The battle lines being drawn for the SB 827 debate is perhaps the clearest example ever of the strange bedfellows that align on land use politics. Tenant rights activists stand in opposition to preemption of local land-use regulations with landlords and owners of suburban single family homes.
Dynamists are generally accepting of new ideas and innovation. They view the freedom to experiment as integral to the learning process that allows quality of life to improve over time. Rather than focusing on the distribution of income that results from innovation, dynamists’ concern is that life is getting better for everyone, most importantly the lowest income people.
Stasists occupy the other end of the divide and come from two different perspectives. First, they may appreciate the privileges that the current law provides them. They don’t want to see the social upheaval that greater economic mobility could bring about. Second, they may be technocrats who do have a vision for a future that they think will be better than the present but want to achieve it only through a government-led plan. Each opposes the decentralized processes consumers and producers use to solve their own problems.
The dynamist-stasist division applies to all areas of economic activity, but “not in my backyard” is the stasist “rallying cry.” Postrel’s framework is useful for understanding why opposition to upzoning unites groups that seem to have opposing politics.
In the case of SB 827, stasists include technocrats who want to see increased access to housing, but only if new housing is rent controlled, subsidized, or government built, and traditional NIMBYs. Pessimism about change unites stasists of all stripes. They’re united in their view that new housing supply will result in worse neighborhoods rather than better ones. People who don’t want to see any changes to their neighborhood benefit from regulation that enforces the status quo.
Postrel writes, “The ideologues keep the interest groups from sounding crass, and the interest groups keep ideologues from sounding nuts.” The tenant rights groups make the case against dynamism based on social justice concerns rather than financial gain. Tenant rights groups harness social justice arguments to support NIMBY plans to ban all development in rich neighborhoods, while NIMBY complaints about everyday quality of life issues distract from the impracticality of affordable housing activists’ designs for state-run housing programs.
USC urban planning professor Lisa Schweitzer explained her lukewarm feelings toward SB 827 in a recent blog post. “Zoning, for all its many, many ills, provides stability, and people who are impoverished often seek that stability for entirely understandable reasons, even if that status quo isn’t good,” she writes. Yet she singles out traditional NIMBYs: “the anti people who just want to keep their exclusive enclaves exclusive are wrong to do so. That is clear. Go after them all you want.” Even though she makes the social justice case to defend the technocrats alone, the two groups of stasists reinforce each other. They both hold off reform in favor of a government program to be defined and implemented at an indeterminate time in the future.
Dynamists have good reasons for optimism that upzoning, without new tenant protections, will result in greater access to housing for low-income renters. In relatively unregulated cities such as Houston housing investment flows to neighborhoods where current demand is high. There, new construction doesn’t drive displacement. The market provides housing that people of diverse income levels can afford. Dynamists see SB 827 as a huge step toward making California cities’ real estate markets more like Houston in this regard, if not in physical form. And many of today’s expensive cities used to have dynamic real estate markets that provided housing for people of all income levels. San Francisco was once called hotel-city because so many of its workers lived in affordable, now-illegal single-room occupancy hotels.
The historical dynamism of American urban housing markets allowed cities to accommodate rapid population growth. As a result, some of the world’s poorest were able to find housing in the locations with some of the world’s best economic opportunities. The stasist approach to housing offers nothing to people who want to pursue the best opportunities available to them, but can’t because of limits on housing supply where they want to live.
The more recent history of high-income neighborhoods and cities shows that residents adroitly use any tool available to block housing construction. NIMBYs have seized on insufficient affordable units as a reason to block new housing in their neighborhoods. Adding affordable housing mandates or demolition protections to preemption bills like SB 827 makes upzoning more likely to result in displacement by making it easier to block housing in high-income neighborhoods. The dynamist approach, and the approach least likely to cause displacement, is preemption without mandates.
Postrel also identifies tolerance as the key dynamist value. In urban development, this means tolerating neighbors who may be different from yourself, have different types of housing needs, and have different aesthetic preferences. It means tolerance for neighborhoods evolving over time. And it means acknowledging that policy should consider justice not only for a city’s current residents, but also the needs of people who would benefit from opening a city to newcomers.
The concerns of tenant rights groups in the face of a long history of exclusionary housing policy are understandable. But the best way to alleviate the effects of exclusionary zoning are to repeal these rules directly. By aligning themselves with NIMBYs against a dynamist reform, technocrats are working to delay improved access to housing.