YIMBYs – Newest Handmaidens of the Growth Machine

by on February 19, 2020 · 11 comments

in San Diego

By Norma Damashek / NumbersRunner / February 11, 2020

Alternative facts — they’re the latest rage.  Even here at home, presumably responsible voices are echoing half-truths, distortion, and misinformation about a number of big-ticket items that face San Diego.

Let’s take the subject of housing, for starters.  We all talk about the housing crisis in San Diego.  So what makes it a crisis?

For some it’s about sky-high rents.  Others say it’s a matter of supply–there aren’t enough houses and apartments to go around.  Still others point to the near-million it takes nowadays to buy even a little bungalow…

Do the innumerable, uncountable people living on the streets constitute a crisis?  And what about the families being pushed out of their gentrifying neighborhoods?

As for the causes of this crisis, everyone’s got a different take–too many regulations? building fees? zoning restrictions? government roadblocks? parking requirements? environmental protections?

Well then, what should be done?  How about the commonsensical-sounding solution bouncing around newspaper editorials and City Hall and County meetings… planning forums and urban studies classrooms… union halls and the hallowed Chamber of Commerce… the one that says: Yes we can!  Yes we must BUILD our way out of our housing crisis!

YIMBYs (Yes In My Back Yard crusaders) on both sides of the political aisle–Democrats and Republicans alike– have jumped on this alternative-facts bandwagon urging us to build-build-build our way out.

The YIMBY message is paraded out by Mayor Kevin Faulconer.  By California Senator Scott Wiener.  By HUD Secretary Ben Carson.  And yes, by executive order from our very own President Donald Trump.

Their marching orders are clear: Slash government regulations.  Reduce building restrictions.  Require greater development and density (preferably but not necessarily in transit-available, jobs-rich urban areas).  Intensify growth.  And get yourselves out of the way of the market!

YIMBYs may be new to the game but their build-build-build message is just another twist to an old script written and directed by San Diego’s longtime lord and master–the Growth Machine.

The Growth Machine can be described this way: it’s a broad coalition of local folk (individuals, organizations, interest groups) who share two basic traits: 1) all its members directly profit from urban growth and development; and 2) all its members tend to have an outsized influence on local political decisions.

You’ve met them before: our hotels, banks, convention center, newspapers, shopping centers, sports stadiums, labor unions, realtor’s associations, tech companies, builders, big developers….

And they have a third thing in common: a shared philosophy about the function of the land beneath our feet.

For the Growth Machine “land” is not a social good, it’s a commodity—a financial vehicle to be purchased, sold, invested in, or traded.  Who can dispute that ownership and control over land is synonymous with wealth and power?  With land valued as a commodity rather than a social good, speculation can reap huge rewards.

Now tell me, who has the Midas touch to transform the resale value of land owned by  investors/speculators/developers into pure gold?  None other than our elected officials on the City Council and County Board of Supervisors.

And who are the people most susceptible to pressure from lobbyists, campaign donors, unions, and business elites?  Who can turn the city itself into a well-greased Growth Machine? See above.

Think about it: when local politicians act in their official capacity to extend the city’s water and sewer lines… build new roads… amend a community or general plan… upzone to higher building heights and densities… bestow tax subsidies… relax building and parking requirements… a modest piece of property can be instantly transformed into a goldmine.

You might ask: won’t increasing land values and tax revenues also be beneficial to the city by enabling our elected officials to enhance amenities and the quality of life for regular people and neighborhoods?

Not necessarily.  The priorities of land speculators and developers involve intensifying land use to accommodate more, and then more, growth and development.   Attention to your sidewalks/storm drains/schools/parks/potholes/municipal service is buried somewhere in San Diego’s decades-old backlog of unattended neighborhood infrastructure repairs and upgrades–now at a whopping $2billion deficit.

Back to the subject of housing.  Regular people recognize that the housing crisis is actually an unaffordability crisis.

Most regular people know that the remedy for an unaffordability crisis is NOT denser/ high-priced/ luxury/ upper-end apartments, condominiums, and mini-mansions.  Most don’t fall for the myth that higher housing densities and generous developer “incentives” will bring prices down to a reasonable level.

Most of us aren’t fooled about the difference between housing “abundance” and housing “affordability.”  Most intuitively understand that–in the real world–supply and demand trickle-down economic theories don’t cut it for mid/moderate/lower income residents.  Does anyone honestly believe that unleashing the power of the market will bring housing prices down?

So how can we explain the blind enthusiasm of people who brand themselves YIMBYs and declare that high density market-rate residential development is the magic bullet for ensuring that anyone who wishes to reside in our neighborhoods/ cities/ counties can have an affordable roof over their heads?

Is the seductive allure of a powerful, wily, and wealthy Growth Machine too hard to resist?

For a clue, take a look at the organization called California YIMBY.  California YIMBY was created with a million-dollar advance from Bay Area high-tech executives as a lobbying tool for pro-development legislation in Sacramento.  Its purpose is to organize empower, and coordinate with YIMBY groups throughout the state to reduce environmental and regulatory restraints that stand in the way of high density building and growth.

The California YIMBY Victory Fund is its moneyed arm–a political action committee (PAC) that doles out generous contributions to Democratic clubs, civic associations, other political PACs, and of course to state and local politicians and candidates (local YIMBY cheerleaders Todd Gloria, Toni Atkins, and Nathan Fletcher  included).

San Diego has always competed with other cities to entice vacationers, conventioneers, and tourists to choose us over all others.  Lately, city boosters have been inviting newcomers to not only visit but to stay.  They’re also ratcheting up incentives for new businesses and tech workers to come on over and relocate in San Diego.  With YIMBYs at their beck and call, the sky is the limit for the Growth Machine.

Let me state this for the record: growth is not a dirty word.  But growth–the quantity, quality, rate, impacts, losers, and beneficiaries–comes laden with enormous challenges.  There are no quick and easy answers.  That’s a real fact.

The only dirty words in this debate are the alternative facts promoted by the powerful growth coalition and parroted by YIMBY acolytes.  Upzoning and slashed regulations do NOT increase affordability, reduce auto congestion, mitigate severe climate/environmental impacts, or make a dent in the plight of the homeless.   In fact, accelerated rates of growth increase these critical problems.

A real fact is that San Diego doesn’t have to follow in the YIMBY footsteps.  Our city doesn’t have to go the way of San Francisco or San Jose or Los Angeles.   We can choose an urban future that manages growth to meet the broadest range of human and environmental necessities.   If we want, we can start right now to remedy our housing unaffordability crisis.

Why not:

  • protect tenants from price gouging and unwarranted evictions?
  • regulate international speculation and land acquisition?
  • preserve, upgrade, and promote adaptive reuse of existing affordable housing?
  • put the screws on corporate landlords?

Why not:

  • encourage union-sponsored housing?
  • curtail windfall profits exacted by landowners?
  • slap a luxury tax on investment dwellings?
  • initiate mixed-income public-sponsored housing?
  • lobby for a state bank and public co-ops?

And why not:

  • support bond measures focused exclusively on housing and let San Diego’s hotel/tourism industry pay for an expanded convention center?

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

retired botanist February 19, 2020 at 3:44 pm

yep, vote for Bernie or Warren. End of story.


Paul Webb February 20, 2020 at 8:23 am

I will say again something that I have said before. If the housing affordability crisis could be solved by adding new housing to the supply, then we should outlaw short term vacation rentals and return 16,000 units to the inventory. I generally respect Retired Botanist’s comments, but I don’t see how either Warren or Sanders will help our housing problem. It is too ingrained in how we construct, finance and market housing in this country.


daJohn February 20, 2020 at 9:25 am

All of your why nots are good ideas but probably not likely to actually make a dent in the crisis in a meaningful way.

The real reason the housing crisis is likely to be YIMBY-washed here in SD is we are likely about to have Todd Gloria as a mayor, who is in the pocket of the developers and vacation rentals. If people can not care about that kind of thing on a local level it will never get solved on a larger county or statewide basis.

Voting for Bernie or Warren will do nothing to solve the housing crisis in CA, and I’m voting for Bernie, so I’m not hating.


Geoff Page February 20, 2020 at 9:33 am

I also generally respect retired botanist’s commentary but I really worry about that advice. If the Democrats pick a far left candidate like Bernie, Warren is close, it will energize the folks on the right who otherwise might go to a monster truck show instead of voting, to come out and vote for t-rump. While I admire many of their positions, I think it is far more important to pick someone who might actually beat t-rump. There are far more people on the right who would hate to see Bernie or Warren than there are people on the left who like them. I’ve watched the Democrats nominate a slew of candidates in my years that never had a chance, we need to pick someone who at least appears to be a centrist and get in the office and then try to make some of these other things happen.


retired botanist February 20, 2020 at 9:55 am

:-), that’s ok, y’all, I don’t expect many will agree with my advocacy of Sanders or Warren. But I do think that many of my posting buddies would have to agree that the housing crisis, both its lack of affordability and lack of availability, is not a problem unique to San Diego. It is a national crisis, and its roots are centered in a runaway capitalist society, culture, and government.
Last night’s Nevada circus should have showed those of you who are Democrats the whole spectrum. On one end you have billionaire, self-promoter Bloomberg, frankly just a seemingly less maniacal version of billionaire Trump and the mega-rich ideology, and then on the other end you have “trusted-and-tried, more of the same, Obama coat-tail riding” Biden. Caught in the middle are the new “centrists”, Klobuchar and Pete, neither of whom have the experience or following to get elected. And Warren will likely run out of money.
And the Dems will never go with Bernie b/c they are too paranoid about being called socialist, the new dirty word, so they will probably prop up ole’ Biden again.
Coming full circle, neither Biden nor the YIMBYs are going to solve this national disgrace of homelessness and housing shortage. And its heart-breaking there are so many resources to actually do so, they’re just in the hands of the wrong people.
Ok, so now you guys can skin me alive… :-)


Geoff Page February 20, 2020 at 10:35 am

No skinning, retired, all very reasonable comments. I am curious about your comment that neither Pete or Amy have the experience. Klobuchar is in her third term as a senator, that seems like pretty good experience. Obama was only a senator for four years. Buttigieg certainly has less but he is highly educated and has some experience as a mayor. Kind of reminds me of Clinton who came out of nowhere with the same education. He did have a bit more experience as a state governor. As for a following well that’s hard to judge. The Democrats have a history of people coming from nowhere like Obama, Clinton, and Carter, maybe that’s what to look for.


retired botanist February 20, 2020 at 3:59 pm

Yep Geoff, your points are all spot on. Perhaps its more a question of perception- how people are perceived. You’ll know from the news and headbangers, many have made derisive comments about a “mayor from Indiana”, a “gay mayor” and so on. Its a shame, as I think Buttigieg is really articulate and has a military background that I believe is an important cornerstone to the challenges of leading a country nowadays. And having the gift of oration (without shouting, Bernie!) is important, not just nationally but internationally, and Pete speaks carefully and well. Its not just about national resonance anymore, our POTUS must be able to engage and communicate globally. Obama was superlative in his speaking abilities and his engagement with other leaders (even tho he had little foreign experience), still is.
So, too, there is a somewhat prejudiced perception of Klobuchar. “Gal from the rust-belt”, “blue-collar dark horse”. In fact, she’s extremely talented in writing bills and moving them forward. But she lacks breadth in experience, which makes people nervous. “Too pedestrian”, “too midwestern”, “too average”, they’ll conclude. Bless her heart for running, hope she stays on in the Senate for years, ditto Warren, and good luck to them both in the primaries :-)

Remarkably, maybe b/c I’ve been an Independent for decades, most of my views lie in some sort of ether that transcends the Trump swamp…haha, like helium rising above the methane! Imo, the problems that need fixing are bigger than Trump/Bloomberg (one is orange, the other isn’t, otherwise they’re the same to me), bigger than this impeachment travesty, they are based on fundamental problems with the political structure, the voting system, wealth distribution, etc. So far, the only candidate who continues to reflect the restructuring that’s needed is Sanders. I think Warren is a good candidate, too, for the same reasons, and I struggle to understand why she isn’t more popular, and I’m not willing to say its b/c she’s a woman. Maybe its b/c she’s from Mass… bastion of the Camelot era, I dunno-

Anyway, we’re in times that have clearly butted heads with our traditional two-party system and its stranglehold on fresh ideas, dramatic change, and a clear vision of the way forward as a nation and a member of the planet’s co-op.

As ever, assuming there is someone I believe in and want to vote for, I’ll follow that path rather than the ‘lesser of two evils’. Circling back, I find our homeless problem to be one of the most shameful and disgraceful domestic issues we continue to do nothing about, so I’m looking for someone (both locally and nationally) who has that on their radar :-)


Frank Gormlie February 20, 2020 at 11:48 am

Hey retired – you know as well that many OB Rag staffers and friends support Bernie and Elizabeth, but we all don’t have to nor do we all agree. No matter who wins the nomination, the Trumpists will call them “socialist”. Every time someone screams out “Whose gonna stop Bernie??!!” it automatically disses at least a third of the Democratic electorate.


retired botanist February 20, 2020 at 4:09 pm

Haha, so true, Frank! You know I frequently write tongue in cheek… sort of “so go ahead and sue me!” I love this publication, and always appreciate the right to air my views, and not just b/c I know I am often “in good company”. Its informative for me to read the opinions of people who don’t agree with me, this is how I learn about what other people think, and other points of view, and lord knows I don’t think I even know a Trumper personally!
Thanks as ever for supporting great freedom of speech and the important issues that affect us all, regardless of what camp we’re in :-)


Peter from South O February 20, 2020 at 4:03 pm

Come ON! Haven’t all of you gone through the hair-on-fire phase that always seems to hit the Democratic voter in February? It is only February, there have only been two little (white) States voting so far. When is the last time you responded to a poll? What then makes you think that the polls mean virtually anything at this point? Settle down, vote your conscience, not your pocketbook, and pay as much attention to the local and State elections as the National one.


retired botanist February 20, 2020 at 4:12 pm

Hahaha, Peter, I just posted some stuff, too. “Hair on fire” made me laugh out loud. And no one has ever “polled” me (except the ACLU), what’s up with that?! I feel excluded!
But regardless, yep, vote your conscience, locally and nationally! That’s it in a nutshell.


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