Growing Cities Up — or Selling Them Out?

John Mirisch
Councilmember and former three term mayor of Beverly Hills

This piece is an opposing op-ed to Growing Cities Up, which appeared in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.  In the original piece, I was specifically called out by name.  In the interest of fairness, this opposing op-ed was first offered to City Journal, which declined to publish it.  While agendas and special interests may dictate only representing one side of an issue, dialogue and open discourse are extremely important in discussions whose aims are to forge good public policy. 

I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve the honor of a shout out in Christopher Elmendorf’s recent paean to SB50, the controversial bill which would remove local zoning authority from cities and instead put Sacramento (and Wall Street) in control.

Professor Elmendorf never contacted me to begin a dialogue or ask for clarification on my position or what my actions were intended to achieve.  He also makes – perhaps unwitting – mischaracterizations, misses context, gets facts wrong and draws unwarranted conclusions.

While the lack of a willingness to engage and create a dialogue is bad enough in an academic, his opinion piece, taken as a whole, seems to be another stark justification for Jonathan Haidt’s Heterodox Academy as well as perhaps a symbol of much that is wrong with academia today.  Here is someone teaching our children, but he is obviously not teaching them to think for themselves.  

I suppose we can be grateful that professor Elmendorf doesn’t use the “single-family housing is ‘racist’” trope but nonetheless he may not realize that he is spending his intellectual capital to advocate for a policy that fits neatly in with the Trump administration’s “the unfettered market will solve everything” philosophy.  

That being said, for all I know, Professor Elmendorf is a dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporter, who truly believes that giving away free air rights, something that has made our developer President rich and something SB50 does on an unprecedented level, is good public policy.  Even if that is true, he hasn’t made a convincing case for it, leaving us with the oversimplified supply/demand fantasy that is at the core of Reaganomics and its trickle-down promises.  

Professor Elmendorf has graciously written that I have “made a name for myself by “fighting SB50,” implying that I was defending what he termed Beverly Hills’s “outlandish” land-use policies.

I’m not sure how much Professor Elmendorf really knows about Beverly Hills’s history or land-use policies, but he is dead wrong about my motivations.  Leaving out the question of whether creating stability within a community is a good thing (and remembering that the word and concept of stability, is literally contained within “sustainability”), Elmendorf completely misrepresents my continual unmasking of what SB50 really does.

Former LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said it best and most succinctly when he characterized a previous iteration of SB50 as “a real estate bill, not a housing bill.”  Nothing has changed with the new lipstick.

Furthermore, Elmendorf mischaracterizes my minority-majority community, evidently relying on old stereotypes and tropes, none of which he would even consider using, I’m sure, for a community such as Ladera Heights, whose median household income is on a par with Beverly Hills.  He probably doesn’t realize in an age of rising anti-Semitism just how damaging and bigoted these stereotypes can be.

Here’s the deal: I am an avowed communitarian and I am fiercely protective of communities’ rights to community control and self-definition, whether that community is Baldwin Hills, Boyle Heights, Beverly Hills, Bellflower or Little Tokyo.  I am devoted to allowing my community – and every community — to be the best version of itself possible and as a Swede who actively embraces Swedish values, I am committed to tolerance of lifestyle choices, to a belief in the importance of Community, to the principle of subsidiarity, to demographic balance and geographic equity. 

In contrast, the title of Elmendorf’s piece, “Growing Cities Up” suggests that he subscribes to congenital American notions of urban manifest destiny and continual growth, without limits or sensible boundaries.  It sounds as if he believes “There are no great limits to growth because there are no limits of human intelligence, imagination, and wonder.”

Forget the fact that LA, SF and San Jose are already the densest urban areas in the US, in that order.  Density, for Elmendorf, as for the Yimbys, seems to be the silver bullet which will somehow through the “magic of the market” create affordability and end homelessness.  

For the record, I’m agnostic on density; it should be up to each distinct community to decide what the urban version of its ideal size, height and weight is, but it is anti-community and anti-democratic for Sacramento to impose lifestyle choices or one-size-fits-all dicta on all the unique, diverse and individual communities throughout the state.

Elmendorf calls me out by name, but I am far from alone in embracing communitarianism.  I’m far from the only one who thinks it is nothing short of obscene to pretend that building more luxury condos will somehow eliminate homelessness.  Despite the Yimby tactic of trying to scapegoat cities for the state’s housing challenges, polls consistently show that people have much higher levels of trust for their local officials than for those at the state and national level, which is why we ultimately may need a state constitutional amendment to spell out that urban planning, zoning and land use are inherently municipal affairs.

And far from simply saying “no” to SB50, I have proposed numerous community-friendly ways to address the state’s housing challenges, including, importantly, the jobs/housing imbalance at the root of those challenges.  We have a lot to learn from Sweden’s glesbydspolitiken. Look it up.

Since Professor Elmendorf ventures to tell me how to spend my time, please allow me to make the suggestion to Professor Elmendorf to go back to the drawing board about SB50’s impacts and intent.  SB50 will fuel real estate speculation, will lead to displacement and exacerbate income inequality, will lower affordability and will make already dense urban areas less livable and less sustainable. In fact, it seems there now is a term for the kind of displacement SB50 would, — by design it seems — bring about: it’s called bluelining.

Elmendorf proclaims that SB50 is a model for urbanists everywhere.  Here he is absolutely right in a sense. It is indeed a model: for the commodification of residential real estate, for the corporatization of housing and for the destruction of the unique, wide-ranging communities throughout our state, the very communities that make California so great. 

Everywhere, communities give us a sense of place, a sense of connection and a sense of home, something that is especially important in dense urban areas which can be quick to dehumanize the individual.  Communities are essential for us to be able live and thrive together rather than just to subsist. The urban supremacist model that SB50 represents may serve the interests of Wall Street and Big Tech, but for the rest of us it represents dystopia, corporatization, dehumanization and the advent of neo-feudalism, all based on money and fairytales of eternal economic growth.

That said, I’m happy to engage in a personal and/or public discussion with Professor Elmendorf on SB50, communitarianism, local community control and self-determination, Swedish values, Dodger baseball or anything else that tickles his fancy.

 

John Mirisch was elected to the Beverly Hills City Council in 2009. He is currently serving his third term as mayor

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