Twilight of the NIMBY

In California and across the country, activists fighting gentrification in cities often team up with development-worried suburban landlords to oppose sweeping zoning reforms. Even if these groups disagree on housing policy, they often favor making these decisions at the city or neighborhood level, where the political sphere is small enough that a group of volunteers can still be effective.

“Community activists are organizing in person,” said Isaiah Madison, 26 and black, a resident of the historically black neighborhood of Leimert Park in Los Angeles — and a board member of Livable California. “But when you present it to the state, you’re just a number. There are so many problems, and so much bureaucracy, politics and money, that the community is lost.

In several interviews, several of the more active owners expressed a sense of upper-middle-class regression. It seems unfair to them that people who did exactly what society told them to do – buy a house, get involved in their neighborhood – are now being asked to accept big changes in their environment.

More than anything, they’re furious at how an epithet like “NIMBY” can reduce someone who cares about their neighborhood to a cartoon. Yes, they are the ones who fight development. They are also the people who manufacture and distribute lawn signs. Who attend nightly town meetings to ask probing questions about bids for the town’s dog-catching contract. Who throw the block party and help start library programs that everyone takes for granted.

“The state is crazy trying to make all these towns its enemy,” said Maria Pavlou Kalban, who serves on the board of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association and recently founded a homeowners and neighborhood group at the statewide called United Neighbors. “These are people who are really serious about trying to answer the question, ‘Where do our children live?'”

However, when the conversation turns to solutions, the conundrum of local control resurfaces. In an interview, Kalban laid out a plan to build higher-density housing on high-traffic corridors, which seems perfectly reasonable. It also resembles the townhouses that Richardson has been trying to build since 2004.

“The Household Voter Hypothesis”

Housing is a “group buy,” or big decision governed by a million small variables: number of bedrooms, size of yard, quality of local schools, proximity to work, family, and public transportation. common. Above all of this, of course, is the price.

Housing politics is driven by emotion, specifically the fear of losing what you have. Dartmouth economist William Fischel has laid out the financial dimensions of a theory – “The Domestic Voter Hypothesis” – that NIMBYism is a form of insurance. Since you can’t buy a police that will protect you from neighborhood hell, the thinking goes, people compensate by having planning meetings to fight anything (whether it’s a junkyard, a highway, or an apartment complex low-rent) that they perceive as a threat.

People usually get involved in local politics for a separate reason — they’re mad at their school board, for example, or worried about a condo complex down the street — but they stay involved because they make friends and derive purpose from work. . It becomes something to do.

Over the past two decades, Kirsch said she’s spent almost as much time on her patio drinking wine and talking about housing with other activists as with longtime friends.

In our own conversations, she devoted as much energy to exposing how corporations are too big and billionaires too undertaxed and inequalities so troubling as she did to the state’s housing policy. . And so I asked the obvious question: with so much to be angry about, why spend so much time fighting certain condos?

“I guess it’s just that feeling of home,” she said. “Just that feeling of home and the safety and security that comes with having a safe place to go at the end of the day where you can believe you can have the security you don’t need of worrying about how are you going to have money for food and insurance and dental care for your children and all those things, this metaphor of home as a place of comfort.

The natural sequel was what about the next generation, who says they’re fighting for that too? She failed in neighborhood control.

“Local communities would do a much better job of addressing these issues,” she said. “Using the language of centralized power is what instructs me to do it – I think small is beautiful.”

Richardson recently presented a new proposal for Kite Hill. This time, it would consist of 25 condos ranging from 800 square feet to 2,100 square feet, including six subsidized units for households with median incomes near or below that of the area. He feels better about his chances thanks to changes in state law, but, at 86, he’s running out of time.

“I’m going to win or I’m going to die,” Richardson said. “It’s one or the other.”

The city has yet to schedule a public hearing on the new proposal, but hopes there will be one later this year. Whatever the date, Kirsch plans to be there. She has things to say.

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