Tips for progressives fighting progressive zoning

Jeffrey Denny

The Biden administration’s plan to ease the nation’s affordable housing crisis includes encouraging communities to take a fresh look at exclusionary single-family zoning and permit denser housing.

The right-wing Trump mob and media declared that Biden wants to “abolish the suburbs.” Their response is understandable. They’re shameless in riling their credulous base with lies.

What’s harder to fathom is when wool-dyed liberals (like me) in wealthy, historic urban enclaves (like mine) join in common cause to protect single-family zoning in the cause of preservation; i.e., preserving what’s theirs.

I’d like to offer conflicted anti-progress progressives five tips on how to NIMBY and not come off as hypocrites. I’ll cite my “village in the city” Cleveland Park in Washington, DC, and the NIMBY fight there for reference.

1. Stop demonizing “greedy developers.”

In some form or fashion, housing developers are simply doing what mostly everyone in wealthy White liberal exclusive urban enclaves are doing better than most Americans or the world: Leveraging capitalism to get paid the most for what we do.

I’ll note that in Cleveland Park, the median income is over $116,000, more than twice the city’s ($49,500) and three times the U.S. median ($31,000).

Whatever our politics, whether we’re living on paychecks, pensions, retirement funds, investments or other wealth and wherewithal including inherited, we all like money. We want maximum remittance for our work. Wherever our emoluments come from — whether public, nonprofit or private-sector jobs — the money originates from our capitalist economy.

If we claim developers are greedier, now we’re just haggling over price, as G.B. Shaw supposedly quipped.

By the way, by shaming developers, aren’t we also shaming the diverse people who work for them?

2. Stop smearing “the politicians” we don’t agree with.

I know in America, being cynical about politicians is like a bodily function, although a majority elect them and what’s the alternative?

Other than the Trump-craven, however, most elected leaders are honest, well meaning, public-spirited, responsive to constituents, hard-working, smart and talented.

I suspect many could make a lot more money doing something that doesn’t involve being attacked from all sides by uninformed, misinformed or disinformed people who have stronger opinions than the fortitude to run for office and serve.

Politicians have an impossible job trying to juggle many various (even cockamamie) views and demands. We can’t blame politicians when, to seek consensus, they might agree with other people they also represent.

Democracy can’t please everyone.

So let’s dispense with the conspiracy theorizing, like deniers of Covid, Trump’s defeat and the J6 Capitol insurrection, by claiming our local politicians are bought by greedy developers when they fail to support our personal NIMBY interests.

I worked for years on campaign finance reform. Certainly money corrupts politics. But going there when you simply disagree is lazy thinking.

By the way, many if not most jobs in America are with employers that use lobbyists and give campaign contributions. Does that make us corrupt?

3. Stop spinning personal interests into broader public interests.

Yeah, I know, it’s a Washington thing, like when Republicans say tax and regulation breaks create jobs instead of “I want more money.”

Let’s come clean: If we don’t want zoning changes that affect us personally, just say so and explain specifically why — e.g., “the new apartment building might cast a shadow over my petunias.” No guilt; we’re all selfish. Be loud and proud and even respected for honestly declaring what everyone already knows.

Cease waving the virtue flags that our NIMBYism is not about our selfish interests but about selflessly protecting the climate, safeguarding our children, and preserving the historic “character of our community.” (A case historically made to keep White communities White.)

4. Stop the sky-is-falling rhetoric.

Chill, chicken littles — in liberal urban communities lousy with lawyers, and not the kind on Florida billboards, we know when you pound the table with hot buzzwords you probably don’t have the facts or law on your side, so you’re not helping your case.

In Cleveland Park, even a misinformed whiff of single-family zoning tweaks threatens to “bulldoze” the community. Nearby, just over the city line, a county plan to address its affordable housing crisis is “strip-mining” single-family homes.

Note that in both cases, the zoning relooks are proposed by Democratic officials, progressive affordable housing advocates, and local citizen groups. Also in both cases, the facts bulldoze the hyped, extrapolated and altogether false claims—nobody’s eliminating single-family zoning there.

5. Stop the logical contortions.

Tucker Carlson and his Fox ilk are brilliant at baffling with BS when, among countless examples, they “prove” the J6 Trump Capitol riot couldn’t be an insurrection because most of the rioters weren’t charged with insurrection.

Carlson’s twisted logic and facial expressions fool all his people all the time but leave the rest of us with a vertiginous “huh?”

Here’s my favorite progressive NIMBY example:

Washington, DC, recently approved a comprehensive plan to ease the city’s serious affordable housing crunch. Subject to protracted procedural hurdles and many bitter fights along the way, the plan might someday permit a few more apartment buildings along the commercial and transit corridor running through the wealthiest Whitest ward, which includes Cleveland Park.

The plan was developed by the Black mayor and approved by the majority Black city council. In the majority Black city, the mayor thought the wealthy White ward should do its part. Which indeed, per a recent Brookings Institution paper, added almost no new housing between 1990 and 2019, and where “affordable housing” is a bitter oxymoron.

But according to some White opponents in this wealthy White ward, the city plan is racist.

How? Because, they claimed, it will only result in more “luxury housing” that will exclude families of color.

Their opposition (and non-starter alternatives) would, of course, result in no change, leaving the White community untouched and White.

When challenged on their claims, progressive NIMBYs have the smarts to spaghetti the wall with colanders of deflections, diversions, non sequiturs, innuendo and chaff that would confuse even Franco Lucchini, famed Italian WWII fighter pilot.

Never mind that Econ 101 says more supply to meet demand tends to ease prices. Or that new housing, however priced, tends to drive down the price of existing housing. (See Atlantic Monthly, “America Needs More Luxury Housing, Not Less: New market-rate development helps relieve pressure on local housing prices.”)

Above all, I urge progressive NIMBYs to embrace and announce your moral conflict.

If you can’t or won’t, then your virtue is hollower than a BLM sign on a million-dollar home in a White neighborhood that zones away non-Whites, including people who clean and landscape the homes.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.



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Jeffrey Denny

Jeffrey Denny

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