NIMBY-ism, and the California Housing Shortage

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As California's housing and rental markets continue to heat up - particularly in the state's economic engine of the Silicon Valley-Bay Area - many affordable housing advocates and local elected officials are scurrying to find solutions. While the root cause is the severe housing supply-demand mismatch, this doesn't explain how localities have allowed the housing market to reach this precipice.

Enter the residentialist-NIMBY movement. Using misinformation, political pressure, and California's most onerous public policy intimidation tool - the California Environmental Quality Act, a.k.a. CEQA - communities up and down the Golden State have successfully prevented countless new development projects.

We are all familiar with NIMBYism - or Not-In-My-BackYard; the opposition to development nearby one's own property. While problematic - NIMBYism typically forces local government to approve otherwise inefficient, ad hoc, and non-comprehensive development plans - it, by itself, isn't inherently anti-development. The residentialist movement - formed in Palo Alto circa 1962 - takes NIMBYism to the next level. Residentialists demand slow growth, which focuses on preserving the culture and intrinsic feel of the neighborhood and flatly opposes any large development or government projects - such as public transit. When combined, the residentialist movement and NIMBYism converge into an anti-development quagmire. The residentialist-NIMBY movement is constantly looking backward when development planning ought to be forward-looking, aiming to anticipate and prepare for future neighborhood needs.

Their toolkit is the largely the same regardless of location. First, they perpetrate misinformation. Whether it is creating strawmen to confound the actual cause of the problem or inflating development challenges - such as an increase in traffic - into ones incapable of being solved, this misinformation aims to muddle the conversation and frustrate their opposition. A classic example of late has been the argument that Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms are causing the housing supply shortage. As I pointed out earlier this month, this argument is quite inaccurate, but some localities, like the Town of Danville, are still taking it seriously enough to ban or severely limit short-term rental use. Of course, the real reason why Airbnb is now a target by the residentialist-NIMBY movement is that they can potentially disrupt the culture and feel of the community.

Next, the movement co-opts the political process, either by getting their members elected to the local government councils, appointed to the local planning and development boards, or by flooding council and/or board meetings overwhelming and exhausting its members. The misinformation has already set the stage, now the residentialist-NIMBY movement just needs to tilt the political process in their favor.

And if the misinformation and political hijacking doesn't work, the movement turns to CEQA. Signed into law by then-Governor Ronald Reagan to ensure public and private development appropriately conducts environmental impact reviews, its central enforcement component is private right of action, which allows anyone, regardless of standing, to bring a lawsuit against a project under CEQA. Coupled with the fact that CEQA lawsuit petitioners don't actually have to disclose who they are, CEQA has become the go-to tool to delay or kill development. And residentialists are among the top abusers. In a study conducted by law firm Holland & Knight, 21% of all targeted projects (both private and public) were residential; more specifically, 41% of challenged private projects are residential. Of the housing projects, a plurality (31%) of those challenged is mixed use/multi-family projects and 68% are infill projects - i.e. exactly the type of project the residentialist-NIMBY movement opposes. And while just 13% of the challenges under CEQA were filed by established and recognizable environmental groups, 64% were filed by either individuals or front groups - i.e. innocuous-sounding community associations, which hide the true filer's identity.

While some communities have recently begun to push back against the residentialist-NIMBY movement - such as Mountain View and Redwood City - their influence in the development planning process is still quite pervasive. Considering that the housing affordability problem is less a local issue and more a regional problem, until municipalities collectively begin opposing the movement, actual progress on solving the affordability crisis will continue to be delayed and blocked.


Carson Bruno is the assistant dean for admission and program relations at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @CarsonJFBruno.

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