Hey, progressives: Your locally sourced housing policy has curdled into something conservative
If there's one thing that's in vogue in progressive circles these days, it's the virtues of localism. Locally sourced food ought to be bought at the farmer's market, where you can meet local friends and potential yoga partners, local voices ought to receive top billing when it comes to local issues, and most of all, local communities should decide their own development.
This push for "community control" is an understandable trend, given how in previous decades, central authorities wrecked cities with freeways and urban renewal. But things have changed very much from the 1970s, and liberals' beloved community control has curdled into something conservative. If there is to be a place for working-class people (not to mention the poor) in liberal cities, giving local communities a veto over neighborhood changes is a way to make sure it never happens.
We can see the desire for community control at work in nearly every big city which is both liberal and relatively prosperous, from Washington, DC to San Francisco. In Boulder, Colorado (perhaps the most left-wing city in the state), two measures are on the ballot regarding local development. One would require developers to pay more money for local services, while the other works like this:
[The measure] would require a vote on land-use changes if 10 percent of the registered voters in a neighborhood asked for one. Land-use changes that would be subject to a vote would include exemptions to height, density, and the occupancy limit, reductions in parking and setbacks, and zoning changes. Land-use changes that affect multiple neighborhoods would require separate elections in each neighborhood. [Daily Camera]
The effect of both measures would be to make it dramatically more difficult to build any new housing supply to accommodate new residents. As people pile into desirable urban areas like Boulder, the result would be to sharply increase home prices and rents.
Such measures are framed as giving neighborhoods "the right to voice their opinion," as if that's just how democracy is supposed to work. I submit the truth is the opposite. This is an anti-democratic agenda of preserving the aesthetic preferences and wealth of existing residents at the expense of anyone else who might like to live there, and it's poles apart from the positive legacy of American liberalism.
Traditional American liberalism, at its best, has been about universal security, which means helping the poor and disorganized get a leg up into prosperity. That has not been fully achieved, obviously, but there have been huge successes. Social Security, as universal a program as they come in America, reduced elderly poverty by 71 percent.
Such efforts always face an uphill political battle. Status quo forces — the conservative rich — will always start with a great political advantage, due to the expense of political campaigns. Universal parties win by casting the electoral net as wide as possible, to unite as many disaffected people as possible against the power of entrenched wealth.
What that means concretely is that the smaller the unit of political decision-making, and the more veto hurdles that must be overcome to achieve a political goal, the more the scales are tilted towards rich conservatives. Neighborhood vetoes, just like the Senate, are a structurally conservative instrument.
All this is to say that the structure of a particular vote-based institution is highly important. Having a vote does not necessarily make something democratic, as Kazakhstan shows. Democracy is supposed to be rule by the people, not solely those of a particular neighborhood. The working-class people who have a general interest in affordable rents (enabled by greater general housing supply) will always lose if they have to contest constant low-level political campaigns in dozens of neighborhoods simultaneously.
It's not a coincidence that Portland, Oregon, a liberal city which has done far better at reconciling growth and affordability, is in a state that has strong state-wide planning statutes.
A city- or state-wide planning commission, by the way, would not necessarily have enabled the mid-century freeway and urban renewal binge. On the contrary, the most powerful and influential of all such city-wrecking ideologues was Robert Moses, whose power was completely outside any democratic accountability whatsoever. Indeed, in the only election he ever contested, he was beaten badly.
At any rate, this likely won't convince Boulder NIMBYs to stop trying to preserve their city in amber. Just call that what it is: conservative.