THE MIRISCH FACTOR - In the past, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to deconstruct Yimbyism, that pro-density, pro-forced-growth hysteria, fueled and funded by the Urban Growth Machine.
As former LA County Supervisor wisely observed, Yimbys (“Yes In My Back-Yard”) should more accurately be referred to as WIMBYs (“Wall Street In My Back-Yard”).
If we really want to expose the agnotology of WIMBYism, then we are going to need to explore the language of WIMBYism.
Much of trying to make WIMBYism salonfähig involves spinning multiple false narratives, often involving affordability, equity, and the environment. One of the keys in creating false narratives is establishing a vocabulary that furthers the radical libertarian, anti-government WIMBY agenda of deregulation and rabid market fundamentalism.
What follows is an hermeneutic exploration of the WIMBY use of certain words and phrases, including a discussion of their true meaning in “WIMBY-Speak.”
Word: “pro-housing” (sometimes written “prohousing”)
Meaning in WIMBY-speak: Anyone who follows the WIMBY agenda is “pro-housing.”
In any sensible linguistic meaning, “pro-housing” might be the opposite of “pro-camping” or “pro-nomadic.” As for its broader sense, it could properly be analogized to terms like “pro-oxygen” or “pro-water” or “pro-food.”
Most people would support the idea that people should have housing, just as most people would support the idea that people should have access to oxygen and water and food. Too much oxygen, water, and/or food might sometimes be a bad thing, and oxygen, water and/or food in the wrong places might also be a bad thing. For the most part, though, they are good.
Of note is that the kind of housing preferred by a vast majority of Americans of all stripes is single-family housing. Yet the main goal of many WIMBYs is to eliminate single-family neighborhoods.
It is difficult to describe oneself as “pro-housing” when one opposes and wants to eradicate the kind of housing most Americans want and prefer.
WIMBY-speak often involves using the word “housing” itself as a shapeshifter. It can mean “affordable housing,” “luxury housing,” “multifamily housing,” and, yes, “single-family housing,” especially when talking about home prices. This fuzzy use of the word is sometimes confusing, and sometimes intentionally so.
Since “housing” also includes luxury housing, WIMBYs can describe themselves as “pro-housing” when their main concern is affirmatively furthering developer profits. They can describe themselves as “pro-housing” when they, at best, pay lip service to housing affordability with their Reaganomic theories of trickle-down (more on that later).
Real world, non-agnotological substitutes for WIMBY-speak “pro-housing”: Pro-density; pro-forced-density; pro-housing-deregulation; pro-Market-based-housing; pro-developer/Real Estate-based urbanism; pro-developer-profits; anti-housing pluralism; pro-speculator; anti-Community; anti-homeownership; Urban Growth Machine shills.
Term: “Exclusionary zoning”
Meaning in WIMBY-speak: Single-family neighborhoods.
WIMBYs, aligned in their goals of government deregulation with radical right-wing libertarians (of the Koch Bros variety), hate zoning, which they regard as a burdensome government regulation.
Zoning, of course, by its very nature is “exclusionary.” The whole point of urban planning is to create a harmonious mix of land uses, including various forms of residential housing, commercial development, parks, transportation, and other functions.
If a park is solely zoned for recreational uses, then it excludes other kinds of land uses. You can’t, for example, build a mortuary or a smelting plant on land zoned for parkland.
Linguistically speaking, parks are therefore also examples of “exclusionary zoning.”
But that’s not what the WIMBYs mean. WIMBYs are using the term “exclusionary” with the connotation of being “discriminatory” or “racist.” WIMBYs, often citing Richard Rothstein’s “Color of Law,” like to point out how many (often single-family) neighborhoods excluded minorities through such egregious practices as redlining and restrictive covenants, which before they were invalidated by the Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948 were used to effectively ban minorities, including Blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Jews from purchasing property in certain neighborhoods.
When WIMBYs use the term “exclusionary zoning,” they often talk about “eliminating exclusionary zoning,” which means eliminating single-family neighborhoods as a supposed “remedy” to the discriminatory practices of the past.
WIMBYs like to point out the racist history of some communities’ land use policies, but they generally avoid talking about the dark history and legacy of racism within public transportation, though most people have heard of Rosa Parks.
Interestingly enough, WIMBYs have not and are not suggesting the elimination of public transportation as a remedy to its own history of racism. Presumably, eliminating the racist policies of public transportation were the appropriate remedy for the sins of the past with the goal of creating equity.
It is odd that WIMBYs don’t think remedying the egregious racist practices of the past are enough when it comes to single-family neighborhoods. Unlike public transportation, single-family neighborhoods – so say the WIMBYs – are themselves inherently “immoral, racist, and evil.”
Never mind that a vast majority of Americans of all stripes, of all colors, of all ethnicities, of all categories across the board overwhelmingly prefer living in single-family neighborhoods. No, the remedy to the racism of the past isn’t to give those who were unfairly (and illegally) excluded from these neighborhoods the opportunity to achieve the kind of lifestyle from which they were excluded. And, it should be noted, according to Columbia University Professor John McWhorter, 82% of people living in the redlined areas in the 1930s and 1940s would today be classified as “white.” But the WIMBY remedy isn’t to develop programs and subsidies to allow those people impacted by redlining, regardless of race or ethnicity, to be able to be included as homeowners in the very single-family neighborhoods from which they had been excluded; no, according to WIMBYs, the “remedy” is to eliminate altogether the kind of housing from which they had been excluded.
But don’t be fooled: this isn’t about social justice or even about righting the wrongs of the past. It’s about money (with a little spite thrown in for good measure).
You see, despite most people’s preference for single-family homes, developers, corporations, banks, and real estate interests can earn a lot more money by building denser market-rate and luxury housing in single-family neighborhoods. So zoning has got to go.
We often hear from state legislators who receive major funding from real estate groups (not to mention other dark-moneyed special interests) that the cities and communities in which red-lining and restrictive covenants excluded minorities were themselves responsible for these racist policies. We often hear that local communities are responsible for the high cost of housing, because of zoning, including “exclusionary zoning,” which doesn’t sound good at all.
Eliminating zoning will allow (according to the WIMBYs, radical libertarians, and other Ayn Randos) the “magic of the Market” to create such a massive supply of housing that housing will suddenly become affordable (and unicorns will fart rainbows and shit jellybeans).
Never mind the law of diminishing returns. Never mind if the housing being pushed by the WIMBYs (“small to mid-size apartments”) isn’t the kind of housing most people want. Never mind if most of the new supply of housing is being built, first and foremost, for speculators, private equity, hedge funds, and global capital as places for investors to park and launder money. Never mind that it actually won’t be affordable and never mind that most of what is built will be so expensive that it will exclude those who were most impacted by the discriminatory policies of the past. Never mind if the existing housing that is being demolished to make way for more dense and more expensive housing results in displacement and gentrification.
Because “exclusionary zoning” is the perfect alibi to replace community-based planning with developer- and real-estate-industry-based profiteering.
Evidently, the WIMBYs who love quoting the gospel of Rothstein have never read Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s “Race for Profit.” The full title of the book is itself quite revealing: “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership.”
So WIMBYs are using “exclusionary zoning” to justify taking away community-based decision-making in order to give more power to the banks and real estate industry, i.e. the main groups that, according to Professor Taylor, undermined Black homeownership. In order to remedy the racist legacy of housing.
Real world, non-agnotological substitutes for WIMBY-speak “exclusionary zoning”: Zoning; the kind of housing preferred by a vast majority of Americans of all stripes (including BIPOC); single-family neighborhoods; homes with gardens; urban planning generally.
Meaning in WIMBY-speak: Market-rate and luxury housing eventually becoming “affordable.” Like, in decades. Like, if the landlords and owners let the properties decay, they may one day be able to be transformed into “affordable” tenements.
Many WIMBYs fancy themselves to be “progressive” social-justice warriors, and, as such, there are certain buzzwords and principles that are to be avoided at all costs in their strained attempts to maintain street-cred.
Reaganomics, or supply-side economic theory – also known as “trickle-down economics” – posits that tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy will lead to increased spending by these wealthy people and corporations, and will eventually trickle down and somehow benefit the less fortunate.
Reaganomics is also linked to governmental deregulation, with the goal of eliminating “pesky” governmental regulations (such as environmental or safety standards) that stand in the way of increased corporate profits.
According to Ronald Reagan, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” But while the crumbs from the table that the lower economic strata would purportedly get under Reaganomics was the main justification for this philosophy, the reality was and is that supply-side, trickle-down theories mainly benefit corporations and the wealthy. Or, as Reagan’s challenger in the 1984 presidential election Walter Mondale once put it, “The idea of Reaganomics is this: a rising tide lifts all yachts.”
So it is with “filtering.” Private equity, hedge funds, corporate landlords, developers, and other entrenched real estate interests all stand to benefit the most from WIMBY advocacy of “filtering” (and so it should come as no surprise to anyone that most WIMBY groups are, sometimes through a byzantine game of shell organizations, funded by real estate groups and not a little dark money).
WIMBY housing policy is textbook Reaganomics. Eliminate governmental regulation (zoning and environmental standards). Give developers and real estate corporations free rein to build wherever and however they want, in whatever manner they feel will allow them to reap the most profits.
There are a few core assumptions behind WIMBY “filtering” theory:
- An oversupply of housing will cause rents to become affordable.
- Savings from decreased regulation and corner-cutting will be passed on from developers to renters (and, in some cases, buyers).
- As new market-rate and luxury housing is built, a series of “migration chains” will be set into motion that will ultimately cause older market-rate and luxury housing to become affordable.
To illustrate this last point, let’s say that a new luxury apartment building gets built. The WIMBY theory is that wealthy people will move into new apartments and vacate their existing accommodations. [Never mind that these wealthy people’s next move might be to own their own place, maybe even – Heaven forbid! – a single-family home]. The vacancy in their current apartment will cause its rent to decrease because of, you know, “supply and demand”, and in turn be filled by someone upgrading from a less expensive place, which itself will have to be offered with reduced rent because of, you know, “supply and demand.”
And, after a few decades of decaying housing stock – voilà! – what once were luxury units have become slums, uh, “naturally occurring affordable housing.”
Because adding supply always decreases prices, just as adding lanes to freeways always decreases traffic…
The problem now is that there are too many levels of “filtering” until housing finally trickles down to real people who need affordable housing. Housing is not only “filtering” through wealthy people who are actually living in apartments and condos; it’s also “filtering” through layers including an almost endless number of real estate speculators, hedge funds, private equity firms, foreign investors, REITs, and corporate owners. We are currently letting the market build to satisfy these speculators’ lust for profits using housing as an investment vehicle. But for those who are truly “pro-housing” rather than pro-profit developer shills, housing is an end in and of itself because it is primarily a place for people to live.
Leaving aside units that are barely used or kept vacant for speculative purposes, even if some of the speculator-owned properties are rented out, the impact of building for a financialized housing market vis-à-vis building places for people to live in, is that it puts homeownership out of reach of more real people, who simply can’t compete with private equity or algorithms. As a result, it also places upwards pressure on rents, as some of those investors who aren’t simply parking (or laundering) money look for ROI on their housing-as-investment units.
The remedy here, of course, is a raft of robust anti-speculation housing policies, something the WIMBYs are singularly uninterested in, since their raison d’etre is not housing, not affordability, and not places for people to live, but developer profits.
In reality, the pro-profit developer shills who claim to be “pro-housing” are anti-people, anti-homeownership (for real people and families), anti-tenant, anti-affordability, and anti-Community.
Forget the WIMBY agnotology. For the WIMBYs, as embodied in their use of the term “filtering,” it’s all ‘bout the money.
Real world, non-agnotological substitutes for WIMBY-speak “filtering”: Reaganomic housing policy; trickle-down housing policy; supply-side housing policy; gentrification; shilling for developers and the Urban Growth Machine.
This is just the initial installment of the Urban Supremacist Lexicon. More vocabulary and explanations to come in future episodes…
(John Mirisch was first elected to the Beverly Hills City Council in 2009, and has served three terms as mayor. He is currently a garden-variety councilmember and a frequent contributor to CityWatchLA.com.)