YIMBY ZOMBYs and California’s Housing Crisis

John Mirisch
Mayor of Beverly Hills

In Lethal Weapon 2, whenever he is confronted with potential arrest for some villainous deed or other, South African diplomat Arjen Rudd, masterfully portrayed by Joss Ackland, whips out his credentials and shouts “Diplomatic Immunity!”

Rudd’s supposedly unanswerable response brings to mind the refrain of corporatist Democrats, their right-wing Koch Bro Bros and the YIMBY ZOMBYs (Zoning Opportunists in My Back Yard)  that follow them, when confronted with criticism of their favored “solution” to housing unaffordability in California.  Rather than “Diplomatic immunity!” their watchcry whenever confronted with the irrationality of their density fetishism is: “Law of supply-and-demand!”

Anyone who disputes their notion that “build, build, build” or  more density will increase housing affordability significantly  is tarred as a “supply-and-demand denialist” ,  and curtly dismissed as being in the same pigeonhole as climate change deniers.  Anyone who suggests that “abundant housing” is hardly the same thing as “affordable housing” is akin to a charter member of the flat earth society.

For these YIMBY ZOMBYs, the “law” of supply-and-demand is as rigid, inflexible and eternally valid as, say, Newton’s Second or Kepler’s Third Law.

However, in the context of affordability, the YIMBY ZOMBY version of the “law” of supply-and-demand probably has less validity than Murphy’s Law or Lawler’s Law.

While YIMBY ZOMBYs argue for more market rate housing, under the bogus notion it will help make housing in general more affordable, in reality they are “developer shills.” They seem painfully unaware that the term is comparatively mild, as developers and tech oligarchs themselves refer to the YIMBY ZOMBYs as “useful idiots.”

Stuart Waldman, president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association, writes: “VICA’s top legislative priority for 2019 is to ‘support the development of housing at all economic levels to address homelessness and the workforce housing crisis in Los Angeles.’

So how can we do this? First, we need to understand that the solution to the housing crisis is to simply build more.

Ah, yes: linear supply-and-demand.  Diplomatic immunity!

(Of course, such an interpretation of the “law” of supply-and-demand should logically lead the Yimbys to oppose all immigration, legal and otherwise, in a way which would make Stephen Miller look like an open borders activist).

Please note that the clever title of Waldman’s rabble-rousing article is: “What do we want? Homes! When do we want them? Now!”  But if the headline of the article is couched in a #Resist costume, perhaps as a tip of the cap to the YIMBYs who like to think of themselves as “progressive,” the real message is pure Koch Bros.  Because, as Waldman implies, his remedy is “housing at all economic levels (emphasis added) to address homelessness and the workforce housing crisis in Los Angeles.”

In other words: market-rate housing.  In other words: the market will solve the housing affordability crisis.  In other words: building more market-rate and luxury housing will in-and-of-itself create more affordable housing.  In other words: get rid of zoning and local control.  In other words: enact one-size-fits-all measures.  In other words: upzone to allow us to profiteer.

Diplomatic immunity!

Indeed, left to its own devices, the housing market might ultimately stabilize itself (with significant levels of displacement, which is what the market does), but since the goal of the market is to maximize profits –the opposite of “affordability” – we can hardly expect prices to go down much. Objectivist notions of “letting the market do its thing” won’t create affordability.  It may create smaller and more expensive units, but it won’t create affordability.  For-profit developers simply aren’t in the business of diminishing returns.

Left to their own devices, developers are going to continue building    luxury housing, since that’s where the greatest potential profits lie.  The question is how more market-rate and luxury housing is going to create meaningful levels of affordability.  Or, put another way: how will building more Rolls Royces reduce the price of Priuses?

How, indeed — and so “simply building more” market rate housing will do very little to nothing to create more affordability.  It’s like trying to cure diabetes with Maalox – or, in the “supply-and-demand” objectivists’ case, a sugar placebo that actually exacerbates the problem.

Because, yes, more market rate housing actually itself creates a need for even more affordable housing as nexus analyses have shown time and time again.  The people who move into market rate housing themselves create lower income jobs (the barista, the mail deliverer, the shop assistant, etc.), which increase the overall need for affordable housing.  That’s right: more market-rate housing without the appropriate level of additional affordable housing actually makes the problem of affordability worse.

Not that developers or YIMBY ZOMBYs really care.  Why let a good “crisis” go to waste?  And housing prices in California are not only effective tools with which to scapegoat cities, to eliminate pesky zoning, to weaken CEQA and environmental protections, and to continue the war on single family residences and housing choice.  The goal and “remedy” to the problem, of course, is upzoning, never mind if it’s a friendly neighborhood developer giveaway at the expense of the common welfare.  And never mind if upzoning doesn’t actually boost the housing supply or lower prices, let alone lower them to the level of affordability.

Sure, cities can enact robust inclusionary housing policies and impact   fees to try to counteract the increased demand on services and to force more  affordable housing, but for-profit developers constantly kvetch about the effect these reimbursements have on their bottom-lines.  Invariably, the for-profit developers get the support of the YIMBY ZOMBYs, including Koch Bro Bro legislators, for whom the “law” of supply-and-demand seems to be a rationale for “developer profits” and who don’t seem to care whether their attempts to limit impact fees would shrink them to below the level where they can actually begin to fix the problems their developer buddies are creating with luxury housing.

For those interested in more affordable housing, the prescription is… more affordable housing.  And that means taking for-profit developers, who directly compete with non-profits for land, building materials, construction workers, etc. out of the equation.  That means more resources for non-profit affordable housing developers (for example with funding from revived redevelopment agencies) and that means slapping for-profit developers with – at the very least — the full costs of all the impacts their market-rate luxury housing creates.

(It also means dealing with the root causes of the state’s affordability problems: job creation and job concentration; income inequality; limits on suburban land development; and a lack of geographic equity, not to mention the state’s snowballing pension crisis which hamstrings our ability to provide adequate funding for non-profit affordable housing developers).

It’s pretty logical: market rate housing competes with affordable, subsidized housing and naturally makes non-profit housing even more expensive.  Rather than relying on unproven, Reaganomic trickle-down fantasies of affordability (which, even if they were more than theoretic would still be inequitable), more affordable housing directly  addresses the need for more affordable housing, something market-rate housing won’t do, in line with studies which show that increasing the supply of market rate housing will not necessarily bring down prices (in addition to creating an increased need for more affordable housing, as previously pointed out).

 As an affordable housing advocate remarked in The New York Times: “’Increasing the supply is not going to increase the number of affordable units; that is a complete and utter fallacy,’ said Jaimie Ross, the president of the Florida Housing Coalition. ‘People say if there really was a great need, the market would provide it; the market would correct itself. Well, the market has never corrected itself and it’s only getting worse.’”

Or as UCLA and London School of Economics Professor Michael Storper has said: “Affordability has to be tackled directly; it’s not going to be created through aggregate supply and trickle-down.”

Perhaps the acolytes of linear supply-and-demand have an ulterior motive with their density fetishism.  Forget the fact that as demographer Wendell Cox has written: ”California has the densest urbanization in the nation, as well as the first, second and third most densely populated major urban areas (Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose, in that order and ahead of fourth place New York).” Forget the fact that building densely hasn’t exactly brought the prices down in Singapore, Hong Kong or Manhattan.  But perhaps their real goal is to reduce the demand – and the prices! – by making our communities less attractive, desirable places to live and causing people to choose to live elsewhere.  Naah… that would also reduce the developers’ ability to profiteer…

Ultimately, if YIMBYs want to be more than unremitting developer   useful idiots, then they would need to abandon their obsession with their absurd version of the “law” of supply-and-demand and start advocating policies that create the housing working families actually need. In fact, they might considering switching their allegiance to Lawler’s Law, because while increasing the production of Rolls Royces won’t reduce the price of Priuses, in over 90% of NBA games, the first team to 100 points actually does win.

John Mirisch is currently serving his third term as Mayor of Beverly Hills.

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.