The Political Contradictions of Anti-Urban NIMBY Activism in California

This final entry on Northern California will conclude the series by elaborating on the previously stated thesis that the local drive to protect urban and inner suburban neighborhoods from development is self-contradictory. Although anti-development activists incline to the left, their land-use policies are actually conservative, undermining their own larger agenda. Earlier posts looked at environmental sustainability and class divergence, contending that NIMBY (“Not in My Backyard”) hostility to urbanization thwarts the transition to a lower-carbon economy and places extraordinary burdens on middle- and working-class people, especially young ones. This post will consider the effects of the movement on the broader political orientation of the United States. The argument, simply put, is that by obstructing development in urban cores of the Bay Area and other Democratic-voting metropolitan areas of the country, local preservationists push growth into more development-friendly parts of the country, which tend to be much more conservative. Such dynamics enhance the economic and political power of those places, and thus nudge the United States as a whole in a more conservative direction.

I must stress that such claims are intended to be politically neutral, in accordance with the non-ideological stance of GeoCurrents. I am not arguing, in other words, that enhancing the political power of right-leaning portions of the U.S. is bad, as this blog is concerned with empirical issues of “what is,” not with what ethical issues of “what ought to be.” Admittedly, several recent posts have violated this principle, openly advocating urban intensification. Neutrality is often difficult to maintain, and I let myself get carried away by personal concerns about climate change, economic stagnation, and the widening class divide in the U.S. The same posts do, however, rest on an empirical basis, outlining the contradictions between stated goals and the consequences of actions undertaken. It is a fact that most people in Palo Alto and similar communities want to reduce green-house gas emissions and lessen the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”; it is also a fact—or so I hope to have demonstrated—that opposition to urban intensification in these same communities actually has the opposite effects. Such an argument should be assessable by readers of any political persuasion. One could, for example, regard global warming as a hoax, welcome suburban expansion along metropolitan outskirts, and celebrate the glowing class disparity in the U.S. and still accept the thesis.

By preventing development in urban and old-suburban areas of the San Francisco metropolitan area, local activists shunt it elsewhere. Previous posts emphasized the Bay Area’s own exurban fringe in the northern San Joaquin Valley, but growth is also pushed into other parts of the country. States that gain from this process, Texas most notably, tend to be much more conservative than California. Such dynamics are experienced across the country, enhancing population and economic growth in Republic-voting areas and discouraging it in Democratic-voting ones. Partly as a result, the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives is shifting toward the more conservative parts of the country. Other factors, of course, contribute to this process, but it is difficult to deny the paradoxical consequences of supposedly left-wing NIMBY activism.

A number of conservative writers in the U.S. have noted the same general process, delighting in the diverging fortunes of the country’s two most populous states, contrasting the economic health of Texas with California’s distress. A March 14 post in the National Review Online is typical of the genre. Here Chuck DeVore, former Republican member of the California State legislature, blames California’s fiscal crisis on its high tax rates, powerful unions, obstructing bureaucrats, environmental regulations, litigious legal system, and “subsidization of poverty.” As an example of the difficulty of doing business in California and the ease of conducting it in Texas, DeVore cites Apple’s decision to build a new $304 million campus in Austin rather than in the Bay Area (more recent reports, however, claim that the project may actually go to Arizona). California’s impending fiscal catastrophe, conservative writers like DeVore stress, will probably result in yet another round of tax increases, which will drive away more businesses and people, potentially sending the state into a downward spiral.

Such charges may have some merit. California’s tax rates are high and will probably increase, discouraging investors and wage earners alike. But overall, the Bay Area remains a very attractive place in which to live and to do business, as is reflected in its land values and rents, both commercial and residential. (The same situation holds in much of Southern California as well.) Silicon Valley is again booming; according to a recent report, “Office occupancy in the region rose by 2.7 million square feet last year, the most since 2000, and rents may advance 11 percent to an average $36 a square foot in 2012.” Many people want desperately to live in communities such as Palo Alto, otherwise they would not be willing to spend $800,000 for small condos in undistinguished buildings or $1,200,000 for modest, mass-constructed tract houses from the 1960s. The real drag on local business is not California’s somewhat excessive taxation rates or its slightly more powerful unions than those found elsewhere, but rather its outrageous land and housing costs and its exasperating obstacles to new urban developments. Apple currently wants to build a gargantuan 2.8 million square-feet corporate headquarters in Santa Clara County, which would dwarf its planned Texas project; gaining permission to do so will prove a challenge, to say the least. Apple’s proposed “space-ship” building can be criticized on both aesthetic and environmental grounds; encompassing 5.7 million square feet of landscaping, the behemoth would not be pedestrian-friendly. But the mere fact that that it is being pursued runs counter to the thesis that businesses and people are being driven out of California by the state’s left-wing policies.

Liberal and conservative commentators alike tend to by-pass NIMBY opposition to urban development when discussing California’s economic crisis. Right-wing writers prefer to focus on taxation, unionization, regulation, and the legal environment, as these issues allow them to score points in national-level debates. Left-wing writers are often reluctant to confront contradictions within their own political camp, and hence try to place all blame on their conservative opponents.

A March 17 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, “Seeking Growth Without Sprawl,” presents a perfect example of such liberal blinders on the urbanization issue. The article touts an “ambitious new regional plan” that would steer new developments towards existing cities and public transportation corridors, based on the new urban intensification paradigm. So far, so good. But when examining opposition to the plan, the article mentions only criticisms put forward by conservative activists. Some right-wingers have attacked the proposal for supposedly ignoring consumer desires, as “future workers and their families will want an environment of single family subdivisions.” That such an objection ignores market realities, supposedly the touchstone of contemporary conservatism, is not mentioned. The article goes on to highlight critics on the extreme right, those who view the entire urbanization scheme as part of a nefarious United Nations plot to extinguish American freedom and establish global governance.

Emphasizing such opposition is an easy course for the San Francisco Chronicle to take, as it fits well with the left-leaning proclivities of most of its readers. But it is also misleading. When actual plans for urbanization projects are put on the table, meaningful resistance comes not from the tiny cadre of U.N conspiracy theorists, but rather from superficially liberal activists who do not oppose urban intensification per se, but certainly do not want it impinging on their own communities. Pointing out such a contradiction could be editorially imprudent, potentially alienating an influential part of the newspaper’s readership. As a result, the real issues are left unmentioned.


Anti-Urbanization and Economic Irrationality in Silicon Valley

The previous post noted that opposition to urban intensification has negative economic as well as environmental repercussions. Such consequences, are experienced in and around all of the thriving cities of the United States, but nowhere more than in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here, the economic and technological marvel of Silicon Valley is fettered by outrageous housing costs that are driven by a combination of thriving companies and suffocating development restrictions. Such local restraints have much broader consequences. The California economy, like that of the U.S. at large, is anemic at best, in good part because the housing sector lags. Yet it could be surging, at least in Silicon Valley. Although housing demand collapsed in 2008 on the exurban fringe, it has remained strong in the core Bay Area. Green developments of the type imagined by such visionaries as James S. Russell would sell very well in this ecologically aware area, compounding economic gains with ecological benefits. The anti-urbanization movement is thus both hindering economic recovery and thwarting the transition to a low-carbon future.

In the heart of Silicon Valley, the real estate market remained healthy throughout the recent recession. Palo Alto experienced nothing but a lull in the ever-upward progression of prices. The figures are again surging. A back-cover map on the March 9th Palo Alto Weekly shows the change in value of housing sales between 2010 and 2011 in several local neighborhoods, and all are sharply up. Prices, notably, have increased not just for single-family homes, but also for the few high-density units that actually exist. A 1,117 square-foot (105 square meters) condo in a non-descript building in Palo Alto’s subsidiary business district is now on the market for $825,000.

Silicon Valley presents many opportunities for educated and entrepreneurial people, and it continues to generate high-quality jobs. Job seekers are attracted by the entrepreneurial culture as well as the natural and cultural amenities of the area. But even those who land well-paying tech jobs usually face a housing nightmare. Shortages often force long commutes over clogged freeways, reducing the appeal of the region. Teachers and other workers of modest salary face greater obstacles. Many tire of their daily ordeals and eventually move to places where purchasing a home is possible. Palo Alto’s anti-urbanists are well aware of this dilemma, but their characteristic response is ineffectual: reserving a set numbers of units in the token high-density complexes that are allowed for below-market sales to those with moderate incomes. Such a policy may be symbolically potent and guilt assuaging, but it does almost nothing to solve the underlying problem of inadequate housing.

Silicon Valley housing costs place a major burden on local employers. Stanford University would hardly be ably to recruit faculty but for the fact that it is so richly endowed that it can provide huge subsidies, including sizable zero-percent loans. Private firms have to pay significantly higher salaries than competitors located elsewhere to attract talent. And even with pay bumps, those recruited to firms like Google must often settle for small quarters and long commutes. Many come nonetheless, but others decline, shocked by the staggeringly high cost of living. As a result, the nation’s premier innovation center finds itself hampered, its own potential pulled down by its artificially mandated housing dearth.

In the mystique of Silicon Valley, the tiny start-up that turns into a huge company looms large. One of the most prominent historical landmarks in Palo Alto is the modest garage where William Hewlett and Dave Packard started their company, Hewlett-Packard, in the 1930s. Many current Stanford students would like nothing more than to follow in their footsteps—and many have the ability. That path, however, is closing down. A few of the best can secure the backing of venture capitalists and begin with adequate funds, but most either have to abandon their dreams or move elsewhere. Certainly the idea of starting a company in a garage in Palo Alto today is laughable, as the city would never allow it. Palo Alto watches over its residents’ use of their property assiduously. Zoning violations are policed with vigor, and the infamous “Palo Alto process” means that even minor changes to an existing building require months, sometimes years, of wading through intense bureaucratic thickets.

The obvious solution to this bind is urban intensification, focused on high-density housing in existing downtowns and along public transit routes. An adequate response would entail large-scale construction. At present, a new apartment complex with fourteen units in central Palo Alto is considered inordinately ambitious, but what is actually needed are projects of 140 or even 1400 units. If convenience-oriented, pseudo-environmental objections and demands could be eliminated, such developments could go up quickly and at reasonable costs, relieving rents, freeing workers from horrific commutes, and allowing ambitious and highly skilled young people to remain in the area. The gains would be manifold.

Critics will no doubt contend that few Americans really want to live in high-density housing. The American ideal, they would remind us, is based on owning a detached, single-family house with a yard. Many residents of this country do prefer such a lifestyle, but it has simply become unaffordable for most in the Bay Area and similar economic hubs. Many people foreclosed from the exurban fringe have soured on the whole idea, and are rethinking the distant-commuter existence. Others were never enthralled with suburbia in the first place, but were forced into it by the inordinate expense of safe, pedestrian-focused urban cores. It is not coincidental that both New York and San Francisco have imposed rent control for years, as demand has long outstripped supply in their livable neighborhoods. Permitting existing city cores to expand and allowing the urbanization of suburban downtowns would help balance the equation, letting more people live where they want and where economic opportunities beckon.

An urban intensification program in Silicon Valley would unleash hidden benefits as well, due to inherent economies of agglomeration. Close physical connections facilitate the exchange of both objects and ideas, giving an economic edge to tightly packed areas. Transportation in such circumstances obviously is much less expensive than in dispersed areas. Direct, person-to-person communication is also invaluable for the generation and development of ideas, the ultimate foundation of the information economy. Although Silicon Valley has pioneered the creation of distant connections and far-flung on-line communities, it relies itself on face-time—which is one of the reasons why competitors in less expensive high-tech centers lag behind. The agglomeration effects of Silicon Valley, in other words, are profound, but are also profoundly constrained.

Ironies abound. While Silicon Valley is awash with cash—Apple is currently sitting on $100 billion, wondering what to do with it—California is an economic wreck, retreating on education, shuttering its beloved state parks, and letting its infrastructure collapse. The state needs sustained economic growth—which it could easily realize, but for the concerted opposition of its new gentry class, concerned above all with its own convenience and sense of exclusivity. That class, of course, was itself created by the gushing trough of local high-tech capitalism. Ultimately, the same group that built Silicon Valley is now strangling it due to its desire to maintain its own privilege.

I am reminded of the Polish-Lithuanian aristocracy in the 18th century, so proud of its freedom and so ready to use its veto power that it prevented the modernization of the state, thus dooming the entire country to partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria.