Commentary: NIMBYism Rears Its Ugly Head

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(Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

I am told that NIMBY is a pejorative.  It also seems like an apt description of what is going on.

Josh Gohlke’s column in the Sacramento Bee: “California’s courts let NIMBYs strangle UC Berkeley. There’s only one reasonable response.”

Gohlke argues: “The California Supreme Court refused Thursday to delay a ruling that will force UC Berkeley to cut next year’s admissions by thousands, effectively endorsing the notion that college students in the heart of a major metropolis pose a significant environmental threat under California law.

“At a time when soaring housing prices, pervasive homelessness and other repercussions of California NIMBYism have never been clearer, the decision empowers the sort of affluent property owners who brought this case to go beyond blocking housing for younger and less wealthy people to stunting their education and more.

“The neighborhood group that brought the case, Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, cited such alleged enrollment-related environmental catastrophes as ‘excessive noise.’ In a statement hailing the court’s ruling, the group accused the university of ‘creating a tremendous housing shortage in Berkeley,’ but it’s also opposed construction of housing that could accommodate students.”

Valera Voce in the Mountain: “3,000 Students Can’t Go To UC Berkeley Because of a NIMBY Lawsuit.”

She writes, “As a preliminary measure, we should explain what NIMBYism is. NIMBY stands for “not in my backyard” and all the individuals of that mind. NIMBYs oppose development in their cities they deem at odds with the community’s interests. Often they oppose new apartment buildings or high-density developments that would change how NIMBYs perceive the community. Darrell Owens, a housing commissioner for the city of Berkeley and pro-density advocate with East Bay for Everyone, considers NIMBYism as ‘opposed to housing in their neighborhood, oftentimes for aesthetic or economic reasons that are anti-poor and anti-middle class.’“

Mother Jones: “The Latest Victim of NIMBYism? Thousands of Potential UC Berkeley Students.”

They write, “In a move that the Atlantic has deemed the ‘apotheosis’ of NIMBYism, a neighborhood group called Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods filed a lawsuit challenging the university’s plan to build new housing and academic space for Berkeley faculty and graduate students.”

Reason: “Berkeley NIMBYs Are Taking Advantage of California’s Flawed Environmental Regulations.”  They note, “Liberal Berkeley officials might be coming around to the view held by conservative business leaders, who have long argued that California’s Environmental Quality Act needs an overhaul.”

The aforementioned Atlantic: “NIMBYism Reaches Its Apotheosis.”

“The solution is not really under dispute either: California needs to build more housing—dorms, apartment buildings, casitas, duplexes, fourplexes, anything to bring prices down for students and everyone else. The state “has been underbuilding for something like 30 years now,” Jenny Schuetz, an economist at the Brookings Institution, told me. “The amount low-income families are spending on housing is completely unsustainable.””

The article continues: “Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods might have prevented that from happening this year, and thousands of kids might have to attend college elsewhere as a result. But this week, State Senator Scott Wiener announced a bill to exempt student housing from CEQA. (The timing was a coincidence, he told me, because the bill has been in the works for months.) Activists are hoping to harness public outrage to target other parts of the law as well.”

“This is crystallizing just how deranged and broken the process is,” Brian Hanlon, the chief executive officer of California YIMBY told the Atlantic.

At the end of the day the NIMBY shoe fits this debate.  The argument—is not here.

What is the solution for some?  Put the student housing somewhere else.  Add enrollment somewhere else.  Where?  Anywhere but here apparently.

In the past few weeks I have seen proposals from stopping enrollment growth, to increasing enrollment at Merced to building a whole new campus.

The basic problem is that right now enrollment demand is growing.  That means more people want to go to college than a few years ago, which is increasing the demand for space and housing on college campuses.

Shrinking or limiting the size of colleges is not a viable solution.  For one thing, as noted previously, college education is a gateway to prosperity in modern society—and as much as people long for the days when there were high paying non-college manufacturing jobs, those jobs are gone and unlikely to come back to the US.

Moreover, there are economic forces at work here—as long as there is demand for enrollment space, someone is bound to supply it.  In short, the debate quickly devolves to a NIMBY argument—put the students somewhere else.

I have seen arguments for UC Merced, a relatively new campus.  The demand for UC Merced is considerably lower.  This year over 100,000 students applied for UC Davis.  UC Merced also broke records but with about one quarter of the applicant pool.

Create new campuses?  Maybe.  But then you are asking a whole new community to host a 25,000 or so student campus where none existed previously.  That’s a lot more disruption than adding 5000 housing units for students.

I’m not saying not to build new campuses—but just understand that the environmental impacts are not going away if that’s the case, instead they are being displaced and relocated.  It is more environmentally efficient to create additional density than it is to create a whole new infrastructure.

In the end, all this comes down to one fact—certain people are trying to protect their community, their homes, their way of life.

As Atlantic reported in an interview with Phil Bokovoy the leader of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, “Berkeley the school is putting Berkeley the city at risk…  Students are driving up housing costs, displacing low-income families, draining city resources, and degrading the environment.”

Bokovoy’s solution: move them to Richmond or El Cerrito.

They write: “If that’s what it takes to keep Berkeley special, Bokovoy thinks it’s worthwhile. What that means in practice, though, is thousands fewer Berkeley students and tens of thousands fewer Berkeley families. Keeping Berkeley special for existing Berkeleyans is the housing crisis, because it means long commutes and unsustainable prices. Keeping Berkeley special for existing Berkeleyans is the environmental crisis, because it means more Californians living in sprawl and commuting by car. The university needs to expand as California expands, and Berkeley needs to expand too.”

In other words, Bokovoy wants to put the impact somewhere else on someone else’s back, just as those who advocate for a new campus or more students at Merced want student enrollment growth somewhere else.

We have a phrase for that—Not in My Backyard.  We aren’t against housing and students—just not here.  Students have to go to school somewhere.  NIMBYs just don’t want it in their backyard.  Who can blame them.

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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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34 thoughts on “Commentary: NIMBYism Rears Its Ugly Head”

  1. Keith Olson

    So the title of this article is “NIMBYism Rears Its Ugly Head” but the article finishes with “NIMBYs just don’t want it in their backyard.  Who can blame them.”

    The author calls NIMBYism “ugly” but then goes on to defend NIMBY’s.

    So which is it?

    1. Keith Y Echols

      The entire tone of David’s article indicates a self righteous lack of objectivity; which of course leads to limited analysis.  He’s more interested in being a crusading do-gooder (saving those poor college students) than objectively analyzing the issue.

      1. Keith Y Echols

        David’s commentary actually gathers an array of commentaries by others that make this point. It’s not just him here, and it’s intent was not an analysis of this issue–it was to highlight the wide array of many others criticizing this decision.

        I understand that he’s assembled all like minded commentaries to support his dogmatic belief.

        BTW Bokovoy lives in New Zealand half the year, thereby incurring a huge amount of GHG emissions that damage the environment. He should start in his own house if he’s so concerned about the globe. Instead, it’s just his selfishness on display.

        I don’t know or care who the guy is and what gas he emits.  If it’s an environmental concern, then the best solutions are: ON CAMPUS housing (either existing or even better new campuses).  The best environmental solution is simply to reduce enrollment.  Again, that’s if environmental issues are your primary concern.

    2. Richard_McCann

      Keith E

      David’s commentary actually gathers an array of commentaries by others that make this point. It’s not just him here, and it’s intent was not an analysis of this issue–it was to highlight the wide array of many others criticizing this decision.

      BTW Bokovoy lives in New Zealand half the year, thereby incurring a huge amount of GHG emissions that damage the environment. He should start in his own house if he’s so concerned about the globe. Instead, it’s just his selfishness on display.

      1. Ron Oertel

        It’s not just him here, and it’s intent was not an analysis of this issue–it was to highlight the wide array of many others criticizing this decision.

        Yeap – the YIMBYs have indeed infiltrated the political system and much of the media.  And you’re right – they don’t actually perform meaningful analysis.

        I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Alan Miller

    I am told that NIMBY is a pejorative.

    I resemble that remark.

    NIMBYism Rears Its Ugly Head

    Not only are you defending this pejorative, now you are insulting the attractiveness of its noggin.

  3. Alan Miller

    NIMBYs just don’t want it in their backyard.  Who can blame them.

    Who?

    1) David Greenwald

    2) Scott Weiner

    3) YIMBYs – and I use that word as pejorative.

    That’s who.

    Note: YIMBYs rarely get anything in THEIR backyards. Thus they are actually YIYBYs.

  4. Ron Oertel

    Moreover, there are economic forces at work here—as long as there is demand for enrollment space, someone is bound to supply it.  In short, the debate quickly devolves to a NIMBY argument—put the students somewhere else.

    I have seen arguments for UC Merced, a relatively new campus.  The demand for UC Merced is considerably lower.

    There’s your new “supply”.  Knowing what kind of town that is, they’d love to have more.

    What is the solution for some?  Put the student housing somewhere else.  Add enrollment somewhere else.  Where?  Anywhere but here apparently.

    This isn’t even an issue for Davis.

    Doesn’t UCD have to build housing on campus for each new student if they keep pursuing additional students, as part of the agreement with the city?

    Make no mistake, though – college enrollments are dropping.  UC has simply chosen to take a bigger piece of a smaller pie.

  5. Ron Oertel

    The solution is not really under dispute either: California needs to build more housing—dorms, apartment buildings, casitas, duplexes, fourplexes, anything to bring prices down for students and everyone else.

    I can tell you that this absolutely is in dispute.

    California is not growing anymore, though it is still sprawling outward.

    The politicians and their business allies are trying to force it to grow, for their own interests.

    1. Keith Y Echols

      Not that I’m advocating for more houses, but your analysis or understanding of CA’s situation isn’t correct.

      While CA may have experienced population reduction state wide over the past couple of years; it’s not projected to continue to lose population and is likely to bounce back and grow.  But even it it doesn’t bounce back in a couple years, there’s still an existing housing shortage between the existing population (those still coming to CA) and existing inventory of homes.  Remember that Real Estate is a local industry…what do they say: “location, location, location”.  So you have regions of CA (like the Sacramento MSA) that continue to grow and show a great need for housing.  Even if places like the Bay Area continue to shrink over then few years; the inventory isn’t going to catch up with demand to a degree that significantly effects prices to make homes marginally more affordable there (or in LA or San Diego)…etc…

       

       

      1. Ron Oertel

        there’s still an existing housing shortage between the existing population (those still coming to CA) and existing inventory of homes.

        The “existing population” doesn’t include those still coming to California.  But if you want to count it that way, subtract-out the number leaving.  (If you do so, you might conclude that a bunch of housing “needs” to be torn-down.)  🙂

        How are you measuring the “shortage” between the existing population, vs. the existing inventory?  I’ve never seen anyone (or any organization) actually put forth any numbers regarding that. And yet, that’s what this entire argument is supposedly based upon.

        Many homes throughout the state are not even occupied, full-time. And many are “under-occupied”.

        1. Keith Y Echols

          The “existing population” doesn’t include those still coming to California.  But if you want to count it that way, subtract-out the number leaving.  (If you do so, you might find that a bunch of housing “needs” to be torn-down.)  

          Consider “existing population” to be whatever the population number is and imagine it in relative stasis with people coming and going….give or take a few thousand.

          How are you measuring the “shortage” between the existing population, vs. the existing inventory?  I’ve never seen anyone (or any organization) actually put forth any numbers regarding that. And yet, that’s what this entire argument is supposedly based upon.

          That’s a good question.  Generally you measure it as an inverse indication on the demand side; median home price increases, days on market…etc…   The idea is that if inventory kept up with demand that the demand numbers wouldn’t continue to rise like they do.

          Many homes throughout the state are not even occupied, full-time. And many are “under-occupied”.

          That’s irrelevant.  You can’t force property owners to rent their homes or house more people.  (well in some special cases you can…but that’s not going to happen state wide).

          Is there some reason that the Commodore 64 that hosts the Vanguard website just decides to randomly log you out?

        2. Ron Oertel

          That’s a good question.  Generally you measure it as an inverse indication on the demand side; median home price increases, days on market…etc…   The idea is that if inventory kept up with demand that the demand numbers wouldn’t continue to rise like they do.

          Seems to me that “demand” is not the same issue as “need” (e.g., a comparison between existing population vs. number of units).

          We had a drastic housing crash a little more than a decade ago.  Prices dropping like a rock.  And yet, population was not dropping during that period.

          That’s irrelevant.  You can’t force property owners to rent their homes or house more people.  (well in some special cases you can…but that’s not going to happen state wide).

          I was speaking of “inventory”, regarding homes that aren’t fully/consistently occupied.  Isn’t this evidence that increasing “inventory” doesn’t necessarily address population-based “need”?  For example, wealthier folks (sometimes from other countries) who purchase part-time homes in places like San Francisco?

          Until someone comes up with a “number” of units supposedly-needed to house the existing population, the entire argument is nothing but hot air.

          As a side note, I just saw the preparation for the new development in Lagoon Valley (the currently-peaceful, scenic valley between Vacaville and Fairfield). How sad. It’s quite visible from I-80.

          Vacaville’s representatives are apparently responsible for that. The same town that David idolizes, regarding its pursuits.

           

          1. Don Shor

            Until someone comes up with a “number” of units supposedly-needed to house the existing population, the entire argument is nothing but hot air.

            That is what the RHNA process by the state housing department does.

            Assessment: Calculating the Housing Need in Each Region
            HCD is responsible for determining the regional housing needs assessment (segmented by income levels) for each region’s planning body known as a “council of governments” (COG). HCD starts with demographic population information from the California Department of Finance and uses a formula to calculate a figure for each region/COG.

            Each COG uses its own demographic figures to calculate what it believes the regional housing need is. Each COG then coordinates with HCD — taking into account factors not captured in the calculations — to arrive at a final figure. This final figure is the regional housing needs assessment.

        3. Keith Y Echols

          We had a drastic housing crash a little more than a decade ago.  Prices dropping like a rock.  And yet, population was not dropping during that period.

          Prices only dropped like a rock in some regions of CA and not as much if at all in others.  Remember it’s all local: location, location, location.  And it could have been much worse but builders kept a shadow inventory of lots off of the market and stopped building.  So prices never came down (or stayed down) and the supply was never flooded with new homes.

          Seems to me that “demand” is not the same issue as “need” (e.g., a comparison between existing population vs. number of units).

          I don’t quite get what you mean.  Demand is demand it’s how much and how fast people are buying.  I’m not sure what the difference is between “need” and “buy” that you’re making.

          Vacaville’s representatives are apparently responsible for that. The same town that David idolizes, regarding its pursuits.

          I can’t really speak for David, but I suspect like me he doesn’t really like to see peripheral development if can be avoided ( I don’t now if it can or could have been avoided in Vacaville).  But on the other hand the Vacaville bio-tech campus is something that should have been in Davis.

        4. Ron Oertel

           

          Don:  That is what the RHNA process by the state housing department does.

          Seems to me that the RHNA process has nothing to do with current population-based need.

          Instead, it is a process by which they attempt to force growth, base upon what they would like to see. Not just “them”, but the underlying interests which support this process.

          Keith E.  I can’t really speak for David, but I suspect like me he doesn’t really like to see peripheral development if can be avoided ( I don’t now if it can or could have been avoided in Vacaville).  But on the other hand the Vacaville bio-tech campus is something that should have been in Davis.

          Seems to me that this is further evidence that one leads to the other.  Which is obvious in the first place.

          Not just limited to biotechnology, but any pursuit of continuing economic growth.  And this model is simply not sustainable. This is exactly how continuing sprawl occurs.

          Not just “Lagoon Valley”, but also the sprawl heading up Highway 505.

          But again, I’d look forward to a comparison of the existing population, vs. the existing number of housing units and their sizes (in order to “prove” a shortage).  Again, this is the entire basis of the claim of a “housing shortage”.

           

      2. Richard_McCann

        Keith E is correct on housing demand. The key quantitative metric is the household size trend. A rising number when the population is aging indicates that housing is not keeping up with population. (When the population is getting younger, families are increasing.) California household size grew 2% from 2010 to 2019, indicating an unmet demand in housing in a relatively inelastic market (there’s a fixed quantity of land). That leads to disproportionate increase in housing prices.

        https://knoema.com/atlas/United-States-of-America/California/topics/Demographics/Households/Average-household-size

        1. Matt Williams

          Richard, if you compare the 2019 average household size to the 1979 or 1969 household size, what would you find?

          Although I do not have the specific numbers at my fingertips, I believe the consistent trend from 1969 through 2009 was for an ever decreasing household size.  I also believe the recent increasing household size trend does not bring us anywhere near where we started.

          Context is everything.

  6. Keith Y Echols

    Create new campuses?  Maybe.  But then you are asking a whole new community to host a 25,000 or so student campus where none existed previously.  That’s a lot more disruption than adding 5000 housing units for students.

    That is the stupidest comment in this article.  There are plenty of communities that could accommodate a new campus much easier than squeezing more students into existing campuses and their adjacent communities.   You’ve acknowledged in the past how infill development has a higher cost than peripheral development  because of changes and increases of capacity to the existing infrastructure is more expensive than simply expanding out new infrastructure.

     For one thing, as noted previously, college education is a gateway to prosperity in modern society—and as much as people long for the days when there were high paying non-college manufacturing jobs, those jobs are gone and unlikely to come back to the US.’

    Again with the wrong headed, emersed in the liberal self righteous cult of the higher education industry.  You want prosperity in modern society?  INCREASE AND PROTECT BLUE COLLAR WORKING CLASS JOBS.   It’s incredible arrogance to believe that like you; everyone should go to college is the best solution for society.  Not everyone should or wants to go to college.  It’s that simple.  Pumping in more students for participation trophy degrees (which is what most degrees amount to) is an exercise of ever diminishing returns.  Is it an academic knowledge issue?  This isn’t the 15th century where knowledge is kept by gatekeepers at prestigious universities and monasteries.  If you really want to learn something; it’s there to learn.  You can find it in multiple formats; old fashioned print, recorded lecture videos, interactive teaching programs and even instruction (outside of traditional academic structure).

    In other words, Bokovoy wants to put the impact somewhere else on someone else’s back, just as those who advocate for a new campus or more students at Merced want student enrollment growth somewhere else.

    Why shouldn’t the burden be spread out more.  Why are certain communities obliged to house the UC’s revenue producing assets?

    None of David’s article makes lick of objective sense.

    1. Richard_McCann

      There are plenty of communities that could accommodate a new campus much easier than squeezing more students into existing campuses and their adjacent communities.  

      Simply wrong. Campuses function best with agglomeration of intellectual talent, just as agglomeration leads to the success of other industries. In addition, the economies of scale for educational institutions is quite significant. Further, using more land to build a campus with all of its attendant infrastructure further damages the environment, both in extending into fragile ecosystems  and in increasing GHG emissions from transportation.

      Don’t cling to the belief that blue collar jobs are the road to prosperity. Yes, we need more of these but the fundamental truth is that manufacturing is head for automation and overall reduction in those jobs. It’s even happening in countries such as China and Vietnam. The real future jobs for those without a college education will be as “artisans”, really tradespeople”, who won’t be working in factories, such as plumbers and carpenters who work on one-off projects that can’t be automated easily.

      Again, certain communities are obligated to host these students because state and federal taxpayers have funneled their tax dollars in various forms into these communities for this purpose. No UCD, no Davis. Compare us to Dixon. (And you still haven’t answered that comparison.)

      If you don’t want to live in a college town with its obligations to others in California, then don’t live in a college town.

      1. Keith Y Echols

        Simply wrong. Campuses function best with agglomeration of intellectual talent, just as agglomeration leads to the success of other industries. In addition, the economies of scale for educational institutions is quite significant.  

        So aggregate them somewhere else.

        Further, using more land to build a campus with all of its attendant infrastructure further damages the environment, both in extending into fragile ecosystems  and in increasing GHG emissions from transportation.

        More students are going to damage the environment at existing locations (likely worse due to cumulative effects).  Spread out the damage.  One of us is/was a builder who’s had to understand and mitigate the impact of infill development and peripheral development .  The other does something with water.

        Don’t cling to the belief that blue collar jobs are the road to prosperity. Yes, we need more of these but the fundamental truth is that manufacturing is head for automation and overall reduction in those jobs. It’s even happening in countries such as China and Vietnam. The real future jobs for those without a college education will be as “artisans”, really tradespeople”, who won’t be working in factories, such as plumbers and carpenters who work on one-off projects that can’t be automated easily.

        I don’t “cling” to anything.  If anything you and the rest of the college for everyone crowd is guzzling the liberal higher education industry Kool-Aid.  You don’t need to go to college to run automated machinery.  You need specific vocational skills.  Tell me how much of the undergrad requirements at UCD are applicable to running manufacturing machinery?  Again, college is not for everyone.  Not everyone wants to or should go to college.  Why is this simple fact so hard to swallow?  Is it something in the Kool Aid?

        Again, certain communities are obligated to host these students because state and federal taxpayers have funneled their tax dollars in various forms into these communities for this purpose. No UCD, no Davis. Compare us to Dixon. (And you still haven’t answered that comparison.)
        If you don’t want to live in a college town with its obligations to others in California, then don’t live in a college town.

        NO, CERTAIN COMMUNITES ARE NOT OBLIGED TO SUPPORT THE REVENUE PRODUCING ASSETS OF COLLEGES.  Talk about clinging…jesus…..UCD and the City have chosen to manage things independently of each other. UCD is not in the city’s limits.  They both do what is best for themselves.  Why is this such a hard concept to accept.  Any benefits or obligations between them are incidental.  LOL…you and your Dixon hate again.    Again…I’ve said this before and you don’t comprehend it….UCD isn’t going anywhere so your Dixon comments are irrelevant.  UCD is next to Davis…so what.  They are not under the city’s jurisdiction so there’s no obligation.  UCD is clear that it operates in it’s own self interest….yet you (irrationally) continue to believe that the city must oblige UCD????   If you hate Dixon so much because of it’s lack of a university; OPEN A NEW CAMPUS THERE.

         

  7. Ron Oertel

    But this week, State Senator Scott Wiener announced a bill to exempt student housing from CEQA. (The timing was a coincidence, he told me, because the bill has been in the works for months.) Activists are hoping to harness public outrage to target other parts of the law as well.”

    They are, indeed.  There’s an article in the Chronicle regarding that, today.

    Wiener, the senator carrying the bill to exempt campus housing, said CEQA is due for “structural reform,” but conceded it could be a tough lift.

    The State Building & Construction Trades Council of California, a powerful coalition of unions, recently endorsed SB886, Wiener’s bill to exempt student housing from CEQA. Under the bill, schools would be required to use skilled construction workers who are paid prevailing wages, virtually ensuring that that they are handled by unionized laborers.

    https://www.sfchronicle.com/politics/article/By-carving-out-projects-from-California-16984806.php

    Folks, these are (primarily) the Democrats you’ve put into office.

     

     

    1. Alan Miller

      Under the bill, schools would be required to use skilled construction workers who are paid prevailing wages, virtually ensuring that that they are handled by unionized laborers.

      And who funds the campaigns of those Democrats and had created the pressure for PLA’s (Project Labor Agreements) ?  Union labor a la public projects.  Which then drives up the cost of the public projects, makes a mint for the public unions, which then fund Democratic campaigns.  And who pays?  Those who live in the housing so built.

      So take your pick:  well paid union labor, low prices for housing, or a magical unicorn world where federal money pays for it all!!!

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