Nativism: The Thread Connecting Progressive Nimbys With Donald Trump

What’s the difference between building physical walls and regulatory walls?

Scott Beyer | May 19, 2018 | |
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Who does this sound like? A group dealing with economic disruption decides that, rather than addressing its problems internally, it will blame outsiders. So the group adopts a nativist stance, looking to build walls, enforce regulations and impose taxes that discourage outside people and goods. The group also adopts a reactionary cultural conservatism, legitimizing stagnancy as a means to preserve “heritage” and “character.” Is this the mentality driving much of Donald Trump’s support base, and America’s turn towards “Trumpism”? Surely it’s a factor. But at the urban level, it describes a group that generally hates Trump, yet mirrors his thinking; that is, progressives who preach openness, yet keep new people out of their neighborhood through NIMBYism.

Those familiar with the ongoing drama around land-use and zoning may have already connected these seemingly discordant threads. Many U.S. cities are suffering a housing affordability crisis, thanks to regulations that prevent unit supply from meeting demand. The problem is the worst precisely in progressive cities–New York, San Francisco, Seattle, et al—where a faith in government bureaucracy created this regulatory state. And it is a condition maintained most zealously by self-described progressives within these cities’ interior neighborhoods. As homeowners, the group has reaped the benefits–but sometimes the burdens–of urban America’s two-decade renaissance, watching their neighborhoods grow expensive, gentrified, and in their minds, over-populated. Their response has been identical, say, to a Trump supporter in some small town who feels menaced by America’s growing diversity. They have taken tribal possession of their neighborhoods, speaking poorly of inbound transplants–and developers who house them–while using restrictive zoning to stop it. Such regulations don’t materialize physically, in the form of a wall or a deportation task force, but they have the same effect, keeping people from moving in, while forcing poorer long-time residents, namely renters, out. As with Trump supporters, these NIMBYs may have some legitimate concerns–regarding, in this case, traffic, noise, crime and so forth. But often their stances are motivated by plain nativism, and a territorial possessiveness that prevents their cities from addressing larger concerns.

I heard this connection between nativism, NIMBYism and Trumpism made publicly for the first time this November. There was a hearing in San Francisco about whether to streamline environmental approval for a housing development in the Mission District. The building, a 157-unit project by Lennar Multifamily Communities, needed a favorable vote from the Board of Supervisors, namely David Campos, who represents the area. Despite the fact that 25% of the project’s units would be affordable–in one of the nation’s most unaffordable housing markets–it was getting panned during public comments by those who thought it’d be an imposition onto the already-gentrifying area.

Then Sonja Trauss came up to the dais, with a message for those negative commentors.

“In Trump’s America, we’re already disturbed by nativism everywhere,” she began. “When you come here to the Board of Supervisors and say that you don’t want new, different people in your neighborhood, you’re exactly the same as Americans all over the country that don’t want immigrants. It’s the same attitude.”

The statement spurred audible groans from the room. Even more crucially, Supervisor Campos admonished Trauss in his reply, and voted against the project, claiming that he reversed his original decision thanks to her comments. (It’s unclear, though, whether Campos would’ve voted for the project anyway. He has long tried to pass a moratorium on development in the Mission).

I called Trauss to get clarity about her Trump statement. Trauss is executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Foundation, a “YIMBY” group (yes in my backyard) that advocates for more construction to alleviate the metro area housing crisis. While mainland America’s turn towards Trumpism could be seen in part as a wish to block immigrants–economic consequences be damned–she’s seeing a similar mentality in supposedly tolerant San Francisco. People in select neighborhoods practice a perverse sense of entitlement, believing that purchase of a home entitles them to micromanage their complex global city.

There are countless tales, for example, of people who live in one of San Francisco’s many two-story buildings, yet oppose construction of exactly those building types on their very block. Other times they will use code phrases like “historic preservation” or “community character” to prevent denser housing types that, not coincidentally, are affordable to lower-income groups. And there’s a general attitude, says Trauss, a Pennsylvania transplant, that “if you’re from [San Francisco] your opinion matters more.” People have told her at meetings that because she wasn’t born in the city, or living in a specific neighborhood, that she shouldn’t comment on projects. Trauss says this parochialism is strongest in San Francisco’s densest, most progressive neighborhoods, and is embodied in the city’s many political micro-groups, such as the blog 48 Hills, or the reliably anti-development Twitter handle SF4SF, which stands for “San Francisco for San Franciscans.”

This mentality is not confined to San Francisco. It surfaces in many progressive North American cities, often taking ugly turns. British Columbia recently passed a special tax on foreign buyers in metro Vancouver, a move widely considered to prevent Chinese in-migration. NIMBYism in New York and other cities has prevented conversions of hotels into temporary shelters, perpetuating the city’s homeless problem. And a survey in Santa Monica, CA, found that residents who resisted new development were older and white, while those who wanted more development were young and Hispanic.

These and countless other examples show the cognitive dissonance of some urban progressives, who blast Trump supporters for their supposed xenophobia and racism, while practicing their own brand of exclusion. The irony was perhaps best described by fellow Forbes contributor Roger Valdez, who wrote an article reporting simultaneously on Seattle’s anti-Trump protests, and its support of stronger housing regulations. His headline: “Seattle Opposes Trump’s Wall While Building Its Own.”

[This article was originally published by Forbes.]

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