NIMBYism probably had a few births: the founding of Llewellyn Park, the ruling in Euclid vs. Ambler, and the invention of redlining. Or maybe it dates back to the first time homo habilis drew a line in the dirt. Exclusion and opposition to progress do not arise overnight.
In California, at least, we can safely peg the origin of modern NIMBYism to the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. Ever since then, California’s political center of gravity has celebrated suburbs, derided center cities, used and abused the California Environmental Quality Act. Most of all, it has exploited the benefits of Prop. 13's tax freeze and advocated for artificial scarcity that preserves and, in many cases, has wildly increased real and nominal property values.
NIMBYism has had a good run: a good, multi-million-dollar fun for many millions of (relatively older, whiter, wealthier) Californians. That run is ending.
Let's count the ways:
NIMBY-oriented petitions to force recall elections in Los Angeles and San Diego failed to even get on their respective ballots.
Statewide ballot measures like 2020's Prop. 21, a rent control measure sponsored by NIMBY group AIDS Healthcare, failed handily. So did, a few more years ago, Measure S in Los Angeles, one of the most massive local slow-growth measures in California history.
I personally spent a few days of my life earlier this year researching and writing about the "Our Neighborhood Voices" ballot initiative, advanced by a group of local elected officials who talked big game about recapturing local control from the state. Just two weeks after I wrote my story, they pulled their petitions, with hardly enough signatures to authorize a marriage certificate, much less a statewide proposition.
Many planning departments shed veteran staff members following the Great Recession. A new generation of young entry-level planners and progressive mid-career planners are taking over. The same can be said for many city councils too (e.g. Sacramento, Berkeley, Culver City, Emeryville).
The YIMBY movement has advanced from the anarchist tendencies of SF-BARF to the remarkably effective lobbying and advocacy efforts of California YIMBY.
Richard Close, long hailed as the king of Los Angeles NIMBYs at the improbably powerful Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, passed away in 2021. His death is both symbolic and substantive.
The demise of single-family zoning in cities like Sacramento and Berkeley (pre-SB 9) illustrates a powerful confluence of social justice and housing advocacy.
Livable California--an organization that probably seems powerful, forceful, and righteous within the echo chamber of its membership--looks increasingly ineffectual and cartoonish (thanks in part to the insightful and hilarious commentary from their nemesis: microblogger Jordan Grimes).
The State Legislature has passed pro-housing laws at remarkable rate, with relatively few failures and vetoes (notwithstanding high-profile failures like SB 827, SB 50, and AB 1401 that, I think, provided cover for more subtle pro-housing laws).
The new RHNA process, which, while not perfect, is very real. The attorney general is keeping tabs on cities, calling them out for noncompliance, and threatening to file lawsuits.
To widespread dismay, San Francisco Supervisors killed a high-density apartment building that had checked all the planning boxes. That seems like a victory, except for the outcry and derision that it inspired. San Francisco voters may face a ballot initiative in November that would make it harder for the supervisors to deny projects.
Most recently, and most dramatically, a homeowner activist in Berkeley won a lawsuit that would have prevented UC Berkeley from building a new mixed-use dorm and, more importantly, forcing it to reduce enrollment. Initially, it seemed like an enormous, potentially devastating win over one of the world's great public institutions. And yet, not two weeks later, the legislation and governor, in an astonishing display of unity and effectiveness, passed a law to negate the lawsuit. Students of Classical history at Berkeley will know this as a "Pyrrhic victory."
In short, after NIMBYism went nearly undefeated and scarcely contested for four decades, its losses are piling up. It’s not dead, but it’s sputtering.
None of those single events, of course, gives California and its cities free rein to build the 2-3 million units that are needed. But collectively they point to a political shift that, coupled with structural economic and demographic trends, suggest that NIMBYism is not what it used to be—and probably never will be again.
Economically, only 54% of housing units in California are owner-occupied, a full ten percentage points lower than the national average. By definition, everyone else rents or borrows (or is unhoused or dependent). Those renters may or may not actively support development. But they are highly unlikely to support the NIMBY agenda. Anyone who aspires to purchase a home is likely to actively oppose it.
Demographically, an increasingly small share of California's population benefits from Prop. 13. The primordial Prop. 13 beneficiaries have made out like bandits. And anyone who's purchased a home in the past decade or so is probably sufficiently resentful of the fact that they are paying property taxes that might be, in some cases, many times greater than those of their longer-tenured neighbors. There are two (entirely complementary) ways to cure that: get rid of Prop. 13 or build more housing in order to close the gap between a given property's tax basis and its present-day value.
To be candid, the journalist in me is a little upset about the demise of NIMBYism. Conflict makes for good copy. But, while I do not support unbridled development and appreciate many stakeholders' concerns, I think this evolution will, on balance, be good for California and Californians -- at least those who don't own $2 million homes that they purchased for $80,000 and a Bee Gees album.
Here's what it means for California planners: they can actually plan.
Even so, planners today are less encumbered than ever before by NIMBY-inspired restrictions. From a political perspective, I think they're going to hear increasingly fewer strident voices of opposition at public meetings in the coming years. Those voices might not be any less loud, but they'll be less numerous. In a democracy, numbers are supposed to matter more than volume. Planners can plan according to best practices rather than political constraints.
Granted, some NIMBY-friendly policies and institutions will take a while to catch up with public opinion. CEQA will always complicate planners’ work, and it will always favor the status quo. The state’s funding structure (hello, again, Prop. 13) and the absence of redevelopment authority constrains pro-housing cities. Many new housing laws are byzantine, or will be effective only on the margins. Elected officials will still pursue agendas at odds with those of planning departments.
NIMBYs will still win occasional victories, through clever use of CEQA and political pressure in certain slow-growth redoubts, like the San Francisco Peninsula and Orange County. But they’re also going to lose. Their losses will lead to frustration. But frustration is not policy. And the more time passes, the more evidence will mount that the sky remains intact. SB 9 is not going to destroy neighborhoods. Very few cities will adopt SB 10; those that do will not be transformed overnight. NIMBYs will have few arguments and little evidence.
As for the NIMBYs themselves, whether they self-identify as such or are de facto fellow travelers, we can only hope that they think carefully about how they want to wield what little power they have left. They can, of course, keep filing lawsuits, badgering planners, and spinning conspiracy theories at Livable California meetings if they want to. (Everyone needs a hobby.) Alternatively, they could accept that the state’s tastes, needs, and demographic composition have changed. they could help ensure that cities change accordingly and for the better, by participating in consensus-building discussions that acknowledge the realities of growth, equity, sustainability, and--yes--livability. California will still need dissenting voices, varying opinions, and civic watchdogs, of course. Many NIMBY advocates could ably and usefully serve those functions without resorting to extremism or antagonism. And they can still enjoy themselves and be thankful for their windfall wealth and tax subsidies.
I could be wrong. You never know what the next lawsuit will bring or what odd alliance is going to emerge. But, just as any sensible household needs to plan for retirement, so should the NIMBY movement. It's about time.