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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

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Home Featured Yimbyism and the cruel irony of metropolitan history

Yimbyism and the cruel irony of metropolitan history

To reckon with the current housing crisis, we must inquire into our country’s metropolitan history.

The sense of housing crisis is nearly everywhere. Debates about housing policy are heating up, turning once arcane fields into the subject of fevered Facebook exchanges. Housing prices are shooting past their pre-recession highs and people across Los Angeles are feeling the squeeze like never before. Home ownership within a reasonable commute to job centers is out of the question for all but the upper echelons of society. Among young urban professionals, there’s a scramble to find “about to get hot” working-class neighborhoods in which to rent and buy. Rents in previously affordable neighborhoods are rising so fast that tens of thousands of people are being pushed into homelessness.

The loudest voices of the YIMBY (“Yes In My Back Yard”) movement are confident they have the solution. California’s coastal cities have a shortage of supply relative to demand because of selfish NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) homeowners and their political enablers who’ve severely limited the construction of new housing over the last four decades. The story is simple — with clear villains and Econ 101 logic at work. To them, the solution is clear — we need to override local zoning with state legislation so millions of new housing units can be built across the state. California Senate Bill 827 intends to do just that. Spearheaded by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), and the Silicon Valley-backed California YIMBY. Wiener’s S.B. 35, passed last year, streamlines construction if cities aren’t on track to meet their housing production goals. S.B. 827 takes this much further, with a specific focus on areas near rail and bus lines. In its initial form, Wiener’s bill 1) prohibits density restrictions or parking requirements within a half-mile of a major transit station or a quarter-mile of a bus stop on a frequent bus line; and 2) sets the maximum-zoned height in these areas at 45, 55, or 85 feet depending on the nature of the street in these same areas.

In Wiener’s telling, the bill is about equity. He writes “The only way we will make housing more affordable and significantly reduce displacement is to build a lot more housing and to do so in urbanized areas accessible to public transportation.” More audaciously, he frames S.B. 827 as a measure that “tackles head on the ugly reality that mandated low-density zoning excludes poor people and—per the intent when low-density zoning was created 100 years ago—people of color.”  Wiener cites Richard Rothstein’s much-lauded new book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, as support for his position.

This makes sense. We cannot reckon with this housing crisis without inquiring into our country’s metropolitan history. We need to ask and think about several important questions along these lines.

  • Is the lack of residential construction primarily responsible for our current affordability, gentrification, and displacement crises?
  • How and why did density restrictions come into being?
  • What has been the role of political and institutional racism in carving up the metropolitan landscape and creating inequality?
  • And how should these historical contexts shape the solutions we craft today?

Rothstein’s book is an important place to start. From the fevered reception it received, one might think it was the first work of scholarship on the “public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States.” But his work draws heavily from a large body of historical and sociological research on the topic. Rothstein acknowledges his great debt to classics like Thomas Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis and Arnold Hirsch’s Creating the Second Ghetto. Those works, in turn, owe greatly to scholars like the legendary W. E. B. Du Bois and to movement organizers like Dr. Martin Luther King who critiqued “internal colonialism.”

I remember reading Origins of the Urban Crisis in 2004 as an undergraduate and being shocked at how little I knew and how little exposure its detailed findings had received. As I wrote my senior thesis on the failures of “urban renewal” in Newark, NJ, via “slum clearance” of mixed neighborhoods, segregated public housing projects, highway construction, and other infrastructure decisions, the reality became vividly clear to me, as much as when I walked from the train station to the Newark Public Library as in the archives themselves.

When I entered a history doctoral program at USC, propelled by this knowledge and a sense of obligation to tell the story, I discovered dozens of books and articles from the field of urban studies chronicling the disinvestment from and destruction of urban neighborhoods populated heavily by people of color, especially African-Americans. And what I’ve learned along the way is that Wiener and his YIMBY allies are telling a much-abridged version of American’s metropolitan history.

The housing history of metropolitan America does include zoning with origins in racism, classism, and sexism. And it surely includes attempts by the privileged, especially single-family homeowners, to limit the “wrong” kind of people from living in their neighborhoods, through methods like restrictions on multi-family housing. But to operate on the pretense that racial discrimination is solely or primarily the result of government restrictions on land use is to ignore the fact that as a whole, all of mainstream white society, and especially investment capital, is complicit in the reality of segregation, economic inequality, and lack of housing opportunity.

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This history has contributed to a segmented housing market such that increases in aggregate supply, will not necessarily produce lower costs for poor and working-class communities. The massive shortage of low-cost housing is not only the result of anti-density restrictions in affluent neighborhoods. It owes in great part to a legacy of wealth-suppression and outright exploitation, facilitated by private capital that has so often made its profit by moving the color line while relying on government subsidy.

This means that challenging the anti-density policies entrenched by privileged homeowners is only one piece of the puzzle. If we don’t tailor pro-density policies to explicitly counter a legacy of redlining of access to jobs and capital, and to preserve and create affordable housing, then the YIMBY agenda will perpetuate and not remedy the inequities that well-meaning YIMBYs intend to oppose.

Recent pieces concisely make the case for YIMBY introspection about their relationship to justice movements. This essay seeks to deepen the discussion by offering a big-picture, long-term context for the debates we’re having in 2018.

Urban history has taken an unusual trajectory in the United States. Unlike other countries where the political, financial, or cultural capitals stood at the center of the nation’s society, much of American identity was premised on a rejection of the “big city.” As important as Eastern seaboard ports were in the early 19th century or how vital Chicago was to the development of an industrial nation in the early 20th century, the dominant culture centered on the notion of a “self-made” (white) man striking out on his own.

Equally important as the “frontier” farmer myth and reality to American identity were “urban boosters.” These boosters were civic leaders andland owners in innumerable towns and cities who attempted to create self-fulfilling prophecies which would attract more residents and more investment, thereby increasing their own wealth and power.

This occurred in the U.S. far more than other countries because of the extreme decentralization and fragmentation of government authority here. A growth-for-growth’s sake narrative pervaded urban discourse. The answer to any problem was more people and more capital. Of course, not all places could win the battle for growth. And the ones that did briefly reach the summit, like Chicago, were vulnerable to displacement, as people and capital pursued opportunity elsewhere.

The result was an urban capitalist economy undergirded by property speculation and frequently struck by alternating booms and busts. Investors getting into the market at its zenith lost out, of course, but no one stood to lose more than renters who suffered from rapidly escalating housing costs followed by economic collapse that eviscerated their incomes. Through the early 20th century, the sheer abundance of land and the paucity of land use regulation meant that housing costs were relatively low. But the unregulated market in cities — geared toward maximizing the profits of those narrow class of people who owned capital and held sway over government — led to horrific and unsanitary conditions. This was especially true in the “slums” chronicled in How The Other Half Lives by photographer Jacob Riis. It also did little to prevent racial segregation.

Housing for Working Poor, NYC, photo by Jacob Riis

In the first half of the 20th century, there was very little question that the market had failed. There was widespread agreement across the political spectrum that a new level of coordination was needed, usually by the government, to re-assert control and restore order on behalf of the collective in the wake of laissez faire’s social wreckage. The real divide was over what kind of order ought to be restored, by what means, and for whose benefit. It was in this context that all of modern planning, zoning, and housing regulation initially developed.

Racism — or more accurately belief in the superiority of whiteness among those considered white — inflected much of this emerging field. Boosterish business and civic leaders infamously called for Los Angeles to be the “whitest spot on the map.” The phrase specifically referred to L.A.’s anti-labor, pro-capital business environment, but as Bill Deverell shows in Whitewashed Adobe, the racial overtones were not subtle — leading Angeleno Joseph P. Widney spoke for the elite consensus in proclaiming that “the Captains of Industry are the truest captains in the race war.” As a result of corporate, homeowner, real estate, and government redlining, places like Boyle Heights and Watts became diverse communities full of Jewish (not considered sufficiently white at the time), Japanese, Mexican, Chinese, Filipino, and African-Americans. And it was those same places and the historic Eastside generally to which white-owned private capital and new zoning rules pushed polluting industries.

However, there was another aspect of the planning field. It comprised the smaller proportion of professionals who sought to use land use regulation and government investment for the exact opposite purpose — to alleviate suffering caused by lack of adequate, affordable housing. It started with settlement house pioneers like Jane Addams who pushed for regulations to ensure enough air and light circulated through packed tenement apartments. It expanded through the tradition “housers” like Catherine Bauer who sought to mitigate the failures of the boom-and-bust cycle of unchecked real estate speculation and profit-seeking capital. In the 1920s, a social democratic movement in cities like New York successfully created garden-style housing cooperatives to remove housing away from the pressures of the marketplace.

Amalgmated Housing Cooperative, The Bronx, NY 1929

In the 1930s, municipalities and the federal government began working to replicate these developments with public funding. Whether in New York, Newark, or Los Angeles, these projects were initially a success — well-designed and well-funded.

As Gail Radford notes in Modern Housing for America, housers pushed an ambitious agenda of “non-commercial development of imaginatively designed compact neighborhoods with extensive parks and social services,” drawing inspiration from the successes of what was called “social housing” in Europe. Most audaciously, Rex Tugwell, a leader in President Roosevelt’s Administration sought regional level planning that would “provide an alternative to private speculative development, with the community retaining land ownership and political control over future expansion.”

This path was decidedly not the one our nation’s metropolitan areas followed.

What occurred instead was a market-driven development that was both generously subsidized by the federal government and racially discriminatory. The trickle of federal funding for public housing in the 1930s was nothing compared to the subsidy provided by Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), which effectively subsidized the mortgages of millions of homeowners. The HOLC is the source of the infamous color-coded maps of cities, which determined which neighborhoods would be eligible for loans based on their racial mixture. Like many before him, Rothstein notes, the impact of these maps.

But recent scholarship demonstrates that it wasn’t solely planning that discriminated, but also private capital. These HOLC maps followed the patterns already set by banks. Federal support had the effect of entrenching practices already followed by the dominant white businesses and homeowners, while further subsidizing them. This would be the pattern that has dominated our housing history ever since.

HOLC Map of Los Angeles – Yellow and especially red areas were prevented from getting loans

World War II brought an end to the Depression but created a housing crisis of its own. People flooded into cities for new work opportunities, especially African-Americans who left behind the Jim Crow South only to be confronted with sub-par wages, exploitation by slumlords, and in many cases, vicious white violence aimed at preventing their entry into certain neighborhoods. Little new housing was built during the war and what was built, whether public or private, was almost never available to African-Americans. As veterans returned from the war and began to start families, the housing shortage reached a new depth of crisis.

The solution, at least in the aggregate, was a wave of single-family, mass-produced tract homes in suburbs like the San Fernando Valley, Southeast L.A. County’s Lakewood, and East Coast Levittowns.

Mass Production of Housing, 1950, Lakewood, California

Subsidized by the Federal Housing Authority, the suburban building boom helped to recreate the white middle-class after the Depression, giving even (white) blue-collar workers a plot of land and a decent building to call their own, a la the white frontier farmer of 19th century. Developers — and their investors — profited handsomely. Win-win? Hardly. Left behind in worsening conditions were the communities of color who had been systemically excluded from these subsidies AND from the new market construction. Capital flight combined with segregated suburbanization to leave inner-city neighborhoods to grow more overcrowded and more physically dilapidated.

Civic leaders — white, male, upper-class (the sons of those calling for L.A. to be the “whitest spot on the map”) — came to see these neighborhoods as “slums,” a blight on their city’s image. Rather than directly invest in the people who lived there, civic leadership sought to transform the physical space into something that would match their booster dreams. “Urban renewal,” just like suburbanization, involved pouring millions in public funding toward privately-developed projects whose investors made a tidy profit while new inhabitants enjoyed “modern” space.

In Los Angeles, Chavez Ravine was cleared of ramshackle housing, with the honest intention of constructing 10,000 units of public housing, before a conservative mayor came to office and ended up selling the land to the Brooklyn Dodgers. At the same time, the Bunker Hill Redevelopment Project tore down many square blocks of old homes to make way for new corporate office towers and “public” plazas, a story repeated in cities and towns across the country. Federally funded freeways sliced through the neighborhoods left behind by redlining, with more than five highways going through Boyle Heights alone, causing massive displacement, cutting Hollenbeck Park in two, and leading to an epidemic of air pollution. Construction companies profited. Newly suburbanized middle-class workers were able to glide seamlessly to their downtown jobs. The mass transit of the day – Yellow Cars around downtown and Red Cars connecting neighborhoods across the entire metropolitan region – was decommissioned.

This did not happen without resistance.

Progressive Angelenos on the left-wing of the Democratic Party like Reuben Borough warned against abandoning the mixed public spaces—the parks, squares, and railcars in favor of a retreat into segregated neighborhoods, connected only by private automobiles. This group, following in the tradition of “housers,” wanted equitable transit-oriented development. In the 1930s and 1940s, they fought for improved equipment and services for public transportation to reduce overcrowding and wait times. Seeing the region’s explosive growth, they backed the creation of a countywide master plan for transportation under public ownership and operation. Financed by long-term, self-liquidating bonds, it would offer lower fares, more lines to newly developing communities and expanded cross-town service. They worked to create more health facilities in places like Watts and the growing San Fernando Valley. They advocated to create parks, playgrounds and community recreation centers, especially in low-income areas. They proposed the expansion of municipal beach facilities, including parking, bathhouses, cafeterias, as well as public auditoriums across the city.

This visionary group lost and lost badly. They lost to the privateers — both to 1) private capital and real estate interests which fought mercilessly against attempts to satisfy the supply of housing, transportation, and public places through government planning and 2) a white homeowner class which got their backyards and freeways supplied by private businesses and heavily subsidized by the government. There was a lot of money to be made from the color line, as N.B.D. Connolly has shown in his work on metropolitan Miami. There was lots of wealth to be accumulated from moving around poor people, especially poor people of color.

Repressive policing was endemic in the work of getting and keeping these groups in their place. It was the combination of policing, economic deprivation, and metropolitan segregation, which fueled and then ignited the urban uprisings of the 1960s, Watts prominent among them. In this post-Watts context in 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke frankly of internal colonialism. “In the slum, the Negro is forced to pay more for less, and the general economy of the slum is constantly drained without being replenished,” he exclaimed in a speech at the Chicago Freedom Festival. “The slum is little more than a domestic colony which leaves its inhabitants dominated politically, exploited economically, segregated and humiliated at every turn.”

At the instigation of homeowners and other wealthy property interests, the city’s voters approved a ballot initiative in 1969 that limited the number of people who could live on a plot of land and capped the number of stories a building could have as an effort to contain the “wrong kind” of people, i.e. those from redlined inner-city neighborhoods from encroaching. By cutting density in half, it prevented the even dispersal of jobs across the city. In 1986, this tradition continued with a Proposition U, another anti-growth ballot measure aimed at commercial and industrial development. The result of Prop U was to concentrate jobs in intense pockets like Westwood, Century City, and Downtown. White homeowner entitlement was cemented against lower-income communities of color on one side and against private capital on the other. This, of course, is the most critical segment of the YIMBY historical narrative, a launch point for several decades of minimal housing construction and an as result, rising urban core housing prices. But the history of our cities and of Los Angeles does not end here.

The next great shift in metropolitan history was the “conquest of cool.” Those people who had the option to suburbanize but chose to remain urban participated in bohemian communities, which ran counter culture to the seemingly flat, bland worlds of downtown office towers and tract-home suburbs. As Suleiman Osman describes in The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, places like Brooklyn Heights (and its cousin, Silver Lake) offered a sense of small-scale authenticity and vibrancy that couldn’t be found elsewhere.

The godmother of these “new urbanists” was Jane Jacobs. Jacobs certainly opened my eyes to a new way of seeing and experiencing the dense urban environment when I read her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Against the freeway, office-tower, and suburban-centered development that reigned after World War II, she pointed out the importance of small-scale urban life. She shared important observations about street life such as the how architecture can ensure safety by keeping a lot of eyes casually looking over a public space. She illuminated some of the failings of top-down planning as it existed in her time. Her writings were a useful corrective to mid-twentieth century redevelopment excesses, but the experiential perspective on urban life only scratched the surface of the injustices perpetuated by the large-scale urban projects she decried.

The new bohemian urbanism, consciously positioned against the mainstream and the market, was gradually integrated into them. In his book The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank traces the history of the “bohemian cultural style’s trajectory from adversarial to hegemonic; the story of hip’s mutation from native language of the alienated to that of advertising.” This was just as true for urbanism as for music or any other form of cultural expression and experience. There was genuine interest in sharing racially, socioeconomically, and culturally diverse neighborhoods and public spaces among those who stayed even though they had the privilege to leave. But racial inequality, metropolitan segregation, and market dynamics combined to drive far wider changes.

Long before regional-level shortages of housing existed, young white adults in pursuit of hipness (including many from well-off families) were attracted to neighborhoods near the urban core by the low cost of rents and the countercultural sense of cool. Not able to afford places like Westside or uninterested in its lack of dense vibrancy, the children of those who benefited from subsidized suburbanization began a process of settling in formerly neglected neighborhoods. Private capital, seeing opportunities to profit, returned to formerly disinvested neighborhoods serve this nascent affluent population. And thus a cycle of urban redevelopment began that continues to this day.

As neighborhood after neighborhood turned “edgy, but interesting” and then “cool and safe,” real estate investors saw the promise of safe returns. Relatively low land values combined with the expectation of rising property values spurred speculation, physical upgrading, and intentional efforts to push out existing residents. The new amenities, along with the influx of the “right” kind of people catalyzed further increases in land and housing prices.

The initial agents of gentrification were pushed to adjacent poor and working-class neighborhoods and the cycle began all over again. Of course, the people initially left behind and then pushed out didn’t have the capital to profit from rising property values. Instead, investors were able to profit from the difference between present and expected future value.

Municipal governments, eager for visible signs of “urban revitalization” and new tax revenue, did what they could to encourage this process, investing public dollars in infrastructure improvements and increased services and policing. Transit often served as tool for this purpose, a marketable amenity and a sign of “cool” urban living. As the neighborhood became firmly middle-class and then affluent, even bigger private capital flowed in. As living in core urban neighborhoods becomes part of mainstream culture (from “Seinfeld” and “Friends” to “Sex and the City” and “Girls”) these places become even more desirable, especially for rising generations of young people.

It is no coincidence that gentrified and now gentrifying areas like Echo Park, Venice, and Boyle Heights were the ones that had been systematically redlined and disinvested from. The correlation between the red areas of the HOLC map of L.A. and current “hot” neighborhoods is uncanny. There is a lot of money to be made by moving the color line.

The cruel irony of America’s metropolitan history is that the communities that were systemically divested from are now being harmed again, once again partially fueled by booster dreams. Crueler still is the fact that those YIMBYs with power and privilege are now telling the folks who have suffered most that they must trust that this time a more liberated real estate market will produce a equitable outcome for them.

Housing cannot be understood in isolation, detached from questions of how the economy works and how its benefits are distributed unequally across the population. When YIMBYs and developers protest that private housing construction shouldn’t be taxed or mandated to foster equity, they neglect the fact that housing construction and the private market have not merely echoed social inequalities — they have perpetuated and deepened those inequalities. This is especially true today when an influx of large-scale investment capital contributes to rising housing asset and rental prices.

The housing justice movement by and large understands the concept of supply and demand, despite YIMBY’s complaints otherwise. Yet housing justice movements — part of a long line of “housers” and progressives interested in equitable transit-oriented development — are able to see that left alone to produce housing, the market will not meet the needs of a large proportion of the population. That was true in the late 19th century, as slums emerged. It was true in the mid-twentieth century heyday of redlining and subsidized suburbanization and urban redevelopment. And it is true today when redlining and other forms of discrimination and exploitation of the less privileged continue. The market alone does not produce good outcomes for communities who were denied the ability to accumulate wealth in previous housing booms, through redlining and because of an overall economy that has grown increasingly unequal over the last four decades.

Ignorance of this history leads many YIMBYs to perplexity and frustration over why housing justice advocates are so stubborn in advocating for linking density and reduced parking requirements to the creation of affordable housing, good jobs, and other community benefits. It is especially grating for housing justice advocates when white male YIMBYs — some with little actual expertise — insist on plan-splaining to organizations — many of whom led by women and people of color and with dozens of expert planners, scholars, and lawyers on their collective staffs — about how the housing market actually works.

Meanwhile research from scholars like Miriam Zuk and others shows that exclusively market-rate development near transit will lead to a displacement of low-income people who are core transit-riders. Increased supply concentrated in “hot” neighborhoods is likely to drive displacement in the short-term while only reducing housing costs over the long-term at the regional scale. That’s cold comfort for families suffering the economic downsides of longer able to commute to work via transit, while still paying high rents on the suburban outskirts for many years to come.

The good news is that there is a viable alternative to the dogma of laissez faire, the historical reality of government facilitating private investments that moves to the color line to benefit the largely white middle-class, and the obstinancy of privileged homeowners. The tradition stretching from the “housers” to the regional planners to today’s equitable development movement offers a third way to ensuring adequate supply of housing affordable to all levels of the community.

It’s a tradition which has never been able to fully realize its promise, thanks to the power of racism, homeowner privilege, wealth inequality, and investor class influence but it is finally gaining steam, with notable victories like Measure JJJ and the enactment of the People’s Plan in South LA. As ACT-LA’s letter notes, the “LA City Council approved in November an area-wide no net loss program throughout South L.A. that incorporates various anti-displacement and affordable housing replacement policies that align with the incentive programs tied to transit corridors.”

It is outrageous that Wiener’s S.B. 827 is poised to override these initiatives that are finally coming to fruition after decades of struggle by historically disadvantaged communities to go beyond a seat at the table and finally set the agenda for equitable development. Laissez faire, subsidized private construction along racial lines, and NIMBYism have all failed. It is time for California state policy to build upon housing justice wins that prioritize equitable development and input from those who have been marginalized by historical planning patterns.

I believe there is an important place for progressive YIMBYs as allies of the housing justice movement. Progress requires listening early and often to housing justice advocates. It’s not enough for YIMBY leaders and groups to initiate dialogue; they have to stop insisting they have all the answers. It would be helpful if they acknowledged the history of market failure and government-enabled discrimination by private capital, in addition to the problems of anti-density laws. It would useful to begin with building on the housing justice and equitable development policies that were developed out of the most impacted communities. It would be productive to learn from community experiences in struggling against waves of disinvestment and displacement that have acted like the urban equivalent of the fires and ensuing mudsides that are one-two punches to our fragile Southern California landscape.

Progress will take a willingness to focus on increasing supply in wealthier areas like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, while not accepting policies that accelerate luxury development in poorer ones, with no provisions for stabilizing and creating affordable units. A bill like S.B. 827 that automatically upzones near transit is far more likely to impact historically disinvested neighborhoods in the urban core than the affluent single-family areas so frequently cited by the bill’s advocates. Claiming that it also up-zones these latter areas is not good enough. More profoundly, YIMBYs would do well to understand that unilaterally setting the year’s housing agenda with a bill like S.B. 827 and then hectoring potential allies to ‘fall in line’ without debate and withhold a public position until amendments come out is not constructive.

Progress will take a willingness by YIMBYs to stop opposing almost everything L.A.’s broad coalition of equitable transit-oriented development groups support (e.g. linkage fees, Measure JJJ, community plan updates that tie density increases to equity provisions) and to acknowledge that increasing supply in the aggregate isn’t enough to improve the situation for people below the median income.

Progress will take a willingness by YIMBYs to craft legislation that centers the proposals of housing justice groups and then adds components to increase aggregate housing supply. Investments in stabilizing and creating affordable housing, as well as support for good local jobs and other community benefits, can’t be afterthoughts to help win passage of legislation to increase infill development, likely to be discarded in later deal-making if recent legislative maneuvering is any guide. It is not cynical to be skeptical. It’s simple realism for those who know their history and how politics still works today.

Our history makes evident that trusting the word of those who promise to help marginalized communities after the middle-class is taken care of is a fool’s decision. We must craft solutions that meet the needs of all of our struggling communities, tethering benefits for the middle class to the most marginalized, and yoking together our political interests in the process and building a political coalition that ensures the rich don’t get richer as the poor get poorer.

David Levitus earned his Ph.D. at USC with a focus on the history of cities, policy, and politics in the United States. At NYU, he majored in Economics and History. He is the Founder and Executive Director of L.A. Forward and the host of the L.A. Forwards & Backwards Podcast. This story originally appeared in LA Streetsblog


  1. The upside potential on building in a highly desirable neighborhood is extremely high,

    No, it isn’t. The land price will reflect the upzoned use. The structure price will be high compared to distressed properties in a poorer area. The acquisition and demolition costs are therefore already maximal. All that is already priced in. And the only potential return is haggling over a few tenths of a percent on cap rate. The upside is decidedly not high.

    The high upside comes from combining the purchase of cheaper, distressed property in a *potentially* desirable location, and then in taking steps to displace the poor incumbents.

    There’s like two centuries of capitalist housing markets to observe to see this again and again. You are completely in denial.

  2. The upside potential on building in a highly desirable neighborhood is extremely high, but there is generally a city-wide consensus that there should be no construction anywhere, at all.

  3. > “Gentrification happens to a large degree when newcomers move into
    previously working-class buildings and homes, driving up prices. That’s
    precisely what happens when there is no new housing available in more
    desireable areas.”

    No, that’s precisely what happens when capitalists buy up land in less desirable neighborhoods, apply various formulas to increase the rate of eviction and displacement, and to begin to create the spectacle of an “up and coming” area, and continue this way until their land increases wildly in value.

    Speculators don’t build more housing in those built-out desirable areas because, in contrast to the vulnerable places, the upside potential return on investment is too low.

  4. SF suffers from long outdated zoning measures in addition to the trends of modern segregation. I recently visited Manhattan for the first time in decades and was shocked to see how different it was. The streets were clean, there were cops everywhere, people were generally friendly etc. What was missing was the edginess, the socio-economic diversity, and the accessibility that the city once boasted. I fear that in making SF great again (clean and safe), we may go down this same road and become even more of a 6-figure income exclusive zone throwing the baby out with the bath water.

    I believe quite strongly that we need increased density and endorse that portion of Weiner’s proposition. As many have pointed out, however, it is lacking in provision for low-income housing in favor of “market-rate” construction. We can’t turn back the clock but I feel like we need to mandate mixed development into an increased density model. The city continues to create divisions of luxury enclaves for the rich and containment zones for the poor while the middle class are just forced out.

    The cultural and socio-economic diversity of the city may not be the biggest draw for tourists but it’s what has made the city so extremely desirable to those who have historically relocated here. I know traditions change and I am normally the one to embrace change as an opportunity but this one hits me hard. I feel like the soul of the city is being replaced by expensive, fluffy homogeny.

  5. Where’s a cowboy gonna go?

    You get chased out of SF? LA? NYC?

    Move to the back country in Wyoming or wherever and the same realtors who chased you out of SF and LA and NYC will be at your doorstep when there’s a buck to be made there.

    Teach you kids what plants are safe to eat.

    How to find potable water or make some.

    How to make weapons out of what’s at hand.


    They are never ever ever gonna get away from the forces of rapacious
    greed that are in the end game since written and oral history have been

    Can your kids make a bow and arrow?

    If not, their chances of survival when you’re gone are greatly diminished.

    Alioto for Mayor!

    Go Giants!


  6. Christian,

    First, change your handle cause you’re defiling the name of the ‘Prince of Peace’ who had at least 100 million killed in his name.

    OK, Peskin didn’t have nearly that many killed.

    Actually, none at all by my count.

    Also, drop the ‘Patriot’ cause you, sir, are no American patriot.

    Third, I’d bet you never owned a piece of property in your life (much less in SF) and are just writing here for bucks per word about a subject you just met this morning.

    Alioto for Mayor!

    Go Giants!


  7. h., I agree with much of what you say. I don’t think IZ is a good solution for the housing crisis, more like a band-aid. It takes attention away from the underlying cause, which is income inequality exacerbated by the tech boom.
    All the same, they are trying very hard to take that band-aid away.

  8. Fine. My point is that density and segregation are separate issues. If they get high density around the hubs, it will be million dollar condos and $3000/mo apartments, not housing for people who work at restaurants and schools.

  9. ‘Y’,

    Blame Mark Leno for this in SF.

    He’s the father of what Oz Erickson and the boys call …

    ‘Off-site Inclusionary Housing’

    It’s the ole, ‘bait and switch’, ‘Y’.

    He first proposed 10 or 15% of new units constructed would
    be affordable.

    Whatever the hell that means.

    He later (at behest of realtors) agreed that the ‘affordable’ units
    could be built somewhere else in the City.

    Low and behold there just happened to be a bevy of Uncle Tom preachers like the Right Reverand Amos Brown (took 5k a week to support Schwarzenegger) who announced that the units could be built in their vacant parking lots.

    And … now, hold on …

    Cause this is important …

    When Jake McGoldrick said that just because the people paying less were not going to be allowed to live with the white folk …

    Jake felt that their housing should be as well built as the rich folks.

    Up stands another Right Reverand who says that his folks are used to sub-standard housing and don’t fret about that.

    Oh yeah, Leno led these discussions around … 2001 or 2002?

    Mark also (until he didn’t) supported Scott Wiener’s legislation taking away much of the zoning power of most of the larger cities in SF.

    Now, Leno and his cohorts have ‘streamlined’ even that.

    You don’t have to build no ‘inclusionary’ housing for colored folks at all.


    You just pay fee per unit and let the City worry about building them.

    And, David Chiu and the lot then took those housing fees and gave them back to the developers to build infrastructure that they’re required to build anyway.

    This game of cowboys and indians is rigged.

    The worst player in it by far?

    Scott Wiener.

    It’s not Mark Leno only because Mark Leno (great guy, don’t get me wrong) …

    only reason it isn’t Leno is because Wiener is smarter than anyone in any crowded room (unless theirs an Australian Shepherd sleeping in the corner) …

    I gotta get back to reading this thing.

    Is it your doctoral dissertation David?

    Alioto for Mayor!

    Go Giants!


  10. I think Weiner is arguing for more mid-rise not high-rise. However, that would be even worse. “Mid-rise” neighborhoods is where you find more higher income White people.

  11. There are negative consequences of overbuilding, but I have no problem building more housing for young professionals. It may in fact take pressure off my single-family neighborhood. And should take pressure off of lower income single-family neighborhoods.

    However, building more units will not mean more working-class renters. It will mean more young professional renters. Over the past several decades, higher skilled jobs have replaced working and middle-class jobs. More educated and higher skilled workers have replaced less educated lower skilled workers. Building more housing will not bring back
    those jobs or workers. Prices are higher because worker have higher incomes.

  12. I don’t know about the intent of single-family zoning elsewhere, but zoning does not discriminate in San Francisco. Upzoing will have no impact on poor or working-class people. All it will accomplish is to encourage more families with Children to leave the City.

    I am sure it is true that no one wants to live in a poor neighborhood. The goal of most poor people is to move away from other poor people. But changing zoning laws will not make any difference in San Francisco. And fewer single-family homes will make them less affordable for lower income families.

    In San Francisco residents in single-family neighborhoods are more likely to be lower income minorities than residents of multiunit neighborhoods, who tend to be Whiter, better educated, and higher income.

  13. “Gentrification is a process that hides the apparatus of domination from the dominate themselves. That ‘those people’ lost their home and died is pretended away, and reality is replaced by with a false story in which the gentrifriers have no structure to
    impose their privilege.

    Gentrification happens to a large degree when newcomers move into previously working-class buildings and homes, driving up prices. That’s precisely what happens when there is no new housing available in more desireable areas.

  14. Zoning might not have *explicitly* segregated, but a major point of zoning was to ensure that neighborhoods with well-off single family home dwellers would not be invaded by poorer, working class apartment-dwellers.

  15. Well, Palo Alto and Mountain View have a total of 3 significant CalTrain stations so they will no longer be able to oppose dense construction around those transit hubs

  16. These rich suburbs would fight luxury highrises just the same as they would moderately-priced highrises. The snobbiness and the desire for lower density are separate issues.

  17. In SF apartment dwellers are mainly White. Single-Family dwellers are mainly non-white. Zoning in SF never enforced segregation. But in some areas restrictive covenants did.

  18. Where has more housing in SF brought down the prices to the point that working class can afford to rent or buy? The glut of new units south of market did bring down the price somewhat, but far from affordable. And over time the prices go back up.

    People move all the time for a variety of reasons. 60,000 people leave the City every year. Maybe 2% are evicted and another 8% move for cheaper rent. It is mostly replacement rather than displacement where higher income people can outbid lower income people.

    In the long run, the only way one can be secure is to become an owner. The rising prices are also an incentive for lower income owners to sell out if they can leave the City.

    I don’t think most refuse more housing but do resist overdevelopment. The main issue for me is maintaining single-family homes to retain families with children. More housing for younger workers in areas zoned for it, could relieve the pressure on single-family neighborhoods. I am all for that.

  19. Except that traditional zoning really did exist to enforce segregation. It still is today if you look in places like Palo Alto and Los Altos where single family home owners want to restrict the ability of apartment dwellers to live in their towns.

  20. That’s true, but refusal to build more housing will accelerate displacement as higher paid professionals move in and outbid any remaining working class people for the few remaining units left.

    They’re either going to move into new construction, or they’re going to look at the home you’re living in and move into that one.

  21. SF Zoning polices don’t segregate. However, realtors discriminated in the past. Some neighborhoods had restrictive covenants, but they were ruled illegal more than 50 years ago. Zoning in and by itself does not discriminate on the basis of race.

  22. Working class and middle-class jobs have been leaving the City for decades, replaced by higher skilled higher paying jobs. The working and the middle-class left the City long ago. Building more housing won’t bring them back.

    Non-Hispanic Whites have been in decline for years. When I was born SF was 95% White. Today the City is 42% non-Hispanic White.

  23. did you want us to post the twitter thread where the author of the article apologizes for being misinformed, insulting, and erasing the work of all of the non-white non male yimbys? Didn’t think so

  24. This is an excellent article. I will be curious to see if it sways any of those who regularly comment in this forum from the YIMBY perspective or if they are simply using a racial analysis in a disingenuous way to promote their agenda of deregulation.

  25. It may be zoning was used in the past in some places to discriminate but it is not true for San Francisco today. There is no relationship between housing density and race.

    When it come to single-family homes non-whites are more likely to be found in single-family homes and single-family neighborhoods that White non-Hispanics. There is a negative correlation between the percent of single-family homes and Whites. There is a positive correlation with Asian and weak positive correlation with Hispanic, especially non-Mexican Hispanics. There is no correlation with Blacks. Of all White householders, 28% are single-family. Of all Black householders, 30% are single-family. For Asians it is 42%

    Single-family homes are more affordable than units in multiunit buildings, especially when cost for room is considered.

  26. YIMBY’s want greater density. For SF what is the desirable density? I also hear all neighborhood must share the burden What SF neighborhood is the most desirable? What SF neighborhood would be a model for what the City should look like?

  27. It’s not the same as the old segregationist zoning policies (which were devastating), but unless we build more, all of San Francisco will become less racially and economically diverse, not just certain neighborhoods.

    Also, I don’t think most NIMBYs care near as much about the poor or minorities as they claim to. Peskin for example.

  28. The YIMBYs try to portray zoning regulations which limit highrise buildings as akin to older zoning policies aimed at segregation. All I’m saying is that the new buildings which they champion create more, not less segregation, economic and racial.

  29. I suppose you could say that the old construction is “integrated” housing because the white-skewed clientele displaces or occupies space in older buildings that would otherwise be occupied by working class people. That’s nice, I suppose, if you think that integrated housing is a good thing for its own sake, but that doesn’t help the working class people who don’t have a place to live because the space is being occupied by someone with much higher income who was able to outbid them for a formerly working-class unit.

  30. This overstates the desirabiilty of those neighborhoods that white young professionals moved into. No one, in fact, wanted to move to Oakland or SOMA or the Mission or Brooklyn. Those were all undesireable, and there was adequate density and vibrancy in other neighborhoods. However, due to lack of development, those other neighborhoods were too expensive to live in, so people with money to spend went out in search of more affordable options, which entailed gobbling up housing that would have otherwise been inhabited by working class renters or owners.

    They are either going to live in new housing, which they would prefer, or they are going to live in your housing, in the absence of other options.

  31. This article is being far too nice to the YIMBYs (or at least to YIMBY public positions). The highrises which YIMBYs have been indiscriminately supporting are de facto segregated neighborhoods. The reason for that is developers’ battles over the years to minimize on-site affordable housing. As long as there is a market for high-priced housing, currently affordable by a white-skewed clientele, the market-rate projects YIMBY are fighting for will only whiten SF and LA further.

  32. Scott’s bill is not about “over-riding” local zoning, but allowing what is currently zoned to be built by right. There’s a big difference.

  33. First, congratulations for a great article. The problem David is that, from what I seen and read, many, if not most who identify as YIMBYs are free market libertarians and most don’t even have a shred of empathy or self-awareness. No, I’ve heard many YIMBYs say “these people” who are being pushed out of cities “are 100% to blame” for their destiny because they didn’t go to school or not trying to better themselves.
    I don’t know if you saw this in The Guardian – it echos much of what you have written:

    “Roads to nowhere: how infrastructure built on American inequality”

    Also, here is the personal story of Dorothy Adams, who with her police officer husband, persevered to overcome racial restriction in a San Francisco neighborhood.

    Finally, here is text from a book by Sarah Schuman about the history of AIDS.

    “Gentrification is a process that hides the apparatus of domination from the dominate themselves. That ‘those people’ lost their home and died is pretended away, and reality is replaced by with a false story in which the gentrifriers have no structure to
    impose their privilege. They just naturally and neutrally earned and deserved it. And in fact the privilege does not even exist. And in fact, if you identify the privilege you are “politically correct” or oppressing them with “reverse racism” or other nonexistent excuses that the powerful invoke to feel weak in order to avoid accountability.

    Spiritually, gentrification is the removal of the dynamic mix that defines urbanity – the
    familiar interaction of different kinds of people creating ideas together. Urbanity is what makes cities great, because the daily affirmation that people from other experiences are real makes innovative solutions and experiments possible. In this way, cities have
    historically have provided acceptance, opportunity, and a place to create ideas contributing freedom.”

    San Francisco remains a stunningly beautiful city. But it has become stunningly uninteresting because of gentrification and the arrival of the ‘luxury condo’ types en masse.

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