YIMBYs, NIMBYs, ‘Regular People’ and SB 1120
The Embarcadero Institute released a report in September titled, "Double Counting in the Latest Housing Needs Assessment."
The acronyms stand for “Yes in my backyard” and “Not in my backyard.”
The term “NIMBY” is a decades-old term adopted by the development industry aimed at local residents and environmental groups who opposed development projects near or in their neighborhood.
“YIMBYs” are nationally organized and funded by real estate investors and Silicon Valley high-tech interests primarily through nonprofit organizations like Circulate San Diego. YIMBYs lobby in Washington, D.C. and in state capitols for more housing and higher-density by repealing local land-use authority, including abolishing single-family zoning. YIMBY Democrats of San Diego is the first openly political organization in the country labeling themselves as “Democratic YIMBYs.” Their stated goal is to promote the supply of public transit-oriented housing and environmental sustainability.
There is no comparable national organization of “NIMBYs” (although some may argue that groups like Sierra Club or the Environmental Health Coalition are “NIMBYs”).
James Mattery, a San Diego realtor and leader of a local neighborhood group called “Save Our Balloon,” wrote an op-ed for Voice of San Diego where he described the term NIMBY as a “pejorative accepted into the cannon of elite planning professionals and government housing agency documents as a touchstone of all that’s gone wrong in development permit approvals.” Former San Diego Councilmember Donna Frye also criticized the usage of the word, NIMBY in a commentary on the local mayor’s race.
The Nationwide YIMBY Agenda takes Center Court in the California Legislature
Fueled by funding from Silicon Valley and Wall Street Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs), YIMBYs have sponsored an aggressive effort to abolish local government’s authority to determine neighborhood zoning. The most comprehensive bill, Senate Bill 50, was introduced by state Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) in 2019.
Statewide opposition was led by a loose coalition of local neighborhood groups, Livable California, Better Way California and Save our San Diego Neighborhoods. None of these groups mounted the fundraising capacity to compete with the corporate-supported YIMBYs.
Local elected officials up and down the state, including San Diego Councilmember Barbara Bry, also networked against Senate Bill 50.
By the end of January, Weiner conceded that he did not have the votes to get Senate Bill 50 off the Senate floor and he dropped the bill rather than subject fellow senators to a divisive and controversial vote.
However, Weiner also made it clear that the fight was not over. Rather than one comprehensive bill, YIMBY legislators broke out the elements of Senate Bill 50 and distributed them into more than a half dozen bills (Assembly Bill 3234/Senate Bill 1120, Senate Bill 902, Senate Bill 1085, Senate Bill 995, Assembly Bill 725, Assembly Bill 1279, Assembly Bill 2345, Assembly Bill 3040 and Assembly Bill 3107).
Some of the most controversial provisions were authored by state Assemblymember Todd Gloria. As introduced, Gloria’s Assembly Bill 3234 was aimed squarely at single-family neighborhoods.
But as opposition mounted, Gloria put the measure on the inactive file. A few weeks later Gloria stripped the single-family zoning language out of Assembly Bill 3234 altogether. Assembly Bill 3234 was later subjected to a “gut and amend” rule waiver and became a law enforcement bill under a different author. The Gloria language then reappeared in Senate Bill 1120.
“Senate Bill 1120 allows two important major changes to state law. First, it allows someone to build a second home on a parcel that a local government has determined is for single-family use only, allowing more housing growth in places that need it. Second, it allows a lot to be split into two lots under specific circumstances, allowing those who meet the criteria to build even more housing on otherwise unused land. Senate Bill 1120 contains important protections against displacement of existing tenants.”
The Strange ‘Midnight Madness’ Legislative Session
The bill lingered for weeks. But then, on Aug. 31 (the constitutionally mandated last day of session), Senate Bill 1120 became the topic of a fierce debate on the Assembly floor.
On the floor, Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager (D-Los Angeles) disputed the idea that the new units will be "affordable" and called the bill "an invitation into small communities by developers and speculators."
A coalition of local elected officials also joined community groups in opposition.
“When these bills like (Senate Bill 1120) say we’re going to just absolutely take away all authority from your community, we’re going to force you to…completely eliminate single-family neighborhoods which are really important to most people,” said Julie Testa, a councilmember from the Bay Area. “The people who write these bills are out of touch with our constituents and our communities.”
Many leaders in lower income communities saw their neighborhoods as the most likely “first victims” of speculators taking advantage of the elimination of local rules with no obligation to provide impacts on traffic, parking, parks or schools.
Former speaker of the Assembly and current Los Angeles Councilmember Herb Wesson described Senate Bill 1120 as an attack on residential integrity — in particular on historically disadvantaged neighborhoods of color: “When I think about Senate Bill 1120, it’s one of the biggest insults and slaps in the face to our community that I can remember. This is as bad as Senate Bill 50.”
Senate Bill 1120 became the centerpiece of a bizarre ending of the legislative session.
Among the supporters was Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland), who spoke while holding her newborn baby. “I was actually in the middle of feeding my daughter when this bill came up,” she said after arriving on the Assembly floor. “I just came down here in strong support of this bill, and urge my colleagues: It’s the simplest way we can have density that still adheres to neighborhood character. “
Senate Bill 1120 passed the Assembly with a razor thin 42 votes (41 votes required for passage). However the bill arrived in the Senate minutes after the Constitutional midnight deadline and was therefore never put to a vote in the Upper House.
After the Madness, What’s Next?
Sen. Wiener, who faces a re-election challenge in November, says he plans on bringing back several housing bills that failed this year. He did not specify whether he would return to the massive Senate Bill 50 single bill approach or the multiple-bill 2020 strategy. Either way, opponents and proponents will likely increase the pressure on both sides.
In the meantime, many candidates for local office have lined up against the pro-development YIMBY agenda. The highest profile race is in San Diego where Gloria is endorsed by YIMBY Democrats of San Diego and Bry is endorsed by Save Our San Diego Neighborhoods.
Bry has voted for a number of projects increasing densities near transit corridors ,but has made no secret of her strong opposition to Sacramento taking planning authority away from local communities.
Gloria is endorsed by the YIMBY Democrats and voted for Senate Bill 1120 targeted at ending single-family zoning.
For longtime Democrats, the emergence of these pro-development groups is surprising. In Washington “The YIMBY Act” (H.R. 4351 by Rep Trey Hollingsworth (R-IN) is a largely Republican exercise.
Specifically, the YIMBY Act would promote enacting high-density single-family and multi-family zoning and allowing manufactured homes in areas zoned primarily for single-family residential homes.
In one of the more interesting national political wrinkles, the Trump Administration which had been aggressively promoting YIMBY pro-development strategies appeared to make a sudden U-turn, In July, the Trump campaign began focusing on suburban voters. While the public announcements gained media attention, the only actual rule change eliminated data collection obligations as a condition of federal funding.
The Trump Administration's housing regulators continue to implement YIMBY development regulations, absent the data collection, and San Diego continues to be a target of Wall Street funded REITs specializing in identifying distressed single-family properties in the hopes that Senate Bill 1120-like “upzoning” and/or pressure from federal regulators will eventually deliver the price volatility that can make these kind of speculative investments produce windfall profits.
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