urban centers, away from rural area (which are becoming increasingly risky and costly for the rest of us to subsidize.) So instead of blindly objecting to local proposals that if rejected would simply push people to sprawl in other suburbs, the solution is to craft the proposed developments to increase sustainability and resilience with increased density and to reduce commute distances.

      1. Ron Oertel

        “So instead of blindly objecting to local proposals that if rejected would simply push people to sprawl in other suburbs,”

        I haven’t seen evidence that one “causes” the other.  Regardless, California is still on track to pursue “both” options. 

        Fortunately, the birthrate statewide has been declining.  Perhaps partly due to housing costs, as noted in this article. As noted in the article – some may be leaving the state, but others are simply not having as many children:

        https://www.sacbee.com/news/politics-government/capitol-alert/article229910029.html

        1. Ron Oertel

          Also wondering how you define “sprawl”, and to a lesser degree, “suburb”.

          Is Davis a suburb of Sacramento, for some?  At one time, much of the peninsula (south of San Francisco) might be best described as a “suburb” of San Francisco.  Perhaps less so, today.

          Is MRIC “sprawl”?  What about WDAAC?  How about the new developments that are part of Woodland?  What about Natomas?  It’s part of Sacramento.

          What about all of the new developments surrounding Sacramento, in places such as Roseville, Folsom, Rancho Cordova, Elk Grove, etc.? (Probably best described as primarily “suburbs” – with the possible exception of Folsom, to some degree.)

          Perhaps more to the point, how does one “prevent” sprawl near employment centers, when there’s still room to accommodate it (and interests which will aggressively push for it)? Does anyone truly believe that density (as a living arrangement) will be freely chosen by most, when there’s cheaper/easier options nearby? Especially when developers “call the shots” in virtually every other location?

        2. Ron Oertel

          Is Davis a suburb of Sacramento, for some? 

          Or – is it the other way around?

          And, what about West Sacramento, Woodland, Dixon? Are they entities onto themselves, or are they suburbs of Sacramento, Davis, Vacaville, or somewhere else? Or vice-versa?

          Mind-blowing, man!

          But, one thing I think we can all agree on is that the following is now in danger of turning into a failure:

          Ron: “Unlike every other day, I’m not going to allow myself to be pulled into further “discussion”, at any great length.”

           

           

  3. Ron Oertel

    In anticipation of the usual responses (regarding “where will all the people go”), here’s a rather interesting article, which notes a correlation between high housing prices and lower birthrates:

    https://www.sfgate.com/expensive-san-francisco/article/Ridiculous-Bay-Area-housing-costs-reflected-in-a-12988220.php

    It’s certainly a demonstration of “market forces” at play – regardless of how one perceives it.

    Unlike every other day, I’m not going to allow myself to be pulled into further “discussion”, at any great length. (Actually, I have some other “descriptors”, regarding the nature of the responses I often receive from a small number of commenters.)

    1. Richard McCann

      The study authors acknowledge an important caveat in their work: “The correlation observed here is by no means proof that home value growth causes fertility declines. One alternative explanation could be the possibility that there is clustering into certain counties of people with careers that pay well enough for expensive homes but make it difficult to have children before 30; this could cause both trends observed in the chart above.”

      Localized decline in birthrates does not translate into large scale declines in this case; it just means that births are being shifted around.

      1. Ron Oertel

         ” . . . it just means that births are being shifted around.”

        That cannot be concluded from the quotation you cited, or the study. (I’m not even sure what you mean by “shifted around”.)

        I just found the article interesting. It shows a correlation between high home prices, and lower birth rates.

      2. Craig Ross

        The important thing is that there is a local demand for housing and a need to bring jobs and transportation in line with housing needs.

  4. Ron Oertel

    From article:  “As people are increasingly living in urban areas really close to each other, it starts to be the case that so much of the value of your property is bound up in things that are happening outside of your parcel,” said Lee Fennell, a law professor at the University of Chicago.

    Another interesting phenomenon is that dense infill might be a factor contributing to an increase in home prices, depending upon larger market forces (such as economic development – as seen in the Bay Area), as well as the type of housing being built.

    There’s been a significant increase in the amount of market-rate infill housing built in San Francisco, and yet none of it is “cheap”.

    This issue is also at the heart of Trackside. In all honesty, the Trackside proposal would probably increase nearby home values. Fears of a “decrease” in home values are probably not what’s causing the concern, in that neighborhood.

    In fact, dense infill often displaces lower-income people, via gentrification.  Quite often, there’s racial issues involved in that, as well.  (Another commenter has posted several related articles regarding the YIMBY movement, related concerns regarding Scott Weiner’s goals, etc.).

      1. Ron Oertel

        I guess that’s true, for it’s size.  Size and density impact neighbors.

        At first, I didn’t fully understand the arguments that it was “luxury housing”.  However, partly due to Rik’s comments, I understand these concerns more fully, now.

        I always figured that neighbors would rather live next to “luxury housing”, vs. very dense housing.  But truth be told, most probably don’t want something very large, or very dense.

        Goes back to my original comment, regarding a societal refusal to acknowledge practical limitations “up”, or “out”.

      2. Alan Miller

        Define big.  Define dense.

        You touch on the size issue, but don’t touch the YIMBY/gentrification/race issue RO mentions.

        Your piece subtly (not so much) does the a = c thing of tying in the valuing of neighborhood land uses to racism.  You don’t say it directly, but a = b and b = c, therefore . . .

        What about the Long Beach neighborhoods that have been fighting port expansion?  Those are low income areas that banded together to save the character of their neighborhoods.  It’s OK because they are poor, but if middle or high income people fight for the character of their neighborhood, it’s racism?  That’s quite a stretch.  And let’s face it, those upper-upper-class neighborhoods of Davis that I’ve frequently listed are never going to get a mental health clinic or a homeless shelter or a student high-rise or even an apartment building.  And no one will question that. It’s just understood.

        “Fight the Real Enemy!” — Sinead O’Connor

  5. Bill Marshall

    I have a different take… not always folk ‘protecting’ their property, or even their neighborhoods… that, I’ve seen is often the excuse of folk who just like to control others, make them (others) do what they would like.

    I’d say there about 1/3 who genuinely feel they are protecting their property, another 1/3 who are genuinely trying to ‘protect their neighborhood’, and one third who believe that Someone died, and left them to serve as ‘God’… in all cases, it is a “me” reaction… which is not inherently bad, but should be recognized for what it is.

    And, can lead to forgetting about “them”, and “us”… it is what it is… human nature.  Can be primitive, can be “informed”… most of the most strident voices tend to be towards the former…

    h, and yes, for some, “them” is defined racially or socio-economically…

      1. Bill Marshall

        South Davis… battered women’s shelter (neighborhood threw up traffic and safety concerns… smokescreens)… Covell Park Northstar, affordable duplexes… Mace Ranch, Windmere both phases … Mace Ranch, and other posters here, re: new project @ Fifth and San Sebastian… give me a day and can probably come up with six more…

        And, I can point to an number of parts of town where well-off minorities were fully accepted as part of their neighborhood, because they were as well off as the neighbors.  Not sure they would have been if they were gardeners/hairdressers… (renters)

        Think I have appropriately answered your challenge. What say you?

        1. Alan Miller

          Those are projects with backlash . . . I was asking where you can say it was due to racism.  And I’m not talking about the suburb housing leases that clearly were racism . . . I’m talking about today.  You imply racism — racism is a strong charge . . . do you have evidence or just suspect it?  Is suspecting it “enough”?

        2. Alan Miller

          well-off minorities were fully accepted as part of their neighborhood, because they were as well off as the neighbors.

          That’s class-ism, which itself could be considered a sin, but if it’s about someone’s “class” it is racism in proportion to the numbers vs. income ratio, not race as such.

        3. David Greenwald

          It’s also not exactly true.  Well off minorities have often struggled to find housing and be accepted in white neighborhoods.

        4. Alan Miller

          I’m sure.  Is it an issue, today, in Davis?  I don’t mean are there a hand-full of racists in Davis who wouldn’t want a minority in their neighborhood (of course there are).  I mean, are minorities kept out of neighborhoods in Davis today due to racism?  Are efforts to protect the character of neighborhoods in Davis via zoning deep down based on racism?  Is that what is being implied here?

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            The point of the article was to note (A) past practices, (B) the relation between zoning and racism in the 1940s and prior, (C) the fact that many of the rules remain on the books since that time – not necessarily that they continue to be used for those purposes or with that intent. HOWEVER, I would point out the segregation remains a problem in this country.

            The Washington Post did a really good report last year: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2018/national/segregation-us-cities/?utm_term=.bfbff639eb2c

            They concluded: “Since 1990, more than 90 percent of U.S. metro areas have seen a decline in racial stratification, signaling a trend toward a more integrated America. Yet, while areas like Houston and Atlanta have undergone rapid demographic changes, cities like Detroit and Chicago still have large areas dominated by a single racial group.”

            They found, “some cities remain deeply segregated — even as the country itself becomes more diverse.”

        5. Bill Marshall

          Specifically racism… no… the ones I specifically cited were mainly socio-economic, but there was likely some cross-over for those who equate race with socio-economic…

          Also would be appropriate to point out, those who vehemently opposed the projects cited, did not prevail.

          Please note that some of the vocal voices re:  Trackside cited socio-economic considerations.  That the project was oriented towards “the very well-heeled”.

        6. Alan Miller

          They found, “some cities remain deeply segregated — even as the country itself becomes more diverse.”

          Sounds accurate, as far as it goes.

          Build more new housing — more supply lowers the price, but usually it takes place in non-rich neighborhoods that then become more ‘gentrified’.  ??? if you do, ??? if you don’t.

        7. Alan Miller

          Specificallyracism… no… the ones I specifically cited were mainly socio-economic, but there was likely some cross-over for those who equate race with socio-economic…

          ‘those who’ . . . i.e., “racism”, says you, or am I putting implied words in your mouth?  (hard to nail down those who overuse the three dots).

          Also would be appropriate to point out, those who vehemently opposed the projects cited, did not prevail.

          So pointed out.  Probably because each lost on the grounds, not racism or socio-economic-is-kind-sorta-like-ish-so-racism.

          Please note that some of the vocal voices re:  Trackside cited socio-economic considerations.  That the project was oriented towards “the very well-heeled”.

          That was not part of the lawsuit, nor is it an opinion I held, nor most of my fellow neighbors.  It was about the appropriateness of size of the building in a transition zone — and other considerations — not who was going to live there.

          “Vocal voices” may be skewed from your point of view, reading this digital rag, in that one neighbor with that view oft posts here in the funnies section — that doesn’t make it a legal argument nor an opinion held by most — just a vocal voice.

          Like me, today.  Please disregard me.  I’m just a vocal voice in the wind.

      2. Bill Marshall

        Oh… and if you weren’t aware, some equate race with socio-economic status… would assume that is so prevalent, that I don’t need citations… historically prevalent… even ‘races’ that are as much religious as racial… think “it’s all due to the rich ….[fill in the blank, as you choose]”.

        Recall that was an ‘argument’ used in a certain European country in the early-mid part of the last century, as an example…

  6. Jim Frame

    I’d happily swap out the student renters next door for an owner-occupying — or even a renting — family of any race you care to name.  (Note that the kids next door have been good neighbors, but when the owner’s son graduates and moves out I’m concerned about what we’ll be dealing with…especially since they’re adding a 2-bedroom ADU to the 3-bedroom house.)  I love my neighborhood, but if rental economics continue to turn owner-occupied homes into student rentals all around us, I wonder if the noise/parking/unkempt-yard conditions will prove to make our tenure too uncomfortable.

    I’m somewhat hopeful that the spate of apartment development we’re seeing will attenuate the change.  Sterling, Lincoln 40, Plaza 255, 3820 Chiles, Nishi and a potential new one on Olive Drive all portend an improvement in the vacancy rate that might turn the tide.

    1. Alan Miller

      What’s the “new one” on Olive Drive?  While Lincoln40 will take up my entire view of Olive, am curious what else is being proposed there.

      1. Alan Miller

        Specificallyracism… no… the ones I specifically cited were mainly socio-economic, but there was likely some cross-over for those who equate race with socio-economic…

        ‘those who’ . . . i.e., “racism”, says you, or am I putting implied words in your mouth?  (hard to nail down those who overuse the three dots).

        Also would be appropriate to point out, those who vehemently opposed the projects cited, did not prevail.

        So pointed out.  Probably because each lost on the grounds, not racism or socio-economic-is-kind-sorta-like-ish-so-racism.

        Please note that some of the vocal voices re:  Trackside cited socio-economic considerations.  That the project was oriented towards “the very well-heeled”.

        That was not part of the lawsuit, nor is it an opinion I held, nor most of my fellow neighbors.  It was about the appropriateness of size of the building in a transition zone — and other considerations — not who was going to live there.

        “Vocal voices” may be skewed from your point of view, reading this digital rag, in that one neighbor with that view oft posts here in the funnies section — that doesn’t make it a legal argument nor an opinion held by most — just a vocal voice.

        Like me, today.  Please disregard me.  I’m just a vocal voice in the wind.

  7. Jim Frame

    What’s the “new one” on Olive Drive?

    That’s a reference to an October 2018 article in the Sac Business Journal about the purchase of 18 acres on Olive Drive by Hallmark.  I don’t know if a development proposal has come forward yet.

    1. Alan Miller

      OK, it’s three small houses between the furniture store and the barber shop, being held for a multi-family development.  They paid top dollar, according to the article.  Not a huge piece of land, but current real estate economics sure may increase pressure to develop the three trailer parks on Olive.

  8. Craig Ross

    I find it funny – Ron Glick wants more peripheral.  Others want more infill.  Others want no peripheral.  Others want no infill.  Others want nothing at all.  Is it any wonder nothing happens here?

    1. Alan Miller

      Is it any wonder nothing happens here?

      The City hasn’t turned down a large development permit in how many years now?  Need I list all the projects under construction or far along in the planning phase that will add many thousands of new rooms.  Where’s the nothing?  Slow to frustrating in implementation for many reasons, I’ll agree.  But no not nothing nohow noway.

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