By Thomas D. Elias
Rarely has a major group of Californians suffered a less deserved rash of insults and attacks than the myriad homeowners often described as “NIMBYs” – an acronym for folks who may favor new developments but “not in my backyard.”
NIMBYs have killed liquefied natural gas projects pushed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Southern California Gas, thus saving California consumers billions of dollars in rates they otherwise would have paid for generations for unneeded and dangerous gas imports.
They’ve prevented building prisons in urban areas, thus sending murderers, rapists, burglars, and more to isolated areas where escapees are less likely to harm anyone than if they make off into crowded neighborhoods.
They kept freeways from running through the greenest (and most expensive) residential parts of the state.
Now they often fight the placement of permanent supportive housing for the previously homeless in their areas because those developments sometimes bring crime increases with them. They also have pushed cities and counties to clean up or wipe away encampments of the unhoused, often placed beneath freeway bridges.
Their moves, whether flawed or beneficial for all law-abiding Californians, mostly drew invective and eventually spawned creation of a opposing group called California YIMBY (yes, in my backyard), largely funded by developers who essentially want a license to build what they want, where they want, and never mind the cost to the mental or financial health of anyone living in the area.
Nowhere have supposed NIMBYs taken more heat than in Berkeley today. In the wake of a court decision won by a homeowners group called “Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods,” the academically choice UC campus there claimed it would have to accept more than 3,000 fewer students for the next academic year than planned.
In this dramatic town vs. gown dispute, the homeowner group won a ruling that some say will force the onetime flagship campus of UC (these days, UCLA is higher ranked and gets more applicants) to lower its planned enrollment.
The residents essentially complained that adding thousands of enrollees could produce a new corps of homeless students or drive up rents in the area so high that current occupants might be forced out. They also griped that introducing thousands of new student residents into off-campus housing would create nightly noise problems for other residents.
And, using a sometimes maligned law called the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), they won in California courts at every level.
For this, they were labeled “reactionaries,” and “backward,” and “selfish” by some of the state’s largest newspapers and television stations.
Meanwhile, after taking a closer look, something that perhaps should have been done before the neighborhood group went to court, the Berkeley campus concluded things would not be so drastic after all: It turns out a thousand or so of the new enrollees can take classes online wherever they live, others can wait six months and then enroll, and no one need be deprived of an education, as critics of the so-called NIMBYs all the way up to a dissenting state Supreme Court justice, had claimed.
In fact, the folks labeled NIMBYs previously accepted many campus expansions but resisted this one primarily because UC did not build new quarters for its new students. Yes, that was proposed, but the campus conveniently did not examine all the effects of its putative expansion on the area, and no construction was imminent in any case. The neighbors, then, are really being lambasted for a failure by campus officials to take care of needed business and preparation.
But blasting NIMBYs is politically correct in this era when YIMBY has claimed SB 9, a new law it helped push through the Legislature last year, would simply allow homeowners to make duplexes of their single-family homes. That’s untrue: The 2021 law actually allows at least six new units on virtually every current single-family lot in California.
Politicians also find it convenient to blast what they call NIMBYism whenever their proposals are exposed as harmful to many Californians. Not surprisingly, dozens of today’s legislators, and the governor, have been major beneficiaries of campaign donations from developers and building trade unions who want to build anywhere they can.
All of which means the current anti-NIMBY fashion is often hooey. Informed Californians must learn to see through it.