Divide and Conquer: Now it’s NIMBY vs. YIMBY

Divide and Conquer GoetheNever let a crisis go to waste. And if there is no crisis, start one. When fomenting a crisis, it helps to encourage group identification, then to pit one group against another. This has been the modus operandi of political leaders going all the way back to Philip II, whose maxim “divide and conquer” served him well in transforming self-governing city states into one big Macedonian kingdom.

The latest California crisis (besides the coastal progressives’ obsession with “resisting” something or other in Washington DC they are not supposed to like) is housing, and the latest division is between NIMBYs and YIMBYs.

The Not In My Backyard faction identifies with older residents who like the way things are in their neighborhood. They like their neighborhood’s “character,” they own or hope someday to own a single-family home with a backyard, they prefer not to take public transit, and they fiercely defend their turf from outsiders who feel entitled to change it. Bastions of NIMBYism, such as the Bay Area’s Marin County and San Francisco’s Westside, have traditionally used city and county zoning to preserve their neighborhoods.

The current California YIMBY movement goes back only to 2014, with the founding of BARF, Bay Area Renters’ Federation, by a charming and articulate former math teacher by the name of Sonja Trauss. In a 2015 article, What’s Your Housing Utopia, Sonja states her case unequivocally,

I want the market to provide a unit I can afford… I want to consume housing the way I consume all other products: Buy used, old or out of fashion, buy scratched and dented, buy odd lots, split the cost with friends… How do we get market rate housing for all markets? Step One: End the shortage. If we need 100,000 units, we have a lot of work ahead of us. If you’re involved in opposing a new housing project, stop, just stop. Our need for housing at all price levels far outstrips our supply at any level. Are you preoccupied with whether the new units “match” the rest of the neighborhood? Matching is for your belt and your shoes. Housing supply is a serious problem. If you’re sentimental about the past, swallow your tears.”

Then there is SPUR, San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association, renamed from San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association in 1977, after the razing in the 1960s of San Francisco’s Fillmore District in the name of “urban renewal.” Gabriel Metcalf, president and CEO of SPUR, elevates the NIMBY/YIMBY war to the level of opposing views on private property – homes as property purchased and owned by someone vs. homes as infrastructure provided to all regardless of means.

I think there are more people understanding housing as a social-justice issue. While they might not like their communities changing with higher-density buildings, more people understand that they are necessary to live up to our values as progressives.

A recent article in the neighborhood newspaper, The Westside Observer reports on a community meeting discussion on California Senate Bill 827, which would mandate construction of buildings up to eight stories high along all transportation routes – bus routes as well as fixed rail – regardless of local zoning or neighborhood character.

What had started out as a community meeting slowly became a referendum on the land value of homes and apartments that younger generations would like to take away from older generations — right now!

The war, yet another identity-politics war, is on. Absent politicians never letting a crisis resolve itself peacefully, NIMBYs and YIMBYs, in spite of their vastly different outlook and needs, might have worked things out. However, that is not to be.

If we understand what is going on, we can choose our political leaders and our legislation with an eye to rejecting continuing crises provoked by identity wars. We can choose instead peacemakers who can encourage local solutions and compromises that offer remedies to challenges.