The One Element Missing from the Discussion of Housing in CA: Tolerance


In California we pride ourselves on being very tolerant of a diverse array of lifestyles and lifestyle choices. Dress how it suits you; love whom you love; define yourself in accordance with your own preferences. Do your own thing. Sing your own song. Dance your own dance. The Californian thing is to live and let live.

Except, evidently, when it comes to housing-lifestyle choices. If living in a home with a garden is your thing, you probably shouldn’t expect Californian tolerance from a certain group of people who with cult-like zeal will tell you that your lifestyle is bad, wrong, immoral, and even “racist.”

In many ways, the discussion of housing in California has devolved into a thinly-veiled propaganda war on single-family neighborhoods. The elimination of single-family neighborhoods through upzoning is the main policy prescription offered by YIMBY’s and Sacramento politicians who self-servingly scapegoat local communities and who want to impose one-size-fits-all regulations on cities and communities throughout the state.

Part of the war on single-family neighborhoods includes demonizing single-family homeowners as “selfish” and “only concerned about property values” (an absurd allegation, since the kind of upzoning being proposed would make those single-family properties worth significantly more).

Many Americans of all stripes live in single-family neighborhoods or aspire to live in them, and yet there are many who are attempting to delegitimize this housing-lifestyle choice. Never mind that for many living in a single-family neighborhood still represents the American dream.

Let’s get this straight: there is nothing wrong with living in a home with a garden in a neighborhood of homes with gardens, just as there is nothing wrong with living in Manhattan-style density - or any variation in between. These are all lifestyle choices which in most cases are very personal.

So why all of this rhetoric, with loaded phrases like “exclusionary zoning,” and these toxic attempts to paint single-family neighborhoods as immoral, racist, and evil?

Well, for one thing, this war on single-family neighborhoods serves the larger agenda of the Urban Growth Machine: the upzoning and deregulation of single-family neighborhoods, where developers could build a lot of profitable luxury condos, offers exciting new horizons in real estate ROI.

This is because at its core, forced density proponents are looking at housing as an investment vehicle rather than as a place to live or as a home. If we examine their rhetoric and “arguments,” we can see that most YIMBY’s are in reality WIMBY’s (Wall Street in my backyard).

So, yes, it’s ultimately all about the money, with the anti-single family neighborhood narrative serving to “justify” measures which would eliminate these neighborhoods in favor of “products” which lend themselves well to speculative investments from Wall Street, private equity, and global capital. Turning us from a nation of homeowners into a nation of renters is also a great way for Wall Street to generate recurring revenue, the “gift that keeps on giving.”

Three main points are usually made to advocate for upzoning and to “justify” the elimination of single-family neighborhoods: forced density as a path to housing affordability; forced density as a response to a racist legacy; and forced density as a way to combat climate change.

These are all red herrings.

The “racist” argument is perhaps the most disingenuous of the three; and what is particularly ironic about the neoliberal move to deregulate housing is that it takes urban planning away from communities and puts banks and the real estate industry in charge, completely ignoring the role of banks and the real estate industry in undermining Black homeownership.

Of course, for anyone really interested in equity, the remedy to the redlining and restrictive covenants of the past would be to put policies in place which help to lift those impacted by them and allow them to partake of the kind of housing-lifestyle choice from which they were previously excluded: i.e. allowing them to become homeowners and to live in single-family neighborhoods.

The “upzoning will create more housing affordability” canard is almost as disingenuous. Essentially, we’re looking at a version of Reaganomic “trickle-down” policy, gussied up to be less offensive to self-styled “progressives.”

The only problem: it doesn’t work. It didn’t work as Reaganomic policy and it doesn’t create meaningful affordability with housing either.

The environmental argument that “forced density is an effective way to combat climate change” is likely the most insidious of the arguments. It ignores the fact that environmental impacts related to climate change are overwhelmingly linked to wealth, not density. And it consciously attempts to divert our attention from the problem of rampant consumerism, “fairytales of eternal economic growth” and the dystopia caused by the overconcentration of opportunity in “superstar” cities that are supposed to redeem the world. Instead, the solution to an overconcentration of most things, including opportunity, is clearly deconcentration).

The quasi-religious fervor and fundamental intolerance with which forced density advocates preach their anti-housing pluralism agenda is sometimes startling. Whether those railing against single-family neighborhoods with the zeal of cult members had unhappy childhoods in suburbia, or whether the motives are purely financial, the intolerant rhetoric against homes with gardens has been ratcheted up to the level where we can read that becoming a homeowner in a single-family neighborhood actually makes you a bad person.

And yet what the WIMBY’s conveniently forget is that the top three densest urban areas in the US are already all in CA (LA, followed by San Francisco and San Jose, in that order), and that there are 1.2 million vacant units in the state vs. a housing deficit of 820k. In a country that embraces the principles of pluralism, urban areas should offer a wide variety of living accommodations and lifestyle choices for families and people from all walks of life. And that includes single-family neighborhoods.

We should be tolerant of those choices.

Many of our most pressing problems can be solved locally, within our own communities, by tending to our own gardens. And, no, there is absolutely nothing wrong with actually having your own garden to tend to, despite what the Urban Growth Machine would have you believe.

California, for all the talk of “sacrificing single-family neighborhoods” in what ultimately amounts to the further commodification of housing in the name of increasing developer profits, is currently leading the nation in intolerance, arrogance, one-sidedness, and extremism in our discussions on housing.

It’s time for that to change. It’s time for Californians to be as tolerant of each other’s housing-lifestyle choices as they are about any other lifestyle choices. Dance your own dance. Sing your own song. Live, laugh, and love where and how it makes you happy. And do your own thing -- even if planting your own garden in your own backyard is your own thing.

John Mirisch has been a member of the Beverly Hills City Council since 2009, having served three terms as Mayor. He is currently a garden-variety councilmember.

Photo credit: Jeff Silva via Flickr under CC 2.0 License.