Local politics: disconnected

I spend too much time on Facebook, but I have learned a few things there. One is that there’s a disconnect between local politics and the other kind.

On Facebook there’s a daily conversation among a few hundred avid followers of and participants in Santa Monica politics. In the ocean of Santa Monica voters, we Facebook posters (and lurkers) are only a few fish, but the volume of the stream of consciousness can approach the flow of a river and the decibels of a waterfall.

The discussions can become, or even start out, heated. But what’s funny is that when it comes to national politics—namely, the presidential election—nearly all the Santa Monicans violently “commenting” at each other about the City Council, or Measure LV, or any other local thing, find themselves in agreement that electing Donald Trump would presage the apocalypse.

I might read a post from a Residocracy member that drives me crazy, but if I click on another link I might find out that this same person just posted a video about why Hillary Clinton should be president. This doesn’t mean that all Residocracy members or other supporters of Measure LV are liberals like me, as some of them don’t support affordable housing and from some of their posts one can detect various reactionary or libertarian views. Nor, by the way, are all opponents of LV liberals—it’s not surprising that there are  property or business owners, who oppose LV, who are conservative.

What one often notices from the pro-LV posts is an attempt to fit LV into a liberal, progressive ideology. Many LV supporters are convinced that stopping the building of market rate apartments will keep housing prices down. Their logic seems to be that because developers can charge high rents for the new units the rents on the new units will increase the average cost of housing in Santa Monica. That logic is convoluted, but okay, it’s a logic.

Then there is the greed of developers. There are times I’m on Facebook and I wonder if I’ve traveled back in time, to a Depression-era Leninist study group. Most pro-LV arguments ultimately devolve into calls to arms against those archetypal capitalists, real estate developers. It’s all about how obscene their profits are, or how high their rents are, ignoring the fact that they can charge high rents and make so much money because of the housing shortage restrictive zoning has created. (And anyone who opposes LV must be on the developer take.)

Hey, we live in a capitalist society. That’s how we assemble the capital it takes to build nearly all the housing in this country. Everyone in Santa Monica lives on a lot that was subdivided by a developer to make money, and most live in buildings built by them for the same purpose. (In Santa Monica many (but not all) of those who complain bitterly about the greed of housing developers also have opposed tax measures the City has put on the ballot to create public funding for housing, such as H and HH in 2014 and GS and GSH on this year’s ballot. Meaning that they are against both capitalist and socialist models of getting needed housing built. But then we also have residents who insist that they favor more housing, but who also insist that studio and one-bedroom apartments are too small and condominiums are too big. The privilege of the housed?)

I don’t doubt the liberalism of these anti-development Santa Monicans. The reason I don’t is that one can sense the anguish they feel when they are confronted with evidence that progressive opinion favors infill development in existing cities, like Santa Monica, to create livable, attractive cities that retain and attract investment that would otherwise go to sprawl. I.e., favors what LV opposes. There’s big cognitive dissonance when people who consider themselves progressive, especially Baby Boomers who were on the barricades in the ’60s, hear over and over that they are on the wrong side of history when they demonize urban development. On Facebook, you can practically hear the gnashing of teeth.

The progressive arguments favoring cities against sprawl began as a reaction against the negative consequences of suburban development. The Sierra Club, for instance, first adopted policies favoring infill development 30 years ago. Around the same time movements like New Urbanism and Smart Growth began to preach an anti-sprawl gospel that celebrated traditional urban neighborhoods. Like the proverbial ocean liner, the course of urban policies took a long time to correct, but the speed in the direction of good city building and away from sprawl is accelerating.

Our president, Barack Obama, has always favored urban investment as opposed to suburban development. Back in February 2009, shortly after taking office, he told an audience in Florida that, “[t]he days where we’re just building sprawl forever, those days are over.” Many of the President’s policies during his eight years in office have supported better urbanism, and last month his administration published a “Housing Development Toolkit” that combined explanations of many progressive urban policies in one document.

From a Santa Monica perspective, the toolkit reads like a manifesto against Measure LV and the “build it somewhere else” culture of restrictive zoning that spawned LV, with quotes that eerily describe the situation on the Westside in general and in Santa Monica in particular:

Local policies acting as barriers to housing supply include land use restrictions that make developable land much more costly than it is inherently, zoning restrictions, off-street parking requirements, arbitrary or antiquated preservation regulations, residential conversion restrictions, and unnecessarily slow permitting processes. The accumulation of these barriers has reduced the ability of many housing markets to respond to growing demand.

While the housing market recovery has meant growing home values . . . barriers to development concentrate these gains among existing homeowners, pushing the costs of ownership out of reach for too many first-time buyers.

Space constrained cities can achieve similar gains [in housing], however, by building up with infill, reducing the eyesores of empty lots and vacant or rundown buildings that go undeveloped in highly constrained regulatory environments.

Unsurprisingly, many cities with the highest local barriers [to building housing] have seen increases in homelessness in recent years, while nationwide homelessness has been sharply in decline.

The fact that liberals and progressives who support LV and similar anti-development policies are at odds with current liberal and progressive policies doesn’t mean that one should not be skeptical about those policies. One should always be skeptical; today’s pro-urban policies exist only because of skepticism about policies that were once considered progressive and had government support, such as urban renewal, modernist public housing blocks, and conventional suburban development.

Those policies created new problems, and those problems required new thinking. But to be progressive one has to believe in progress. You can’t be progressive if you favor nostalgia and fear change. But progress is conservative in that it must be based on trial and error, i.e., learning from one’s mistakes. Today’s progressive urban policies weren’t created from thin air. They arose from analyzing the mistakes of generations past, such as modernist planning (urban renewal, freeways, etc.) or conventional suburban development.

We can’t predict the future, but we can avoid making the same mistakes that previous generations made. One of those mistakes was building sprawl instead of investing in our cities.

Thanks for reading.

4 thoughts on “Local politics: disconnected

  1. Pingback: Gruber: There’s a Disconnect Between Local Politics, National Politics, and Development Politics | Santa Monica Next

  2. Pingback: No denying: LV is anti-development | The Healthy City Local

  3. Good snapshot!  

    Rev. Jim Conn 230 Pacific St #108 Santa Monica, CA 90405 310/392-5056

    Associations: Capital & Main – Writer: www.capitalandmain.com CLUE-LA – Member of the Board:  www.clue.org  Climate Action Santa Monica – Advisory Board Asset Based Community Development:  www.abcdinstitute.org/ United Methodist Minister – Retired:  www.calpacUMC.org 

  4. Let me start by saying everywhere I’ve ever lived in the US, be it Florida, Atlanta or DC, I was considered the liberal-pinko-Commie. Yet I move here and suddenly I’m Ayn freaking Rand.

    A small bit of background, I grew up in coastal Florida. This is important because coastal Florida has flood zones that require homes to be built in many cases 9-12 feet above grade. Single family residences, regular homes end up being between 25 to 35 feet tall. Houses, not apartment buildings, just regular old houses. Homes built before the codes went into place are considered non-conforming and pay double the flood insurance OR must be renovated to be made conforming. This is rarely cost effective, so lots of houses get demolished regularly. So I don’t have a lot of sympathy for nostalgia as close to 1/2 of my hometown has been completely rebuilt over the years.

    Back to being Ayn Rand, because I grew up in Florida and saw personally several booms and recessions, I know that the build more approach is always better in the long run. I’ve had too many experiences where “overbuilding” and “out of control development” has resulted in cheaper prices to the consumer. Developers always overbuild and always saturate the market making things better for the consumer. These are simple stats anyone can look up regarding housing construction rates in CA vs the rest of the US. The average prices are easy to look up as well. We simply don’t build close to enough to meet demand. CA housing costs are twice the national average. Yet people look at me like I’m crazy when I mention that my 4 shift a week bartender friend in Tampa EASILY bought a 1/1 condo in a good section of town without working overly hard. We know dozens of people who have regular working class jobs (bartenders, hairstylists, teachers, retail managers) who easily save up and buy homes, condos and townhomes in good sections of the cities they live in. Why, none of those cities, none of those states put up so many hurdles to building new housing. They all build mid-rises and high rises where people want to live, and in places that hasn’t shown demand yet (where its REALLY freaking cheap).

    Look at home ownership rates. For California its pathetic, sad even, compared to the rest of the country. For Santa Monica, its a crime. Sure rent control is the law of the land (CA at least) for now. But just as Ellis and Costa-Hawkins were passed, its also possible that in the future something will come down from the state level that neutralizes it. Or worse, if a court decision goes against it here in CA or in NY, than its likely gone in a second and no mitigating efforts will be able to be made. FYI, SCOTUS almost took an RC case in 2012, and I’d bet my rent payment that the only reason they didn’t was because the conservatives weren’t sure which way Kennedy would vote. There will be a situation where upwards of 10% of the residents will be unable to live here and those units will flip. All because of a misguided effort to fight the tide of not just the US economy, but the global one.

    I simply don’t get it.

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