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Yuppies In My Backyard: SB-827 and Deconstructing Community – PART II

“Who are those guys?” ~ Butch Cassidy:

YIMBYs are not a grassroots movement in the traditional sense. They're more like a Silicon Valley version of grassroots: meaning it’s not that YIMBYs by and large lack opportunities to achieve their goals, it’s just that they don’t have enough money to get what they want, right now.

Senator Scott Wiener, like Senator Daryl Steinberg before him (who brought us SB-375 and Plan Bay Area), is strongly supported by construction unions, who stand to benefit from more development and particularly from the stipulation that new development require workers to be paid federally mandated, prevailing wages. All of Wiener’s proposed legislation includes provisions that new development pays union wages, which means smaller, local contractors will be shut out of the construction jobs created in each community.

11 out of Wiener’s top 14 donors are real estate and construction related groups. These include (in order of amounts donated), The State Building & Construction Trades Council, California Association of Realtors, Northern California Regional Council of Carpenters, Operating Engineers Local 3, and others.

Wiener and SB-827 are also strongly supported by a cabal of planning professionals and academics grounded in the dictates of “New Urbanism,” and by the Bay Area Council and major tech companies in need of housing for their employees (over 120 tech executives have endorsed SB-827).

None of this is surprising or nefarious, but it’s worth being aware of.

YIMBY organizations are also well-funded and by and large those identifying themselves as YIMBYs are educated, entitled young urban professionals (“Yuppies”). They are not poor, victims of racism or redlining by lenders, disenfranchised or otherwise precluded from job opportunities or the ability to live anywhere they can afford.

Brian Hanlon, the executive director of California YIMBY, who claims to have drafted SB-827 with Wiener, has been quite vocal about his financial backing from top Silicon Valley tech executives. In mid-2017, Hanlon received $500,000 from tech bigwigs like Microsoft executive Nat Friedman and Pantheon CEO Zack Rosen. His stated goal is now to get the backing of big development interests.

Unfortunately, Brian Hanlon seems to equate the ease of quickly acquiring financial backing with righteousness of purpose. I would suggest that history has shown that the opposite is true.

If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Slander Them

Hanlon and his collaborators, the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA), have weaponized regulations, filing lawsuits against small cities to force compliance with their particular interpretation of State Housing Law. That’s certainly their right.

What is paradoxical, however, is that Hanlon and his colleagues also use terms like “affordable housing” in their rhetoric to promote the YIMBY agenda, but fail to mention that their definition of affordable housing seems to mean housing for educated young professionals and highly-paid tech workers. They profess to support government funding for affordable housing, but not for anyone but themselves.

Hanlon and YIMBYs are not just disinterested in whether development is truly affordable, they seem to be totally oblivious to the plight of low and very low income families in the Bay Area, or that inclusionary zoning is probably the only reason any low income units are being built at all.

YIMBYs claim that young, urban professionals moving into the Bay Area are the most important group to “protect.” In a recent interview, Hanlon made the following strange comment about affordable housing.

The vast majority of low-income folks live in market-rate housing. If we have a type of policy under which only low- and middle-income people win the housing lottery, young people moving into the city aren’t taken care of.

It’s enough to make a person pine for the days when we only had to worry about HUD policies.

Hanlon also wants to get rid of Prop. 13 entirely, despite the fact that it has accomplished its affordable housing goals, keeping fixed income and elderly residents from being driven out by ever-higher property taxes. What has never made sense is having Prop. 13 apply to commercial properties, which often don’t technically “change hands” for decades. But, even that has to done very carefully to ensure impacts on small businesses are considered: quickly rising rents are already putting most mom and pop merchants out of business.

These details and distinctions don’t make good sound bites and therefore don't seem to be of interest to Hanlon and his followers.

Although I’m sure the real estate development community is happy to watch YIMBYism unfold, with its attacks on zoning and local government sovereignty, it appears that developers aren’t as eager to throw money at YIMBYs the way young tech millionaires do. Perhaps that’s because seasoned real estate professionals know that financially sustainable solutions are more complicated than provocative rhetoric, and a majority of them may live in suburban communities throughout the SF Bay Area: places where they’ve likely invested time and money to improve their family’s lives.

It’s important to point out that Hanlon, who has a Bachelor’s Degree in Political and Social Thought, a Master’s in Public Policy and a Master’s in American History, has zero experience, expertise or professional education in planning, development, construction, economics, finance or housing policy, or its history (his last employment was as a grants manager for the Forest Service). Yet, he appears to be absolutely certain of his assessment that everything will be solved by removal of zoning and allowing unrestricted, high density development. The fact that he is echoing the defunct policies of Republican Senator Jack Kemp and the Reagan Administration of the 1980’s (who coined the phrase “NIMBY”) is an irony that seems to be lost on him and his YIMBY cohorts.[1]

The theory that unrestricted development will produce unsubsidized affordable housing has about as much credibility or historical evidence as the theory of trickle-down economics and that tax cuts for the rich will benefit the poor. Of greater concern is Hanlon openly criticizes economically disadvantaged group’s battles against evictions due to gentrification, as “counterproductive.”

I suppose it’s “Let them eat code.”

Tearing Down the Suburban “Deep State”

The YIMBYs are sort of the polar opposite of conspiracy loving, Alt-Right extremists, a group I’m sure they despise: another irony, which is probably lost on them.

Both are trying to tear down government (in the right-wing case the federal government, in the left-wing case local government) and both have zero respect for government institutions and traditions that have been in place for hundreds of years. In California, that includes the sanctity of the General Plans of California cities and the covenants of the California State Constitution.

Much like the Alt-Right, Wiener, Hanlon and their YIMBY followers appear to feel empowered by all the media attention they are getting by provoking the strife. However, it’s one thing to criticize government, to work to change laws, of to even sue governments for their transgressions, but it’s another thing entirely to want essential institutions and their protected powers eviscerated, or to make spurious claims about conspiracies against you, and personally attack and slander individuals or groups who oppose you.

YIMBYs are out to maliciously marginalize and taint the voices of all those who live in suburban communities, in order to politically promote an agenda that benefits their own interests. How is that any different from Alt-Right extremists alleging that anyone who works for the federal government is part of a “deep state” conspiracy and cannot be trusted?

Blind Faith in Urbanism

YIMBYs have swallowed the rhetoric of New Urbanism and how urbanism, per se, is good for the environment, hook, line and sinker. New Urbanism’s marketing pitch is shiny on the surface, but substantively, it’s simply not true.

Generalized claims about urbanism’s environmental benefits and how it can reduce greenhouse gases are based on flawed analysis. Though many have tried to correct those misinterpretations of facts, urbanists and ivory tower academics have consciously ignored the data, placing ideology above all else. It is telling that even the Environmental Impact Report for Plan Bay Area concluded that urbanizing the suburbs would lead to increases in GHG emissions.[2]

Historically, data comparing energy usage and GHG emissions by urban and suburban development has been flawed for a variety of reasons. Studies, many dating back to the early environmental movement of the 1970’s, have routinely failed to accurately define a “housing unit,” failed to differentiate between unit numbers and unit sizes, failed to consider energy use in high-rise common areas, ignored significant impacts of “heat island” and “cold sink” effects in urban environments, completely ignored environmental impact “externalities” generated by urban development, forgot to consider off-setting GHG sequestration in suburban settings, or public transportation GHGs generated, and much more.

In the decades since New Urbanist’s first proffered their theories (which were actually about “suburban-ism” in today’s understanding of the term), we’ve seen "urbanism" morph into gigantic, ego-driven, politically correct visions of technologically wired cities (running on Google and Facebook software) that are more akin to dystopian regimentation and Big Tech Brother data-mining than a world in harmony with nature.

The folly that man can show nature how to better run itself remains unquestioned by urbanists, YIMBYs and academia. However, the faith that urbanism married to technology will solve all problems if we only give it total freedom, will surely crash and burn the same way the Reaganomics mantra that “markets solve everything” crashed and burned in 2008. Willful ignorance and unquestioning belief that massive development and technology alone is a dangerous notion.

Life has a way of throwing black swans across our path at the least likely moments.

Finally, urbanism and higher density might be arguable if it equated to better physical and mental health, less personal stress, better public and human services, better schools, or decreased air and water pollution when compared to suburban living -- except that it doesn't, in any of those categories.

The Greening of Suburbia

Naïve beliefs about urban development’s virtues also ignore the tremendous environmental damage that our present methods of development and construction are doing to our climate, our oceans, water resources, ecosystems and biodiversity, worldwide—the things upon which our very existence depends.

Why doesn’t any of this enter into the YIMBY conversation?

Urban development exports its greenhouse gases, waste and environmental impacts to other places, while it remains seemingly shiny and clean. But, the global resources impacts of its construction are enormous and the energy consumption of its buildings is only marginally more efficient than a hundred years ago. Meanwhile, the suburbs are rapidly turning “green,” simply because they can.

Suburban residential and commercial solar installations (new construction and retrofit), for example, have gone parabolic, while urban development continues to depend on an aging, centralized energy grid. The urban environment cannot retrofit to alternative energy even if it wanted to. It simply isn’t possible to generate enough power for its millions of square feet of high-rise apartments and office buildings, because the ratio of rooftop square footage (for solar panels) to building size is grossly inadequate.

On the other hand, single family, residential solar installations in California are running at almost 6,000 per year. The state government’s goal is to ensure that 50% of all new residential single family construction is solar powered by 2020, which doesn’t even count existing home retrofits (Cal Energy Commission). Retrofitted homes are being taken off the grid, reducing environmental impacts. And, in counties such as Marin, cities are investing in solar arrays at high schools, community centers and other public buildings, in part because they have the physical footprint to do it.

Nothing comparable is happening in our urban cities. Add the rapid adoption of alternative fuel vehicles to the mix and the California’s suburban lead in the race to turn green, is magnified even more.

Read Part I

Read Part III

Read Part IV

[1] For a more complete explanation, please see “The Best Laid Plans: Our Affordable Housing Challenges in Marin.”

[2] For a complete analysis see Plan Bay Area’s High Density Transit Oriented Development Won’t Reduce Greenhouse Gases