LA Needs Its NIMBYs


LA HOUSING CRISIS - NIMBYs.  We’re everywhere, from Chatsworth to Boyle Heights, from Venice to Griffith Park. 

Scratch a land-use controversy and you will find a NIMBY raising troublesome questions.  If homeowners, they’re dismissed as privileged.  If not, they’re simply misguided.  Most are just bringing a dose of critical thinking to somebody else’s agenda. 

My own NIMBY cred grew out of a campaign to halt mansionization, the practice of tearing down existing homes and cramming big houses onto small lots, where these bloated boxes loom over their neighbors and defy the scale and character of established neighborhoods. 

Now McMansions and their modest neighbors alike are all in the crosshairs.  The charge:  Single-family zoning drives socio-economic disparities and a nationwide shortage of affordable housing.  This view is gaining traction, too.  Minneapolis and Oregon banned single-family zoning, and California followed suit last year.    

Defenders of single-family zoning, NIMBY to the bone, demur.  We acknowledge housing inequities and shortages but place a hefty share of responsibility on market forces and public policy, as well as discriminatory lending and sales practices outlawed decades ago.   Single-family homes remain central to the American dream, and single-family neighborhoods are integral to countless communities that do not model themselves after Hong Kong. 

Nonetheless, faux-gressive officials plan to blow up neighborhoods across the state in the name of affordable housing.  Before they do, NIMBYs have a few modest proposals: 

Sanity-check population and demography assumptions. The Embarcadero Institute, for one, has poked more than a few holes in the influential McKinsey study that uses growth forecasts modeled on New York City.  

As more forward-thinking communities have done, target commercial corridors and light-industrial zones.  Provide compelling incentives to develop vacant and underutilized properties for affordable housing.  Incorporate elements and amenities that address the needs of neighborhood stakeholders.

Crack down on short-term rental abuses and high vacancy rates in posh developments, which squeeze housing supply.  In the three years since it passed, Vancouver’s tax on speculation and vacancies has helped stabilize the market and raise hundreds of millions of dollars for affordable housing.

Beef up infrastructure before adding to the load.  Our roads, sewers, and power grid are already straining.  And frequently failing. 

Consider our warming planet.   Pro-development forces howl because single-family properties account for 75 percent of LA’s residential acreage.  In fact, all that residential landscaping helps cool and freshen a city notoriously short on public parks.  How does destroying countless mature trees and paving over nearly half the city’s land affect our climate goals?     

Environmentalists routinely question whether a project or development is appropriate to the terrain and whether it puts wildlife at risk.  Aren’t civic-minded people entitled to ask whether a project is appropriate to the infrastructure and whether it threatens a human community? 

You can’t build a great city on wishful thinking.  Real planning requires a well-defined vision based on real-world needs and available resources.  World-class cities develop in ways that honor the character and cohesion of established neighborhoods. 

Here in Los Angeles, that kind of good governance is thin on the ground.  Here, special interests fund the campaigns and pet projects of elected officials, who in turn pass out zoning exemptions like party favors.  Remember “Seabreeze”?  A local developer made bogus campaign donations to Mayor Eric Garcetti, several City Councilmembers, and a smattering of other elected officials, while the city considered zoning exemptions for his “Seabreeze” apartment complex.    

The city’s Department of City Planning, its Planning Commission, and myriad community groups all gave thumbs down on the project.  Then Hizzoner Garcetti invoked “mayoral prerogative,” and Seabreeze apartments got a green light after all.  Excellent Los Angeles Times reporting dredged up the mess, and it smelled nothing like a sea breeze.  In 2020, the enterprising developer took a plea.

In the two years since, three L.A. City Councilmembers (one now retired) have been indicted for corruption.  Two of the indictments involved land development schemes, and one has already brought a conviction

No wonder Angelenos who care about their city and their neighborhoods charge around with pitchforks.  Boosters often urge us to look at the Big Picture and “take one for the team.”  But even projects that look bearable as one-offs set a precedent for copycats that can overwhelm a neighborhood.  Whether the subject is shelters or schools, housing or habitat, we cannot afford to be passive. 

So, who’s really missing the big picture?  Maybe it’s the officials in bed with free-spending developers.  Or an intellectually lazy commentariat who reflexively dismiss thoughtful opposition as parochialism.  Those of us who defend our communities from reckless development deserve the same respect as any other environmentalists.  This is not NIMBYism, it’s citizenship.  


(Shelley Wagers was born in Los Angeles.  She spent over a decade working on mansionization ordinances, at the neighborhood level and citywide.  City of Los Angeles named her Woman of the Year for Council District 5 in 2017.   Shelley is a contributor to CityWatchLA.)