By David M. Greenwald
Last week Josh Stephens of the California Planning and Development Report argued, “NIMBYism has had a good run: a good, multi-million-dollar fun for many millions of (relatively older, whiter, wealthier) Californians. That run is ending.”
While I must acknowledge encouragement at what happened in San Francisco with the heavy focus on housing in the special Assembly Election and of course the quick legislative override in Berkeley, not to mention the failure of opponents of SB 9 and SB 10 to mount an initiative drive—overall I am much more sanguine than Stephens about the death of NIMBYism.
Maybe it’s because I live in Davis, and see the ability of local residents to continually thwart efforts for new housing. Maybe it’s because I see the ability of small groups to block and delay projects even after approval.
Stephens argues, “After NIMBYism went nearly undefeated and scarcely contested for four decades, its losses are piling up. It’s not dead, but it’s sputtering.”
He makes a strong showing here, but argues, “None of those single events, of course, gives California and its cities free rein to build the 2-3 million units that are needed. But collectively they point to a political shift that, coupled with structural economic and demographic trends, suggest that NIMBYism is not what it used to be—and probably never will be again.”
Here are some of the highlights that Stephens mentions in his 12 examples.
First, he writes, “NIMBY-oriented petitions to force recall elections in Los Angeles and San Diego failed to even get on their respective ballots.”
Second, he notes, “Statewide ballot measures like 2020’s Prop. 21, a rent control measure sponsored by NIMBY group AIDS Healthcare, failed handily.”
Stephens noted that “Our Neighborhood Voices” ballot initiative “advanced by a group of local elected officials who talked big game about recapturing local control from the state” ended up pulling their petitions having failed to garner significant numbers to force a ballot initiative.
Stephens also noted that the YIMBY movement has advanced from their early days to “the remarkably effective lobbying and advocacy efforts of California YIMBY.”
He also noted, “The demise of single-family zoning in cities like Sacramento and Berkeley (pre-SB 9) illustrates a powerful confluence of social justice and housing advocacy.”
Meanwhile, he argues that Livable California, “an organization that probably seems powerful, forceful, and righteous within the echo chamber of its membership—looks increasingly ineffectual and cartoonish.”
We have seen a strong legislative record of pro-housing laws, “with relatively few failures and vetoes,” though he acknowledges high-profile failures like SB 827, SB 50, and AB 1401. He argued that these “provided cover for more subtle pro-housing laws.”
Stephens also points to the new RHNA process, “which while not perfect, is very real.” He adds, “The attorney general is keeping tabs on cities, calling them out for noncompliance, and threatening to file lawsuits.”
While San Francisco Supervisors killed a high-density apartment building “that had checked all the planning boxes,” that “seems like a victory, except for the outcry and derision that it inspired. San Francisco voters may face a ballot initiative in November that would make it harder for the supervisors to deny projects.”
Finally, he pointed to the Berkeley lawsuit that was won by a neighborhood group, and “would have prevented UC Berkeley from building a new mixed-use dorm and, more importantly, forcing it to reduce enrollment.”
“Initially, it seemed like an enormous, potentially devastating win over one of the world’s great public institutions,” he writes. “And yet, not two weeks later, the legislation and governor, in an astonishing display of unity and effectiveness, passed a law to negate the lawsuit. Students of Classical history at Berkeley will know this as a ‘Pyrrhic victory.’”
Stephens concludes that “while I do not support unbridled development and appreciate many stakeholders’ concerns, I think this evolution will, on balance, be good for California and Californians.”
He points out “an increasingly small share of California’s population benefits from Prop. 13. The primordial Prop. 13 beneficiaries have made out like bandits. And anyone who’s purchased a home in the past decade or so is probably sufficiently resentful of the fact that they are paying property taxes that might be, in some cases, many times greater than those of their longer-tenured neighbors.”
He believes that the demise of NIMBYism will allow California planners to “actually plan.”
He noted that “planners today are less encumbered than ever before by NIMBY-inspired restrictions.”
From a political perspective, he argues, “I think they’re going to hear increasingly fewer strident voices of opposition at public meetings in the coming years. Those voices might not be any less loud, but they’ll be less numerous.”
I actually think we have already seen this locally. I’ve noted that the last few Measure J elections, the number of anti-housing/anti-development voices have been relatively few. Even looking at places like NextDoor, the number of people actively engaged and hostile to the recent DiSC project are relatively few.
Still, as we have seen in Davis, while there have been victories for housing—Nishi and Bretton Woods in 2018 for instance—the anti-housing forces can still muster victories.
Stephens noted that “some NIMBY-friendly policies and institutions will take awhile to catch up with public opinion. CEQA will always complicate planners’ work, and it will always favor the status quo.”
He added, “NIMBYs will still win occasional victories, through clever use of CEQA and political pressure in certain slow-growth redoubts, like the San Francisco Peninsula and Orange County. But they’re also going to lose. Their losses will lead to frustration. But frustration is not policy. And the more time passes, the more evidence will mount that the sky remains intact.”
Overall, I think he makes some strong points. I’ve often noted locally that there is a huge generational factor, with older homeowners acting as the last gatekeeper for new housing opportunities in Davis and that pool will slowly decline in strength and number of time.
Still, I would not count myself as optimistic. At least not yet.