I’m a little late to this but don’t want to let the delicious opportunity pass. John Mirisch, former mayor of Beverly Hills and a current city council member, recently graced us with a truly astonishing CalMatters op-ed on the theme that, basically, moderate zoning reform is the real racism.
Maybe you’re thinking, “No way! Nobody in their right mind would suggest that support for slightly less restrictive land use policy is a form of hatefully invidious discrimination.” Think again! That’s exactly what he does. It’s an amazing case study in NIMBY entitlement that merits our close attention and withering scorn.
There is no way to convey the soaring level of entitled grievance at work here without extensive quotation. So away we go:
In California we pride ourselves on being very tolerant of a diverse array of lifestyles and lifestyle choices. Dress how it suits you; love whom you love; define yourself in accordance with your own preferences. Do your own thing. Sing your own song. Dance your own dance. The Californian thing is to live and let live.
Except, evidently, when it comes to housing-lifestyle choices. If living in a home with a garden is your thing, you probably shouldn’t expect Californian tolerance from a certain group of people who with cult-like zeal will tell you that your lifestyle is bad, wrong, immoral and even “racist.”
It’s hard not admire the chutzpah of Mirisch’s attempt to cast residence in a detached single-family house with a yard (garden? wtf?) as a “lifestyle choice.” But the issue is precisely that in places like Mirisch’s Beverly Hills, where the median home price is $3 million, owning a single-family home (with or without a “garden”) is a lifestyle choice that is open to approximately no one. It is not akin to a preference for a vegan diet or the intimate company of men in animal costumes. It’s more like a preference for a live-in butler, maid, gardener, cook and personal driver. That’s a “lifestyle,” to be sure, but available only to a miniscule set of people who have so much power they hardly need our “tolerance” to thrive.
Anyway, have you ever heard anyone argue that “living in a home with a garden” (kill me) is “bad, wrong, immoral and even ‘racist’”? (Why is “racist” in scare quotes, do you suppose?) I sure haven’t. This is just a self-pitying strawman.
One version of the actual argument, goes like this…
People are entitled to a system that delivers access to decent, affordable housing.
The detached single-family house with a yard is the most expensive form of housing.
Exclusive single-family zoning across most of a city’s territory leads to the undersupply of more affordable, multi-family housing.
This concentrates less wealthy people, who are also less likely to be white, into poorer, dirtier, denser, more dangerous areas zoned for apartments and other multifamily dwellings. That is to say, the population becomes segregated along economic and racial lines, whether or not that’s the intended effect.
Historically, that has been an intended effect. The policy of forbidding the construction of anything but detached single family houses has overtly racist, segregationist origins.
The segregation created by an excess of exclusive single-family zoning reinforces a set of associations between, on the one hand, whiteness, single-family homes, unoccupied (wasted!) outdoor space, and clean, safe, prosperous neighborhoods and, on the other hand, non-whiteness, multifamily homes, density, and dirty, dangerous poor neighborhoods. In short, exclusive single-family zoning actively reinforces racist cultural assumptions and attitudes.
These racist cultural associations, in turn, help account for the intensity of resistance to upzoning. Even reform as innocuous as allowing duplexes or fourplexes in previously single-family neighborhoods is contested with a vehemence difficult to otherwise explain. “Those are dwellings for poor people!” the thinking goes. “For those people.” The absence of those people is a cherished amenity of the older, white homeowners who dominate zoning boards and planning commissions. The “home with a garden” lifestyle is segregated from poor, brown, and black people. This is what Mirisch is asking us to tolerate.
Of course, an excess of exclusive single-family zoning prevents housing supply from expanding with demand.
In a growing city, this leads to a shortage of housing units that drives up costs across the board.
But these rising costs benefit incumbent homeowners. The market value of their houses — usually their single largest financial asset — goes up and up.
Homeowners’ financial incentive to prevent or retard the expansion of supply aligns with and supercharges their desire to defend neighborhoods against integration. Their motivation to control the political mechanisms that control the quantity and composition of housing is therefore overdetermined. So, in growing cities, local control over zoning and land use predictably leads to worsening shortages that serve politically dominant homeowners’ mutually reinforcing interests in segregation and rent accumulation.
Eventually, even small, simple houses in once run-down but central working class and poor neighborhoods become too expensive even for solidly middle-class families to afford. Rents rise sharply even in “bad” neighborhoods. Everyone below the upper-middle and lower-upper class is forced to either crowd into increasingly expensive houses and apartments, move further and further from the best employment opportunities, or leave the area altogether. (This is why California’s population is shrinking.)
Housing costs come to eat up such a substantial portion of the household budget that economic downturns not only produce widespread job loss, but also shocking levels of homelessness, which disproportionately harms non-white populations.
Therefore, an excess of exclusive single-family zoning and strong local control over land use, which entrenches and defends it, are flatly inconsistent with both racial justice and access to decent, affordable housing. However, we are morally entitled to both as humans and citizens. Obviously, it is “bad, wrong, and immoral” to deny people things to which they are morally entitled.
So we can conclude that too much exclusive single-family zoning, together with strong local control over land use, are bad, wrong, and immoral.
NIMBYs like Mirisch refuse to honestly engage with arguments like this. It’s the nature of entitlement to squeal and whine the moment your entitlement is challenged. So that’s what Mirisch does in lieu of rebuttal.
It’s not bad, wrong, immoral, or racist to live in a detached single-family house. Nobody thinks it is. But that’s not the same thing as defending a restrictive regulatory scheme that has had disastrous, cascading effects.
Now, the American way of zoning is a deeply entrenched institutional artifact of American white supremacy. It just is. It’s a fact. Read Richard Rothstein. Read Jessica Trounstine. When people talk about “structural racism,” they’re talking about things like land use policy centered on single-family zoning. It supplies an essential legal, spatial, and cultural foundation for systemic, self-reinforcing racism. And it will continue to function in the same way as long as it remains in place.
The dominance of single-family zoning has been incredibly difficult to knock down because NIMBY city officials, like John Mirisch, have made it their life’s work to prop it up it. But if you fight like hell to keep linchpin institutions of structural white supremacy in place, you’re objectively on the side of structural racism and white supremacy, no matter how enlightened you imagine your personal attitudes to be. It doesn’t matter if you voted twice for Barack Obama.
NIMBYs like Mirisch owe us an argument to the effect that the incontrovertibly racist history of exclusive single-family zoning is irrelevant, that it no longer segregates populations along racial lines. Or, if it does, that it no longer reinforces the racist cultural association of whiteness with clean, airy leafiness and of blackness with dirty, crowded grittiness. They need to explain why the public record of public zoning commission meetings are so full of veiled and not-so-veiled concerns about upzoning or nearby new developments creating uncomfortable proximity to racial, economic and cultural difference. The accurate identification of racism is not the real racism. The reflex to treat charges of racism, no matter how credibly expressed, as nothing but scurrilous, grandstanding attempts to smear decent, blameless people and the beloved institutions they so rightly cherish is, well, racist. It’s a way of shoring up the status quo distribution of advantage and disadvantage by denying that there’s anything wrong with it.
By the way, it’s a plain fact that enclaves like Beverly Hills have racist origins. Wikipedia will tell you:
Beverly Hills was one of many all-white planned communities started in the Los Angeles area around this time. Restrictive covenants prohibited non-whites from owning or renting property unless they were employed as servants by white residents. It was also forbidden to sell or rent property to Jews in Beverly Hills.
In the 1920s, white movie-star residents of Beverly Hills, like Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, vehemently opposed annexation by Los Angeles. The overt issue was local control vs. access to LA’s water infrastructure. But the function of maintaining local control in all-white communities that are embedded within much larger, much more diverse municipalities is clear. It wasn’t until the 1940s, when the NAACP successfully sued to block the enforcement of restrictive covenants, that black Angelenos secured an unambiguous legal right to reside in Beverly Hills. Of course, that didn’t mean many could afford to live there. It still doesn’t.
Let us proceed:
In many ways, the discussion of housing in California has devolved into a thinly veiled propaganda war on single-family neighborhoods. The elimination of single-family neighborhoods through upzoning seems to be the ultimate goal of YIMBY’s and Sacramento politicians who self-servingly scapegoat local communities and who want to impose one-size-fits-all regulations on cities and communities throughout the state.
Notice the shift from “living in a home with a garden” to “single-family neighborhoods.” Again, the “lifestyle” is exclusive, insular neighborhood-level homogeneity. Mirisch relies on this bait-and-switch because nobody wants to ban detached single-family houses.
I know I have no particular interest in eliminating single-family neighborhoods. What YIMBY’s want, what I want, is to legalize the construction of multiple units on parcels of land in residential neighborhoods where this has been historically prohibited. No homeowner is going to be required to build an ADU in their “garden” or tear down their house and build a duplex in its place. If nobody in your neighborhood wants to do anything along these lines, then your neighborhood will remain entirely single-family. That’s great. That’s fine. The question is: if property owners in your neighborhood do want to build duplexes and/or ADUs, why would you want to stop them?
Frankly, “local communities” deserve to be scapegoated. As I argued here, “local control” creates massive, non-local problems. And as I argued here, there’s nothing especially democratic about local control. As I suggest in the argument above, city councils, like Mirisch’s, are captured by rent-seeking homevoters who benefit from restricting supply. That’s why it’s impossible to solve the housing crisis without state governments pre-empting local NIMBY policy.
Remember, municipal power is just delegated state power. When delegated power is captured by a narrow local interest group who use it in a manner flatly at odds with the public interest, not to mention basic requirements of justice, that power has become corrupt. In that case, the state is obliged to take that delegated power back and use it justly and responsibly and behalf of all its citizens. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Corruption is so politically insidious because it strengthens the hand of its beneficiaries, who obviously don’t want it to stop.
Anyway, the local-est level of decision-making rests with the owners of individual parcels of land. But American cities have never regarded urban land-ownership with a strong presumption of liberty. Segregation has always been at odds with laissez faire, and laissez faire usually loses out when they butt heads. State preemption of local zoning regulations is a blow against segregation because it restores a bit of the property rights denied home/land-owners by homevoter cartels, such as the Beverly Hills city council.
Most Americans of all stripes live in single-family neighborhoods or aspire to live in them, and yet there are many who are attempting to delegitimize this housing-lifestyle choice. Never mind that for many, living in a single-family neighborhood still represents the American dream
Again, notice the slippage between living in a detached single-family houses and living in an exclusively single-family neighborhoods. Mirisch’s linked National Association of Realtors survey actually says that most Americans prefer to live in a detached, single family house, but that they also prefer (by a 60 to 35 percent margin) to live in “a neighborhood with a mix of houses, stores and businesses that are easy to walk to” over “a neighborhood with houses only that requires driving to stores and businesses” Walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods are rarely zoned for exclusively single-family housing.
Most Americans of all stripes live in single-family neighborhoods or aspire to live in them, and yet there are many who are attempting to delegitimize this housing-lifestyle choice. Never mind that for many, living in a single-family neighborhood still represents the American dream.
Exactly no one is trying to “delegitimize” living in detached single family homes.
Again, it bears emphasizing that people can’t choose to live in a detached, single-family house if they can’t afford it. Those of us who want more housing supply generally want single-family houses to be a lot cheaper and more accessible to a broader range of people. We also want more walkable mixed-use neighborhoods with a wider array of housing options. That is to say, YIMBYs are on the side of the American dream. NIMBYs are fueling the nightmare.
Let’s get this straight: there is nothing wrong with living in a home with a garden in a neighborhood of homes with gardens, just as there is nothing wrong with living in Manhattan-style density – or any variation in between. These are all lifestyle choices which in most cases are very personal.
So why all of this rhetoric, with loaded phrases like “exclusionary zoning” and these toxic attempts to paint single-family neighborhoods as immoral, racist and evil?
Again, if you can’t afford to buy or rent a house, living in one isn’t a lifestyle choice you can make. But we’re not talking about individual lifestyle choices here. We’re talking about collective political choices. We’re talking about what kinds of neighborhoods and cities we will have. Mirisch is aggrieved because people like him have historically controlled the process by which those choices are made, but that control is weakening — because the local rule of NIMBYs has led to complete disaster for Los Angeles and California. It actually has been immoral, racist and, sure, evil. It’s not mere “rhetoric” when it’s true. That said “exclusionary zoning” isn’t a loaded phrase. It’s plainly descriptive.
Now here comes the tired, false, and failing NIMBY counter-narrative:
It’s ultimately all ‘bout the money – corporations over community – with the anti-single family neighborhood narrative serving to “justify” measures which would eliminate these neighborhoods in favor of “products” which lend themselves well to speculative investments from Wall Street, private equity and global capital.
Turning us from a nation of homeowners into a nation of renters is also a great way for Wall Street to generate recurring revenue, the “gift that keeps on giving.”
In line with the agenda of the Urban Growth Machine, forced density proponents are looking at housing as an investment vehicle rather than as a place to live or as a home. If we examine their rhetoric and “arguments,” we can see that most YIMBY’s are in reality WIMBY’s.
This is funny because, thanks to NIMBYs, houses in cities like LA have a higher annual rate of return than just about any normal investment, which is why huge investment firms like Blackrock have been snapping them up at an alarming rate, competing with already straitened home-buyers in impossibly expensive markets. 15 percent of home sales went to corporate investors in the first quarter of this year. The YIMBY agenda — housing supply that keeps up with housing demand — is a direct threat to Wall Street’s new NIMBYish interest in outsize returns on houses.
If the old Urban Growth Machine theory actually explained how development happens, the median home price in Beverly Hills wouldn’t be $3 million. But it is.
This guy is really mad about legalizing duplexes:
The quasi-religious fervor and fundamental intolerance with which forced density advocates preach their anti-housing pluralism agenda is sometimes startling. Whether those railing against single-family neighborhoods with the zeal of cult members had unhappy childhoods in suburbia, or whether the motives are purely financial, the intolerant rhetoric against homes with gardens has been ratcheted up to the level where we can read that becoming a homeowner in a single-family neighborhood actually makes you a bad person.
I don’t think anyone is falling for the idea that YIMBYs are the ones fighting housing pluralism. Mirisch is plainly arguing in defense of the status quo of homogenous neighborhoods of detached single-family houses. He wants to go on forbidding duplexes, fourplexes, ADUs and large apartment buildings in those neighborhoods. He wants to keep housing types, and people, strictly segregated. He’s an anti-pluralist, anti-integrationist conservative who feels that it’s extremely rude to point this out.
It would be nice if he would address the argument implied by Jerusalem Demsas’ outstanding linked piece. But he has no reply. All he can do is mewl.
Great, but I feel you've buried the lead a bit. The issue isn't wanting a garden if you can pay for it, it's demanding that all your neighbours have gardens too (the analogy with racially-based convenants is pretty obvious). You get to that point, but too far down.
Isn’t the correct NIMBY counter that this isn’t actually racist, it’s really just classist, and any racist outcome is due to the uneven allocation of wealth across racial groups (kind of a systemic racism definition).
Basically, the people in Beverly Hills just want to be around other astoundingly rich people and if that means it’s mostly whites (because whites tend to be more astoundingly rich) nothing much they can do about that.
Btw, this isn’t a good (or morally right) argument. But it does attempt to move away from the charge of racism specifically.