What follows are excerpts from The Only Thing Worse than a NIMBY Is A YIMBY by Nathan J. Robinson, recently published in Current Affairs, A magazine of Politics and Culture.
Pro-development activists try to trick you into thinking it helps the poor to destroy neighborhoods to make way for luxury condos. We need a radically democratic preservationism.
When you think of the villainous NIMBY, you might imagine someone like billionaire Bill Koch, who waged a 12-year campaign to stop a wind farm being built near his house on the Nantucket Sound that he thought would spoil his view.
The YIMBY pitch is generally quite simple: everyone knows there is a housing crisis in many of America’s cities, and that the rent is too damn high. Thus we need more housing. Increased supply will reduce prices. Unfortunately, the dastardly NIMBYs, those sticks-in-the-mud who don’t believe in change, try to prevent new housing from being built.
The idea, generally, is that the problem of affordable housing is a problem of supply. Thus zoning restrictions should be rewritten to allow for more development. There is little interest in having the government build new public housing. Instead, when YIMBYs say “we need more housing,” they mean “we need to allow developers to build what sells.” And even though they talk a lot about the need for affordable housing, they tend to be opposed to requiring developers to make housing affordable, assuming that the Invisible Hand of the free market will take care of that.
Q: By “build more housing,” do you mean affordable housing?
A: We want more construction of both affordable and market-rate housing. Both are good and both are urgently needed. The city should focus on providing affordable housing for those who need it most. If we allow more construction, fewer people will need help finding housing, and the city’s resources for affordable housing would go further. We can’t subsidize our way out of a shortage.
There’s no reason why good public housing can’t be built. It is done elsewhere successfully. (See, e.g., the remarkable Vienna model or the public housing success of Singapore.) Even the article cited by Open New York concedes that it takes decades for luxury housing to “filter down”—in the meantime it just displaces people through the horrific process of eviction. The theory of trickle down economics is not necessarily wrong that if you make the rich rich enough, some benefits will accrue to the poor. But it is a vastly inefficient way to help the poor. Instead of building condos for the people who don’t need houses, and hoping that eventually market forces will slowly reduce prices at every level, it’s possible to build for the people who do need houses. There is also no need for progress to involve bulldozing beloved historic places.
The rich NIMBY is an odious character. But it is the YIMBYs who are most insidious, because they manage to look like the allies of affordable housing and social justice while actually helping to reshape cities into the lifeless playgrounds of the super-rich exemplified by New York’s Hudson Yards development. Fernando Marti of Shelterforce explains well the ugliness of the YIMBY worldview:
according to the YIMBY leaders, now we equity advocates are the problem too, little different from the NIMBYs, rabid progressives who are too naïve or ideological to understand how the market really works. In this story line, in the name of fighting evictions and displacement, we progressives, we communities of color, we poor people and immigrants, we working-class queers stupidly don’t realize that luxury development now will eventually become the affordable housing of the future! … It’s simple supply-and-demand they say, Econ 101, and we obviously didn’t go to college if we don’t understand that simple truth. They say we foolish activists abuse environmental regulations and planning processes that allow for democratic participation to stop or slow development. So the answer to the problem is to do away with those pesky regulations, limit public input, and give up on any attempt to get real estate developers to mitigate their impacts on our neighborhoods
This is the viciousness of the YIMBY argument: It tells people who want our homes that they deserve, by virtue of their whiteness and their status as part of a young college-educated elite, to get them. And there lies the genius of this narrative. An agenda for building up the power base of the neoliberal right is not going to get too far in liberal beachheads like San Francisco or New York using the traditional Republican platform. It needs a new story that appeals to young millennials, and it has found it in the “pro-housing” language of the YIMBYs. But in the end, it’s pushing the same underlying principles: the way to a more efficient future is to destroy belief in regulation, public investment, and democratic participation, whether the arena is charter schools or health care or housing affordability.
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At City Council last night, Bob Geary, 202 East Park Drive, made the following comments about the Downtown South project. He is a former columnist for the Independent Weekly and a former member of the Raleigh Planning Commission.
Good evening, and Happy New Year!
Just before Christmas, you approved the up-zoning for Kane Realty’s Downtown South project. A nice Christmas present for John Kane. He contributes so much to your campaigns, so I guess you were being thoughtful?
I say that because your Planning Commission recommended, unanimously, 8-0, that Kane’s application should be rejected.
Councilor Cox, I do congratulate you for casting the one no vote.
So last night, WRAL reported that Downtown South may break ground this year, and have a soccer stadium, and tall buildings, and affordable housing, and —
Sadly, Downtown South does not have any affordable housing.
Actually, the project you approved contains zero units of affordable housing, and that’s out of a potential 18,000 units of housing – not any of it, zero out of 18,000 housing units, affordable.
Let’s be clear about that, especially when talking with the press.
At the 11th hour, Kane did commit to a little smidgeon of something. A few units to be rented at slightly below market-rate rents, but only for 5 years. Then they revert to market rate.
And even for those 5 short years, they will meet no one’s definition of affordable housing.
So now, Kane now has you – has us, as citizens — over a barrel. YOU’VE PUT US THERE.
We do want some affordable housing sometime, somewhere in Downtown South.
Too bad this Council didn’t make it a condition of Kane’s approval.
Now, it’s entirely up to Kane whether to allow any affordable units, and if he does, he’ll have his hand out for us to pay for it.
And before he’ll even think about it – and he’s been very clear about this – he wants $200 million, or is it $300 million from the taxpayers, upfront, to spend on a big entertainment venue, that ephemeral stadium that Kane wants as a draw for a vast new retail shopping mall in Downtown South.
$200 million, $300 million – this is the so-called “Tax Increment Grant” that Kane wants that the mayor seems to have promised him.
We want affordable housing? He wants hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidy first, for a stadium that we really don’t need, and then maybe he’ll consider it.
Great job on that rezoning, though.
During the holidays we are re-posting some of our favorite guest blogs while we take some time away from our normal hectic schedules. Here is a recent message from Jane Harrison.
Jane Harrison, Ph.D., works at North Carolina State University for NOAAs Sea Grant program. She has a 20-year track record of community organizing. Jane is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh which belongs to ONE Wake – a multiethnic coalition of faith-based and civic organizations that advocates for affordable housing, living wage jobs, and quality education. She wrote this letter to Raleigh decision makers with regards to the proposed Downtown South development.
Dear Raleigh City Councilors & Planning Commissioners,
I write to you with regards to the rezoning application: Z-13-20 Downtown South. If approved, the development will result in 95% impervious surface over almost 150 acres along Walnut Creek and adjacent to numerous residential neighborhoods which already flood frequently. If approved, there is a potential for 21.5 million square feet of development – equal to two-thirds of downtown Raleigh’s current building space. These are my concerns:
(1) Gentrification and displacement of nearby residents are a given without affordable housing requirements for this development. Currently there are none.
The developer Kane Realty Corporation has not made sufficient strides on this issue. Asking for public tax dollars for community benefits like affordable housing via a TIF or TIG puts the onus back on the public. Why not ask the developer to use some of their own profits to ensure equity in housing?
(2) The proposed development is inconsistent with Raleigh’s Future Land Use Map given that the proposed 40 story buildings that would cover much of the area are 2 times taller than suggested building heights.
Imagine the additional 150,000 daily vehicular trips that would result if this development goes forward. I try not to! A traffic impact analysis conducted by Kimley Horn and Associates and reviewed by city staff shows that the proposed development will have severe impacts to the surrounding roadway network and cannot be mitigated by the study’s recommended improvements. Why not insist the developer adhere to the city’s Future Land Use Map and right size this development from a social, economic, and environmental standpoint?
(3) Neighborhoods downstream from the proposed site may experience additional flooding and water quality impairments due to the development’s stormwater runoff.
Kane submitted a Downstream Impact Analysis in November, conducted by the design and engineering firm McAdams. They make the claim that the development will cause no additional stormwater impacts. If this is true, can it be verified? This 266 page report warrants review by an independent body of stormwater experts. Will you direct Raleigh’s Stormwater Management Advisory Commission to do so? How can our developments set a precedent for the best practices in green infrastructure and environmental impact, and move beyond the status quo?
I appreciate your timely consideration of these concerns.
Jane Harrison from District D
Imagine that you have a chance to buy 146 acres of land in South Raleigh. Land that borders Walnut Creek, a flood zone. I-40 sits below Walnut Creek to the south. You’re about 1.5 miles from Downtown Raleigh.
Downtown Raleigh is a place of affluence, where low-income people work in the kitchens and the clean-up crews, but cannot afford to live there. South Raleigh, by contrast, is relatively poor.
So now, you’re the developer. What’s your vision?
Two very different visions frame the debate over Kane Realty’s “Downtown South” development scheme.
Kane’s vision: High-rise. High-rent. High profit.
One is, you see the relative poverty of the place as a chance to buy it cheap, scrape it off, and build it BIG. Build expensive high-rise housing and office space. Build expensive retail, bars and restaurant space. Make this the hot new “destination” for affluent people who don’t live in South Raleigh now, but will be drawn by the opulence of your vision. This is the way to maximize profits. This is what Kane Realty and its partners have in mind. They’ve been very frank about it.
A Community Vision: Inclusive & affordable
Your second choice is to create a vibrant new COMMUNITY, one that caters to newcomers but also serves the people who live in South Raleigh now. They need more and better housing, but not high-rent housing, because they can’t afford that. They need affordable housing, affordable at every income level. They need housing for every generation. They need job opportunities and a chance to own their own stores, their own trades. They need new community facilities. A park along Walnut Creek would be nice. The kids could play there, and the green spaces would absorb the massive amounts of stormwater that flood out of Walnut Creek when it rains.
Your choice, in other words, is to make a place that is IN-clusive, or one that is EX-clusive.
Exclusive is what Kane wants. Inclusive is what Raleigh needs.
It’s the EX-clusivity of Kane Realty’s vision that makes the “Downtown South” project, as it is proposed, so utterly wrong for South Raleigh. Kane’s rezoning application is remarkably sparse where details ought to be, but the marketing team has been candid, and the images they present are of a glittering, expensive, exclusive place of high-rise buildings with no room at the inn for anyone who isn’t well-off.
Then, in the same breath, Kane spokesman Bonner Gaylord will concede that there is no market in South Raleigh for what they want to develop. Therefore, a “draw” must be added. The “draw” they have in mind is some sort of stadium. Or arena. Or amphitheater. Or something that will bring crowds to South Raleigh for soccer, for shows, for … well, the latest pitch is that Shaw University’s football team can play there. Really? On a soccer pitch? But Gaylord has belatedly realized that the Kane plan has nothing in it for the black and brown residents of South Raleigh.
Kane is not proposing to build this sports/entertainment venue, however. They want Raleigh taxpayers to foot the bill at a cost of $200 million or more, probably a good deal more by the time it’s done. If it’s done.
“No stadium, no project,” Gaylord says.
“No stadium, no high-rise glittering project for which there is no market, because there is no need,” is what Gaylord should’ve said.
When the Raleigh Planning Commission studied Kane’s application to have the property in South Raleigh up-zoned, what they saw was a proposal that served Kane’s profit motive but did not serve the neighboring communities well at all. Instead, it would hasten their displacement via gentrification.
Kane wants to be allowed to put up 40-story buildings and 20-story buildings on nearly all of the 146 acres. Buildings that tall are very expensive to build, but the great views up high command very high rents, which is what the developer is after. People of lesser means, whether they’re looking for office space or housing, are forced to go elsewhere.
Moreover, Kane’s proposal was for as many tall buildings as it can cram on the site. The upshot, therefore, would be a second Downtown bigger than the real Downtown, with more than 20 million square feet of building space and upwards of 10,000 residential units. Such a massive development, if allowed, would create four huge problems:
- An estimated 100,000 additional car trips per day in and out of the development would jam every nearby road, creating a traffic nightmare.
- The enormity of these buildings could worsen the already terrible problem of flooding from Walnut Creek, which already spills out on the downstream neighborhoods of Rochester Heights and Biltmore Hills — historically African-American communities that were built on the low ground of Raleigh because that’s where black folks were allowed to build under Jim Crow.
- Kane’s.proposal made no provision for affordable housing. Especially galling was the failure to plan for affordable housing units along South Wilmington Street, a future Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) corridor where, according to the city’s Equitable Development Around Transit policy, affordable housing is supposed to be prominent.
- Finally, Kane’s proposal really made no plan at all. No street plan, no plan for placing the buildings, not even a plan for where the stadium would go — the application would allow a stadium, but not require it. Without a plan, it was impossible to gauge the actual traffic, noise, and flooding impacts of the project.
The Planning Commission wrestled with Bonner Gaylord and Kane Realty for more than 20 hours, and Kane did change their proposal slightly, dialing back the number of 40-story buildings a bit (but now they’d be 20 stories), committing to making the flooding problem no worse (there’s still debate about whether what they’ve committed to is enough to achieve even that modest goal), and making an offer of affordable housing that is, in reality, equivalent to a bagel.
At the end, the Planning Commission voted 8-0 to recommend that the Kane proposal be rejected. The PC further recommended that City Council ask Kane to re-submit the project as a “Planned Development” — a. category of zoning for which a master plan is required — so that its impacts can be judged.
Members of the Planning Commission also made a larger point. City policies call for development in Raleigh to be equitable. That means it should serve the needs of low-income residents and those of moderate means, not just the rich.
Actually, equitable development should put our low-income minority populations first, because historically we have discriminated against them and now must start the hard work of making up for it.
Kane’s proposal puts his profits first, with no regard for the low-income residents of South Raleigh. As far as Kane is concerned, they should get out of his way. On the equity scale, then, his project is a failure. And that’s what the Planning Commissioners said.
After six weeks of special meetings and intense analysis, the Raleigh Planning Commission found the Downtown South Project, the largest development proposal ever in Raleigh, to be fundamentally inconsistent with Raleigh’s adopted policies for environmental protection, traffic mitigation, affordable housing, gentrification and equitable development.
Their comments are highlighted in this video.
I feel like the Planning Commission has a received pressure to move this case along in an extremely expedited manner.
I feel strongly that a vote in favor of this case would be a vote against equitable development.
They voted 8 to 0 to deny the case. In doing so, they recommended that Council not approve this rezoning, but direct the applicant to resubmit their proposal as a Planned Development, to provide more details and resolve the incomplete and inconsistent elements in the current application.
I’ve been really disturbed by the equity washing in this project’s marketing materials and I believe they obscure the content of its legal documents. This rezoning application shows a vicious disregard for equity and fairness.
The application’s refusal to acknowledge and mitigate the upheaval and damage that this project will bring to our social fabric is not healthy for our city.
The Planning Commission’s frustration at the applicant’s lack of candor or responsiveness was reflected in comments accompanying their unanimous vote to deny the Downtown South Project.
Their comments are highlighted in this video.