The Daily Camera – Yes to Yes In My Back Yard, or YYIMBY, for short. We realize it’s not a great acronym, but at least it’s not BARF (Bay Area Renters Federation), which will apparently be one of the participants. It couldn’t have been a coalition?
The YIMBY conference coming to Boulder next month faces strong headwinds here. If you want to feel them, just attend a public meeting over pretty much any proposal to increase the housing stock. “Infill” may be a stated community goal — “Compact, contiguous development and infill that supports evolution to a more sustainable urban form” is a “core value,” according to the city’s comprehensive plan — but it is also guaranteed to produce a pitched battle most places it’s proposed.
Each site has its own issues, but the pattern is consistent: There will be contention pretty much anytime anyone tries to implement this “core value.”
This is true even of strategies to increase the housing stock that are not aimed at a particular site. Proposals to loosen regulations on co-ops, tiny homes or accessory dwelling units produce a similar response and more pitched battles before the City Council.
This is surprising only because it’s happening in Boulder, where elected officials routinely brag about their city’s progressiveness. Otherwise, it’s all perfectly predictable and it’s going on in lots of hot housing markets. We do not condemn this response because it’s a simple matter of incentives. Most random humans put in the position of these single-family homeowners would react in similar ways.
For a homeowner in a traditional neighborhood of suburban-style, single-family, detached homes, how many incentives exist to support increasing density, either by building new multi-family housing or by allowing non-traditional housing arrangements?
Zero. Zilch. Ninguna.
Survey the residents of any neighborhood in any prosperous American city and ask them if they would like it to become more crowded. A large majority will reply in the negative. This is not because these are necessarily mean or unwelcoming people although, given the law of averages, some of them probably are. It’s because their incentives all point them to that answer. Even aside from their fears about property values, who wants everything around them — streets, stores, schools, playgrounds, parks, trails — to get more crowded?
Motivated by this strong set of disincentives, existing homeowners are driven to exclusionary rhetoric that makes them look selfish: “People should live where they can afford to live” is once again a popular mantra, this time in opposition to development of permanently affordable (read: subsidized) housing. Some of those repeating it may be unaware it carries echoes of the segregationist fight against the Fair Housing Act a half-century ago. As Boulder housing prices soar, that slogan grandfathers in existing homeowners and excludes a large and growing percentage of the city’s workforce.
Increasingly, it also pits one generation against another — older homeowners who bought in when prices were more reasonable than they are now versus a generation of young people (those not in the booming tech industry) that would like to follow in their footsteps. It is remarkable how many testimonials against the latest housing proposal begin with, “I’ve lived in Boulder since (choose a year from the last century),” as if longevity carries with it a coupon guaranteeing stasis. A few actually argue for stasis — no more growth, shut the door — and seem fine with the gated community of wealthy white people that would inevitably result.
Former Gov. Richard Lamm makes a broader argument that older folks, like himself, are abusing younger people financially — largely through increasingly asymmetrical entitlements and the national debt — and a similar argument can now be made around housing in some markets.
Although city leaders talk a good game about inclusiveness, they have not found a way to make it happen. The city’s 60,000 in-commuters have little or no voice in this conversation, another factor that tilts the playing field against change.
The logical conclusion of a public process that creates a firestorm of controversy over any attempt to increase housing supply is that supply will grow more slowly than in the surrounding area, meaning prices will continue to escalate faster than in the surrounding area, meaning the city will continue to become more exclusive, not less.
So we think it’s time to examine policies that might give single-family homeowners incentives to say something other than “no” to every proposal to increase the housing stock. As The Economist noted recently, one proposal by David Schleicher, a professor of land-use law at Yale Law School, is the use of “tax increment local transfers” — similar to traditional tax-increment financing except the benefits would go not to business but to neighbors around a new housing development in the form of property tax rebates. If the nearby residents were offered the prospect of, say, a 50 percent cut in their property taxes over 10 years, some of them might find that tradeoff worthwhile.
Other proposals suggest a citywide process to designate certain areas for new housing and, once selected, a more expeditious approval process in those areas. This conversation needs more ideas to rub out traditional battle lines. We welcome a conference to suss them out.
These facts are indisputable: Colorado’s population has increased 66 percent in the last 25 years, or during the period when many of Boulder’s longtime homeowners have lived here. It has increased 27 percent — by more than 1 million people — just since the turn of the century. It increased by 100,000 people in the 12 months between July 1, 2014 and July 1, 2015.
Boulder has two choices: It can strive for inclusiveness and diversity by acknowledging and accommodating some of that growth, or it can build virtual walls to keep it out and become ever whiter, wealthier and more exclusive.
The comp plan points to the former, but efforts to achieve it have produced the worst of both worlds — an all too familiar series of pitched battles and growing exclusivity. Perhaps the YIMBY conference can be a first step in figuring out a better way.
—Dave Krieger, for the editorial board. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter:@DaveKrieger