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Wed, Jul

Into the WIMBY Echo Chamber

LOS ANGELES

DENSIFICATION LA - This past October, I attended the UCLA Lewis Center symposium, called California’s Housing Crossroads.  The conference took place at UCLA’s “Bruin Woods” facility in Lake Arrowhead.  Attended by elected officials, academics, planners, transportation experts and NGO staff, it was largely, if one wanted to be brutally honest, an Urban-Growth-Machine-A-Palooza cum Developer-Shill-A-Palooza cum Density-Fetishist-Palooza.  In keeping with the Halloween season, the conference also turned out to be a Masquerade Ball of sorts: basically a bunch of Ayn Randos dressing up as “progressives.” 

This, of course, raises the question: With “progressives” like that, who needs libertarians? 

The conference was interesting, informative, and entertaining, to say the least. 

We heard over and over, in so many ways, that forced density is the key to curing cancer – ok, to almost all of our housing woes.  We heard that cities – and especially homeowners – are the real villains.  We heard that single-family neighborhoods are inherently racist and evil, and that for-profit developers and real estate speculators are in reality unsung do-gooders. 

In a rare moment of honesty, we also heard that the elimination of redevelopment in California was probably not such a great thing for housing.  But we didn’t hear any suggestions about bringing back redevelopment to fund affordable housing. 

Indeed, what was perhaps most interesting – and revealing – wasn’t the stock Urban Growth Machine dogma on offer or the neo-liberally flowing Kool-Aid.   What was most interesting was what was omitted from most of the discussions, including the revival of redevelopment.  Here’s a list, in no particular order, of other housing-related themes that were largely banished from the Arrowhead echo chamber: 

Growth. 

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s searing indictment of the elite at the United Nations in 2019 could just as well have been directed at most of the attendees of the symposium:

“We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” 

Indeed, at an Urban-Growth-Machine-A-Palooza, one might expect there to be a rogues’ gallery of growthmaniacs; the ability of the Planet to sustain eternal growth was never questioned, despite the fact that we live in a finite world of depleted resources, and that “eternal economic growth” is the very definition of unsustainability. 

Of course, forced density was simply assumed to be the solution to climate change.  Never mind, as the late legendary oceanographer and conservationist Jacques-Yves Cousteau once noted, “Overconsumption and overpopulation underlie every environmental problem we face today.”  

Forced density (through the elimination of regulations and letting the Real Estate Market rip), of course, is the Wimby prescription to increase housing supply with the ostensible goals of affordability, equity, and the environment. Those who don’t accept the supposed immutable truth of this Reaganomic supply-side religion are written off as “skeptics.”  And while supply-side skeptics aka heretics might have to be dealt with using pseudo-scholarly propaganda elsewhere , the Arrowhead gathering of the Wimbys was a safe space, where Reaganomic supply-side narratives were academic truisms and where forced density was the undisputed tool to achieve these Market-oriented goals. 

Of course, nobody dared to mention the fact that forced density is just a tool to force growth

Of course, nobody quoted environmental activist Wendell Berry, who once famously noted: “The promoters of the global economy… see nothing odd or difficult about unlimited economic growth or unlimited consumption in a limited world.” 

Of course, overconsumption and overpopulation were not touched upon at the conference. 

The Wimby mantra is “Build, baby, build!”  That translates to “Grow, baby, grow!” But nobody at the conference had to spell it out. It was simply core dogma, an article of faith, an unstated and self-evident truth. 

Ecological overshoot (as in Earth Overshoot Day). 

As the Earth Overshoot Day website says: “Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity has used all the biological resources that Earth regenerates during the entire year.” 

This year, Earth Overshoot Day was on July 28. Yes, we are collectively using all the world’s resources for the entire year a little past the year’s halfway point.  No, building more densely and accelerating growth will do absolutely nothing towards remedying that fact.  Quite the opposite. 

Energy consumption, exploitation of and the resulting damage to the Planet are determined by two factors: per-person-consumption and the number of people.  Policies that pursue fairy tales of eternal economic growth ignore limits to growth, ignore the fact that our Planet is finite.  Biology doesn't care about false anthropocentric narratives designed to justify unsustainable growth.  If we continue to plunder the Planet in pursuit of these fairy tales, we will, one way or another, be forced to accept that there are limits to growth.  ‘Tis a mathematical certainty

Unsurprisingly, limits to growth were not discussed at the Arrowhead conference. 

Energy sprawl. 

While “sprawl” is one of the two loaded buzzwords most frequently employed by the density fetishists (the other one being “Nimby”), you will never hear them talk about energy sprawl. Unsurprisingly, the term wasn’t mentioned at all at the conference. 

“Sprawl” has sometimes become a code word for the single-family neighborhoods so detested by the Wimbys (but overwhelmingly preferred by a vast majority of Americans of all stripes). The “justification” for “anti-sprawl” policies advocated by Wimbys and other density fetishists is that concentrating people into dense urban areas will spare wildlands from development and somehow preserve the natural beauty of most of our open spaces (it should be noted that California is already the most urbanized state in the country, with some 95% of Californians already living in urban areas). 

The goal of some of the urban supremacist Wimbys seems to be to bestow California’s special brand of manifest destiny upon the rest of the country, specifically upon those unfortunate enough to live in “Flyover Country” (see “Superstar” cities below) by building enough housing so that they can all move here. 

Of course, all the energy required for these new recruits will come exclusively from “clean” and “guilt-free” energy sources.  It will all be wind and solar, and never mind Jevons paradox, which, of course, itself wasn’t mentioned a single time at the conference. 

The whole purpose of anti-sprawl policies are to protect our non-urban landscapes. And yet anyone who has ever seen a wind or solar farm desecrate a desert vista cannot possibly think that this is a way to preserve the beauty of our wildlands.  And that includes anyone who has ever driven by the Ivanpah solar plant, which, according to Garry George of Audubon California, “continues to operate as though there’s an endless supply of birds to burn.” 

The virtues – or lack thereof – of “Superstar” cities.

For urban supremacists, you’re nobody ‘til you live in a “Superstar” city.  In fact, as alluded to above, for the urban supremacists, the best way to redeem the benighted who are unfortunate enough to live in smaller urban communities or – heaven help us! – rural areas, is to build enough housing so that they can all move to coastal “Superstar” cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, and New York City (which, in that order, also happen to represent the most dense urban areas in the country). 

For these “agglomerationists” the entirety of these “Superstar” cities is so much more than the sum of their parts, at least from a productivist perspective.  Call it, if you will, the synergy of the solipsists, who are intolerant of urban humanism or any form of urbanism other than their own. For these tools of the Urban Growth Machine, the purpose of human existence is for individuals to produce as much as humanly possible, as ultimately measured by GDP (Gross Domestic Product).  This underlying thesis was the unstated, but assumed gospel at the bottom of most of the discussions at the Arrowhead conference. 

To many people (not, however, including most of the attendees, it would seem), “Superstar” cities are highly problematic for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that many people have a broader view of the human experience than the ideal of humans-as-widgets meant to maximize production.  “Superstar” cities are areas where opportunity has been over concentrated.  While many would consider the remedy of over concentration of opportunity to be the deconcentration of opportunity, urban supremacists look to justify the further over concentration of opportunity within these “Superstar” cities.  It is a religion of “more,” a religion of “abundance,” a religion of gluttonous growthism. 

Notwithstanding the paradigm shift and proof-of-concept of the potential of remote work, which could lead to a deconcentration of opportunity with the goal of allowing the entire country to thrive -- rather than just the “Superstar” cities -- many of the participants’ urban supremacist views make them of necessity remote-work-Luddites.  Unsurprisingly, with one faint, vague mention, remote work itself was missing from the discussion of the future of cities, housing, and urban planning. 

Since the virtues of “Superstar” cities was an assumed, inviolable truth, the potential national political implications of policies aimed at turning “Superstar” cities into “Super-Duper-Star” cities were also not discussed at all. 

Should the urban supremacist goal of, say, inflating the Bay Area population from the current 7 million, to 40 million people ever happen and the salvation of the rednecks from Flyover Country come to fruition, there would be lasting impacts on national politics caused by the demographic shift.  Concentrating “urbanist progressives” into a few True Blue states would give the Red States additional political muscle thanks to the Electoral College and the system of US Senate representation.  One can only try to imagine the further drift of the Supreme Court to the right should “Superstar” cities become urban black holes, sucking in population from the Heartland and siphoning off voters, with the purple states turning red and the red states redder. 

Whereas deconcentrating opportunity and allowing the whole country to thrive would help restore a balance to national politics that might help to decelerate the polarization tearing our country apart, a further concentration of opportunity towards a few “Superstar” cities, would only serve to intensify the divisiveness and the sense of aggrievement of those in the vast majority of the country who feel looked down upon by the “Superstar” cities (not to mention an increase in anomie by those living in “Superstar” cities against their wills, preferences, or nature, who are only doing so because of the over concentration of opportunity). 

Addressing the jobs/housing imbalance through policies that would deconcentrate opportunity and allow the entire country to thrive was, of course, not discussed in Arrowhead. 

The Magic of the Market.

Market-oriented policies were not explicitly discussed at the conference, because – like with the presumed benefits of forced density – they comprised the underlying basis of much of the discussion. In other words, the “Magic” of the Market and trickle-down, Reaganomic supply-side housing policies were simply truisms, as evidenced by an urban planning professor who said: “I’m not even going to talk to people who say the problem [i.e. the lack of affordable housing] is capitalism.” 

Needless to say, the role of income inequality was never touched upon within the context of discussions of housing affordability – or any other context, for that matter. 

Housing preferences of real people.

As is often the case in discussions about “housing,” all kinds of housing are conflated when it serves the rhetoric and agenda of forcing density and forcing growth. It’s almost as if, when talking about nutrition and food, we wouldn’t distinguish between sugary foods, carbs, fruits and vegetables, and protein.  Even if when talking about a more limited category of food – say, fruit – we fail to distinguish among people’s preferences, we naturally encounter problems. If people want pineapple, growing more loquats won’t address the market preference at all (unless we want to force people to eat loquats). 

Similarly, when we talk about a need for housing or even “affordable housing,” the density fetishists (who purport to be true believers in the Market and the “law” of supply-and-demand) often pivot without clarification.  “We need to increase the supply of housing” (or “Build, baby, build!”) invariably means dense, “small to mid-size” (Scott Wiener) apartments, without any discussion of what people want. It may be what developers, real estate investors, and speculators want, mind you, because it is a source of recurring revenue and increased profits. But it isn’t what most Americans want. 

Of course, the preferences of a vast majority of Americans of all stripes for homes with gardens (aka single-family homes) in neighborhoods of homes with gardens (aka single-family neighborhoods) was not discussed, acknowledged, or even mentioned at a conference where for many attendees, single-family neighborhoods are anathema, if not downright immoral, racist, and evil. Consequently, it’s hardly surprising that another subject left undiscussed was not just the importance of tending to one’s own garden, but also the ability to turn it into a “homegrown national park,” contributing to the regeneration of ecosystems and biodiversity by planting native plants.

The Orwellian-Huxleyesque language that has become part of the vocabulary of the density fetishists and Ayn Randos speaks to the utter disconnect with ordinary Americans who don’t subscribe to the urban supremacist creed.  Just to give the most obvious example, the would-be forced-densifiers like to call themselves “pro-housing” in a way that those advocating for the “Pop Tart Diet” might call themselves “pro-food”, even though they want to eliminate the kind of housing preferred by a vast majority of Americans.  One would think that at least some kind of internal logic would prevail in line with the supply-side doctrine, which would lead these “pro-housing” warriors to advocate for an increase in the supply of the kind of housing most Americans prefer.  No such luck.  In this Orwellian world, any single-family neighborhood, no matter the demographic make-up, is by nature “exclusionary,” while the luxury condos of the 1% of the 1% aren’t.  

These urban supremacists envision a country of rootless individuals, where people don’t feel connected to their communities, but are happy to pack up and move to where the corporations, oligarchs, and their agglomerationist theoreticians say they will produce the most.  The irony of this vision of a rootless population hit home during one of the conference’s sessions on homelessness.  Sympathy was expressed for homeless individuals who were offered shelter or housing one or two towns down the road, but who didn’t want to leave their encampment. Not a lot of sympathy, however, for people living in, say, Columbus, Akron or Dayton, who love their communities and don’t want to have to leave them in search of economic opportunity. 

Stay tuned… 

John Mirisch was elected in 2009 to the Beverly Hills City Council, and has served three terms as Mayor. He is currently a garden-variety councilmember. 

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