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Are urban liberal NIMBYs “progressive”?

Amid America’s affordable housing crisis, yay to the YIMBYs

Jeffrey Denny

As a lifelong urban dweller, I’m overly fortunate to have a modest home on a leafy front-porch sidewalk street in a lovely, historic “village in the city.”

Many old American cities have communities like mine. Even my ailing Industrial Age hometown of Toledo, Ohio, has the Old West End of classic colonial, French Second Empire and late Victorian homes, a neighborhood my late aunt was active in preserving.

In the East Coast urban community where I’ve now lived for decades, the residential-commercial balance, and enviable livability, walkability and invaluable charm, are protected by strict zoning rules and concerned people who have exceptional knowledge and energy to fight threats to our own private utopia.

Ours is also a privileged bubble, with average income, wealth and education far above the rest of our city and America. The median home values in our zip codes are five times the nation’s (~$1 million v. $227,000).

Certainly not everyone here is rich. Many struggle on subsistence or fixed incomes, .org or .gov salaries, or paying for child care. But while we’re real Americans who care deeply about America, we rarely see a pickup truck with a Trump 2020 bumper sticker, and many here would hate it.

Instead we have an inordinate share of smart Subarus, Toyota Priuses with peeling “I’m With Her” stickers, Corollas driven by nannies, Land Rovers among other $85,000-$120,000 SUVs taking kids to exclusive private schools, and rich v. rich battles over land use.

Worth noting is that within our East Coast liberal paradise, Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who makes many millions suckering struggling, hard-working Americans, skillfully manages the cognitive dissonance of living in a many-million-dollar mansion here. Many wealthy liberals here also do.

We love to think of our city community as “progressive.”

But when it comes to building more residential housing so more people of modest means can afford to live here, we can’t help but side-eye, nitpick, second-guess and best case kill any proposed developments that aren’t pristine perfect in our eyes. Because — horrors! — they might bring reality to our utopia.

Yep, we’re classic NIMBYs but on steroids because we’re also rich with lawyers, policy wonks and other smart professionals who have the connections, energy and know-how to work the political and policy levers.

We can marshal the most powerful environmental, aesthetic, historical, rhetorical and legal cases to slow or stop residential development, even when it meets or exceeds all regulations that we, the policy professionals, write, instead of coming clean and saying what we really care about — protecting what’s ours.

I’m among the outliers here, a YIMBY who says, “Yes In My Backyard,” and expect a powerful bring down by neighbors who are smarter and more informed than I ever will be. That’s how it goes here. Everyone is smarter than everyone else.

But unlike many, I don’t axiomatically think developers are immoral greedy child-eating capitalists who care more about rapaciously lining their already bulging 1% pockets than improving our community.

I welcome development of affordable residential housing and commercial entities that serve our community. Not “anything goes,” but done smart — with denser, taller, transit-oriented, climate and community-respecting and other imaginative solutions that the smartest developers know to propose — in ways that preserve, refresh and advance our community.

And I wonder how “progressive” we are if our bias is to pull the drawbridge and political strings to protect what we have, instead of being flexible to new approaches that while perhaps imperfect, help relieve the affordable housing crisis in our communities and country.

***

In our politically polarized nation, the affordable housing crisis should bring us together in common cause and solutions.

Millions of Americans right and left — and not just the poor — are struggling with the growing shortage and rising cost of housing. Especially as Millennials, a cohort rivaling the tidal-wave Boomers, seek more than studio apartments to raise families.

America is short from 7.2-12 million affordable housing units, per the cross-partisan National Low Income Housing Coalition and others who’ve done the analysis. Many experts blame the Four L’s:

Labor: Shortage of construction workers, worsened by Trump’s xenophobic border-closing policies curbing even legal immigration to appease his base. “The recent shortage of immigrant workers is impacting housing and housing affordability,” the National Association of Home Builders says.

Lending: Tighter mortgage rules following the housing meltdown stink-eye people with new economy non-traditional and gig jobs, credit and financial histories.

Land: While we’re a big country, many cities and communities have scarce property available for residential housing development, often because of:

Laws: Restrictive zoning ordinances about what and where you can build homes, often reflecting NIMBY pressure and favoring free-standing, single-family houses over multifamily units such as apartments, duplexes and triple-deckers like you see in Boston.

This last L is where my progressive community gets downright regressive, demanding and fighting for property rights and protections like an Ayn Rand libertarian Tea Party patriot.

Take, for example, the long, bitter, uncivil war over a project to build a mere 219 residential units and retail on the site of a long-abandoned supermarket property.

As a community news site reported last summer, the development “is nowhere close to groundbreaking, stymied by fierce resistance from some neighbors ever since its initial unveiling nearly four years ago.” And, “With over 500 documents filed in its Zoning Commission case record, the project … has turned into a back-and-forth between [the builder] and its proponents on one side, and organized critics on the other.”

My city’s progressive Democratic mayor has called housing affordability the number-one issue here.

Her Honor also pointedly singled out my privileged community to step up and do our part.

If we don’t, can’t or won’t, I hope we all have Tucker Carlson’s first-rate cognitively dissonant intelligence with, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, the ability to hold two opposed ideas while still retaining the ability to function. That we both care and don’t care about affordable housing.

I’m not saying, reductio ad absurdum, allowing any ugly disrespectful developer schlock that destroys what makes great communities great. I mean — if we’re authentically progressive about addressing our affordable housing crisis — people with special privileges and powers will bring the best yes to our backyards.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.

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