“...the most common and durable source of faction has been the various and unequal distribution of property.”
- Karl Marx
- James Madison
Recent headlines about housing crises in California and elsewhere prove Madison’s point. The state faces an exploding housing affordability crisis, which features rising living costs, epidemics of homelessness, and policy battles between NIMBYs and YIMBYs—No or Yes In My Backyard-ers. Over the past several years the California state legislature, assisted by YIMBY interest groups and think tanks in favor of looser zoning regulations, has made repeated attempts to reduce or even eliminate single-family zoning to promote density and increase housing supply, only to be stymied by NIMBYs organized in defense of “neighborhood character.”
The battle over who should be able to own or rent property, where they should be permitted to do so, and the precise means by which California’s and other states’ housing crises can be ameliorated is far from over, but in recent weeks the tide has turned. In a major victory for YIMBYs, the California state legislature passed two crucial bills, SB9 and SB10, which now await Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature. SB9 effectively ends single-family zoning by allowing the building of duplexes on lots as well as the splitting of lots, while SB10 attempts to promote density by giving localities the option to zone for residential buildings of up to 10 units near transportation or in “jobs-rich” areas.
NIMBY interest groups such as Liveable California and United Neighbors argue zoning should be a primarily local matter, not left to the state government to decide. The character of a neighborhood, its “quality of life,” should be up to residents. On top of this, these organizations continue to claim support for affordability while asserting that YIMBY groups are in the pockets of developers who will take advantage of the new laws to build expensive luxury housing.
Matthew Lewis, the communications director for California YIMBY, a pro-housing group that has assisted in the legislative push for SB9 and SB10, says that arguments made by pro-single family zoning groups are made in bad faith. According to Mr. Lewis, “You cannot fund affordable housing that is single family homes...It comes down to very simple economies of scale.” More importantly, in reference to opposition groups, he says that he thinks “you can gauge the seriousness of the opposition’s commitment to affordable housing by the amount of effort they put in” to efforts to raise local property taxes to build more affordable housing. That effort, according to him, is nothing, or close to it.
Mr. Lewis’s statements lay out a broad, crucial point about interest groups and their politics, about the way in which some may dishonestly claim to be on the side of certain solutions. Some pro-single family zoning groups, like United Neighbors, do have housing plans on their website which claim to be able to build density while preserving “neighborhood character,” but there is no evidence that their actions have gone beyond opposition to SB9 and SB10.
There are surely reasonable criticisms to be leveled at SB9 and SB10 for failing to directly address the issue of affordable housing. While an increase of supply would not drive housing prices up, other measures are likely necessary to bring prices down to reasonable and liveable levels for many. However, YIMBY advocates like Mr. Lewis’s organization, who may argue against such criticisms, still view these bills as a step in the right direction rather than a complete answer.
This battle over housing policy reveals a crucial lesson about interest groups and activism. Either intentionally or unintentionally, it is easy to get caught up in opposition to partial solutions while failing to recognize just how useful they can be to reaching a complete one. As economics columnist Noah Smith writes, “deregulating housing is a necessary first step to” a comprehensive housing plan.
Madison himself had interests crucial to his identity as a property owner, not the least of which was his ownership of kidnapped and enslaved Africans. Not all interests in a democracy are created equally; some individuals and groups have enormous power to further their goals while others do not. So too do they often have the capacity to manipulate citizens’ perceptions of the nature of their end goals. As debates over housing continue, we owe it to ourselves—and our democracy—to examine their proposals with a keen and scrutinizing eye.Subscribe to Spectacles
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Special thanks to Matthew Lewis for speaking to us for this article.