Commentary: NIMBY, NIMBY, NIMBY

Photo by Liz Sanchez-Vegas on Unsplash

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

NIMBY, which literally means “not in my backyard,” is a term that has been born of frustration.

I get that frustration.  Very few people are truly against all housing.  But that almost makes it worse in a way.  Because if they truly argued that you don’t need any housing, you kind of roll your eyes, and move along.

Instead, what you encounter—a lot—are people who acknowledge that we need housing, but not this project, not here, not now.

I’m not sure if a lot of that is truly NIMBYism.  When I think of NIMBYism, I think of people who don’t want the affordable housing project in their neighborhood, but have no problem if the exact same project is on the other side of town.

In Davis, I think we see a lot of people who don’t mind if housing is built in other communities, but would prefer to keep this community small and preserve agricultural land on OUR borders.

Never mind that that often means building on agricultural land, just not here.

Again, I would argue that that is not exactly NIMBYism, it’s closer to what you might call—not here.  Not this project.

The problem that communities like Davis are going to find is something has to give.  When Measure J was passed in 2000, Davis kind of got fortunate for a time.  Measure J kind of came at the end of the cycle of housing.  That meant it was fairly easy in 2005 to vote against Covell Village.

We then ended up with the real estate collapse and the Great Recession that largely took housing off the radar for nearly another decade (we did have the highly contentious Measure P election in 2009, and the Cannery project 3-2 vote in 2013—but other than that there were whole election cycles where growth was completely out of the discussion).

It was really only in 2015 that the housing crisis—which at that time took the form of student housing—reemerged.

The problem that the community is increasingly facing is where can it create housing.  We have gotten away with it thus far, but for the current RHNA cycle, infill has been increasingly insufficient to create enough housing to even get the Housing Element certified by the state.

The community is going to need to do some soul searching soon.  Several councilmembers recently warned that, given how difficult this RHNA cycle has been, Davis is not going to meet state housing laws with just infill.

And if we have to do peripheral, that means Measure J and a vote of the people.

I have seen several different versions of downplaying this.

One argument is that the public will vote for purely housing projects.  Another argument is that what we really need to do is have community conversation, that as long as we have a good and real public process, the voters will support housing.

I don’t particularly buy either of those arguments.

What I see is that the Measure J projects that have impacted or appear to impact traffic have gone down to defeat.  The Measure J projects that have not impacted traffic—the second Nishi and WDAAC/Bretton Woods—have passed.

For the most extreme example, look at Nishi.  In 2016, Nishi failed in part because of the perceived traffic impacts on Richards—even though they had plans that could have actually reduced the overall traffic problems on that corridor.

The next project took traffic off the table by making it a university-only access project.  Also made it much more difficult to build.

The problem that we now face is that there are no more Nishi’s where it is relatively easy to take traffic off the table.  Pole Line, Covell, Mace have traffic concerns and it will be hard to mitigate traffic concerns.  Heck, the first Nishi was willing to bypass the tunnel altogether and it still wasn’t enough.

Is it true NIMBYism?  Sort of.  All you have to do is look at how DISC in 2020—before other issues muddied the waters in 2022—performed.  The closer you got to the traffic impacts, the worse the project did at the polls.  It actually passed on the other side of town.  But the people living right there heavily voted against it.

It will an interesting challenge to see whether Davis can overcome concerns about traffic on projects that figure to have traffic impacts while staring down the barrel of a state government that has shown a willingness to take on NIMBYism.

That’s a question for this community.  And despite the claims of some, I don’t think the answer is going to be that straightforward.

With that said, even though NIMBY as a term has been in increasing use, I don’t think it’s entirely useful as a rhetorical devise.  People are not so easily shamed.  Most will deny that they are NIMBYs anyway.  They will simply argue that the project is not good enough (not this project) or in a bad location (not here).

What I think we need is a recognition that we need housing, that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and that the status quo won’t hold.  None of that needs us to use the term NIMBY.

All of that needs us to reconcile reality with the ideal.

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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4 Comments

  1. Richard McCann

    I think we need start asking “if not here, where?” much more often. It’s that lack of a sense of reality which is the underlying problem. We also need to show how we can distribute growth around the community so the burden is shared more broadly. Unfortunately having to run the Measure J/R/D gauntlet one by one makes this difficult.

  2. Matt Williams

    David Greenwald said … “In Davis, I think we see a lot of people who don’t mind if housing is built in other communities, but would prefer to keep this community small and preserve agricultural land on OUR borders.  Again, I would argue that that is not exactly NIMBYism, it’s closer to what you might call—not here.  Not this project.”

    I believe you are over thinking it david.  I believe it is much closer to the famous George Eliot quotation, “What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known, and loved because it is known?”

    For the most part, most people do not like change … especially if they are over 40 years old.  But change is inevitable, and the biggest change that Davis has experienced is that its population has gotten progressively older.

    The page 154 of the 2020 City of Davis CAFR (its audited financial statement) shows that the assessed value of property in Davis is $8.979 billion and the market value of  property in Davis is $12.776 billion.  The $3.796 billion difference between those two numbers tells us that because of Proposition 13 Davis property owners pay $37.96 million less in property taxes each year than if Prop 13 wasn’t in place.  $37.96 million saved on taxes each year is not pocket change.  Investing a small portion of that $37.96 million back into the community is not an unreasonable ask if you want to keep Davis a place where everything is known, and loved because it is known.

  3. Gerry Braun

    If the problem isn’t NIMBY, maybe it’s putting land development projects on the ballot and thereby risking cancellation of a great deal of work done at public expense to make sure a project is properly vetted.  We are giving too much authority to folks who habitually oppose housing projects and are accountable to no one.  The proper relationship between authority and responsibility is broken.

    Gerry Braun

    1. Matt Williams

      Gerry, that proper relationship between authority and responsibility is a two way street in a democracy.  The communication with the public needs to be robust.  The 20/20 hindsight evaluation of the Mace Mess (where the City has spent $10 million on a project that was budgeted for $3 million) has shown that the approval and consideration steps happened over three years before the project activity actually commenced.  “The authority” made no effort to keep the taxpayers and voters and street users informed about the status of the project along the way in that three year period, much less the changes that had unilaterally been made to the project during that three-year period.

      That communications disconnect is happening again in the current wastewater rates process where the last Utilities Commission meeting on wastewater rates took place in December 2021.  That doesn’t work in a social environment where the level of trust in government (the authority in your words) is down as low as a 20% confidence level.

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