Big league politics undermine community solutions

Palo Alto Matters – June 11, 2017

On a national and even global scale, enmities are fueled around the clock by extreme partisan politics, social media bullying and “fake news.” We’re all up in arms about it. But even as we rally to resist, those same tools of division are intensifying conflict and blocking compromise here at home. Distorted battle lines, name-calling and oversimplification of complex challenges are demonizing local interests, dividing our community and impeding balanced and sustainable solutions.

Public deliberation of hard questions by our City Council is replaced with avoidance, partisan positioning, or empty gestures. Even already brokered compromises are discarded in political power plays. More broadly, with the local rise of the YIMBY (or “Yes in My Backyard”) Movement and their false choice of “yes” or “no,” progressive, smart, good-hearted people are lumped together as objectionable, uncaring, selfish, even evil. Facebook, Twitter and on-line forums team with antagonism, alienating activists, volunteers and neighbors of all stripes who might otherwise be allies in confronting many of Palo Alto’s challenges.

What is “YIMBY?”

YIMBY or “Yes in My Back Yard” is the banner claimed by some in a growing activist movement promoting new housing construction. The movement champions a simple solution to the affordable housing crisis: get local government out of the way and let the free market build supply to meet demand, (a tall order in Palo Alto). They claim that (1) increasing the supply of market-rate housing will improve affordability at all income levels and (2) greater density will naturally result in better transit and infrastructure solutions.

With “build baby build” as their unofficial motto, the movement includes real estate developers, lobbyists and builders with a clear profit motive, and self-interested corporations demanding housing for well-paid workers. Much more visible are individuals, nonprofits and grassroots groups desperately seeking access to housing opportunities in communities near their work or families, with good schools, amenities and infrastructure, many of whom may be unaware of their profit-seeking “partners.”

YIMBY is a play on the pejorative “NIMBY” or “Not in My Back Yard,” a term historically used to mark the hypocrisy of people who claimed to support projects like homeless shelters or public health clinics, but then fought tooth and nail to exclude them, and their “undesirable” users, from their own neighborhoods. It was a mark of dishonesty, racism, classism, exclusion.
The YIMBY movement has re-popularized this derogatory term, tagging as “NIMBY” anyone it perceives to stand in the way of new development, for any reason. This cynical and offensive strategy of dividing people into two camps through name-calling and misrepresentation has called into question the leadership, motives and progressive bona fides of the YIMBY movement itself.

Negative campaign of bullying and division

Many YIMBYs now commonly use the accusatory moniker to brand not just bigoted homeowners, but also environmentalists, and surprisingly even advocates for low-income housing and tenants rights, people fighting displacement and gentrification in their neighborhoods. They target “Residentialists” and others trying to ensure that quality of life assets are sustained as the city grows: tree-lined neighborhoods, good schools, amenities and infrastructure. They charge that “preserving quality of life” is insider code (known as a “dog whistle”) concealing exclusionary motives, despite citing those same community assets as what they themselves value about our city.

In addition to demonizing others’ language, the YIMBY movement applies the same name-calling strategy to belittle widely held concerns and alternative strategies. Those who think that easing our jobs/housing imbalance must address both housing supply and the office growth that drives it, or want to prioritize affordable housing over high priced housing, or worry about overcrowding in our schools, or want new developments to meet the parking demand they create, are deemed hostile to innovation, progress and newcomers, and readily dismissed as unwelcoming, outdated, anti-housing “NIMBYs.”

The illusory battle over all (“yes”) or nothing (“no”) has coalesced into an angry orthodoxy of “us” versus “them,” bleeding empathy and shared interests out of the discourse and cutting off paths to agreement on any topic.

Wrong path for affordable housing…

While their attractive enthusiasm and pro-housing message has broad appeal, the self-named YIMBYs’ “build baby build” approach offers a meager and deceptively simple solution to the current crisis of affordability. Their market-based approach will produce more housing, but the vast majority will sell/rent at whatever price the market bears – unaffordable for most everyone. And those homes won’t “trickle-down” as promised in the form of affordable middle- and low-income housing for a generation or more, if at all. It will deliver scant, if any benefit to the teachers, firefighters, service workers and special needs populations who are the poster children for the pro-housing movement. Indeed a report by UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project suggests that it may actually speed their risk of displacement.

For the 32% of Palo Altans (including 39% of renters) already spending more than 30% of their income on housing (U.S. Census American community Survey, 2009-2013), more market-rate homes cannot be our primary solution.

When it comes to housing, the rational question is not whether we should say “yes” or “no” to building more. Instead we should ask how best to build the sort most needed (prioritizing our most vulnerable); how we will protect against displacement of current residents; and how much we can reasonably sustain (no housing exists in a vacuum). Furthermore, new construction is not our only tool. We need a targeted and multi-pronged approach. A singular focus on “more” won’t meet our needs.

And everything else.

Housing affordability is a long-standing and escalating problem in Palo Alto, but it is not the only challenge we face. Palo Alto’s 2016 National Citizens Survey shows that residents who rate the availability of affordable quality housing as excellent or good dropped by 5% since 2006. In comparison, during the same 10-year time period, satisfaction with recreational opportunities dropped 6%. Traffic flow, sense of community, and code enforcement dropped 9%.

Even more notable, satisfaction with the ease of travel by car dropped 16%, overall quality of development dropped 20%, and travel by public transportation dropped by 32%. Failure to adequately manage office growth stimulated by our last concerted drive for “more” has not only increased pressures on housing, but also diminished our residential quality of life and our confidence in government.

Citizen survey

Affordable housing need not come at the expense of good schools, amenities and infrastructure, but without corresponding actions to preserve those quality of life features, it just well might.

In planning for future growth, we must do better to ensure that Palo Alto can sustain it.

As residents increasingly perceive Palo Alto as a worsening home, mired in conflict, our elected leaders should be taking the lead to:

  • build our trust;
  • promote compromise and balanced solutions; and
  • improve civility, both publicly and privately.

Rather than choosing sides, devaluing citizen concerns and rejecting compromise, they should be building bridges to bring us together in support of strategies we can all live with. Residents and voters should expect nothing less.

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