#YIMBY and communitarians

Just by way of a follow up from the post the other day about zoning and communitarianism, I had a bit of a Twitter chinwag (finger wag) with an urbanist who saw the original post and retweeted it under the banner as a critique of YIMBY. As I responded that I don’t really see YIMBY advocates in the group of people who are focussing only on the home voter resistance to zoning. As I noted in the original post, home voter resistance is a big deal, and it may even be the most common motivation for opposition. We just had a very fine presentation on local neighborhood opposition from Greg Morrow on LA’s activity, and it’s not even close: the west side of LA is the worst, by far, and it’s mostly protest aimed at excluding new residents.

Yet, I still think it’s important to understand that zoning does a bunch of things all at once.

YIMBY or “Yes in My Backyard” or YIMBY urbanist folks are a somewhat different group than planners and supplyside advocates caught up the growth machine. I am not as well versed as I should be about these folks, but from what I gather, they are advocates for inclusion (like [planners and supply siders) but do so on the grounds that urban community can be reconstituted with inclusion and density and that that is their preferred milieu and lifestyle. It’s not a claim about who is at fault for housing affordability problems, per se, but instead a set of claims about urban community and its possibilities without restricted density zoning and a willingness to be part of the solution to housing undersupply. This part of the original post applies to this point:

Apologists for exclusion have the burden of trying to show that these things they see as essential to human life and community hinge on being able to keep people out. Opponents of exclusion have a similar evidence burden to show that the things that communitarians prize about exclusion do not, in fact, require the ability to pick and choose what group membership changes occur and which do not.

YIMBY folks strike me as being in that latter group: people who believe that community is important, but that community itself does not require exclusion, at least not of the spatial sort, but rather, inclusion. I’m betting lots of planners fit in here. This position I associate with things such as Iris Marion Young’s “City as a Normative Ideal” as an answer to her critique of both liberal and communitarian frameworks for thinking about “the right thing to do.”

That said, my first critique was aimed generally at planners, some of whom have knee-jerk reaction to people who oppose up-zoning rather than a listening reaction, which is a problem. I am not trying to train people who react first and then think or listen later. I had much the same reaction, for example, with LA’s Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. I don’t like initiatives, period (representatives, do your job!) and I am still not on board, but community advocates I genuinely respect support it, and that has caused me to take a step back and try to see what they see in the way they are seeing it. When somebody who has been fighting for affordable housing for 20 years in LA says they support something, I shut my cake hole and try to suss what they see even if I don’t agree.

I’m very bothered by the way some (not all, some) urbanists in LA and some of my students have referred to the initiative’s supporters in dismissive or derogatory terms. Politics is a rough business, and you do have to fight to win. But I raised some of y’all better’n that. ;^).

More than that, though, I don’t like people getting into one-note explanations for what are likely to be relatively complex political coalitions that form in cities. The research on regime theory is very very clear: pro-growth coalitions are nearly unbeatable in general even if you can stop specific projects, particularly by neighborhoods, and one of the criticisms leveled at community opposition is that it’s almost always parochial: that is, individual neighborhoods get mad that the Thing is going in near them, and they fight, but they won’t organize more broadly with other community organizations or support the advocacy of labor or racial justice coalitions. They lose, and many deserve to. Some probably don’t. But…the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative folks strike me as a rather interesting coalition of multiple urban interests, including westside and Hollywood land owners readily explained by home voter behavior, but with justice folks mixed in because they see the growth regime here as delivering very few of the benefits from Smart Growth/Infill etc to low-income people.

The growth machine in LA is as powerful as it is elsewhere. For all the kvetching about CEQA and the approvals process, projects do get done here, some of which are appalling. Planners have been particularly willing to side with developers over communities in these dustups, and I want to shake their confidence in doing that. Why? I am nasty person, that’s why.

But when you are siding with power, you better hope that power is delivering the social benefits you think it is, otherwise you are just replicating the same deaf-ear behavior of planners within communities during the Interstate Era. Yeah, you are convinced your contemporary solutions are far, far superior to those losers of the Interstate era, but you best not get too confident of that because I’m betting puh-lenty of those folks thought they were working for the public good, too.

One of the most unsettling things about politics and planning is that in order to win you must sound certain and definitive when in fact you should probably be going forward with fear and trembling and much, much more humility than politics lets you demonstrate.

Not a single person has managed to explain to me why the imperatives of the environment, inclusion, and no more sprawl require wedging new developments in Hollywood and other existing neighborhoods when there are pallet storage and other warehousing sitting there right by the Blue Line and downtown east of Grand and south of 9th has so many underutilized buildings you could infill without much ruffling the grumpy single-family home owner feathers. I don’t mind ruffling their feathers, but it’s not as though Hollywood is the only neighborhood wth transit supply or that might provide good, pro-social or pro-environmental infill.

Nah. Hollywood is the place because that’s where the spoils to the growth machine are the best developers can get right now, not because it’s the only place where you might provide transit accessible housing. You also see huge new developments in Silverlake and Angelino Heights and those are’t really all that accessible. They are not Riverside, yeah, but they do not have particularly good transit access. It’s fine, but it’s not DT by a long shot. But there’s good money to be made there. Developers know they aren’t going to get westside approval on anything, and you can sell just about anything you get built in Hollywood. For a lot. But not much is keeping those developers from going to south and east DTLA or the Blue Line. Not the NII. It’s not a “nobody will let us build anywhere” situation. Not really. It’s a “We can’t build as much as we want where it’s most profitable for us to build” situation. There is a difference.

So yeah, supply is lagging, and affordability problems result, and people who won’t let you build near them are an issue, but so are developers who won’t invest anywhere other than the easiest-places-to-pencil submarkets. And why should one when you have City Hall behind you, and a chorus of planners creating environmental, social, and affordability narratives for you, and the Times thumping their op-ed page for you…why wouldn’t you go for all you can get? I’m not blaming developers, either; seeking larger returns is what happens in markets–the grease that spins the wheels. So is using the state to try to leverage those returns.

But that does mean there are some more dirty hands to go around for the affordability crisis.

Thus I am having trouble seeing white hats and black hats in the NII or with the Hollywood development controversies because a) if the homeowners win that one, there is a chance that developers will go to places with lower land values and thus, lower rent and sale prices (like the pallet factory or the many holes between DTLA and south and east LA.) But if developers win, then they will put up another glass and steel thing where the cheapest unit is $750,000. It’s a squabble over returns to land among rich people, and neither side gives a crap about people who can’t afford to live there. I got no time to care about it.

This is how you tell specious justice claims in these cases: the NII coalition has not made, among their demands, the idea that they support regional policies such as fiscal equalization for amenity development in other neighborhoods where development might occur. Remember, in the last post, I noted that it might be possible for people who want to exclude to be able to discharge their duties to distributional justice by supporting the development of great schools and parks elsewhere if they were not going to share theirs.

But there’s not a word of that on their agenda. Property tax policy reform? Crickets.

On the pro side, with people yelling and screaming for the supply side of more housing in LA, you often don’t hear a word about wage stagnation or income support or the systematic dismantling of social welfare programs and the chronic undersupply of housing assistance. So what if people are losing purchasing power? I have a hammer in my hand and that hammer is the New Urbanism/Smart Growth/Real Estate Development and thus the problem is undersupply, which btw fits the needs of capital nicely (while that other stuff must be commie pinko stuff because it does not) and thus that is the policy solution that gets the air time.

Meh at you all. No, I don’t support the NII but y’all who want me to believe it’s the worstest, most self-interested thing going on in this wicked, wicked city got a ways to go before you convince me.