Connecting the dots on Getting to Yes on YIMBY (and more preliminary nuggets)

So I had to go through the “You’re a bastard” gamut with the last YIMBY post, as always, with the charge that I am just “concern trolling” and engaging in “performative wokeness” because “I’m raising concerns without answering them.”

First of all my wokeness or unwokeness. Either the ideas have merit, or they don’t. Just because somebody is supposedly “woke” doesn’t mean they can’t learn more to deal with white ignorance about race and how it works. I don’t want to be ignorant so when people tell me that racism affects them and how, I listen, think about what they have to say, and try to find ways to fix it my own interactions, institutions, and work. Does that make me woke? Unwoke? Who knows? I generally categorize it under “trying not to be an ignorant asshole.”

Second of all, stop co-opting the term “concern trolling” because you think your political agenda is so fragile it will collapse like a little glass ornament, never to be heard of again, if subjected to criticism or scrutiny. If what you want is worth pursuing, it won’t evaporate because somebody questions or criticizes it, unless you want YIMBY to be a cult. I frankly think such nonsense makes people look weak, like they want to be part of a cult instead of engage in the public reason that gathers support because the ideas are better than others.

Third, I was told that yimby people do not “need my academic study” because they know NIMBY “from the street” and having it screamed in their faces. Oh, please. I’ve been a planner in various roles for over 25 years. YIMBY did not invent NIMBY; it was the other way around. I had somebody leave me a death threat on my car over my advocating for a *freaking bus stop* in their neighborhood. A BUS STOP. Sweet cracker sandwich. I’ve heard it *all*, I swear, from people throwing tantrums about a new apartment complex to people throwing tantrums about not getting the same-sized speed bump as another neighborhood (IT WAS THE SAME SIZE, PEOPLE, IT JUST LOOKED DIFFERENT) to having a city manager pitch a fit because I noted that snow removal in the black neighborhoods of city X were done long after the snow removal in white neighborhoods (THIS ISN’T COMMUNIST RUSSIA YA KNOW). I have been hearing this crap since a lot of y’all were in diapers.

My age and my experience do not mean I know everything. It just means I got plenty of street cred in dealing with people angry about urban issues, and you ain’t the only sailor on the Pequod, Starbuck. Sometimes people are angry for petty, stupid, and selfish reasons (I AM LOOKING AT YOU BUS STOP WHINERS), but sometimes they have cause–legitimate reasons to be angry or afraid about what is going on, or what has happened before. Failing to take those people seriously is planning malpractice.

My work on NIMBYism and neighborhood opposition comes from the following premise: there is a significant moral difference between

(a) “I’m scared I’m going to lose my housing” in an environment where there is abundant evidence the speaker could, actually, lose their shelter and

(b) “This project will obstruct my viewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww.”

If you can’t grok or respect that difference, then you’re reading the wrong blog.

Since I am a scholar, there are actual rules that guide my inquiry about neighborhood opposition instead of allowing me the luxury of concluding that anybody who doesn’t think the way I do is just an evil selfish bastard. Reviewers tend to notice such assumptions and treat them unkindly.

Let me connect some dots. I didn’t craft “answers to the concerns” because I thought the answers were blindingly, screamingly obvious People aren’t being shy here or coy about what they see as their interests. They usually aren’t.

If you look at the first two examples…there’s quite a bit there, but the major point is: new development won’t work to stabilize rents. And the second one is: why herein this location?

That second one is pretty complicated, so I’ll hold off on that. But the first one? That’s “Your plan won’t work for me.” What to do?

Show them real-world examples of when new projects and concerted efforts to build housing did work to stabilize rental costs, and how in doing that, it didn’t necessarily screw people like them over.

This rhetorical method is pretty common. When people claim that “gun control won’t work”, there are myriad countries whose gun control/gun violence situation suggest strongly otherwise, and we can cite those examples.

Counter-examples are not magic bullets for convincing people. They can hold out despite your good priors, certainly, as in the gun control case, with the response that “that place is not here.” You can’t convince everybody.

But my interviews so far have got a portfolio of scary stories about people getting displaced despite the building and construction they see around LA. I have heard more stories about friends/neighbors/family members/people from their church rent increases and people moving to Lancaster and Moreno Valley than I can count.

They are short on stories about how the new development helped everybody, and people got to stay if they wanted to do.

In terms of political communication, this is a hard narrative to disrupt with statistics or visions. 1) the stories are coming from people they know, actual people, and that is always a big deal (for all of us) when it comes to forming beliefs and how strongly those beliefs are held 2) There are cranes and construction everywhere right now in LA, and these folks haven’t seen any difference in their rental costs or their housing vulnerability, so their experiences, which are also powerful in shaping beliefs, are also not really validating the “Let us build more and things will get better for you” idea.

YIMBY advocacy rests, in part, on the idea that there is a housing shortage. My doubtful interviews are so on board that train. They just don’t think that the pro-development advocates, in whatever shape they come in, have the right answer for them, in their specific location, right now They cite Silverlake, Echo Park, Culver City, Hollywood, Koreatown. What can YIMBY hopefuls in LA cite?

Pasadena might be a pretty good counter to the litany of stories about displacement; My impression is they’ve done a pretty good job of leveraging their Gold Line stations. But Pasadena might seem too ritzy and exclusive to begin with. Long Beach, perhaps. Did we see rents go up slower there than elsewhere?

Is there a blog that lays out “Success stories” instead of statistics? That would be a good blog. It best not rely on “LOoooooooOOOOoook we got a massive mixed-use development with a Sephora and $22-a-seat-theater and NINE WHOLE AFFORDABLE UNITS. Yay, us.”

Success for my interviewees I think probably looks more like: look, neighbor Q added 900 units and rents have stabilized, and four years later it’s still majority Black/Latino. I know full well what a tall order that is.

In the third example, let me quote, again:

…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.


Come on. Dude’s worried about rents, and he thinks people don’t care and talk down to him, full stop. It will not surprise anybody, probably, that elsewhere in the interview he called somebody an “Uncle Tom for developers.”

Now based on the rest of the interview, I think this particular informant isn’t really talking about rent control so much as he is talking about stabilization and community benefits agreements because he voiced worries about specific buildings in Inglewood and Hawthorne rather than entire neighborhoods, per se. (LA already has a rent stabilization ordinance; Inglewood and neighboring Hawthorne do not.)

We could also probably just write people some checks. There is so much money on the table for the stadium deal in LA that we could just make some renters’ lottery dreams come true and there’d still be plenty for the forces of capitalism to do its thing. We’ve done it with airport expansions. Anybody who doesn’t think this is a valid idea needs to go back and read their Coase.

Dots connected yet?

The other things that are interesting to me about the people I am interviewing:

a) cultural changes in the neighborhood rank pretty far down in what they list among their concerns. Anti-d people in these interviews can be taken at their word: they are worried about losing their homes. That strikes me as important because culture is always featured in academic studies of neighborhood change. I have interpretations of this, but I haven’t thought them through yet.

b) the anti-d people in general do not question the sprawl reform aspects of the YIMBY idea. That is, I’ve had nobody (yet) say “why can’t they build more the Valley or the IE?”

C) there’s more variation in age among my respondents so far (12) on YIMBY acceptance and anti-d people than online complaining about Boomers suggests.
It may very well be that the “No, never, NIMBY” (Thanks to Gary Kavanaugh (@GaryRidesBikes ) for that term) are mostly fusty old homeowners whining about parking.

But that age profile is not really the case with the anti-d interview subjects I’ve had so far. I’ve expected my younger respondents to be more accepting, more likely to use language that YIMBY has supplied to the conversation about urbanism and development. That hasn’t been true for the younger respondents. If anything, my younger respondents are using more militant phrasing, portraying their neighborhoods as under seige and the like, and framing their opposition in more derogatory language. My somewhat older respondents have been less likely to discuss pro-development people in angry terms, but somewhat more fearful in describing what they think will happen.