Here in the liberal East Bay, we’re proud of our inclusiveness and openness. Most of us are disgusted by President Trump’s efforts to target undocumented immigrants and break apart families. We detest his divisive and racist rhetoric. And we despise his reactionary plan to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
But when it comes to welcoming newcomers to our own neighborhoods, our inclusiveness has a definite limit. On a macro-scale, we understand that the Bay Area has an extreme housing shortage. Polls have repeatedly shown that supermajorities of area residents agree that we need to build more. But that support turns into opposition if the new housing directly impacts our “quality of life,” our ability to nab a parking spot or avoid traffic.
In that regard, many of us are classic NIMBYs: We recognize that more housing is necessary, but we don’t want it in our own backyards. Hell, we won’t even build it for our kids to use when they grow up.
We’re also not that much different from those who back Trump’s wall. They want to keep out newcomers, too. The difference is that we’ve already done it: We’ve built invisible walls, in the form of zoning rules around many of our neighborhoods, particularly the most desirable ones. In Oakland, Berkeley, Alameda, and elsewhere, these rules, also known as exclusionary zoning, specifically ban new apartments and condos and only allow single-family homes.
These invisible walls ensure that many sought-after neighborhoods — like Rockridge and around North Berkeley BART — remain enclaves for the wealthy. (In fact, many East Bay neighborhoods have always been exclusive and white, because they were built to be so.)
Many of us probably don’t think of ourselves as being members of a liberal elite. We might’ve inherited our homes, or we might’ve been lucky enough to have bought them years before prices got out of hand. But if we own property in upscale East Bay neighborhoods, we are quite wealthy, at least in comparison to the rest of the world. The median home sale price in Rockridge is about $1.5 million.
Neighborhoods like Rockridge and North Berkeley are also expensive because of their proximity to BART. People desperately want to live near transit. Yet many of us don’t want people to live near our transit.
Which is why NIMBY groups throughout the East Bay and California are fiercely opposing a statewide plan that would open up transit-rich areas to new housing. The plan, also known as Senate Bill 827, is co-sponsored by East Bay Democratic state Sen. Nancy Skinner, whose district includes all of Oakland, Berkeley, and Alameda. The legislation recognizes that California has failed for decades to build enough housing, and it’s designed to circumvent local exclusionary rules in order to allow small- and mid-size apartments and condos near transit hubs.
But the reaction to SB 827 has been swift. Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin has called Skinner’s bill “a declaration of war against our neighborhoods.”
In opposing the bill, Arreguin and others have embraced an upside-down ideology to further their cause. A chief complaint against SB 827 is that it overrides “local control” of zoning near transit. But the idea that “local control” is a sacred liberal principle ignores the fact that it’s actually bedrock conservatism. It’s the “states’ rights” point of view — that Big Government shouldn’t be allowed to trample on the liberties of local residents.
Democrats, of course, have long been the party of Big Government — and thus opposed to local control. Liberals cheered the power of the federal government to end segregation in the South and outlaw discrimination in the workplace. We cherish the fact that local governments can no longer discriminate against same-sex marriage. We celebrate the fact that, through the power of the federal government, Obamacare gave health care coverage to millions of Americans. Indeed, the list of liberal Big Government victories over conservative “local control” is long.
Sure, there is a case to be made for local liberal autonomy from Big Government when conservatives control it. The local sanctuary city and cannabis legalization movements are two just examples.
But Skinner and SB 827’s primary author Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, aren’t conservatives. They’re diehard liberals. Also, California is run by Democrats — not Republicans. So, the idea that we need “local control” to protect us from Big Liberal Government in Sacramento so we can be free to block newcomers from moving into our neighborhoods is beyond absurd.
Another argument against SB 827 is that it will lead to widespread displacement in low-income areas. But that’s upside down, too. In Oakland, we’ve had massive displacement in many low-income areas precisely because of the lack of new housing. Oakland didn’t start building significant amounts of new housing until 2017 — years after gentrification became a problem. The truth is: Low-income people have been forced to flee the area or have ended up homeless because they’ve been priced out by newcomers who have outbid them for the limited supply of housing.
Without a lot more housing — both affordable and market rate — the situation will only worsen.
That wouldn’t be very progressive. But building housing for people is.