Commentary: Are the YIMBYs Really Winning? Housing and Climate Change Are a Duel Threat

Photo by Chris LeBoutillier on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Sacramento, CA – This week, California YIMBY rejoiced at the passage of AB 1633, which seeks to limit CEQA abuse.

“Urban infill housing is critical for the environment and climate change,” they proclaimed.

“Building multi-family housing in existing communities not only reduces rents, it is one of the most important steps California can take to reduce climate pollution, and to conserve sensitive lands and ecosystems,” said Brian Hanlon, CEO of California YIMBY.

He added, “AB 1633 ensures that environmental laws, like the California Environmental Quality Act, are used to help achieve these objectives. Thanks to Assemblymember Phil Ting for advancing this important reform.”

I completely agree with the need to adjust land use in order to address the climate crisis.  One of the large sources of carbon emission is because people cannot afford housing near their jobs, forcing them to commute.

In a blurb on Wednesday, Blanca Begert and Wes Venteicher of Politico proclaimed, “YIMBYs are winning this session.”

Key to that point, “The YIMBYs are steadily getting the upper hand in their ongoing fight to make housing a climate issue.”

Toward that end, Politico cited two big bills from Senator Scott Wiener—SB 423 and SB 4—along with Ting’s AB 1633.

Writes Politico, “Pro-housing advocates are cheering the growing recognition of the link between development patterns and emissions. They’re pushing for more multi-family housing, which is more energy-efficient, and more urban infill development, which is closer to public transportation and can reduce driving.”

This marks a key shift because, for so long, the environmental movement has focused on preventing growth.  The problem with that approach is that people have to live somewhere.  So preventing housing in one location doesn’t actually protect the environment, it potentially protects it in one location.

But in point of fact, that’s not true either.  If housing policies push people further from their jobs, it simply displaces the environmental impact.

“I think for a long time the environmental movement has been centered around saying no and stopping things,” said Jordan Grimes, resilience manager with the Greenbelt Alliance. “But there is a big difference between stopping a freeway expansion or the construction of a warehouse in a low income community and stopping affordable housing.”

We have seen this at play locally and often the “environmentalists” end up winning the battle, but losing the war.

Politico argues: “Traditional environmentalists — and some environmental justice groups — are on the back foot.”

Groups like the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club California opposed SB 423, arguing it could encourage building in ecologically sensitive habitat and in dangerous fire and flood zones.

In addition, “The California Environmental Justice Alliance also opposed based on concerns that the bill didn’t include sufficient guardrails around building on unremediated sites or near toxic facilities.”

Wiener amended it “to prevent construction in some coastal areas vulnerable to sea-level rise, but they say it still goes too far.”

“Unfortunately the bill, even as currently amended, does not contain adequate safeguards to protect sensitive wildlife habitat in coastal zones,” said J.P. Rose, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It still allows for development without environmental review in high-risk wildfire zones and does not ensure that housing is properly distanced from polluting or industrial uses.”

But what’s the alternative?  Forcing the cost of housing up where jobs are located to force people to commute further?

Writes Politico: “YIMBYs are emboldened by this session’s victories. There’s talk of going for a bill next session that would map areas to keep off-limits for fire and flood safety, but upzone and streamline permitting in areas deemed climate-safe.”

As a result, “The protectionist wing is open to talks.”

“There have been discussions and proposals floated for more significant bills that address both the kind of building up as opposed to building out issue,” Rose said. “I think probably the Center would support a bill that more holistically addresses these issues.”

Chest bumping aside by the YIMBY’s—as I’ve argued elsewhere, I don’t see a gamechanger here.  In fact, I argue we haven’t really changed the dynamics of housing yet in California.

What we need are ways to pave the way for large amounts of housing—particularly affordable housing.  That will require not only streamlining the approval process, limiting the blocking mechanisms, but also finding funding to actually build housing that people can afford.

But if YIMBY can re-frame the narrative to make the public understand that the politics of “no” will only make the climate crisis worse, then they will do a big service for California going forward, even if the current bills are only effective on the margins.

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. Tim Keller

    What is interesting to me here… is that while this struggle is cast as “yimby vs. nimby”, both sides are advocating for environmentalism…

    A cynic might object to this observation and state that Nimby’s are only using environmentalism as a argument that simply confirms their existing bias of  not wanting their neighborhood to change… but I don’t think thats fair.   I think those people DO genuinely believe in sustainability, and in that belief, I think there is opportunity for real progress on these issues.

    As I have said here multiple times… I don’t think that most of the people who oppose Measure J projects are strictly “against growth”, I think they are against “bad forms of growth”. (ie: SPRAWL…) and on that point, many of us “yimby’s” would agree!!!

    The problem is that most of the measure J projects that we get (including the ones currently on the radar) ARE in fact, sprawling in design, and thus, opposition to them is not surprising, or un-earned.

    There mare SO MANY reasons why we shouldn’t be building more single family houses (SFH):

    If you are for conserving farmland… SFH is the worst option.
    If you are focused on economic sustainability of our city, again SFH is the worst option.
    If you care about GHG emissions, also… SFH is the worst option.
    If you are worried about traffic or availability of parking downtown… again, SFH is the worst option.

    So why are we even considering the proposals to produce more single family housing?

    The answer:  “Habit”.

    Its only the fact that we are so used to the suburban paradigm that we don’t know how to see our community any other way, and because of that, developers are also afraid to offer anything else.

    Thats a really stupid reason to be building bad forms of housing.   I think we can do a lot better.

    While I am personally very much for growing our housing supply, and doing it as quickly as we can, I am most interested in providing housing for local workers: the people who work here but don’t make enough to live here.   Not being able to house this specific group of people hurts us the most: economically, socially and environmentally.

    And again, on this point I think that both the NIMBYS and the YIMBY’s would agree…   So I’m less interested in determining whether or not “the Yimby’s are winning”, and more interested in finding a way to bridge that gap, and turn the environmentalism often espoused by opponents to growth and redirect that energy into changing the WAY we conduct our growth…

    If we stop insisting on demonstrably BAD forms of growth ( ie: sprawling single family tract homes) and work towards planning GOOD forms of housing, (ie – transit-oriented medium density neighborhoods) then many of the people we might have erroneously labeled as NIMBYs might prove to be much more accepting of growth than we thought.

    1. David Greenwald

      “A cynic might object to this observation and state that Nimby’s are only using environmentalism as a argument that simply confirms their existing bias of not wanting their neighborhood to change… but I don’t think thats fair. I think those people DO genuinely believe in sustainability, and in that belief, I think there is opportunity for real progress on these issues.”

      The problem is that while I think you are correct, they are sincere in their beliefs, they are viewing environmentalism too narrowly and don’t consider what happens if we don’t do it.

      1. Richard McCann

        Much too often development opponents in Davis fail to understand that the project not built here will most likely be built somewhere else, and that somewhere else will likely have lower environmental standards and considerations. More ag land will be paved over with offsetting conservation; new housing will use more energy and need more driving; other resources will be consumed at a higher rate. In other words, the alternative will be less sustainable and more environmentally damaging. Opponents are fundamentally mistaken in believing if Davis says no, then it won’t be built anywhere else. We need to get over that fallacy.

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