YIMBYism and the Cruel Irony of Metropolitan History

L.A.'s history, including redlining, shaped its current housing crises
L.A.'s history, including redlining, shaped its current housing crises

The sense of housing crisis is nearly everywhere. Debates about housing policy are heating up, turning once arcane fields into the subject of fevered Facebook exchanges. Housing prices are shooting past their pre-recession highs and people across Los Angeles are feeling the squeeze like never before. Home ownership within a reasonable commute to job centers is out of the question for all but the upper echelons of society. Among young urban professionals, there’s a scramble to find “about to get hot” working-class neighborhoods in which to rent and buy. Rents in previously affordable neighborhoods are rising so fast that tens of thousands of people are being pushed into homelessness.

The loudest voices of the YIMBY (“Yes In My Back Yard”) movement are confident they have the solution. California’s coastal cities have a shortage of supply relative to demand because of selfish NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) homeowners and their political enablers who’ve severely limited the construction of new housing over the last four decades. The story is simple — with clear villains and Econ 101 logic at work. To them, the solution is clear — we need to override local zoning with state legislation so millions of new housing units can be built across the state. California Senate Bill 827 intends to do just that. Spearheaded by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), and the Silicon Valley-backed California YIMBY. Wiener’s S.B. 35, passed last year, streamlines construction if cities aren’t on track to meet their housing production goals. S.B. 827 takes this much further, with a specific focus on areas near rail and bus lines. In its initial form, Wiener’s bill 1) prohibits density restrictions or parking requirements within a half-mile of a major transit station or a quarter-mile of a bus stop on a frequent bus line; and 2) sets the maximum-zoned height in these areas at 45, 55, or 85 feet depending on the nature of the street in these same areas.

In Wiener’s telling, the bill is about equity. He writes “The only way we will make housing more affordable and significantly reduce displacement is to build a lot more housing and to do so in urbanized areas accessible to public transportation.” More audaciously, he frames S.B. 827 as a measure that “tackles head on the ugly reality that mandated low-density zoning excludes poor people and—per the intent when low-density zoning was created 100 years ago—people of color.”  Wiener cites Richard Rothstein’s much-lauded new book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, as support for his position.

This makes sense. We cannot reckon with this housing crisis without inquiring into our country’s metropolitan history. We need to ask and think about several important questions along these lines.

  • Is the lack of residential construction primarily responsible for our current affordability, gentrification, and displacement crises?
  • How and why did density restrictions come into being?
  • What has been the role of political and institutional racism in carving up the metropolitan landscape and creating inequality?
  • And how should these historical contexts shape the solutions we craft today?

* * *

Rothstein’s book is an important place to start. From the fevered reception it received, one might think it was the first work of scholarship on the “public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States.” But his work draws heavily from a large body of historical and sociological research on the topic. Rothstein acknowledges his great debt to classics like Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis and Arnold Hirsch’s Creating the Second Ghetto. Those works, in turn, owe greatly to scholars like the legendary W. E. B. Du Bois and to movement organizers like Dr. Martin Luther King who critiqued “internal colonialism.”

I remember reading Origins of the Urban Crisis in 2004 as an undergraduate and being shocked at how little I knew and how little exposure its detailed findings had received. As I wrote my senior thesis on the failures of “urban renewal” in Newark, NJ, via “slum clearance” of mixed neighborhoods, segregated public housing projects, highway construction, and other infrastructure decisions, the reality became vividly clear to me, as much as when I walked from the train station to the Newark Public Library as in the archives themselves.

When I entered a history doctoral program at USC, propelled by this knowledge and a sense of obligation to tell the story, I discovered dozens of books and articles from the field of urban studies chronicling the disinvestment from and destruction of urban neighborhoods populated heavily by people of color, especially African-Americans. And what I’ve learned along the way is that Wiener and his YIMBY allies are telling a much-abridged version of American’s metropolitan history.

The housing history of metropolitan America does include zoning with origins in racism, classism, and sexism. And it surely includes attempts by the privileged, especially single-family homeowners, to limit the “wrong” kind of people from living in their neighborhoods, through methods like restrictions on multi-family housing. But to operate on the pretense that racial discrimination is solely or primarily the result of government restrictions on land use is to ignore the fact that as a whole, all of mainstream white society, and especially investment capital, is complicit in the reality of segregation, economic inequality, and lack of housing opportunity.

This history has contributed to a segmented housing market such that increases in aggregate supply, will not necessarily produce lower costs for poor and working-class communities. The massive shortage of low-cost housing is not only the result of anti-density restrictions in affluent neighborhoods. It owes in great part to a legacy of wealth-suppression and outright exploitation, facilitated by private capital that has so often made its profit by moving the color line while relying on government subsidy.

This means that challenging the anti-density policies entrenched by privileged homeowners is only one piece of the puzzle. If we don’t tailor pro-density policies to explicitly counter a legacy of redlining of access to jobs and capital, and to preserve and create affordable housing, then the YIMBY agenda will perpetuate and not remedy the inequities that well-meaning YIMBYs intend to oppose.

Recent pieces concisely make the case for YIMBY introspection about their relationship to justice movements. This essay seeks to deepen the discussion by offering a big-picture, long-term context for the debates we’re having in 2018.

* * *

Urban history has taken an unusual trajectory in the United States. Unlike other countries where the political, financial, or cultural capitals stood at the center of the nation’s society, much of American identity was premised on a rejection of the “big city.” As important as Eastern seaboard ports were in the early 19th century or how vital Chicago was to the development of an industrial nation in the early 20th century, the dominant culture centered on the notion of a “self-made” (white) man striking out on his own. Equally important as the “frontier” farmer myth and reality to American identity were “urban boosters.” These boosters were civic leaders and  land owners in innumerable towns and cities who attempted to create self-fulfilling prophecies which would attract more residents and more investment, thereby increasing their own wealth and power.

This occurred in the U.S. far more than other countries because of the extreme decentralization and fragmentation of government authority here. A growth-for-growth’s sake narrative pervaded urban discourse. The answer to any problem was more people and more capital. Of course, not all places could win the battle for growth. And the ones that did briefly reach the summit, like Chicago, were vulnerable to displacement, as people and capital pursued opportunity elsewhere.

The result was an urban capitalist economy undergirded by property speculation and frequently struck by alternating booms and busts. Investors getting into the market at its zenith lost out, of course, but no one stood to lose more than renters who suffered from rapidly escalating housing costs followed by economic collapse that eviscerated their incomes. Through the early 20th century, the sheer abundance of land and the paucity of land use regulation meant that housing costs were relatively low. But the unregulated market in cities — geared toward maximizing the profits of those narrow class of people who owned capital and held sway over government — led to horrific and unsanitary conditions. This was especially true in the “slums” chronicled in How The Other Half Lives by photographer Jacob Riis. It also did little to prevent racial segregation.

HousingBWRiis
Housing for Working Poor, NYC, photo by Jacob Riis

In the first half of the 20th century, there was very little question that the market had failed. There was widespread agreement across the political spectrum that a new level of coordination was needed, usually by the government, to re-assert control and restore order on behalf of the collective in the wake of laissez faire’s social wreckage. The real divide was over what kind of order ought to be restored, by what means, and for whose benefit. It was in this context that all of modern planning, zoning, and housing regulation initially developed.

Racism — or more accurately belief in the superiority of whiteness among those considered white — inflected much of this emerging field. Boosterish business and civic leaders infamously called for Los Angeles to be the “whitest spot on the map.” The phrase specifically referred to L.A.’s anti-labor, pro-capital business environment, but as Bill Deverell shows in Whitewashed Adobe, the racial overtones were not subtle — leading Angeleno Joseph P. Widney spoke for the elite consensus in proclaiming that “the Captains of Industry are the truest captains in the race war.” As a result of corporate, homeowner, real estate, and government redlining, places like Boyle Heights and Watts became diverse communities full of Jewish (not considered sufficiently white at the time), Japanese, Mexican, Chinese, Filipino, and African-Americans. And it was those same places and the historic Eastside generally to which white-owned private capital and new zoning rules pushed polluting industries.

However, there was another aspect of the planning field. It comprised the smaller proportion of professionals who sought to use land use regulation and government investment for the exact opposite purpose — to alleviate suffering caused by lack of adequate, affordable housing. It started with settlement house pioneers like Jane Addams who pushed for regulations to ensure enough air and light circulated through packed tenement apartments. It expanded through the tradition “housers” like Catherine Bauer who sought to mitigate the failures of the boom-and-bust cycle of unchecked real estate speculation and profit-seeking capital. In the 1920s, a social democratic movement in cities like New York successfully created garden-style housing cooperatives to remove housing away from the pressures of the marketplace.

Amalgmated Housing Cooperative, The Bronx, NY 1929
Amalgmated Housing Cooperative, The Bronx, NY 1929

In the 1930s, municipalities and the federal government began working to replicate these developments with public funding. Whether in New York, Newark, or Los Angeles, these projects were initially a success — well-designed and well-funded.

As Gail Radford notes in Modern Housing for America, housers pushed an ambitious agenda of “non-commercial development of imaginatively designed compact neighborhoods with extensive parks and social services,” drawing inspiration from the successes of what was called “social housing” in Europe. Most audaciously, Rex Tugwell, a leader in President Roosevelt’s Administration sought regional level planning that would “provide an alternative to private speculative development, with the community retaining land ownership and political control over future expansion.”

This path was decidedly not the one our nation’s metropolitan areas followed.

What occurred instead was a market-driven development that was both generously subsidized by the federal government and racially discriminatory. The trickle of federal funding for public housing in the 1930s was nothing compared to the subsidy provided by Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), which effectively subsidized the mortgages of millions of homeowners. The HOLC is the source of the infamous color-coded maps of cities, which determined which neighborhoods would be eligible for loans based on their racial mixture. Like many before him, Rothstein notes, the impact of these maps.

But recent scholarship demonstrates that it wasn’t solely planning that discriminated, but also private capital. These HOLC maps followed the patterns already set by banks. Federal support had the effect of entrenching practices already followed by the dominant white businesses and homeowners, while further subsidizing them. This would be the pattern that has dominated our housing history ever since.

HOLC Map of Los Angeles(Yellow and especially red areas were prevented from getting loans)
HOLC Map of Los Angeles – Yellow and especially red areas were prevented from getting loans

World War II brought an end to the Depression but created a housing crisis of its own. People flooded into cities for new work opportunities, especially African-Americans who left behind the Jim Crow South only to be confronted with sub-par wages, exploitation by slumlords, and in many cases, vicious white violence aimed at preventing their entry into certain neighborhoods. Little new housing was built during the war and what was built, whether public or private, was almost never available to African-Americans. As veterans returned from the war and began to start families, the housing shortage reached a new depth of crisis.

The solution, at least in the aggregate, was a wave of single-family, mass-produced tract homes in suburbs like the San Fernando Valley, Southeast L.A. County’s Lakewood, and East Coast Levittowns.

Mass Production of Housing, 1950, Lakewood, California
Mass Production of Housing, 1950, Lakewood, California

Subsidized by the Federal Housing Authority, the suburban building boom helped to recreate the white middle-class after the Depression, giving even (white) blue-collar workers a plot of land and a decent building to call their own, a la the white frontier farmer of 19th century. Developers — and their investors — profited handsomely. Win-win? Hardly. Left behind in worsening conditions were the communities of color who had been systemically excluded from these subsidies AND from the new market construction. Capital flight combined with segregated suburbanization to leave inner-city neighborhoods to grow more overcrowded and more physically dilapidated.

Civic leaders — white, male, upper-class (the sons of those calling for L.A. to be the “whitest spot on the map”) — came to see these neighborhoods as “slums,” a blight on their city’s image. Rather than directly invest in the people who lived there, civic leadership sought to transform the physical space into something that would match their booster dreams. “Urban renewal,” just like suburbanization, involved pouring millions in public funding toward privately-developed projects whose investors made a tidy profit while new inhabitants enjoyed “modern” space.

In Los Angeles, Chavez Ravine was cleared of ramshackle housing, with the honest intention of constructing 10,000 units of public housing, before a conservative mayor came to office and ended up selling the land to the Brooklyn Dodgers. At the same time, the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project tore down many square blocks of old homes to make way for new corporate office towers and “public” plazas, a story repeated in cities and towns across the country. Federally funded freeways sliced through the neighborhoods left behind by redlining, with more than five highways going through Boyle Heights alone, causing massive displacement, cutting Hollenbeck Park in two, and leading to an epidemic of air pollution. Construction companies profited. Newly suburbanized middle-class workers were able to glide seamlessly to their downtown jobs. The mass transit of the day – Yellow Cars around downtown and Red Cars connecting neighborhoods across the entire metropolitan region – was decommissioned.

This did not happen without resistance.

Progressive Angelenos on the left-wing of the Democratic Party like Reuben Borough warned against abandoning the mixed public spaces—the parks, squares, and railcars in favor of a retreat into segregated neighborhoods, connected only by private automobiles. This group, following in the tradition of “housers,” wanted equitable transit-oriented development. In the 1930s and 1940s, they fought for improved equipment and services for public transportation to reduce overcrowding and wait times. Seeing the region’s explosive growth, they backed the creation of a countywide master plan for transportation under public ownership and operation. Financed by long-term, self-liquidating bonds, it would offer lower fares, more lines to newly developing communities and expanded cross-town service. They worked to create more health facilities in places like Watts and the growing San Fernando Valley. They advocated to create parks, playgrounds and community recreation centers, especially in low-income areas. They proposed the expansion of municipal beach facilities, including parking, bathhouses, cafeterias, as well as public auditoriums across the city.

This visionary group lost and lost badly. They lost to the privateers — both to 1) private capital and real estate interests which fought mercilessly against attempts to satisfy the supply of housing, transportation, and public places through government planning and 2) a white homeowner class which got their backyards and freeways supplied by private businesses and heavily subsidized by the government. There was a lot of money to be made from the color line, as N.B.D. Connolly has shown in his work on metropolitan Miami. There was lots of wealth to be accumulated from moving around poor people, especially poor people of color.

Repressive policing was endemic in the work of getting and keeping these groups in their place. It was the combination of policing, economic deprivation, and metropolitan segregation, which fueled and then ignited the urban uprisings of the 1960s, Watts prominent among them. In this post-Watts context in 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke frankly of internal colonialism. “In the slum, the Negro is forced to pay more for less, and the general economy of the slum is constantly drained without being replenished,” he exclaimed in a speech at the Chicago Freedom Festival. “The slum is little more than a domestic colony which leaves its inhabitants dominated politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated at every turn.”

At the instigation of homeowners and other wealthy property interests, the city’s voters approved a ballot initiative in 1969 that limited the number of people who could live on a plot of land and capped the number of stories a building could have as an effort to contain the “wrong kind” of people, i.e. those from redlined inner-city neighborhoods from encroaching. By cutting density in half, it prevented the even dispersal of jobs across the city. In 1986, this tradition continued with a Proposition U, another anti-growth ballot measure aimed at commercial and industrial development. The result of Prop U was to concentrate jobs in intense pockets like Westwood, Century City, and Downtown. White homeowner entitlement was cemented against lower-income communities of color on one side and against private capital on the other. This, of course, is the most critical segment of the YIMBY historical narrative, a launch point for several decades of minimal housing construction and an as result, rising urban core housing prices. But the history of our cities and of Los Angeles does not end here.

The next great shift in metropolitan history was the “conquest of cool.” Those people who had the option to suburbanize but chose to remain urban participated in bohemian communities, which ran counter culture to the seemingly flat, bland worlds of downtown office towers and tract-home suburbs. As Suleiman Osman describes in The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, places like Brooklyn Heights (and its cousin, Silver Lake) offered a sense of small-scale authenticity and vibrancy that couldn’t be found elsewhere.

The godmother of these “new urbanists” was Jane Jacobs. Jacobs certainly opened my eyes to a new way of seeing and experiencing the dense urban environment when I read her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Against the freeway, office-tower, and suburban-centered development that reigned after World War II, she pointed out the importance of small-scale urban life. She shared important observations about street life such as the how architecture can ensure safety by keeping a lot of eyes casually looking over a public space. She illuminated some of the failings of top-down planning as it existed in her time. Her writings were a useful corrective to mid-twentieth century redevelopment excesses, but the experiential perspective on urban life only scratched the surface of the injustices perpetuated by the large-scale urban projects she decried.

The new bohemian urbanism, consciously positioned against the mainstream and the market, was gradually integrated into them. In his book The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank traces the history of the “bohemian cultural style’s trajectory from adversarial to hegemonic; the story of hip’s mutation from native language of the alienated to that of advertising.” This was just as true for urbanism as for music or any other form of cultural expression and experience. There was genuine interest in sharing racially, socioeconomically, and culturally diverse neighborhoods and public spaces among those who stayed even though they had the privilege to leave. But racial inequality, metropolitan segregation, and market dynamics combined to drive far wider changes.

Long before regional-level shortages of housing existed, young white adults in pursuit of hipness (including many from well-off families) were attracted to neighborhoods near the urban core by the low cost of rents and the countercultural sense of cool. Not able to afford places like Westside or uninterested in its lack of dense vibrancy, the children of those who benefited from subsidized suburbanization began a process of settling in formerly neglected neighborhoods. Private capital, seeing opportunities to profit, returned to formerly disinvested neighborhoods serve this nascent affluent population. And thus a cycle of urban redevelopment began that continues to this day.

As neighborhood after neighborhood turned “edgy, but interesting” and then “cool and safe,” real estate investors saw the promise of safe returns. Relatively low land values combined with the expectation of rising property values spurred speculation, physical upgrading, and intentional efforts to push out existing residents. The new amenities, along with the influx of the “right” kind of people catalyzed further increases in land and housing prices.

The initial agents of gentrification were pushed to adjacent poor and working-class neighborhoods and the cycle began all over again. Of course, the people initially left behind and then pushed out didn’t have the capital to profit from rising property values. Instead, investors were able to profit from the difference between present and expected future value.

Municipal governments, eager for visible signs of “urban revitalization” and new tax revenue, did what they could to encourage this process, investing public dollars in infrastructure improvements and increased services and policing. Transit often served as tool for this purpose, a marketable amenity and a sign of “cool” urban living. As the neighborhood became firmly middle-class and then affluent, even bigger private capital flowed in. As living in core urban neighborhoods becomes part of mainstream culture (from “Seinfeld” and “Friends” to “Sex and the City” and “Girls”) these places become even more desirable, especially for rising generations of young people.

It is no coincidence that gentrified and now gentrifying areas like Echo Park, Venice, and Boyle Heights were the ones that had been systematically redlined and disinvested from. The correlation between the red areas of the HOLC map of L.A. and current “hot” neighborhoods is uncanny. There is a lot of money to be made by moving the color line.

* * *

The cruel irony of America’s metropolitan history is that the communities that were systemically divested from are now being harmed again, once again partially fueled by booster dreams. Crueler still is the fact that those YIMBYs with power and privilege are now telling the folks who have suffered most that they must trust that this time a more liberated real estate market will produce a equitable outcome for them.

Housing cannot be understood in isolation, detached from questions of how the economy works and how its benefits are distributed unequally across the population. When YIMBYs and developers protest that private housing construction shouldn’t be taxed or mandated to foster equity, they neglect the fact that housing construction and the private market have not merely echoed social inequalities — they have perpetuated and deepened those inequalities. This is especially true today when an influx of large-scale investment capital contributes to rising housing asset and rental prices.

The housing justice movement by and large understands the concept of supply and demand, despite YIMBY’s complaints otherwise. Yet housing justice movements — part of a long line of “housers” and progressives interested in equitable transit-oriented development — are able to see that left alone to produce housing, the market will not meet the needs of a large proportion of the population. That was true in the late 19th century, as slums emerged. It was true in the mid-twentieth century heyday of redlining and subsidized suburbanization and urban redevelopment. And it is true today when redlining and other forms of discrimination and exploitation of the less privileged continue. The market alone does not produce good outcomes for communities who were denied the ability to accumulate wealth in previous housing booms, through redlining and because of an overall economy that has grown increasingly unequal over the last four decades.

Ignorance of this history leads many YIMBYs to perplexity and frustration over why housing justice advocates are so stubborn in advocating for linking density and reduced parking requirements to the creation of affordable housing, good jobs, and other community benefits. It is especially grating for housing justice advocates when white male YIMBYs — some with little actual expertise — insist on plan-splaining to organizations — many of whom led by women and people of color and with dozens of expert planners, scholars, and lawyers on their collective staffs — about how the housing market actually works.

Meanwhile research from scholars like Miriam Zuk and others shows that exclusively market-rate development near transit will lead to a displacement of low-income people who are core transit-riders. Increased supply concentrated in “hot” neighborhoods is likely to drive displacement in the short-term while only reducing housing costs over the long-term at the regional scale. That’s cold comfort for families suffering the economic downsides of longer able to commute to work via transit, while still paying high rents on the suburban outskirts for many years to come.

The good news is that there is a viable alternative to the dogma of laissez faire, the historical reality of government facilitating private investments that moves to the color line to benefit the largely white middle-class, and the obstinancy of privileged homeowners. The tradition stretching from the “housers” to the regional planners to today’s equitable development movement offers a third way to ensuring adequate supply of housing affordable to all levels of the community.

It’s a tradition which has never been able to fully realize its promise, thanks to the power of racism, homeowner privilege, wealth inequality, and investor class influence but it is finally gaining steam, with notable victories like Measure JJJ and the enactment of the People’s Plan in South LA. As ACT-LA’s letter notes, the “LA City Council approved in November an area-wide no net loss program throughout South L.A. that incorporates various anti-displacement and affordable housing replacement policies that align with the incentive programs tied to transit corridors.”

It is outrageous that Wiener’s S.B. 827 is poised to override these initiatives that are finally coming to fruition after decades of struggle by historically disadvantaged communities to go beyond a seat at the table and finally set the agenda for equitable development. Laissez faire, subsidized private construction along racial lines, and NIMBYism have all failed. It is time for California state policy to build upon housing justice wins that prioritize equitable development and input from those who have been marginalized by historical planning patterns.

I believe there is an important place for progressive YIMBYs as allies of the housing justice movement. Creating a real coalition to achieve shared goals beyond simply stopping misguided proposals like Measure S is possible. Progress requires listening early and often to housing justice advocates. It’s not enough for YIMBY leaders and groups to initiate dialogue; they have to stop insisting they have all the answers. It would be helpful if they acknowledged the history of market failure and government-enabled discrimination by private capital, in addition to the problems of anti-density laws. It would useful to begin with building on the housing justice and equitable development policies that were developed out of the most impacted communities. It would be productive to learn from community experiences in struggling against waves of disinvestment and displacement that have acted like the urban equivalent of the fires and ensuing mudsides that are one-two punches to our fragile Southern California landscape.

Progress will take a willingness to focus on increasing supply in wealthier areas like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, while not accepting policies that accelerate luxury development in poorer ones, with no provisions for stabilizing and creating affordable units. A bill like S.B. 827 that automatically upzones near transit is far more likely to impact historically disinvested neighborhoods in the urban core than the affluent single-family areas so frequently cited by the bill’s advocates. Claiming that it also up-zones these latter areas is not good enough. More profoundly, YIMBYs would do well to understand that unilaterally setting the year’s housing agenda with a bill like S.B. 827 and then hectoring potential allies to ‘fall in line’ without debate and withhold a public position until amendments come out is not constructive.

Progress will take a willingness by YIMBYs to stop opposing almost everything L.A.’s broad coalition of equitable transit-oriented development groups support (e.g. linkage fees, Measure JJJ, community plan updates that tie density increases to equity provisions) and to acknowledge that increasing supply in the aggregate isn’t enough to improve the situation for people below the median income.

Progress will take a willingness by YIMBYs to craft legislation that centers the proposals of housing justice groups and then adds components to increase aggregate housing supply. Investments in stabilizing and creating affordable housing, as well as support for good local jobs and other community benefits, can’t be afterthoughts to help win passage of legislation to increase infill development, likely to be discarded in later deal-making if recent legislative maneuvering is any guide. It is not cynical to be skeptical. It’s simple realism for those who know their history and how politics still works today.

Our history makes evident that trusting the word of those who promise to help marginalized communities after the middle-class is taken care of is a fool’s decision. We must craft solutions that meet the needs of all of our struggling communities, tethering benefits for the middle class to the most marginalized, and yoking together our political interests in the process and building a political coalition that ensures the rich don’t get richer as the poor get poorer.

David Levitus earned his Ph.D. at USC with a focus on the history of cities, policy, and politics in the United States. At NYU, he majored in Economics and History. He is the Founder and Executive Director of L.A. Forward and the host of the L.A. Forwards & Backwards Podcast.

  • That’s their self-image.

    The reality is that they’re in league with big capitalists seeking to push gentrification harder, and make even more money.

  • How about rent control being universal, just like healthcare should be. We can start off with an immediate 5% cap on all rent increases.

    I don’t see that in 827. All I see in 827 is a big fat push for gentrification and a big giveaway to developers and the real estate business.

    You guys should break off from this “yimby” identity. It’s a kind of front group created by the big money developers.

  • LOL, I thought it was kind. My impression of yimby was Sonja Trauss, the fake anarchist, who all the old time anarchists of the Bay Area hated. She got paid by developers to have dreads and fight for development and gentrification, and against rent control.

  • Private capital is housing the poor, if they get government subsidies to do it. LIHTC etc.

    Also, he’s not indicting it. He’s just explaining what happened. We were, and are, and extremely racist country, and the fact that private capital behaves that way doesn’t say anything about it. Private capital was also sexist and anti-immigrant.

    What he said is that racism *uses* private capital to continue consolidating wealth for white people, and housing racism is part of that.

    The mid-20th century was a period I call American Apartheid. The new development from the early to mid 1900s in Los Angeles was marked by housing racism and apartheid, as new whites-only developments displaced integrated communities.

    At some point, private capital also sought to make developments for people of color. This isn’t as well known, but I’m figuring it out, because I lived in such a street. I also found a Black street like this, from the same developer. So, private capital wasn’t always white supremacist . They used real estate agents to steer people to these streets. There were ads stating the composition of the street, as being one group or other, or integrated.

  • Did you know that the Maroons were runaway slaves in the Caribbean? They ran away and integrated with indigenous people. I’ve been waiting a long time to troll someone on this.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maroon_%28people%29

  • The real problem is people who think the poor people don’t know what’s up and are being fooled.

  • Nah

  • The vast majority of left-leaning and left-wing Yimby’s are being organized by bigtime capitalist developers, who are using Yimby as an astroturf movement to get their projects built. Once they get their projects, they’ll screw you.

    When I’ve criticized the law, they always assure me I’m wrong. I’ve been through this bullshit before, when some more educated person assures me I’m wrong… and then I find out years later that I was lied to.

    Read the text. Read it and then read the criticisms online from opponents.

    These critics also support socialized housing, public housing, and have even worked with public housing. They support inclusionary zoning to some degree, when it isn’t just a figleaf. They are also left-wing.

    But all this leftist posturing is just pointless identity politics. Just look at the bill – there is nothing in there for these left wing dreams. Nothing.

    As for the shortage – yes there’s a shortage, but we’re also in a period of intense gentrification. Returns on capital are high. Investors from all over are interested in buying land in Los Angeles and investing in buildings. This speculation is driving a bubble.

    The colonization of some neighborhoods is driven by displacement. Buy-and-evict has become a business model.

  • That’s funny. I’ve been for prop 13 reform for a couple decades. I’ve written letters. It’ll happen, but it’ll take time.

  • Yimbys should be petitioning to get rid of Costa Hawkins.

  • Public housing is as hypothetical as anything. HUD changed up their model, years ago, and no public housing has been built at all. It’s not because of zoning. It’s because HUD doesn’t have or spend the money.

  • The premise of JJJ is that, instead of spending money on politics, developers would just spend that money to build affordable units in the building, or pay into a fund. That money would go to nonprofit housing developers, who are less wealthy than the entities buying the LIHTCs to buy into nonprofit housing.

    Eliminate Costa Hawkins.

  • Kevin Withers

    Prop 13 benefits a home buyer who purchases today, tomorrow and inthe future. Among the most prescient initiatives ever passed, and the bloat of government expenses would be so much worse had it not been passed. You want more funds for things like supportive housing? Fix the pension problem. Now go get back on your street corner soapbox and rant.

  • RealFakeSanFranciscan

    And progressives should be fighting to upzone wealthier neighborhoods. But they aren’t, and won’t.

  • They move to the IE, where there is not rent control or JJJ. So guess what happens? Unless they can buy one of the tract homes sprouting up in Beaumont or Menifee, they just end up displacing people in the IE.

  • Y.

    Actually, the real problem is YIMBYs who use the language of social justice to rally poor people into protecting the wealthy builder’s agenda.

  • calwatch

    East Bay for Everyone (the aforementioned Victoria Fierce) testified for the Costa Hawkins repeal. I’m not a big fan of it – I would prefer some sort of statewide standard for rent smoothing, possibly limited only to the portion of rent below the median to protect affordable housing – but they did show up.

  • CheerTheGallows

    Good ideas should be cleat? Interesting.

  • CheerTheGallows

    Good ideas should be cleat? Look who “clearly needs the work of a copy editor.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7d39e3cf56218247d61e125bf924bdc4be52da23dd8a6b36a4304cd3f0038440.png

  • CheerTheGallows

    “The real problem is NIMBYs who use the language of social justice to rally poor people into protecting the wealthy property owner’s agenda.”

    What utterly condescending and appallingly racist/classist nonsense. These are the words of someone who clearly has no ideas whatsoever, what they are talking about (or worse, the words of someone intentionally obfuscating the issue for their self interest).

    It’s not wealthy NIBMY’s who have historically and who are presently leading the fight against gentrification in the low income and POC neighborhoods of SF, LA, etc. To suggest that poor people are fighting gentrification because they have been misled by wealthy NIMBYs is as wildly incorrect as it is wildy offensive and racist. Shame one you. If you actually believe your statement, then it only goes to show, once again, how disconnected YIMBYs are from the low-income and POC communities fighting displacement and cultural erasure.

  • CheerTheGallows

    So the Latino community in SF’s Mission (YIMBYs original target) are hapless, clueless individuals who have unwittingly been misled by wealthy NIMBYs. Gemma, this notion couldn’t be further from the truth and your cheering for this nonsense lays bare your condescending and racist/classist conception of poor people and people of color. Yuck.

  • CheerTheGallows

    “The anti-YIMBY progressives will occasionally deign to make some sounds about Prop 13 reform, but don’t wait around for them to actually follow through.”

    What? You can’t be serious. This is complete nonsense. It’s the opposite of the truth.

  • CheerTheGallows

    “people need AN apartment, and if you build more, they won’t want YOUR apartment”

    Do you really thinks this absurdly simplistic statement reflects historical truth and reality in the world today? So if there are other simply other options, people with more wealth and power won’t want to take land and resources away from those who are poorer and less powerful than them? Lol, really? Have you have read a history book or a newspaper in your entire life?

  • EssEffOak

    What have YIMBYs ever done to increase taxes on the rich?

    Wouldn’t this be a much better place to start their fight for housing then by telling threatened communities of color to just shut-up about gentrification already and let corporate developers build as many luxury condos in their neighborhoods, cuz it’s for their own good?

  • EssEffOak

    No.

  • CheerTheGallows

    So, for example, the Latinx community in SF’s Mission District (SF YIMBYs original target) are hapless, clueless fools who have unwittingly been misled by wealthy NIMBYs to fight against their own interests? Really!?

    Gemma, this notion couldn’t be further from the truth and your cheering for this nonsense lays bare your utterly condescending and racist/classist conceptions of poor people and people of color. You clearly have no actual first-hand knowledge or awareness of the reality of the situation in these communities, so you blindly rely on your racist/classist preconceptions to interpret it from afar in a way that conveniently aligns with your free market ideology.

    The Latinx community in the Mission is leading its own battles against displacement and cultural erasure, thank you very much.

  • CheerTheGallows

    Triollo, do you really think your absurdly simplistic statement reflects historical truth and/or reality in the world today?

    So if there are simply other options, people with more wealth and power won’t want to take land, resources, homes, and neighborhood away from those who are poorer and less powerful? Lol, really? Have you read a single history book or a newspaper in your entire life?

    But of course the YIMBY paradigm is fundamentally based on profoundly simplistic and (intentionally?) naive precepts such as the one you expressed above. The greedy / wealthy / powerful have NEVER been content to simply settle for other options when there’s another place ripe for theft, colonization, or exploitation. To not see how this same colonization/exploitation plays out again and again via the gentrification of low income and POC urban neighborhoods today is just willful ignorance.

  • There are no carve outs or protections for the communities already facing displacement, that could see it accelerated under 827.

    We’re aware that the suburbs need to densify and adjust to the new reality. The bill should be rewritten to do that.

    The displaced people moving to the suburbs are not causing the rents to rise in the suburbs in Los Angeles County. People move to working class suburbs that are facing a bunch of different issues, like pollution, homelessness, eroding tax bases (as jobs move to gentrifying areas).

    What you’re describing is what’s happening in the Bay Area and the inland suburbs.

    It’s what’s happened as LA westsiders moved east, but, these eastside and southside neighborhoods aren’t suburbs. They’re dense, and almost entirely impacted by 827 (and JJJ). It’s the poor people here getting displaced to the inland and southeast suburbs. These suburbs don’t have train service, and most buses don’t run frequently, so 827 has no effect.

  • I found a new term online PHIMBY. Public Housing in My Backyard.

    The people using it were anti 827 and anti-YIMBY.

  • omaryak

    Correct me if I am wrong, but SB 827 does not override Measure JJJ. It just takes the parking requirements bit and extends it across the entire half-mile near transit. As if limiting parking requirements alone was going to incentivize the building of BMR units (perhaps someone can explain that bit better)? There are other legislative tools available, and SB 827 does not preclude those.

    The assertion that poor communities will be targeted more than wealthy suburbs comes to us with a complete dearth of modern evidence. Dense suburban developments are underway and being completed as we speak. To developers, money is money wherever it may be found. We no longer have the racist lending policies of the past (like red-lining neighborhoods) that fed segregation.

  • omaryak

    SB 828 addresses the bit about protections, which was absolutely important to point out. You don’t need to rewrite SB 827 for it to apply to the suburbs. This article on that front is pure conjecture, and conflicts with my present observation of reality.

    If displacement is going to go down, we have to work on bringing down housing costs in the city, and the only way to do that over time (rent control or not) is to increase the available supply of units. I am open to hearing alternative approaches, but this article offers none.

  • omaryak

    Hi. YIMBY here who is also pro-rent control, and here to remind you SB 827 does not abolish it.

  • omaryak

    Opposing SB 827 is not “fighting gentrification,” and accusing people of racism isn’t going to change the substance of your argument (or lack thereof).

  • omaryak

    It’s reactionary politics. Scott Weiner did not do as good of a job as he could have on coalition-building before introducing the legislation, but much of the overheated debate is either misinformed or uninformed. When I first saw tenant advocacy groups’ arguments against SB 827, I thought they were astroturf organizations being paid by car companies.

  • omaryak

    The fact that developers would make money from new housing is an unpleasant but unavoidable consequence of our current economic system. Without new housing, our other problems can only get worse.

  • There are no carve outs or protections for the communities already facing displacement, that could see it accelerated under 827.

    There’s a giant protection for existing communities in SB 827 as currently amended with the requirement to provide more than three years of relocation assistance at the same rent then another year in the new project at the old rent as well. Maybe they can bump the latter up to 18 months to make it an even five years, but where else are people finding rent guaranteed for five years? This is also a seismic shift for the vast majority of the state as the vast majority of communities don’t have rent control and most don’t have right-to-return requirements that are anywhere as robust.

    Now if you’re expecting a bill that somehow allows the communities to be frozen in amber and not change, then sure, SB 827 definitely isn’t the one. But the status quo isn’t stopping change either, it’s just negatively impacting far more people in the process.

    The displaced people moving to the suburbs are not causing the rents to rise in the suburbs in Los Angeles County. People move to working class suburbs that are facing a bunch of different issues, like pollution, homelessness, eroding tax bases (as jobs move to gentrifying areas).

    What you’re describing is what’s happening in the Bay Area and the inland suburbs.

    Thanks for proving my point. Again, as I already mentioned, SB 827 would apply statewide, which means in ALL of California. This myopic, LA-centric view means that “preventing displacement” there, which last I checked isn’t exactly working all that well, comes at the expense of causing displacement in other communities in the region. I know this because I don’t live in LA County, I live in San Bernardino where we continue to watch rents rise as people who can’t afford to live in LA move out here. Except that we don’t have the luxury of rent control and planning commissions out here would take decades to arrive to SB 827’s level of allowable development around transit stations on their own.

    It’s the poor people here getting displaced to the inland and southeast suburbs.

    See, this is exactly what I mean by LA interests being willing to sacrifice the disadvantaged communities in the rest of the state in the name of trying to help the poor in LA. What exactly do you think is going to happen to the poor people already living out here when new ones arrive from LA? Without more housing being built, the new arrivals are going to displace the existing residents. SB 827 would at the very least, mean that the people being displaced from LA don’t end up causing the exact same problem that they’re fleeing in the communities where they move, which is doubly important because there’s no rent control out here.

    These suburbs don’t have train service, and most buses don’t run frequently, so 827 has no effect.

    Do you really not know about Metrolink? Then of course, there ARE qualifying bus lines, including bronze-rated BRT service from Omnitrans. That also doesn’t even take into account what is planned for future transit expansions, including the extension of the Gold Line, the West Valley Connector, Redlands Rail, Perris Valley Line extension, and many more. People keep complaining how cities shouldn’t be getting improved transit options if they’re not willing to update their land use to truly support it. SB 827 agrees.

    But you are right, there isn’t the same density of high-frequency bus service as there is in LA. That presents two possible remedies: they buy a car or we build more housing along the few lines that do exist so that they can still get around on transit. To reject SB 827 is to guarantee the first.

  • CheerTheGallows

    When someone states, just as jannos did above, that ,poor people and people of color–who are fighting for their neighborhoods and hence for their communities and culture–are incapable of thinking for themselves and incapable of advocating for their own interests and are merely misled by “wealthy property owners” then you are, by definition, being racist and classist.

  • CheerTheGallows

    “Scott Weiner did not do as good of a job as he could have on coalition-building before introducing the legislation.”

    Lol. You’re kidding right? When it comes to housing and land use legislation, Scott Weiner has NEVER shown the slightest interest or intention in “coalition-building” with anyone other than real estate developers and his YIMBY friends. He has shown nothing but utter disrespect and disregard for the poor communities and communities of color in San Francisco.

  • omaryak

    I don’t think they said that. It is possible that groups of people can get facts wrong regardless of skin color. It happens all the time, and it’s called demagoguery. It usually involves specious arguments like the one you just made, and it’s the same trend that drives Trumpism.

    After researching the issue, I found data that shows increased housing production reduces displacement and lowers rents across the board:

    http://lao.ca.gov/reports/2015/finance/housing-costs/housing-costs.aspx
    http://www.oregonlive.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/06/housing_supply_and_affordabili.html

    So while it is important to listen to communities of color and make sure they have a seat at the table, we shouldn’t use race to promote specious arguments either. It’s wrong when Trump does it, and it’s wrong when communities of color and their supporters do it.

  • CheerTheGallows

    “Without new housing, our other problems can only get worse.”

    Without new housing? Really?

    This is an very typical nonsense, straw-man comment from the YIMBY crowd. Stop already. Communities fighting gentrification are NOT saying no new housing. They are demanding more affordable housing and limits on market-rate development, because if 80% or 90% or 100% of the new housing built in their neighborhoods is market rate, then they are guaranteed to lose their culture and communities.

    As Scott Weiner and his YIMBY friends in SF have made clear repeatedly, on multiple occasions, it is of no concern to them that people of color are losing their communities and culture. I gather you share this sentiment.

    You seem content to accept the “current economic system.” After all, I imagine it’s worked out pretty well for you, omaryak. But of course the current economic system is NOT working out well for poor communities and communities of color and so a whole lot of folks from those communities are not content to accept the “unavoidable consequences” of the market economy and are taking a stand.

    And believe me, these folks are not “misinformed” as you condescendingly stated above. You, on the other hand, are clearly misinformed about why these folks are resisting unbridled market rate development in their neighborhoods.

  • CheerTheGallows

    “I don’t think they said that”

    You don’t think they said that? Really? Lol. Well you could have just scrolled up a few comments but to save you the trouble here’s a picture of it.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ba7fb38de51d4a97cf94e500db14fd326ae7c32a16877dceb82fbe9def1e1226.jpg

  • CheerTheGallows

    “After researching the issue, I found data that shows increased housing production reduces displacement and lowers rents across the board. ”

    You found some data! Good for you. Now please consider that your data and your utterly simplistic notions of supply and demand may not tell the entire story and may not apply to all neighborhoods in all cities in exactly the same way.

    Again, these communities you say are “misinformed” are not nearly as stupid as your think they are.

  • CheerTheGallows

    When it comes to communities of color who historically have always had their land and communities taken away, systematically, by wealthier, more powerful people (almost always white) who “know better” and have lots of “data”–these communities need more than just “a seat at the table”, they need nothing less than the right to determination for their communities. Or do you prefer colonization?

  • CheerTheGallows

    “And progressives should be fighting to upzone wealthier neighborhoods. But they aren’t, and won’t.”

    Absolutely untrue. You made this up.

  • Nic_J

    It seems as though you agree that there is a housing problem. And it seem as though you believe you can build enough housing to satisfy the demand. Seems logical, but unfortunately that is not how our speculative housing market works. We don’t have an even playing field, for instance my family can bid on a home and an out of state speculator with 1,000s of homes in their portfolio can out bid me with guaranteeing a quick sale and cash (and that is only on the owner side, its even worse for renters). Simply building more housing doesn’t provide protections for low-income individuals and families in the housing market. Building more housing doesn’t acknowledge how the Rent to Value Ratio is dependent on the year that the housing was built, which for low-income residents tends to be more than 50 years down the line.

    The thesis of the author seems to be, don’t expect different outcomes then we currently have experienced simply by building more (as stated, in the past the answer to any problem was more capital investment, which seems like what you are suggesting). There has to be an intentional effort to build more for the diversity of people who live in cities. You advocate for vouchers (aka subsides) to bridge the difference between income and cost as if that isn’t one of the tools that got us into this situation.

    Lastly, please remember that racist policies are happening right now, restrictive covenants are still on the books. HMDA data shows discrimination in lending practices. Landlords are constantly being sued for discrimination. The predatory lending practices of sub-prime lending. And that doesn’t even start on the contemporary issues of discrimination in the construction trade or among real estate brokers. Building more housing comes with a lot of baggage and ignoring it doesn’t mean it just magically goes away. We all come with baggage and if we don’t address it, then it festers and ruins relationships.

    -Best of luck out there.

  • “But to operate on the pretense that racial discrimination is solely or primarily the result of government restrictions on land use is to ignore…”

    Let me stop you right there. Absolutely no one is operating on this pretense. What is your point in even postulating this? No one is claiming that liberalizing zoning will solve racism. Everyone knows that racism in this country has much, much deeper roots than zoning and it operates through many other mechanisms besides zoning. You are arguing against a strawman of the highest order.

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