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Jan 19, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

You just made one of my side projects so much easier! I’m putting together a simple resource on why those on the left -should- be YIMBY. I hang out with wayyyyy too many urban planning PhDs who are Left-NIMBY 🥴.

Likely something like this: https://grist.org/series/skeptics/

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Yay!!

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Great! I can't wait to see it!

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Jan 19, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

While I think most of this analysis is spot on, I would like to point out one situation where left-NIMBYs have a point, at least in the short term. Most of this analysis seems to be thought of in the context of undeveloped land where building anything, even luxury housing, adds to overall supply and thus has the beneficial effects. But in Los Angeles specifically, a fair bit of the new development is happening by tearing down old, lower cost housing, often rent-controlled and replacing it with 'luxury' units. Sometimes the new construction does result in more total units as the new construction is denser. But at least at the local level, what happens is that low cost housing is removed entirely from the market and replaced with high cost housing. There may be a small increase in total unit numbers, but that is not going to affect the overall housing picture in that neighborhood directly.

At least some of the more thoughtful left-NIMBYs are talking about this particular kind of development when they criticize the "econ 101" approach of just letting developers build whatever they want. It is hard to sell broad scale, aggregate benefits to someone who is looking at direct, local bad effects in a particular area. It might not mean that the no growth approach will work well overall, but I think it's important to understand the details of what is being argued.

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Tearing down rent-controlled apartments and replacing them with market-rate units will certainly increase rent *at that one site*. And displace people (though there are laws against doing this, for precisely this reason). But the effect on rent in surrounding buildings will probably go in the opposite direction, at least if you believe the research I listed...

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I believe a lot of the high cost luxury housing in LA is due to its expensive permitting system to build multi-unit dwellings, than what it costs to build a single family house. It is cheaper for larger developers to tear down older apartment buildings in the city because the land is already designated for multi residential and commercial. The Terner Center at UC Berkeley has done research on these subjects (permitting and zoning/landuse in California). LA should relax some of the zoning/permitting fees to make it easier for smaller mom/pop builders to build more housing in there communities.

Also, another issue affecting housing in LA is the archaic zoning and coding - specifically parking mandatory minimums. Although some of the parking requirements are changing depending on whether or not a development is within the radius of transit station (TOD/TOC). Parking still hinders the affordability/land-use of LA. The costs of whether its above or below ground, and how spaces are needed to be built for the amount of apartments developed. I believe the average parking space is around 320-450 sqft, and average studio apartment is around the same size in Los Angeles. The city could have more studio apartments than parking spaces, if they wanted to lol.

And to your point, I think if left-NINBYs can understand the costs/effects of the city's permits and zoning/coding polices, and utilize that energy to changing it, I think we can solve the some of the issues of affordability. The westside of the Los Angeles, and the surrounding cities (WeHo, Beverly Hills, and Culver City) need do more on their part to build more housing for the people who commute to work there.

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New housing reduces displacement, according to Pennington and others. It does gentrify the neighborhood, if the definition is average or median incomes of residents. This can have other ancillary effects, mostly positive (reduced crime, better public services) but also negative ones for incumbents (reduced cultural and commerce targeted to them).

https://www.gwern.net/docs/economics/2020-pennington.pdf

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It increases median incomes and economic activity while at the same time reducing rents.

Gentrification is when existing residents are displaced, and tends to happen when new construction is restricted.

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I think the motivations for Left-NIMBYism are actually about aesthetics! Left-NIMBYs believe living in a city should be a privilege afforded to those who are sufficiently cool (notably: not high-paid office workers in finance or tech). I guess that's a form of 'preservationism' in that it preserves the late-20th-century model of urbanism where for white Americans, choosing to stay in the city instead of moving to the suburbs was a marker of anti-conformism and anti-racism, so maybe it's a distinction without a difference from the "standing athwart history shouting stop" theory, but I think the aesthetic aspect shouldn't be missed. Left-NIMBYs are still NIMBYs in that they think the city should be for the favored few, not for everyone; they're leftists in that they just think who gets to be part of the favored few shouldn't be determined by household wealth.

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Jan 19, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

I lived in SF in the late 70s, just off Union, when my wife finished law school and went there to clerk at the 9th. It was a wonderful place, and it was changing even as we lived there. New bars and restaurants drove away the deli where the little old lady baked her own hams and roasts, and those restaurants and bars came and went more often than the weather changed. My barber went the way of a stylist. Even our bank disappeared. I was back in SF for the first time in decades a few years ago; the bldgs were the same but the city was completely different. There's no way to keep a dynamic city from changing, but there are ways to keep it dynamic and affordable. Build housing, there and here, in DC.

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Yeah! Jeez.

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You may appreciate a particular worked example. tl;dr, "left-NIMBY in the streets, right-NIMBY in the sheets", which I wrote up here: https://old.reddit.com/r/TheMotte/comments/i2r8qo/culture_war_roundup_for_the_week_of_august_03_2020/g0eu6dh/

Robert Reich is a former Secretary of Labor, Berkeley professor, and prominent presence on left Twitter (1.2M followers!). There was a proposal to landmark a dilapidated triplex in his very fancy Berkeley neighborhood at 1915 Berryman, in order to prevent it from being redeveloped into a ten-unit complex, with one subsidized. The usual Neighborhood Defender types pushed for the landmarking, including Reich, who's one of the neighbors. His letter cited "This has gotten extra interest because one of the signatories, who also wrote correspondence citing "the character of the neighborhood" which recalls "the charm of an older era of Berkeley".

When asked about this in an interview the following month with W. Kamau Bell, he said he supported affordable housing "in every community I've been involved in," and pivoted to a critique of the development for containing "condos selling for one and a half million dollars each." (These are, of course, cheaper than his own home.) He executed a smooth transition from right-NIMBYism to left-NIMBYism, while keeping the bottom line intact.

An appeal is before the city council on the twenty-first; Reich has not signed it, but a woman who lives with him who signed the landmarking application did. I suspect that he's decided to quietly bow out after receiving heat for it, but without changing his mind or being in any way accountable. (Entirely possible he helped fund the appeal, for example.) https://twitter.com/mateosfo/status/1350125749357821954

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Ha. Thanks!!

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Given that I know Laura (I'm a member of Peninsula For Everyone and I was on the host committee for last fall's national YIMBY fundraiser), I feel confident that your last quoted tweet has some more context.

And here we go. It's in a thread that begins here:

https://twitter.com/NeverSassyLaura/status/1287941864599904257

<blockquote>

Things San Francisco NIMBYs can't decide if they love or hate, depending on which means they get to stall whatever's the current proposal:

Subsidized Middle Income Housing...

...is what we need because working people are being priced out of the city.

...is outrageous because low income people are suffering.

Subsidized Low Income Affordable Housing...

...is what we need, not more LUXURY housing.

...is perpetuating the nonprofit industrial complex and we need TRULY PUBLIC housing.

On-site Below Market Rate housing...

...is what we need to integrate neighborhood.

...is without real services and isn't real Affordable Housing.

</blockquote>

The tweet you quoted sounds like a Left NIMBY, because she is adopting the voice of a Left NIMBY in order to point out the contradictions inherent in their views.

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Yep I missed the earlier tweets, so I removed that tweet from the list. Which is good, because I'm glad Laura is not becoming a Left-NIMBY! Anyway, she has copious other tweets supporting public and subsidized housing, some of which I included, so it's all good.

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Jan 19, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

(The point being that they're bullshitting, in the Harry Frankfurt sense -- they're saying stuff without _caring_ whether they believe it, in order to advance the _real_ goal, which is just preventing their neighborhood from changing. They may even be rationalizing that they believe what they're saying at the time, but it obviously can't be a sincere conviction, because the same people show up to public comment on two different projects and give contradictory comments, depending on which is against development that day.)

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Jan 19, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

Hey great piece, thank you for writing this and rebutting the old leftist refrain with research. One minor nit, I think Laura is pointing out the many conflicting views of SF leftists in her tweet on public housing and not actually espousing that view. It is a fact that providing more funding for subsidized housing is a core plank of YIMBY Action however: https://yimbyaction.org/core-four/

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Thanks! Fixed. Yeah Laura has lots of tweets supporting public housing and subsidized housing. :-)

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Jan 19, 2021Liked by Noah Smith

thanks Noah!! You're doing great work here.

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Appreciate it!

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I find the Nathan Robinsons of the American left so embarrassingly dishonest and intellectually lazy, I really think they do more harm than good when it comes to mobilizing for social justice. Noah, do you know of any thinkers who are significantly to the left of socdems like yourself but who actually try to offer valid points on policy and econ? Like, is there a Jacobin for empirically-minded people out there somewhere that I don't know about? I would love to read such a thing but find that Americans who stake out a position to the left of socdems tend to be more invested in building cliquish ingroups than actually building a better world.

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New Left Review is pretty intellectual and thorough

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As often happens in the urban planning world, you don’t distinguish between self-titled “leftists”, whose most radical policy proposals result only in “reduced rents” or government-owned housing, and communists, anarchists, or other anti-capitalists working to abolish generalized commodity production as a whole. While you at least distinguish between liberals and “leftists”, you’re not actually engaging with anti-capitalist critique.

Your “Left-Nimby Canon” is, to be fair, a reasonable summary of the predominant perspectives of many DSA members, Jacobin authors, or recently radicalized Bernie supporters. However, you don’t acknowledge a perspective that sets the total abolition of states, capital, and commodity production as the end goal rather than rent reduction.

In the same way that many leftists oppose police reform in preference of total abolition, they also oppose market-based development, recognizing that although housing pressures may be temporarily relieved, the internal contradictions of capitalism will lead to the same crisis down the line. When you are opposed to the idea of “rent” as a concept, “reducing rents” takes on much less importance and the resistance that is mounted to development and gentrification as broad processes is thus all too often mischaracterized as resistance to “basic economics” or “science”.

I don’t want to be too rude here, but if your final conclusion includes the statement, “the disagreement between YIMBYs and Left-NIMBYs isn’t really about free markets vs. socialism — they’re all a bunch of lefties”, you probably don’t have the strongest understanding of “leftist” critique outside the most narrow of social-democrat or “democratic socialist” hot takes.

If you want to argue that the term “leftists” now includes capitalists, that’s fine (I wouldn’t disagree, unfortunately), but please make it clear that you are addressing that realm of ideologies, rather than genuine anti-capitalism in the Marxist, anarchist, or other historically “leftist” sense, and leave that for a different post.

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Thank you for writing this, it's one of the best comparisons of left-NIMBY and YIMBY thinking.

One thing I want to note though: for low income groups in rent controlled cities, fighting market-rate housing is rational and beneficial to them. For example, the Mission activists did such a good job fighting all market-rate construction in their neighborhood that they effectively drove out all market-rate developers, lowering land prices and thus allowing more subsidized Affordable housing to be built. And there's no way that The Mission (where apartments are legal to build) could build enough housing to alleviate the shortage for the entire bay area (where apartments are mostly illegal to build), so supporting market-rate housing in their neighborhood in the hopes of eventually making housing affordable for low-income people doesn't make sense.

Why am I mentioning this? It's because these low-income activists (who are acting rationally in their own best interest) give ideological cover to left-NIMBYs (who are wrong), and fight on the same side against development using the same arguments. But be careful not to lump these two groups together!

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How did they drive land prices *down* by blocking construction? Maybe on a few specific empty lots this is possible by making them completely politically toxic. But otherwise it should do the opposite. Also, this seems like a very elaborate chain of causation: filling your neighborhood up with a bunch of vacant lots in the hopes that this will make it a little bit simpler politically to put up subsidized housing. Can a great mass of people really have a "master plan" like that?

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They effectively downzoned their neighborhood - yes it's technically legal to build a market-rate apartment building, but they'll give the developer so much trouble that it's not worth it. Land that's downzoned is worth less.

Most of the low-income activists involved probably don't think about their strategy in this way, they just parrot the left-NIMBY arguments that are so convincing to leftist politicians. But I bet the leadership does...

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The Mission is so small they can all coordinate to do things like this. But also the left-NIMBYs all live in the same SF neighborhoods so they think fighting over the Mission is a reasonable thing to do. They haven't noticed that the rest of SF has driven all development into the Mission in the first place by zoning for single family homes only - if they lived in the Sunset they'd have a better perspective.

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Are you sure they’ve lowered land prices? The Monster in the Mission purchased their land for $41M and sold it for $45M so if anything it’s stabled off. Also, most land for affordable housing projects in the city is some kind of land lease or sold for a dollar or something. These projects don’t generally pencil if they’re paying market rate because SF land is so valuable.

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My problem is not really 'supply and demand', it's somewhat infantilising to suggest the left doesn't even know middle school level economics. My problem is that, while i acknowledge rent will decrease, someone has to buy the property first. This someone is not going to be someone who actually needs a house, but more likely someone who already owns one and wants to charge rent (I'd be happy to see a study that says otherwise). It's far easier to be a YIMBY when you own multiple houses and can move away from the problems. The working class has a much harder time doing this.

Now, you might argue it would still be worth building more housing. Yes, I agree. I just don't like the assertion that NIMBY = bad for x reason, now solve for x. It's a very sneaky tactic that you can use to call someone that might have some very good reasons for being against building property a bad person. (not all property is equal btw, I wouldn't support the construction of a factory considering the poor state of climate change policy). If being a NIMBY is always bad no matter what, then people have to fight with your x reasoning built on a potentially false premise.

They might not even be actual NIMBY's, but because it's an ideological statement, any concerns they have regarding the construction of property, the ownership of property, etc. Are just dismissed as a poor understanding of socio-economics.

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As someone who was pretty YIMBY living in SF, almost no YIMBYs I knew owned a single house, and a majority of NIMBYs I knew were long-time San Franciscans who owned one or more homes. Similarly, the notorious YIMBY organization, SFBARF, literally stands for the San Francisco Bay Area RENTERs Federation.

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I appreciate your anecdote, but to be honest my point about YIMBY's was more to illustrate that this is a multifaceted problem, and like all economics it is driven by human behaviour which is complicated and can change on a whim. It's best not to be ideological about things like this. People who buy houses to rent them out don't represent all YIMBY's, not even close, but they have a larger share of social power and it's concerning.

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Isn't there a correlation between city population/density and housing prices? More housing = more dense city, so in the long run higher home prices?

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There's a correlation *in dense US cities that have had consistent job growth*, which is a causal relationship, but the minor correlation outside of that is not causal and does not hold in cities across the world.

City population/density *does* have a causal relationship with land values across the US and the world, regardless of job growth (the cores of Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, and the like all have higher land values per acre than their fringes, same as NYC, SF, and DC). Higher land values are a function of the cumulative investment in buildings and infrastructure nearby.

The cost of "housing" – as in a unit in which someone can live – does not need to be tied to the cost of land if a market consistently builds enough new housing units to match the growth of households (which is primarily connected to job growth).

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Great piece! I think COVID has basically proved this argument in a lot of cities. Here in Toronto we've seen average rental rates in the city core contract, while the supply of units has increased significantly (via former Airbnbs, people moving to the suburbs etc.).

Do the studies you cite above include any discussion about unit type/mix? As in, does general supply just push down all rents, or do you need more bachelor units to push down bachelor unit rents etc. A criticism that I have seen levied at developers in Toronto is that they tend to focus on 400-500 SF bachelor and 1BR units because that is (generally speaking) the most profitable model on a PSF basis. One of the big pushes from planners in Toronto (and beyond) is for missing middle projects, which add more gentle density and also, in my experience, seem to have greater diversity when it comes to unit mix. I would definitely consider myself to be a YIMBY, but I would also like to see smart density that takes into consideration what makes a neighbourhood vibrant and enjoyable to live in.

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While I think most of this analysis is spot on, I would like to point out one situation where left-NIMBYs have a point, at least in the short term. Most of this analysis seems to be thought of in the context of undeveloped land where building anything, even luxury housing, adds to overall supply and thus has the beneficial effects. But in Los Angeles specifically, a fair bit of the new development is happening by tearing down old, lower cost housing, often rent-controlled and replacing it with 'luxury' units. Sometimes the new construction does result in more total units as the new construction is denser. But at least at the local level, what happens is that low cost housing is removed entirely from the market and replaced with high cost housing. There may be a small increase in total unit numbers, but that is not going to affect the overall housing picture in that neighborhood directly.

At least some of the more thoughtful left-NIMBYs are talking about this particular kind of development when they criticize the "econ 101" approach of just letting developers build whatever they want. It is hard to sell broad scale, aggregate benefits to someone who is looking at direct, local bad effects in a particular area. It might not mean that the no growth approach will work well overall, but I think it's important to understand the details of what is being argued.

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Like the rest of California, LA has chosen to pair housing scarcity with a market allocation system, which means that only the wealthiest get housing, and everybody else gets kicked out. That is the fundamental source of the conversion of affordable housing to luxury housing: saying "no more housing" and then allocating housing only to the highest bidders.

I'm not an LA specialist, but they seem to be quite a bit behind on many basic affordable housing policies, like requiring a certain percentage of below-market-rate housing in multi-unit housing. They highly constrain where additional housing can be added. They also have complex, arbitrary, and long processes for building multi-unit housing, yet have zero restrictions on replacing what used to be an affordable single-unit home with a luxury single-unit home. I.e. beyond constraining admittance to the city to the wealthiest, they have also chosen policy to *only* allow the most expensive homes to be built, whether that's a renovation of a single-unit home or the construction of multi-unit buildings.

One might think that this is by design, as homevoters are the core constituency of most local government, and the ones who materially benefit from this process of only allowing the wealthiest into the city, and raising all housing prices.

There are all sorts of policies that LA could implement to fix this: start with inclusionary zoning of course. For any renovation of single-unit homes, require permit fees to go to an affordable city-owned housing fund. Make the entire process of permitting ministerial, to stop the corruption where elected officials only let through the most corrupt developers (e.g. Huizar's indictments.) Require minimum densities on new construction.

The solution isn't to give developers free-reign to build whatever, but instead constrain them to build what will actually result in more affordable housing. The current building system prohibits that. However the left-NIMBY program will often view a single new market-rate apartment as a negative that outweighs any number of below-market rate apartments, even if that market-rate unit is directly funding the construction of below-market rate housing. And all too often they oppose the density that is required to make new construction affordable enough, on the grounds that density itself is a benefit to the developers. I have yet to see a left-NIMBY address any of these structural problems with how technocracy has been used to deny housing affordability. Too often left-NIMBYs see the corrupt process that allows Huizar to skim bribes off of luxury condo developments as a win, as a "democratic" throttle on the process. In reality, research has found these discretionary approval processes anything but democratic, and instead dominated by whiter, wealtlhier, residents with more idle time. It all comes back to the means of production, which one would think that a lefty would be interested in, but the NIMBYism has overridden the interest in housing production. Plus, the Marxian side of leftism has often had a blind spot when it comes to the analysis of land, and land use's relation to housing production is the core of it *all*.

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FYI, California's SB 330 gives at least some tenants a "right of return" when an old building is developed into a larger number of units, and I know Sonja Trauss from YIMBY Law has done work to make sure it's enforced. (I forget the details under which you qualify -- there's at least a minimum residency term required. And HCD does not do a good job of enforcing it, unless a private group -- like YIMBY Law -- brings suit to vindicate the tenants' rights.)

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I noticed so many left leaning people say we shouldn't build because investors will buy everything, then they go and support untold amounts of mass immigration. Do these people think supply and demand is fake?

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I think people in urbanist circles tend to overstate induced demand for highways. It certainly plays a role and can make the benefits of highway expansion much smaller than they'd seem, but increased capacity leading to more traffic on that roadway isn't terribly common. What's more common is that planners anticipate future increases in traffic and build capacity. This doesn't mean that highways don't have diminishing returns, don't create pollution and sprawl, aren't complements to driving in other places, or aren't generally a bad investment in most American metro areas compared to improved transit. It's just that for the 2nd order induced demand effect to outweigh the 1st order capacity effect, some weird things need to happen.

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