A rendering of 19J. Mohanna Development
A rendering of 19J. Mohanna Development

Erika D. Smith

Associate editor and editorial writer

Erika D. Smith

Out with California’s NIMBYs and in with the YIMBYs

By Erika D. Smith

esmith@sacbee.com

July 20, 2017 11:51 AM

It’s not often that the NIMBYs lose to the YIMBYs in California, turning an affordable housing project into the spoils of war. But it does happen.

Take the empty lot at the corner of 19th and J streets.

Until last month, there was an old electronics store there, an eyesore that had become a magnet for homeless campers. Now it’s a promising mound of dirt that soon will become the tallest residential tower in midtown Sacramento, with 11 floors and 173 apartments.

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The surrounding neighborhood – my neighborhood – is sure to change with more traffic and more noise. I suspect some of my gray-haired neighbors won’t be happy. But with housing prices rising and supply shrinking, the aptly named 19J tower had to happen. Even Sacramento’s planning commission recognized that.

“No opposition,” Commissioner Alan LoFaso told 19J’s millennial developer, Nikky Mohanna. “You’ve got to bottle that, get a formula and sell it.”

Easier said than done.

NIMBYs – the “Not In My Backyard” activists who pride themselves on filing lawsuits to derail development projects – are everywhere. It’s only recently that YIMBYs – the “Yes In My Back Yard” activists who want more housing built across California – have found their voice. And, boy, am I glad they did.

Brian Hanlon, a Bay Area housing advocate, has harnessed money from empathetic executives in Silicon Valley to fund a political advocacy group called California YIMBY. It’s a growing movement that, until recently, has only been whispered about.

“We are in a dire housing shortage,” Hanlon told The Bee’s Angela Hart, “and we’re not going to get ourselves out of that shortage if we nit-pick every project to death.”

Amen.

YIMBYs understand, as any rational Californian should, that local government approval for projects like 19J shouldn’t be the exception in this state. It should be the rule.

In case anyone forgot, California is in the midst of a housing shortage so severe that must build about 1.8 million new residential units by 2025, just to keep up with population growth. Yet only about 80,000 units are being built each year, instead of the recommended 180,000.

In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of Californians are being pushed out of their homes and evicted from their apartments simply because they can’t afford to stay. Even in relatively low-cost Sacramento, more than 2,000 homeless people sleep outdoors every night.

Gov. Jerry Brown, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate Pro Tem Kevin de León have finally decided to tackle this human catastrophe. With cap and trade out of the way, they’ve promised to finalize a housing deal by late August.

It will include a permanent funding source for affordable housing and regulatory reform. Other bills, including SB 35 from Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, would streamline the approvals process for housing projects that already meet a city zoning and environmental laws.

If all this happens – and it better – it will be huge.

But here’s the rub. No matter how many laws change at the state level, the NIMBY mindset is likely to survive in California for years to come.

There are many reasons for it. Among them are Proposition 13, which capped property taxes and encouraged people to hang onto their houses, and the booming tech sector, which freed companies to lure thousands of high-wage workers to California, displacing entire neighborhoods.

But in many ways, NIMBYism is generational.

It was the parents of baby boomers, one of them reminded me recently, who made California boom after World War II, drawn by its ample housing and pristine mountains and beaches. And it was the baby boomers who inherited and enjoyed its promise of low-density living.

Now that they’ve got it, they refuse to let it go. Nor do they want pesky towers of affordable apartments to diminish their property value or block their view of the sunset.

And those homeless people who need housing? Can we do something about them, please? They’re everywhere!

Meanwhile, the millennials in California just want to afford rent without handing over more than half of their paychecks. Homeownership is a pipe dream. And I promise it has nothing to do with splurging on avocado toast.

Far too many young adults have careers, yet are living in their parents’ spacious basements. If California doesn’t get its act together, they’ll move in greater numbers to cities in cheaper states where they can have a better quality of life.

Austin, Texas, anyone? No wonder Silicon Valley is funding California’s YIMBY movement.

And Generation Xers, we just want to be able to buy a house. There’s a reason homeownership here is at its lowest rate since the 1940s.

Where baby boomers wanted to spread out, we’re the generations of social media and community and urban living. Density doesn’t bother us.

We just want to live a short distance from the beaches and the mountains – and to afford to be able to visit and maybe eat some avocado toast while we’re there.

This isn’t to say communities should rip up every farm field and put in housing for low- and middle-income young people. But NIMBY boomers, you also can’t fight every infill residential development project with a blizzard of lawsuits because it would block the lovely light that splays across your back porch between 4 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day.

“This is such a crucial project in terms of addressing the affordability issue we’re seeing in midtown,” Mohanna told The Bee not long after she proposed 19J. “The vision is to provide housing for our young workforce.”

Now if we can only get those baby boomers to help us.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith