California, which has become ground zero in the debate between liberalizing housing supply or appeasing NIMBY sentiment, recently had an election. Residents statewide voted on numerous measures and candidates enshrined in this debate. The results were greatly mixed between Yimby and Nimby outcomes.
The most contentious election, San Francisco’s mayoral race, resulted in one of the most pro-development candidates, London Breed, winning the mayor’s seat over outspoken upzoning critic Jane Kim. This is good news for boosting housing supply – while Kim proposed an ambitious public housing program, she refused to acknowledge the problems posed by zoning, even referring to San Francisco’s restrictive arrangement as evidence of a “healthy city,” and campaigned heavily against SB827, including through a rally held in the well-to-do West Portal neighborhood whilst campaigning under the guise of preventing displacement. The election remained too close to call for over a week, with the more moderate but supply-skeptical Mark Leno, who focused more on public housing construction over zoning regulations, placing second. These results suggest that, following years of NIMBY dominance, the tide may be slowly starting to shift (but that’s probably too optimistic.)
Ballot measures related to housing supply were generally voted down. In San Mateo, the city government put forward a referendum allocating funding for housing for teachers – because Bay Area municipalities place egregious restrictions on housing. This measure was voted down. This demonstrates the shifting logic of NIMBYism – on one hand, NIMBYs often claim that they'll support specific measures such as public funding for housing, but when such ideas are proposed, they are rejected. Similarly, a measure to approve a senior residence complex in San Jose was voted down, out of fear that it would result in sprawl – one wonders what could prevent excessive sprawl? Allowing more housing to be built downtown would be a good start.
Statewide, an attempt to finance affordable housing construction through a new tax failed as well.
In Palm Springs, an attempt to regulate controversial home sharing platforms such as Airbnb, by limiting home rentals to periods of 28 days or greater, failed. South of Los Angeles, a measure to allow for rezoning a parcel formerly used as a racetrack passed. However, it was a long road for this proposal, which previously had been rejected.
The need for housing advocates to establish funding mechanisms and arbitrary cutouts through ballot initiatives, only for them to be shot down, amid relatively convoluted new regulatory schemes, only further demonstrates that housing policy in California is broken. Local control has completely failed to deliver abundant and affordable housing. Measures such as the failed SB827, and the proposed bill to allow BART to control land use on its property, would go a long way towards instilling a balance. While it’s also true that the YIMBY camp must continue to make the compelling case for building more, the results show that the ballot box can’t be counted on any more than the town meeting.
Ethan Finlan is the content staffer for Market Urbanism Report, researching housing, transport, and public administration. He is originally from San Diego, and is now based outside of Boston.
A podcast on Market Urbanism, or the cross between free-market policies and urban issues. We discuss how a liberalized urban approach would lead to more housing, faster transport, improved public services, and better quality of life. Tap to listen.
Market Urbanism Report is sponsored by Panoramic Interests, a progressive developer in San Francisco. Panoramic, which is owned by Patrick Kennedy, specializes in 160 sqft micro-units (called MicroPads) that are built using modular construction materials. Panoramic has long touted these units as a cost-effective way to house San Francisco’s growing homeless population. But Panoramic also builds larger units of between 440-690 sqft. To learn more about Panoramic’s micro-unit model, read MUR’s coverage on the firm in its America’s Progressive Developers series. Or visit Panoramic’s website.