California busts NIMBY dreaming

Can YIMBYs beat the regressives, both left and right?

Jeffrey Denny
5 min readAug 27, 2021


Jeffrey Denny

Kudos to California for rejecting the NIMBYism that’s fueled the state’s — and the nation’s — affordable housing crisis that hurts working families, especially people of color, the most.

Golden State legislators have adopted a comprehensive package of housing affordability measures that, among the many bills, would end the long tyranny of exclusionary zoning (aka, modern racial redlining) that is helping to drive the shocking housing prices in California and across the nation.

The big challenge: Can the California legislation survive the inevitable bitter, protracted fights by diehard NIMBYs, both right and left?

NIMBYs represent a powerful grassroots political coalition that unites our divided states — from the White Republican suburbs and gated communities to the upscale White Democratic urban villages, like where I live.

Apologies to my fellow libs, but we’re no better as we’d like to think.

We believe we care more deeply about the poor unhoused and underhoused than the selfish, greedy conservatives.

We care about our college grads who can’t afford housing because they’re burdened with student loans (which should be forgiven).

We believe in government housing subsidies and set-asides for affordable units.

We believe in regulatory intervention where the market fails, like in ensuring every American has a decent roof over their heads and housing opportunities.

We believe every community should welcome shelters and supportive housing for the unhoused, our respectful term for homeless.

And yet many of we enlightened liberals join with our unenlightened conservatives in common cause to “preserve our communities” by fighting change.

My own majority White and wealthy liberal community in historically majority Black Washington, DC, is a ripe example.

We’ve fought many a proposed development that would increase the stock of homes to ease the cost and diversify our communities.

Yet with delicious pretzel logic, some here called the Black mayor’s recent urgent affordable housing plan racist. We were horrified that it would permit a new transit-located apartment building on our beloved commercial strip. We claimed it would only result in more luxury housing (like ours) that keeps Black people out.

Nearby, our fellow wealthy White liberals fought a cross-region light rail line, endorsed by environmentalists and The Washington Post, to ease the region’s traffic crisis, help wage workers get to their jobs, and promote transit-oriented housing.

The gentry was outraged that a mile of the 16-mile line needed to run through their community near their exclusive country club and cherished walking trail.

My liberal community has also skunk-eyed and nitpicked a new public pool and park renovation (the design is terrible and now they’ve delayed it!) and even transitional housing for unhoused women and children.

We’re now — libs v. libs — fighting a school for the hearing impaired against its hope to expand to a nearby abandoned estate.

We also hate the Black mayor’s plan to build a desperately needed new public school at a city park — which we called “our park” — to ease severe overcrowding that put classes in trailers.

The NIMBY battles vary by community and circumstance.

But the tactics are similar, reflecting the old trial lawyer advice:

First, pound the facts

Your facts, that is.

Community planners and housing developers spend countless months and monies studying the needs, feasibility, costs, impacts and tradeoffs of housing plans, anticipating NIMBY pushback.

Yet inexpert NIMBYs bring their own countervailing facts from cursory internet “research” like anti-vaxxers do, with cherry-picked personal and media anecdotes, and — since many have the money — financing their own studies.

Next, pound the process

No matter how many public notices, public hearings, public outreach and public engagements have occurred to vet the projects, declare the process entirely corrupt; i.e.,

— Assert the housing plan was cooked up in the dark of night in a smoke-filled back room by greedy developers and their shameless bought politicians.

— Then declare the plan was suddenly dumped on the public as a done deal. The public comments were ignored. The process wasn’t “transparent.” Meetings didn’t follow Robert’s Rules of Order to the letter.

— Next, fight the process at every political juncture that is your citizen right. Fight at the neighborhood, city, town or county councils. Fight at the zoning board. Fight at the zoning board of appeals. Fight at the historic commission.

— Then fight in the courts. Bring on the lawsuits, however dubious. Keep appealing and appealing. Even if every judge laughs your case out of court and warns about frivolous suits, at least you’ve slowed the project and raised the costs, making it less affordable and feasible.

Finally, pound the table

Powerful, angry, well wrought rhetoric can get you satisfying applause at public meetings and online likes and comments, and inspire your NIMBY troops.

Caution — use this power wisely.

Do: Turn your personal interest into a public interest.

Republicans should use God-given freedom and property rights. Democrats should use children, concerned moms, and climate change.

Both parties could learn from the NIMBY fights in my community. We’ve battled various changes by declaring they would:

a) Bring swarms of children-killing traffic. Neighborhood opponents of the hearing-impaired school’s expansion plan have cried that the expansion would bring, “500+ cars a day,” even if they also drive their kids to school in other neighborhoods.

b) Make parking harder. Many residents hate cars because they’re destroying the planet but need 16 mpg Range Rovers to take their kids to their private schools in other neighborhoods and sit in line with the motor running, fuming that there’s no place to park to drop them off.

c) End the world as we know it. Proposed apartment buildings will “create a concrete canyon” that will “darken the streets,” “loom over our homes” because they’re nine stories (like the other nearby costly apartment buildings) and “roast our planet” by reflecting the sun’s heat.

d) Break the law. Especially the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws. For example, the wealthy liberal light rail line opponents claimed it would pollute the air and water and harm a microscopic creature that wasn’t there. Liberal judges said no, not even nice try.

e) Disgrace Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens. The proposed public school will cut down the trees and pave paradise, but tell me, where do the children play?

Do not: Complain the changes will:

a) “Destroy our way of life,” or,

b) “Change the character of our community.

These are old code for racial redlining housing discrimination and will make you sound irredeemably racist.

Will the classic NIMBY tactics beat California’s dream and other state and local efforts to solve our housing crisis?

Only if we fail to expose them for what they are: Rank selfishness that no spin can cleanse.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.



Jeffrey Denny

A Pullet Surprise-winning writer who always appreciates free chicken.