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Mow the Lawn! Stop Bad Grassroots Organizing in Los Angeles

It’s not enough to support building more housing — it needs to be affordable.

Credit: Stephen Woods | Flickr.com

Forget summer pool parties in the Hollywood Hills, forget sunbathing on a crowded Venice Beach, forget concerts at Staples Center or the Hollywood Bowl. Even while a global pandemic ravages the world and wreaks havoc on Angelenos and their lives and livelihoods, LA’s elites have continued their favorite hobby: hating the poor.

Los Angeles has a rich history (no pun intended) of being a center of both extreme wealth and extreme poverty. In Circle Park, which sits directly behind the magnificent art deco structure that is City Hall, unhoused community members pitch tents.

Under the underpasses of the 10 freeway, a barrier between predominantly white neighborhoods and predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods, exists perhaps the most marginalized community in the city.

While extreme income inequality is a natural result of a failed capitalist society, the separation of classes in the City of Los Angeles is unique in that the physical space between the classes is minimal. The ultimate example of this is the Hancock Park area, a wealthy enclave of white elites (including Mayor Garcetti) surrounded by working class neighborhoods on all sides.

Often, wealthy white enclaves such as Hancock Park, Westwood, Brentwood, and Encino trend liberal. Voters in these neighborhoods are likely to be Democrats, albeit moderate neoliberals, who are likely to value stopping the effects of climate change, while being naive to the fact that the very politicians they entrust with power vote to further the interests of the fossil fuel industry.

They are likely to believe in LGBTQ+ equality, but are duped by corporations who have changed their logo to pride colors every June since LGBTQ+ equality became mainstream. They are likely to dub themselves activists for voting Democrat and going to the Women’s March every year. They are likely to espouse support for housing the unhoused that inconvenience them by serving as a reminder of their excessive privilege and wealth, so long as the unhoused are housed in neighborhoods other than their own.

The people who subscribe to the last belief are known as NIMBYs (NIMBY stands for “Not In My Backyard). NIMBYs in Los Angeles are primarily white residents of the Westside and San Fernando Valley regions of the city (although there is a growing NIMBY population in the increasingly gentrified Downtown and Northeast LA areas) who organize specifically to oppose housing projects for the unhoused in their communities, while paying no mind to affordable and supportive housing developments in “undesirable” parts of the city (eg. low income, majority-minority neighborhoods).

Of course there are other types of NIMBYs. There are NIMBYs who oppose bike lanes in their communities, such as city council members Gil Cedillo and Paul Koretz. There are NIMBYs who oppose the construction of mega mansions and high-rises in their communities, and there are NIMBYs who oppose public access to beaches.

In fact, LA Weekly has a comprehensive guide to every kind of NIMBY in Los Angeles here. However, the worst kind of NIMBY is the traditional kind mentioned above: one who espouses to support housing for the unhoused yet organizes against it when it is proposed to be constructed in their community.

In Venice, the Venice Stakeholders Association filed a lawsuit against a proposed 154 bed homeless shelter in their neighborhood in 2019. President Mark Ryavec reasoned that the neighborhood was not appropriate for such a shelter. Instead Ryavec pointed to alternative sites, none of which were in Venice, that in his view were more appropriate for a shelter.

Also in Venice, a group known as Fight Back Venice has been known to actively organize against supportive housing projects in their community, recently organizing against the Lincoln Apartments project with the reasoning that Venice is overburdened by supportive housing developments. Despite having an unhoused population of 1,128 people, Venice contains just 42 supportive housing units (out of the 6,500 in Los Angeles, the majority of which are concentrated in Downtown and South LA).

What these groups suggest is perhaps the epitome of Westside anti-supportive housing NIMBYism. Low income communities of color should bear the brunt of housing the unhoused, because our neighborhood is too nice to let unhoused people get back on their feet.

Some City Council members have pledged to fight this brand of NIMBYism. Paul Koretz, who represents LA’s 5th Council District that includes much of the wealthy white Westside, Bel Air, and Encino, was quoted as saying that he is “100% committed” when asked whether he would stand up to neighborhood protests regarding the construction of supportive housing in his district. Koretz’s legacy on these decisions, however, is complicated at best.

Council President Nury Martinez, who represents several working class communities in the San Fernando Valley, was also quoted as saying “We can no longer afford to build [homeless housing] only in communities of color…”

Yet actions do not always match up with words. In 2018, every City Councilmember pledged to support a minimum of 222 units of supportive housing in each of their districts by July 1st, 2020.

However, in CD8, CD9, and CD14 (the three lowest earning districts represented by two black City Councilmembers and one Latinix City Councilmember) 2,144 supportive housing units have been approved.

Contrast that figure to the 535 supportive housing units that have been approved in CD3, CD5, and CD11 (the three highest earning districts represented by three white City Councilmembers).

So what’s the solution? Some would argue YIMBYism, or Yes In My Backyard, is the appropriate way to respond to NIMBYism. YIMBYs call for market-based solutions for the housing crisis in major cities like LA and believe that an abundance of housing supply would lead to lower demand and therefore lower prices.

YIMBYs often favor incentivizing developers to build affordable housing units through deregulation, but also favor the construction of luxury housing units to “filter” wealthy tenants out of undesirable housing. This can have the adverse side effect of gentrification and racial banishment.

For example in the Boyle Heights neighborhood, a historic majority-minority community, the development of market rate housing has led to an influx of wealthier white residents to the neighborhood. This influx has led to an artificial increase in the market rate for rental units, causing landlords to evict long time tenants for picayune reasons in order to vacate the unit and rent it at the inflated market value.

Yet there is a solution to the housing crisis, one so good at helping the poor that liberal white elites from all sides of the NIMBY-YIMBY dichotomy will surely unite against it.

PHIMBY (Public Housing In My Backyard) advocates lobby for the construction of subsidized below-market rate housing spread equally across the city. While there is a lack of discussion on the advantages of a PHIMBY perspective on housing, there is no lack of research showing that not only will public housing be generally beneficial for American society, it will also be profitable for municipal housing authorities, and by extension the taxpayer.

However, although PHIMBYism is superior to both NIMBYism and YIMBYism, it is apparent that PHIMBYs will face opposition from both of these groups. Despite being relatively new to the housing debate, PHIMBYs have already been dragged by YIMBYs for perceived ideological contradiction with regards to the PHIMBY position on zoning reform. NIMBYs have dragged PHIMBYs by pointing to the failures of social housing in other countries. The call for a modern, class-integrated, and low-density approach to public housing in Los Angeles will be drowned out with memories of high-rise public housing failures in other cities and with cries of Soviet-era drab and depressing public housing in Eastern Europe, with complete ignorance to the wildly successful social housing programs of Sweden, Austria, and Singapore.

It is not the role of wealthy white homeowners to rush to declare support or opposition to new developments, it is the role of homeowners to listen to tenants, people of color, and low-income earners who typically stand to lose from luxury housing developments and stand to gain from social housing. But the fact is that the wealthy white elites of Los Angeles will not stop organizing against the poor and working class until we out organize them.

We must be civically engaged to a fault, amplify the voices of anti-gentrification and PHIMBY activists, and change the hearts and minds of the YIMBYs and NIMBYs of today, so that they can become the PHIMBYs of tomorrow.

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