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.

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.