Getting to Yes with YIMBY in LA, or my summer interviews

I picked a fight with Shane Phillips yesterday by pointing out that YIMBY advocacy really, really, really does require tediously repeating the same points about what they are trying to accomplish.I was faffing around and avoiding work because I know better than to discuss anything with YIMBY folks online because a) any doubt exhibited tends to get you treated like the urbanism equivalent of Newt Gingerich which is futile and boring, and b) YIMBY is a complicated thing, with lots of moving parts, and it’s hard to have those discussions with people you don’t know, on social media which is limiting, when you don’t know much time they’ve spent worrying about these issues and you risk talking over people and telling them stuff they already know, what their local development context is like, etc.

Shane rather wryly noted that every single blog post or op-ed had be 5,000 words in order to make sure one hits every nuance, and that it is irksome to have to deal with critiques that just because you haven’t mentioned X, that you don’t care about X–cheap shot critiques. I was told, firmly, that YIMBY folks are on the whole anti-displacement thing; it’s covered, it’s been covered. They got it.

From what I can tell in my interviews with anti-displacement advocates–roughly summarized–they’ve heard the arguments, they’ve read the blog posts…and they in general don’t buy that YIMBY advocacy has their concerns covered. There are some who do and who vocalize quite a bit of trust in the overall agenda. But the ones that do not have some credible reasons for holding out, and those are worth discussing.

One of my points in yesterday’s discussion was, simply, that the rhetorical or persuasive burden on YIMBY advocates is higher than it is on the NIMBY component (which is different than the anti-displacement side, btw). I stand by that statement for the simple reason that NIMBY have policy inertia on their side. They have existing zoning laws on their side; they have federal home ownership favoritism on their side. They have close to 70 years of zoning being mainstream practice, at least in the US. It’s not just or right, necessarily; it’s that any form of progressive reform always has to break free of the event horizon of the status quo. Those who want the status quo only have to maintain it.

Given that progressive reforms have happened and do happen, it’s not impossible. It just requires heavy lifting, and some of that heavy lifting is tediously having to repeat the same points on the policy agenda to anybody who doesn’t run away quickly enough.

I’ve been spending my summer working on interviews with anti-displacement advocates (if you are reading this, and I haven’t pestered you, and you have something you want to say, hit me up (lsschweitzer589@gmail.com), and it’s been enlightening. It caused me to back up and examine what premises you have to accept in order to arrive at a yes for YIMBY if you, yourself, don’t have a preference for urbanism. And it’s a pretty long persuasive journey.

I point out this problem not because I personally do not support the YIMBY argument (I do, as I share a preference for urbanism), but to illustrate how it relies on multiple premises—just about all of which can be credibly contested—about the consequences of zoning and infill that you have to accept into order to get to yes:

a) that zoning contributes to sprawl (probably the least contentious);

b) that sprawl’s environmental and social consequences are sufficiently important to require that existing neighborhoods, which people may enjoy as they currently are, allow infill, even at the risk of crowding and other problems that strangers bring, in order to prevent the consequences of more building on the suburban fringe;

c) that infill development actually can fix affordability or the other problems wrought by exclusion/zoning/sprawl rather than just displacing and potentially harming existing residents; that is, it is possible to accommodate as many new people (or more) in existing neighborhoods, closer to the city center, as it would have been to put them in new suburban developments on the fringe to address housing demand in urbanizing metro areas;

d) that doing so will result in more good than harm overall; and for various subgroups at any given time,

e) that doing so will result in more good than harm *to them personally* overall.

That’s what I mean when I say that there is a big rhetorical burden. There’s a lot here.

I doubt A is particularly difficult to accomplish, and yet, you have to know that part in order to accept that infill is necessary to sustainability; otherwise, why not just put all the new housing we say we need on the urban fringe? So that’s something that has to be communicated, even though I think it’s fair to stay that, among the progressive left, there is a consensus about sprawl reform. That’s not saying that sprawl reform has democratic consensus. Does it? It certainly has a consensus in the professions. Either way, it’s hard to say “we need to put stuff by you even if you don’t like it” if people don’t actually believe that “elsewhere” isn’t an option. Otherwise, “elsewhere”, including the fringe, sounds awesome.

Point (B) is where we probably lose a subset of the conservatives. When I bring this up with students, they launch into a lecture about climate change and The Most Important Thing We Can Do Is Stop Driving (no, from what I can tell the most important is to stop eating meat, but consuming petroleum-based fuels is a close second, so fine)…and that’s a fine argument…for your choir. For people who think rolling coal is funny and SUVs are the right thing to do for their family … welp, the environment is just going to have look out for itself, and golly we would live next to transit and all, but the school over here away from transit is so much better, and well, does it really improve a school by letting in lots and lots of new families? Not really, no, so let’s not. Point B and Point E can merge pretty quickly. We might not lose people there politically–they might believe the argument–but putting it into practice in their own lives may be another story.

Point (C) is an effectiveness and risk argument. Urban reformers are absolutely convinced they can change cities–and cities do change–but I think it’s fair to say that this portion of the argument is about plan risk, and the latter parts (D and E) have to do with internalizing the risks, and as always, who has to internalize the risks of change.

In looking at my interviews for Los Angeles, of which I don’t have enough yet, my interpretation is that the anti-displacement folks interpret Point C in a variety of ways. These are first-run transcriptions, so caveat emptor.

Example 1:

“I think some people mean well, but they don’t get it. They think they are going to reform Los Angeles, like nobody has ever tried that before. If what they want to do with these new developments is so damn great, then do it over there on the westside first. And, uh, no, that is not happening, is it? It never will happen. All this talk about how great LA will be…it’ll start, and it’ll end, with building on black folks. All the rest of these people just making a lot of noise to justify westside gentrification getting extended south.”

(Follow up question: What would convince you that the plans might work to make the region more affordable?) “Just what I said: if new housing is so important, start on the west side. Show how it works so great over there before coming here. Those people can afford higher rents. We can’t. If their kid gets crowded out of a classroom because of new kids, they can afford to send their kid to a tutor or a private school. We can’t. But we’re the ones that are going to wind up getting crowded. Everybody wants to live over there on the west side anyway. But it won’t happen. So it’s on us, like it always is, to lose what we have now, because that’s feasible. God, it just pisses me off, now that you got me talking. It’s not right to play with people’s lives unless you know what you are doing, and I don’t think these people know.”

(Follow up question: do you think they care about what happens to Inglewood, or they just don’t know?) “It doesn’t matter, the result is the same. You got the do-gooders, okay? They care, they just don’t get it. Then there are the people chasing stadium dollars, and they don’t care who they step on. Different people, same result.”

Example 2:

“…we got the LA Times over there telling us every day about how we need all this new housing. We need millions of units, tomorrow! Sure we do. This project they want right here, that’s a drop in the bucket of that need. That need ain’t ever going away.That need is the excuse they got themselves to price people like me out, and that excuse will never go away…not after this development, not after the next hundred. They can’t build enough fast enough, so people here now, they just going wind up living out the desert, and they are going to sit out there waiting for all these new developments are magic, you know, fixing all the housing problems even though the only place they are going to build is here, on us. No matter what planners think they are doing, they are screwing us over, and if you speak up, they don’t want to hear it.”

Example 3:

“….talk a good game, right? They talk. But when I try to get anybody to listen about what we here in the building want, it’s buh-bye. Eyes glazed over, back to talking about they want. (Emphasis in speech; follow-up question: what issues do you want to talk about?) “Rent control. You bring that up, all these pro-development types go wild! Nothing pulls that mask off faster. Rent control is the worst thing ever! Out comes the statistics! Professors, all of them, going to lecture all day about how bad*** rent control is.” (***”bad” is drawn out over several syllables.) Rent control is bad for everybody but the current renters, say all the professors. Well, genius, we are the current renters, and we would actually to like to benefit. How about that? How about we benefit? Nah, God and Jesus Christ forbid that somebody black ever get a dollar benefit out of anything.” (Emphasis in the original. Follow up question: you mentioned a mask earlier, the mask coming off. What mask do you mean?) “The mask that they give a shit what we want. If they did care, they’d work for what we want instead of just preaching about how what we want is bad. They want what they want, they just want us to get out of the way.”

All show variants of Point C, but the first two differ from the last in the motivations the speaker assigns to reformers and their ideas. The shared concern: that urban reform can’t accomplish the holy grail of just sustainability–inclusive urbanization via infill–and that residents will be the ones paying the price of that failure, even if the vision was well-intended. The third vocalizes disbelief regarding care, and a pragmatic answer–if you want people to go along, build in tangible protections up-front to defray the risks.