Tuesday, February 11, 2020

YIMBYs--newest handmaidens of the Growth Machine

Alternative facts—they're the latest rage.  Even here at home, presumably responsible voices are echoing half-truths, distortion, and misinformation about a number of big-ticket items that face San Diego.

Let’s take the subject of housing, for starters.  We all talk about the housing crisis in San Diego.   So what makes it a crisis?  

For some it's about sky-high rents.  Others say it's a matter of supply--there aren't enough houses and apartments to go around.  Still others point to the near-million it takes nowadays to buy even a little bungalow…

Do the innumerable, uncountable people living on the streets constitute a crisis?  And what about the families being pushed out of their gentrifying neighborhoods?

As for the causes of this crisis, everyone's got a different take--too many regulations? building fees? zoning restrictions? government roadblocks? parking requirements? environmental protections?

Well then, what should be done?  How about the commonsensical-sounding solution bouncing around newspaper editorials and City Hall and County meetings… planning forums and urban studies classrooms… union halls and the hallowed Chamber of Commerce... the one that says: Yes we can!  Yes we must BUILD our way out of our housing crisis!

YIMBYs (Yes In My Back Yard crusaders) on both sides of the political aisle--Democrats and Republicans alike-- have jumped on this alternative-facts bandwagon urging us to build-build-build our way out. 

The YIMBY message is paraded out by Mayor Kevin Faulconer.  By California Senator Scott Wiener.  By HUD Secretary Ben Carson.  And yes, by executive order from our very own President Donald Trump. 

Their marching orders are clear: Slash government regulations.  Reduce building restrictions.  Require greater development and density (preferably but not necessarily in transit-available, jobs-rich urban areas).  Intensify growth.  And get yourselves out of the way of the market!

YIMBYs may be new to the game but their build-build-build message is just another twist to an old script written and directed by San Diego's longtime lord and master--the Growth Machine.

The Growth Machine can be described this way: it's a broad coalition of local folk (individuals, organizations, interest groups) who share two basic traits: 1) all its members directly profit from urban growth and development; and 2) all its members tend to have an outsized influence on local political decisions.

You've met them before: our hotels, banks, convention center, newspapers, shopping centers, sports stadiums, labor unions, realtor's associations, tech companies, builders, big developers….

And they have a third thing in common: a shared philosophy about the function of the land beneath our feet.

For the Growth Machine "land" is not a social good, it's a commodity—a financial vehicle to be purchased, sold, invested in, or traded.  Who can dispute that ownership and control over land is synonymous with wealth and power?  With land valued as a commodity rather than a social good, speculation can reap huge rewards. 

Now tell me, who has the Midas touch to transform the resale value of land owned by  investors/speculators/developers into pure gold?  None other than our elected officials on the City Council and County Board of Supervisors. 

And who are the people most susceptible to pressure from lobbyists, campaign donors, unions, and business elites?  Who can turn the city itself into a well-greased Growth Machine? See above.

Think about it: when local politicians act in their official capacity to extend the city's water and sewer lines… build new roads… amend a community or general plan… upzone to higher building heights and densities… bestow tax subsidies… relax building and parking requirements… a modest piece of property can be instantly transformed into a goldmine. 

You might ask: won't increasing land values and tax revenues also be beneficial to the city by enabling our elected officials to enhance amenities and the quality of life for regular people and neighborhoods?  

Not necessarily.  The priorities of land speculators and developers involve intensifying land use to accommodate more, and then more, growth and development.   Attention to your sidewalks/storm drains/schools/parks/potholes/municipal service is buried somewhere in San Diego's decades-old backlog of unattended neighborhood infrastructure repairs and upgrades--now at a whopping $2billion deficit

Back to the subject of housing.  Regular people recognize that the housing crisis is actually an unaffordability crisis.

Most regular people know that the remedy for an unaffordability crisis is NOT denser/ high-priced/ luxury/ upper-end apartments, condominiums, and mini-mansions.  Most don't fall for the myth that higher housing densities and generous developer "incentives" will bring prices down to a reasonable level.

Most of us aren't fooled about the difference between housing "abundance" and housing "affordability."  Most intuitively understand that--in the real world--supply and demand trickle-down economic theories don’t cut it for mid/moderate/lower income residents.  Does anyone honestly believe that unleashing the power of the market will bring housing prices down?

So how can we explain the blind enthusiasm of people who brand themselves YIMBYs and declare that high density market-rate residential development is the magic bullet for ensuring that anyone who wishes to reside in our neighborhoods/ cities/ counties can have an affordable roof over their heads?

Is the seductive allure of a powerful, wily, and wealthy Growth Machine too hard to resist? 

For a clue, take a look at the organization called California YIMBY.   California YIMBY was created with a million-dollar advance from Bay Area high-tech executives as a lobbying tool for pro-development legislation in Sacramento.  Its purpose is to organize empower, and coordinate with YIMBY groups throughout the state to reduce environmental and regulatory restraints that stand in the way of high density building and growth.

The California YIMBY Victory Fund is its moneyed arm--a political action committee (PAC) that doles out generous contributions to Democratic clubs, civic associations, other political PACs, and of course to state and local politicians and candidates (local YIMBY cheerleaders Todd Gloria, Toni Atkins, and Nathan Fletcher  included).

San Diego has always competed with other cities to entice vacationers, conventioneers, and tourists to choose us over all others.  Lately, city boosters have been inviting newcomers to not only visit but to stay.  They're also ratcheting up incentives for new businesses and tech workers to come on over and relocate in San Diego.  With YIMBYs at their beck and call, the sky is the limit for the Growth Machine.

Let me state this for the record: growth is not a dirty word.  But growth--the quantity, quality, rate, impacts, losers, and beneficiaries--comes laden with enormous challenges.  There are no quick and easy answers.  That's a real fact.

The only dirty words in this debate are the alternative facts promoted by the powerful growth coalition and parroted by YIMBY acolytes.  Upzoning and slashed regulations do NOT increase affordability, reduce auto congestion, mitigate severe climate/environmental impacts, or make a dent in the plight of the homeless.   In fact, accelerated rates of growth increase these critical problems.

A real fact is that San Diego doesn't have to follow in the YIMBY footsteps.  Our city doesn't have to go the way of San Francisco or San Jose or Los Angeles.   We can choose an urban future that manages growth to meet the broadest range of human and environmental necessities.   If we want, we can start right now to remedy our housing unaffordability crisis. 

Why not:
* protect tenants from price gouging and unwarranted evictions? 
regulate international speculation and land acquisition? 
* preserve, upgrade, and promote adaptive reuse of existing affordable housing? 
put the screws on corporate landlords? 

Why not:
* encourage union-sponsored housing?
* curtail windfall profits exacted by landowners? 
* slap a luxury tax on investment dwellings? 
* initiate mixed-income public-sponsored housing?  
* lobby for a state bank and public co-ops?  

And why not:
* support bond measures focused exclusively on housing and let San Diego's hotel/tourism industry pay for an expanded convention center?