Turns out that when it comes to local politics we’re not so exceptional

In the last couple of posts I’ve been trying, mostly by means of rereading Mike Davis’s City of Quartz, to put anti-development politics in Santa Monica into a regional context. I’ve recently read, however, another book (and reviewed it on Huffington Post), that gives a national context for politics that we think of as quintessentially local.

The book is Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism, written by Benjamin Ross, who is, among other things, a transportation activist from Maryland. In the book Ross traces the history of how America, which celebrates few concepts as highly as private property and democracy, paradoxically created a regulatory system for land that (i) subordinates an individual property owner’s rights to the rights of the group (either neighbors through a homeowner’s association or government through zoning), and (ii) reserves power over real property to only a few citizens.

Adding irony to paradox, this red-blooded American system of land control has its origins in proto-socialist ideas and ideals of pre-Civil War communalist utopians. After various false starts these ideas coalesced into a replicable format in a New Jersey suburb called Llewellyn Park laid out in 1857. The formula included controls on what individual owners could build on their properties.

As one of the first purchasers of a home site in Llewellyn Park put it (as quoted by Ross), “[e]ach Llewellyn Park property owner . . .‘possesses the whole park in common, so that the fortunate purchaser of two or three acres becomes a virtual owner of the whole five hundred.’” As Ross describes the impact of this, “[h]ere in germ is the belief of today’s suburban homeowner that property rights include a veto over building on neighbors’ land – an understanding shared by even the most ardent defenders of private property.”

From 19th century private covenants evolved 20th century zoning, which developers and governments used to assure purchasers of home sites that their neighbors would be just like them, to the exclusion of anyone else. Restrictions on the use of one’s property, Ross finds, were primarily for the purpose of preserving status, although they were also marketed as a way to preserve property values. (In classical economics, however, let alone American ideology, property values are maximized when the property owner is free to exploit the property to its highest potential.)

Clearly, citizens have an interest in regulating all uses of property and, in many cases regulation can enhance the value of property. These decisions about regulating property, however, are supposed to be made through a democratic process. What Ross finds objectionable is that decisions about real property are typically made by the property owners themselves, either through private covenants or because most land use decisions are left to local governments that only represent the people already living there.

Citizens who are affected by these decisions—such as people needing places to live—have no vote or say in the matter. If you think that this didn’t apply to Santa Monica, note that much of Santa Monica’s residential land was developed with restrictive covenants that kept out minorities. The covenants were outlawed more than 60 years ago, but to this day few minorities live where there were restrictive covenants. The minority citizens never got to vote on the restrictions.

Ross finds that people invested socially and economically in the way things are find ingenious ways to rationalize their self-interest in the status quo—specifically in the exclusion of newcomers. In his words,

Unwilling to admit – and often unable to recognize – the status-seeking motivations that lurk behind their agenda, opponents of development search for any convenient excuse to oppose something that might be built nearby. Traffic is a perennial objection, blessed by the Supreme Court in Euclid v. Ambler [the 1926 case that found zoning to be constitutional] and never since out of favor. Another common tactic is to go after the builder rather than the building. Homeowners appeal to the sympathies of the uninvolved, presenting themselves as innocent victims of oppressive developers.

Now, does this describe Santa Monica anti-development politics or what? Everyone here likes to think of our beautiful town as special, exceptional in its loveliness as well as its traffic problem, but it turns out that people all over the country have been using traffic to justify exclusionary zoning since (at least) the 1920s. (As someone who hates traffic, I wish they’d come up with something that worked.)

“[T]o go after the builder rather than the building.” So it’s not only in Santa Monica that whenever there’s no fact-based or logical argument against a development, the opponents play the “greedy developer” card (that is unless the developer is a non-profit, in which case they can play the “neighborhood character” card). Developers want to make a buck, and because they typically take big risks and work in a cyclical industry they want to make big bucks, but are they are any more greedy than, say, movie producers, who also work in a high risk industry? Or restaurant owners? Or anyone else in business?

Meanwhile, who in Santa Monica (aside from a few apartment owners) benefit from the housing crisis, which causes property values to skyrocket? In an era of scarcity of homes to buy, who benefits from restricting development of market-rate housing, particularly condominiums? Keep in mind that it’s not like anyone is proposing to build apartments or condos in single-family zones.

Homeowners “presenting themselves as innocent victims.” Hmmm. It’s been breathtaking to hear recently the kvetching from some Santa Monica homeowners about increased water rates, and mandatory 20% reductions in water use that will be imposed on some of them. And of course all that’s been turned into another rhetorical tool against building (water-efficient) apartments. Look—it’s hard to think that life has treated unfairly folks who own homes in Santa Monica, whether they’ve been sitting on their capital gains and low Prop. 13 tax rates for years or have enough dough to have bought in recently.

There’s more in the book than I can describe here. Ross shows how every well-intentioned movement you can think of, from environmentalism, to historic preservation, to growth boundaries, to expanded public participation in the planning process, to negotiating for community benefits, etc., etc., gets twisted to become yet another exclusionary tool. He even points out that residents who manage to move into apartments or condos in desirable places then often want to raise the drawbridges themselves.

However, Ross ends on optimistic note. For various reasons Americans are becoming more comfortable with city living, and these cultural changes are driving an urban renaissance.

Like in Santa Monica.

Thanks for reading.

Santa Monica and the Great L.A. Late 20th Century Transfiguration

For my last post I reread parts of Mike Davis’ City of Quartz to give me some perspective on what’s going on today in Santa Monica with anti-development politics. As perceptive as Davis was, however, it was also interesting to see, in hindsight, what he missed. For all of Davis’ insights, City of Quartz missed the biggest story of the time, which was the massive immigration that was changing the region.

Immigration hardly comes up in City of Quartz, but the year the book was published, 1990, was the highpoint of a demographic wave that started in the early ’70s, accelerated in the ’80s, and then subsided in the ’90s. In 1970 about 11% of L.A. County’s then seven million residents were foreign born; by 2000 the figure was 36% and the county’s population had increased to 9.5 million. Today, still about 36% of county residents are foreign born, but also about 21% of county residents have at least one foreign-born parent. This means that well over half of county residents are directly tied to what should be called the Great L.A. Late 20th Century Transfiguration. (These numbers come from the research of Dowell Myers and John Pitkin at USC.)

Often when you read accounts from the middle of the immigration era—even from activists who tried to remedy the multiple crises that massive demographic change caused, involving housing, jobs, schools, gangs, etc.—you get the sense that people were too close to the phenomenon to be able to perceive it. As if, for example, it should be surprising that things will get a bit chaotic if you drop millions of mostly impoverished and poorly educated immigrants (who don’t speak English for God’s sake!) into a place that wasn’t expecting them.

It didn’t have to be this way. A century ago it was the nightmare of the Lower Eastside and similar places that led to demands to reform and redesign cities, as well as massive investments in social services, infrastructure and education. But many here in southern California for different reasons wanted to act as if nothing unusual was happening. On one hand you had activists who acted as if it was a profound failing of government, capitalism, etc., that we suddenly had millions more poor people to house, employ and educate, and on the other you had conservatives who wanted to ignore the whole thing and who certainly didn’t want to spend any money to deal with the situation.

The region survived the immigration wave, and may even prosper because of the work force it left behind, but the wave left us with two crucial social issues. One is a housing crisis for not only the working class, but also the true middle class. The other is low wages for working people—a crisis made more acute by the housing crisis. The native-born children of the immigrants of the ’70s and ’80s, along with other Millennials, are now adults and working, making their way forward, but even those making good money can’t find places to live. For a while the regional solution was to send them out into the sprawl, to the Inland Empire, etc., but that model blew up in the Great Recession. Now, like everyone else, they want to live near their jobs and not go into unsustainable debt to do so.

So how does this relate to Santa Monica, which, of course, is still overwhelmingly Anglo and native-born? Flash back to 1979 when young activists in SMRR joined with elderly renters, many with radical backgrounds from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, to save them from eviction when in Housing Crisis I rents skyrocketed and there was huge pressure to tear down apartments to build condos and offices. This coalition brought progressive government to Santa Monica. The sad fact is that today, however, many of those same SMRR activists, now grown old themselves, instead of harking back to their youthful radicalism and idealism to join with today’s young activists to build housing for the next generation, have joined with their age and economic cohort of (some, by no means all) boomer homeowners to keep young people from moving into Santa Monica.

It’s particularly ironic because the anti-housers today use rhetoric like that which homeowners back then used against renters when renters awoke from their slumber and got involved in local politics. Yes, why should we allow the building of apartments for young “transients” without “roots” in the community? You wonder if people today who use “preserving community character” to block the building of apartments know anything about how that phrase has been so identified in the past with racial and ethnic exclusion. (Thankfully, I don’t believe they do.)

Thanks for reading.

 

When history repeats as farce it’s not always funny

“If the slow-growth movement … has been explicitly a protest against the urbanization of suburbia, it is implicitly—in the long tradition of Los Angeles homeowner politics—a reassertion of social privilege.” —Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990).

In an attempt to remind myself of the historical context behind the anti-development politics I’ve been writing about, I went back and reread the famous 60-page chapter, called “Homegrown Revolution,” that Mike Davis wrote in City of Quartz 25 years ago about the homeowner movements of the ’70s and ’80s. Davis, if you haven’t read the book, takes no prisoners. He’s equally rough on Anglo homeowners, enriched by the rapid increase in property values of the late ’70s, who banded together to enact Prop. 13 and keep apartments (and not incidentally minorities) out of their neighborhoods, and the Growth Machine developers and their kept politicians whom the would-be “sunbelt Bolsheviks” so feared.

At a certain point Davis refers to Karl Marx’s essay “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” to make the point that for all their fervor, and with the notable exception of the Prop. 13 campaign, the slow-growthers were usually disorganized, like the peasants whose potential for revolution Marx dismissed. Reading this reference 25 years later I found a retrospective irony. Notwithstanding what Marx said about the peasants the most famous line in Eighteenth Brumaire is the one where he, in comparing the Emperor Napoleon and this nephew Napoleon III (Louis Bonaparte), says that history repeats itself, “the first as tragedy, then as farce.” When you compare the issues that provoked anti-development activists in the ’70s with those that fuel anti-development fires today, farce is what comes to mind.

So many people newly involved in anti-development politics in Santa Monica, and I’m thinking of many in Residocracy and the Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City, act as if they’ve discovered things that no one else knew about. Did you know that traffic is congested and that developers want to make money? What a shock!

I hate to play the old baby boomer card, but we’ve been through this before. There’s a reason that freeways don’t cut up the Santa Monica Mountains, and that was because in the ’60s Marvin Braude and others formed the Hillside Federation to stop them. There are reasons that downtown Santa Monica doesn’t look like downtown Glendale, that there are only two apartment towers on the beach in Ocean Park, and that thousands of apartments have been saved from destruction, and that’s because when Santa Monicans for Renters Rights (SMRR) took power in 1981, Santa Monica became, as described by William Fulton, another great chronicler of L.A. (in The Reluctant Metropolis), the first city to confront the Southern California Growth Machine.

SMRR arose because of a real crisis, not something ginned up. The reason analysts label today’s regional housing crisis as the worst in decades is because the crisis of the late ’70s was even more dramatic. L.A. housing prices, which early in the decade were slightly lower than the national average, increased 30 to 40 percent a year, and rents exploded, too. Oh, and by the way, people complained about traffic back then, too. Locally developers had big plans to turn industrial areas into office parks, as had happened on Ocean Park Boulevard with the Douglas Aircraft site, creating many more jobs per acre, which would mean more commuters. And let’s not forget other serious problems, like homelessness and gang violence, and decaying infrastructure.

Not everything worked out—there was the matter of the approval in the ’80s of twice the office square footage predicted in Santa Monica’s 1984 land use plan—but the worst damage was averted and there were many positive achievements. I’m tempted to say that there were giants in those days, but in any case movements against genuine ills create big ideas and powerful language. The tragedy comes when those ideas and words are applied to more trivial circumstances. Then they become farcical.

That’s not to say we don’t have problems today, they’re just not the ones complainers in Santa Monica complain about. They’re still acting as if Santa Monica is a “Leave It to Beaver” suburb, when in fact it’s part of the central core of a megalopolis. Longtime residents (the only ones who are supposed to have standing to complain) have a lot to be thankful for—high property values and low, Prop. 13 taxes if they are homeowners, rent-controlled rents if they are renters, convenient access to whatever services they need, shorter commutes than average. What drives them crazy is traffic, but traffic is bad all over, it’s been bad for a long time, and it’s not necessarily getting worse. The reality today is not about how to preserve a suburb, even an industrial suburb like Santa Monica once was, but about how to make a city work.

Here’s a fact to chew on from the Housing Element of Santa Monica’s General Plan: in 2013 82.8% of all housing in the city was more than 30 years old—built before 1983. The development that the anti-development crowd should actually be complaining about took place in the era they have the most nostalgia for. But if nearly 30,000 units (of 50,000 total today) hadn’t been built in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, most Santa Monicans wouldn’t have a place to live.

Thanks for reading.