Tuesday's Other Big Losers: NIMBYs

The Metro Gold Line pulling out of Chinatown stationEXPAND
The Metro Gold Line pulling out of Chinatown station
Prayitno / Flickr

Lost among the Sturm und Drang of Donald Trump's improbable ascendency was another, not quite as surprising but still pretty surprising storyline: Los Angeles voters rejected NIMBYism.

This group of voters, so named for the phrase "not in my back yard," are known for their rejection of L.A.'s growing urbanism and their preference for neighborhoods composed of single-family housing. They are a vocal and active group at both city and state levels.

And on Tuesday, they lost big. Just as the country was voting to Make America Great Again, L.A. was voting to remake the city anew — to advance urbanism by expanding public transit, to promote affordable housing through higher-density development, and to vastly expand housing and services for the homeless.

"I think they’re loud people, but they’re not as politically powerful or numerous as we sometimes think," Shane Phillips, an urban planner, says of the NIMBYs. "Ultimately, people still want things like affordable housing and are willing to make some trades for it."

L.A. County voters passed, overwhelmingly, Measure M, which raises sales tax by a half-cent to fund a myriad of public transit projects, most of them light rail and subways in the center of the city and in the San Fernando Valley. City of L.A. voters passed Measure HHH, a sales tax hike to build housing for the homeless, and JJJ, a law to streamline dense developments, while mandating that they both build affordable housing and pay workers an area wage standard (this one was opposed by both urbanists and NIMBYs alike).

California voters also rejected Proposition 53, which would have put all big-ticket bond projects to a referendum, and was rather specifically targeting two projects championed by Gov. Jerry Brown: high-speed rail and the Delta water tunnels.

Lastly, voters in Santa Monica rejected Measure LV, which would have forced all development projects above 32 feet to go before voters as a referendum.

The pattern was hard to miss. As L.A. Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne wrote the next day:

There’s really no other way to put it: Los Angeles on Tuesday threw off its typical and long-standing ambivalence about whether it wants to be a big city and definitively embraced a more urban future.

It was a setback for groups including the Coalition to Preserve L.A., which had come out against Measures M, JJJ and LV (but for HHH). The political action committee is funded, almost entirely, by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and it's pushing a local ballot measure that will go before voters in March, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, which seeks to stymie denser development by restricting changes to the zoning code that allow for such large-scale construction.

"I think you have an electorate that’s recognizing Los Angeles is a city that needs to lower rents, that needs to make room for its neighbors," says Josh Kamensky, spokesman for the Coalition to Protect L.A. Neighborhoods and Jobs, which is largely funded by developers and business groups and which opposes the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative. "It's an electorate that wants to have a city where we can get along and get around and live next to each other. Part of doing that is building housing, not banning housing."

Jill Stewart, who runs the Coalition to Preserve L.A. (and who is the former managing editor of L.A. Weekly), rejected the notion that the passage of Measures M, HHH and JJJ showed any clear pattern.

"The commonality between these [three measures] is that the proponents outspent the opponents by 10 or 20 or even 100 times," she wrote in an email. "I don't see any shared philosophies beyond that."

The nonprofit AIDS Healthcare Foundation was also a big spender in this year's election, having funded two other statewide initiatives, Proposition 60 (which would have mandated that performers in all pornographic videos wear condoms) and Proposition 61 (which would have forbidden California to pay any more for the prescription drugs it purchases than does the federal Veterans Administration), to the tune of roughly $23 million. Both initiatives lost.

Backers of the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative may take solace in the fact that voter turnout in March will be a mere fraction of what it was on Tuesday. Voters in citywide elections are, traditionally, older and more white – just the kind of voters you'd expect to approve a law curbing development. But Kamensky says his group's internal polls show strong opposition to the measure, even among March voters.

Then again, polls.


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