Sat, Apr

The Urban Growth Machine Strikes Back

LAND USE IN LA - Cue the “Imperial March.” 

In yet another self-righteous headline, the LA Times editorial board declaims: “Shame on SoCal leaders for backing a ballot measure to roll back housing fixes.” 

If it weren’t so absurd, one might rather describe the Times editorial board’s editorializing itself as “shameful.” 

If it weren’t so utterly divorced from reality, one might rather describe the Times editorial board’s editorializing as “chutzpah.”  There are so many factual errors, that it is difficult to know where to begin. 

If it weren’t in keeping with the LA Times’s shameful history of real estate boosterism and growth fetishism, one might describe the Times editorial board’s editorializing as a textbook definition of “hypocrisy.” 

It probably doesn’t help much to call out shills, who evidently know no shame, as shameful. 

The editorial is the latest in a series of propaganda pieces in the service of the forced densification, a proxy war on single-family neighborhoods and homeownership, and a retrograde defense of the further commodification of housing, as the Times bids fair to be the paper of record for the Urban Growth Machine. 

The Our Neighborhood Voices Initiative is the brainchild of Redondo Beach mayor Bill Brand, whom I’ve known for over a decade.  Simply stated, Bill is one of the most decent, thoughtful, straightforward people I’ve ever met.  No hidden agendas, no ideologies and no bullshit.  To get that in an elected official is exceedingly rare. 

In attacking Bill, the LAT editorial board suggests that the Our Neighborhood Voices initiative is a “knee-jerk reaction” to SB9, a recent bill from Sacramento that would allow by right lot splits and up to 6 units where one previously was allowed.  It is one of a veritable myriad of real estate bills from Sacramento that has weaponized the planning process (RHNA, for example) and handcuffs cities by imposing one-size-fits-all measures on land use and planning throughout the state. 

The initiative’s genesis goes back much further than SB9.  In fact, in a 2013 LAT editorial entitled “Local control of affordable housing,” the Times details the strategy of the Urban Growth Machine in dealing with cities’ attempts to demand affordable housing from developers: 

Moneyed interests learned their lesson: Instead of fighting local policy decisions, they could get Sacramento to strip cities of the power to make their own laws. 

That was written in 2013.  Since then, things have only gotten worse.  From the time of that writing in 2013, the moneyed interests have been able to get Sacramento to create a plethora of regulations and bills which have preempted local decision-making – mainly, but not just in regard to land use and urban planning. This “death by a thousand cuts” strategy employed by the Sacramento politicians doing the bidding of these moneyed interests has eroded local democracy and stands in stark contrast to the principle of subsidiarity, a term oft employed by then-governor Jerry Brown, which means decisions should be made at the lowest competent level of government. 

This isn’t only logical; it’s the right way philosophically to anchor democracy if we truly believe democracy is underpinned by the consent of the governed and public participation, and is meant to be more than just grandstanding. 

It isn’t just charity that begins at home.  So does democracy.  Local government when done right is the best form of democracy.  It’s closest to home, and home is an almost sacred concept.  As Loyola Marymount Professor Fernando Guerra’s polling consistently show, local decision-making consistently engenders the highest level of trust among residents.  In an age of cynicism and mistrust of government, that is significant. It’s back to basics. 

As even the name of the ballot initiative pilloried by the Times editorial board suggests, “Our Neighborhood Voices” are being consistently ignored by Sacramento and by the moneyed interests the Times in 2013 correctly identified as having hijacked our democracy. 

In 2018, I wrote an article suggesting that a state constitutional amendment based on the principles of subsidiarity would be an approach to stop the growing influence of the moneyed special interests and to restore local democracy.  That same year, the League of California Cities unanimously adopted a resolution I authored to explore just such an amendment (sadly, the League seems to have drifted further and further away from its raison d’etre which is safeguarding local decision-making). 

Far from being a “knee-jerk” reaction to SB9, the Our Neighborhood Voices Initiative is a long overdue response to the constant preemption by Sacramento politicians and the moneyed interests who control them.  It takes the form of a scaled back a general “subsidiarity amendment” to focus solely on land use because that’s where most of the damage to communities is being done, that is where the situation is most dire, and that is where the need is currently the greatest. 

As the LAT editorial board wrote in 2013 about Sacramento’s preemption of inclusionary housing policies opposed by developers (and to this day still being opposed by AstroTurf Yimby groups funded by developers): “And that’s a shame, because whether or not the policy is the best one to increase the stock of affordable housing, the question is a local one that should be answered by local officials.” 

Nothing has changed since then.  In fact, as pointed out above, the situation has only gotten worse with more brazen attacks on communities, false narratives, the increasing commodification of housing, and more and more neoliberal and trickle-down Reaganomic bunkum, including the variety being peddled by the LAT editorial board. 

After attacking Bill Brand, the LAT editorial board attacked the SCAG (Southern California Association of Governments) leaders who voted to support the Our Neighborhood Voices Initiative. They couldn’t help launch a dig at SCAG by calling out what they consider to be “the unappealing acronym.”  Hit them with your best shot, I guess.  How ironic and appropriate that the LAT editorial board is probably not aware that another acronym, namely, “LAT,” means “lazy” in Swedish. 

This is the same LAT editorial board that in 2019 praised Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.  And yet they seem to have missed her core message completely. The day before the 2019 editorial appeared, Thunberg railed at the powers-that-be in no uncertain terms: “Here we are at the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can do is talk about money and fairytales of eternal economic growth.” 

Seems the Times editorial board turned a deaf ear to Greta when she delivered this core message. 

Unsurprisingly, the housing policies being pushed by the LAT and Sacramento at the behest of moneyed interests, Big Tech, and developers are completely based on those selfsame fairytales of eternal economic growth.  The forced density being sold like snake oil as a cure for everything from racism to climate change is nothing more than a proxy for growth, the very kind of unsustainable growth so forcefully called out by Greta Thunberg. 

In attacking the Our Neighborhood Voices Initiative, the LAT has implicitly and explicitly bought into the false narrative that cities are to blame for the housing affordability crisis. 

They quote Culver City mayor Alex Fisch, a growth junkie and the keynote speaker at last year’s annual summit for the aptly named special interest group “Up for Growth,” whose founder and chairman emeritus is – unsurprisingly – a billionaire developer (and major Trump donor), Clyde Holland. 

Both Fisch and the LAT editorial board pile on in the kind of scapegoating of cities that has become the stock in trade for Sacramento politicians representing the developer lobby and the eternal growth speculators.  Ironically, their “solution” to the housing affordability crisis is deregulation, giving free rein to those interests promoting trickle-down solutions and the “magic of the market.”  For them, housing is first and foremost an investment vehicle, rather than a home and a place to live, and they look to eliminate any regulations – including in some cases environmental protections – that could cut into profits. 

These Urban Growth Machine shills studiously ignore the role of Wall Street, global capital looking to park (and launder) money in real estate, and private equity speculators in inflating real estate values and creating housing unaffordability, which is further exacerbated by growing income inequality.  They ignore the impact of their favored policies that would decrease homeownership and turn us into a nation of renters, putting us at the mercy of a cabal of profit-seeking corporations.  Of course, a nation of renters means a lot of recurring revenue for corporate landlords.  Perhaps that is the Times’s ultimate policy goal. 

Instead of advocating for anti-speculation housing policies, increased homeownership, especially among groups that in the past have been disadvantaged and discriminated against -- as well as increased public investment in housing -- these Urban Growth Machine shills advocate for market deregulation and unsustainable growthism. 

Housing policies in California don’t have to create more affordability, according to the LAT.  They “just need to create more housing.”  And yet these fantasies of trickle-down affordability, straight out of Reaganomics, can’t change the common-sense truth that building more Porsches won’t reduce the price of Priuses. 

Instead of scapegoating cities, Sacramento politicians should provide communities with the resources to build truly affordable housing, even if those communities, recognizing that stability is a good thing (the word “stability” is both literally and metaphorically contained within the word and concept of “sustainability”), want to rein in market-rate and luxury condo development and focus on the creation of affordable housing.  Yet, if anything, Sacramento and their corporate overlords have made it more difficult for cities to focus on affordable housing.  Of course, in the US cities don’t build housing themselves  – another point that the scapegoaters also studiously ignore.  But cities could, ideally working with local nonprofit affordable housing organizations, be actively involved in the creation of community-tailored affordable housing if only the state would put its money where its mouth is.  

Lest the scapegoaters forget, it was the state that, in yet another Sacramento money-grab, eliminated redevelopment agencies, which could have devoted significant resources to affordable housing.  Lest the scapegoaters forget, in 2019, it was Governor Newsom who vetoed SB5, which would have provided $2 billion a year for affordable housing.  Lest the scapegoaters forget, throughout the years, Sacramento has created a paradigm in which cities are forced to look to commercial development to generate revenue, while residential development adds to cities’ financial burdens. 

Rather than taking Sacramento to task and demanding meaningful action and resources from a state government that, despite habitual imprudence, is verily rolling in dough, the LAT blames cities and looks to the unfettered real estate market to fix things.  

The ghosts of past Times’ owners, real estate speculators and market manipulators par excellence Gen. Harrison Gray Otis and Harry Chandler, are undoubtedly standing in their graves and cheering, while the current owner of the Times, billionaire and real-estate investor Patrick Soon-Shiong, is probably happy to join in the chorus. 

Oh, sure, the editorial board will say that there is a firewall between the editorial department and ownership; but, really, in this day and age of cutbacks at newspapers, can it hurt to push the boss’s business interests, just like back in the good ole days of Otis, Chandler and Otis Chandler? 

Either disingenuously or actively trying to insult the readers’ collective intelligence, the board asks: “How can we ever create enough housing for all people, at various income levels, when so much of it [i.e. residential land] is set aside only for single-family homes?” 

First off, there is plenty of unbuilt zoned capacity throughout the LA urban area – which is already the most dense urban area in the US – to create more housing.  Pointing to the percentage of residential land zoned for single-family neighborhoods as a justification to upzone makes about as much sense as pointing out the aggregate weight of all the babies in LA County vs. the aggregate weight of the adults as a justification to allocate a higher percentage of the county’s food consumption to the babies. 

Perhaps even more to the point, it ignores the real housing preferences of real people, who despite the propensity of upzoning advocates to treat them as such, are not widgets.  And so this war on single-family neighborhoods misses the mark by glossing over the overwhelming preferences of Americans of all stripes for single-family neighborhoods. 

Yimbys love to cite the “law” of supply and demand in pushing for the kinds of policies the LAT evidently thinks are the “solution” to the housing affordability crisis.  Yet these density fetishists conveniently forget the demand side of the equation in trying to impose their favored mandates of deregulation.  They claim to be “pro-housing,” except they’re not “pro-housing” when it comes to the kind of housing that most people prefer.  

In fact, the LAT should really be advocating for MORE single-family homes – all in the name of the “law” of supply and demand, of course – instead of demanding the wholesale dismantling of single-family neighborhoods and the elimination of those homes most in demand.  As such, neither the LAT nor any of these Urban Growth Machine policy-makers should ever be described as “pro-housing.”  More accurately, they are “pro-forced-density” and we all need to make this important distinction. 

Yes, housing represents a lifestyle choice, one of many, for those lucky enough to have a choice.  It may be one of the most personal choices an individual or family can make.  And it is abundantly clear: Americans overwhelmingly prefer living in single-family neighborhoods.  Let’s get this straight: there is nothing wrong with wanting to live in, with aspiring to live in, or with actually living in a home with a garden in a neighborhood of homes with gardens. 

It’s a choice that should be respected and a preference that should be acknowledged as we work towards creating policies that would allow more people to fulfill their own housing choices and to make their preferences a reality, whether those preferences entail living in a densely populated downtown area or in a leafy neighborhood with parks, gardens, and trees. 

If instead of just making fun of SCAG’s acronym, the LAT board’s members had actually attended the most recent meeting of SCAG’s Community, Economic and Human Development Committee on Jan. 6, they would have seen a presentation by Neighborhood Partnership Housing Services Inc. (NPHS), a nonprofit community development organization, whose mission is to steward “equitable and sustainable homeownership” and to allow for new groups of individuals and families to become homeowners.  It should come as no surprise to anybody that most of NPHS’s projects are single-family homes. 

Subsidiarity-wise, common sense-wise, and democracy-wise, there are many decisions that should be made at the local level, including, importantly, land-use and planning decisions.  Should we be surprised the housing affordability crisis has not improved, as more and more local decisions are being preempted by Sacramento politicians carrying the water for moneyed special interests?  As the LAT editorial board wrote in a piece in 2018: 

“Local governments are on the front lines of managing homelessness, displacement and gentrification. They need the ability to stop the bleeding.”  

This is, of course, a far cry from the board’s latest outburst.  Evidently, the real estate boosters at the Times have no real interest in furthering the goal of allowing people more choices, especially if it stands in the way of greed-fueled Growthmania.  And yet if opportunity is already over concentrated in parts of the LA urban area, the “solution” is not to further that concentration, forget all the claptrap talk of “agglomeration,” which is simply another way to promote density and growth – never mind that this kind of productivism treats people like widgets. 

If something is over concentrated, then the clear remedy is to work towards deconcentration, while giving people more housing-lifestyle choices, much to the distress of the urban supremacists, real estate boosters and productivists.  We should be pursuing policies of deconcentrating opportunity, and geographic equity, including promoting and expanding the proven success of remote work wherever possible. The whole state and the whole country – not just “superstar” cities -- deserve to thrive. 

Far be it from the LAT editorial board to embrace the potential of remote work (though I imagine a number of them have been and will continue to work from home themselves), to create a paradigm shift towards a deconcentration of opportunity, economic balance, and – dare I even say it – perhaps towards a sustainable, steady state economy

While the LAT editorial board, Big Tech, Wall Street, “Up for Growth” and the other charter members of the Urban Growth Machine may employ sophistry in the service of their pursuit of fairytales of eternal economic growth, the goals of the Our Neighborhood Voices Initiative are fairly simple. 

For all the current talk of expanding voter rights, it means little – and maybe even less than that – if the moneyed interests continue to be able to control and to buy elections.  The corrosive role of money in politics is pervasive throughout our political system.  No matter what SCOTUS says, money isn’t speech and corporations aren’t people. 

It bears repeating, as the LAT wrote in a rare moment of lucidity: 

Moneyed interests learned their lesson: Instead of fighting local policy decisions, they could get Sacramento to strip cities of the power to make their own laws. 

Maybe we have slightly better odds if we are making more decisions within our own unique and diverse communities, rather than in Sacramento or Washington, where lobbyists have the run of the house and where money truly is the mother’s milk of politics. 

Especially against this background, subsidiarity is still a great concept, and we need Our Neighborhood Voices now more than ever. 

Never mind the desperate raging of the LAT and the Urban Growth Machine.  The Our Neighborhood Voices Initiative is a valiant effort to counter the tsunami of money that has turned American democracy into a rubberstamp for moneyed interests. 

In an age of boundless cynicism, the Our Neighborhood Voices Initiative ultimately is all about the following: 

A restoration of local decision-making.  

Local democracy.  

Decision-making closer to home.  

Livable, inclusive neighborhoods. 

In short: do you want more decisions to be made in Sacramento and Washington, DC, or closer to home? 

For many of us, the answer is clear: Less Sacramento.  More Community. 

Now more than ever.


(John Mirisch was elected in 2009 to the Beverly Hills City Council, where he has served three terms as mayor. He is currently a garden-variety councilmember.)