Veronica Mars' TV YIMBYism
Veronica Mars has always had a lot to say about society. Where its supernatural predecessor, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, spoke to high school issues like bullying and first love, even in its initial incarnation — 50 percent noir detective tale, 50 percent teen soap — Mars aimed older. Its first three seasons took on race relations; Islamophobia and terrorism; official corruption and municipal incorporation; frat culture, free speech, and rape on campus; child abuse; gender identity; fame; and more.
The constant through line, though, was class warfare. Veronica lives in Neptune, California, a fictional city somewhere along the Pacific Coast Highway between San Diego and Los Angeles which she introduces as "a town without a middle class." If you go to Neptune High, she explains in the pilot voiceover, "your parents are either millionaires or your parents work for millionaires." If there is a middle class, it's a class of one: Veronica herself, low on cash but saved from after-school drudgery by her work as a private investigator.
In its fourth season, which dropped this month at its new home on Hulu, Veronica Mars has not lost that class consciousness. But Neptune now takes an even more prominent role than in seasons past, both as a plot driver and a visual focus: Where once we saw bits and pieces of mostly residential areas, now we're treated to soaring aerial shots from the coastline. We see the city as a whole, and we are plunged into its politics. As torn as she is about staying in her troubled hometown, Veronica has (kinda) grown up. She goes to city council meetings. And, it turns out, she's a YIMBY.
YIMBYism — "Yes In My BackYard," the pro-density reaction to the more familiar "Not In My BackYard" NIMBYism — is hardly the ordinary stuff of television storylines. But Mars stakes out its characters' NIMBY vs. YIMBY divisions (a very real dynamic in coastal California) in the first episode of season four.
The NIMBY side is led by Richard "Big Dick" Casablancas (so dubbed to distinguish him from his elder son, also named Dick). A wealthy and unscrupulous real estate developer with a history of criminal fraud, Big Dick heads a local group called Neptune United for a Tidy Town (known by its acronym, NUTT, from a writing team not afraid to layer one dick joke on another).
"As a boy growing up in Neptune, this was paradise," Big Dick tells a city council meeting. "But for the past 20 years, we've been in decline. And that's what Neptune United for a Tidy Town is all about: returning Neptune to its former glory."
That glory never existed — or, at least, not like Big Dick tells it. Neither is his plan actually about fostering beauty to nurture Neptunian souls. The reality, as nightclub owner Nicole Malloy puts it, is "a rich man wanting to get richer [by] trying to drive [her] out of business," and with her a whole host of local businesses kept afloat by serving the spring break crowd, locals who aren't in the millionaire club, or some combination of the two.
We don't get a detailed look at NUTT's proposals, but it's a package of ordinances including restrictive zoning, stricter parking regulations, conversion of two-way streets to a one-way format, and a ban on "vulgar advertising," an ill-defined category including "neon signs taller than 12 feet" to be judged by an almost certainly unelected and unrepresentative Beautification Committee. Whatever the exact method, the goal is to use the jackboot of local law to make life in Neptune unaffordable for all but the most elite, to artificially drive up real estate prices so the hoi polloi must decamp to less scenic environs (though they are certainly welcome to drive into town when there are sheets to wash and cocktails to serve). As Veronica Mars is a crime drama and Big Dick is a criminal, his NIMBYism is also pursued by illegal means, but comments from embattled business owners make clear NUTT's legal machinations alone would have been plenty effective had he managed to push them through a city council vote.
The show's YIMBY side is more of a mixed bag. There's Veronica's father Keith Mars, ever unwilling to suffer fools and possessed of a long enough local memory to see Big Dick's tidy town propaganda for what it is. There's the business owners selling out and shutting down because they can't turn a profit while complying with NUTT's onerous regulations. There's Neptune's underclass, personified by Veronica's longtime biker gang frenemy, Eli "Weevil" Navarro, aware of the grim long-term consequences of NUTT but forced by desperation into participating in his own economic destruction. And there's Veronica herself, a reflexive anti-elitist whose principles are marred in practice by her personal blind spots.
To be fair, Veronica is a lawyer and detective, not an economist, and her support for Neptune's downtrodden has always been fused with a certain failure to grasp what it's like to find oneself truly without options. This season, that takes the form of a rift between her and Weevil over his off-screen acceptance of an out-of-court settlement for the shooting he suffered at the end of the Veronica Mars movie released between seasons three and four. Veronica castigates Weevil for taking the money instead of fighting the good fight, brushing aside his protests that his family couldn't afford the luxury of accountability.
Veronica is similarly myopic about housing policy, as we learn she is opposed to permitting high rise construction because it would block her treasured beachfront views. Allowing high rises might make Neptune less beautiful, but it would also make it more affordable: Putting 50 units on a lot can produce cheaper rents than filling the same spot with the rent-controlled duplex or triplex Veronica occupies.
And speaking of rent control, here too Veronica's YIMBYism proves inconsistent, taking, as she might put it, a "Cuss you, I got mine" approach to housing policy. As demonstrated by a recent study from Veronica's alma mater, Stanford University, rent control does not favor those who need cheap rent most. In San Francisco, the researchers found, rent control reduced housing stock overall and made the city "even more skewed toward upscale housing" by incentivizing demolition of older, potentially cheaper properties to make way for luxury new construction exempted from rent rules. It also encouraged conversion of "rental units to owner-occupied condos [which] inherently shifted the mix of residents toward people with more money."
Rent control keeps prices low for a lucky few, like Veronica herself, while forcing the rest of the market artificially high. It's also a favorite tool of NIMBYs like Big Dick. "One of [rent control advocates'] major fears is apartment complexes that will bring in large numbers of outsiders and ‘change the character of the community,'" notes a Cato Institute analysis on the subject. "Rent control has proved an effective tool for making sure that small, exclusionary-minded communities do not have to undergo change" — NUTT's exact stated goal. "A 1994 study," the Cato report adds, "showed that rent-controlled apartments were concentrated among highly educated professionals" — hey, that's Veronica! — "while the poor, the elderly, and students were generally excluded."
However inconsistent Veronica's personal YIMBYism may be, the show's treatment of the subject is welcome and well done. It isn't detailed enough to make anyone a housing policy expert, but it's enough to pique viewers' interest in a timely topic. It's also a natural progression of Neptune's fraught class relations. The town without a middle class remains as polarized as ever, and Veronica, as usual, is caught in the middle.