Here’s the plot: A Midwestern city is filled with single-family homes, many of which were owned across generations. A bunch of developers come in. Aided by external interests, they rewrite the zoning laws on a city-wide basis, allowing them to place multi-family dwellings anywhere regardless of previous zoning or the existing residents’ opinions. It no longer matters what your neighborhood was or what you want it to be — it’s now fair game for low-cost housing.
In an era of significantly decreasing violent crime nationwide, there’s a reverse trend in this city. Rape, murder, burglary, auto theft — all posting double-digit percentage increases. The established residents aren’t rich, having a median income of $65,000 — but now they’re surrounded by people with a median income of $20k. Anyone who complains is told they’re free to sell their home and move, but their incomes wouldn’t give them a chance at owning a home in most parts of the country. And the future looks bleaker still, because in the next 20 years this ambitious plan will be taken citywide. Worse than that, there are plans to do it elsewhere.
Anybody want to guess how the national media is covering this disaster?
That’s right: as a victory for racial equality in Minneapolis. The Newspeak deployed to praise it should frighten anyone who has managed to achieve home ownership in this country:
Ultimately, Worthington says, promoting racial equity became the central focus of the housing debate, rather than the NIMBY concern of preserving neighborhood character… “When you make these piecemeal decisions, that’s when you really get homeowners and NIMBYs exerting outsize interest,” he says. “[The city] did it across the board, and they did it fairly, reducing the ability of local neighborhood groups to say, ‘You’re singling us out.’”
“Exerting outsize interest.” That’s a fascinating phrase, isn’t it? If you have a problem with zoning laws being changed in your neighborhood, that’s “exerting outsize interest.” The people in a developer’s office or political-action committee dozens or even thousands of miles away, deciding what should be built down the street from you and your children? Their interest is, of course, perfectly sized. And the “consensus” that is “built” by the “community advocates”? That doesn’t mean they’ll convince you of their righteousness. It means they’ll convince the people who hold power over you — at the city, state, and federal level. You will remain unconvinced, which will have approximately as much meaning as Winston Smith’s diary.
It’s being portrayed as an issue of race, of course, because framing a desired social change as an issue of race is like having a 16-year-old girl with various developmental handicaps represent your cause to the United Nations. (Which is to say that doing so puts critics on a permanent back foot. The only way you can criticize children or minorities in America is if they are right of center, in which case you can wish them into a woodchipper or imply that they are house slaves.) We are told that black families can’t afford homes and that putting multi-family dwellings in single-family zones is an act of racial justice. Which it might be, if you could somehow gin up a method for ensuring that the people moving into those multi-family dwellings were black families who had been unfairly penalized by America’s racist economy — but you can’t, at least not without getting the Supreme Court involved. So you won’t be able to guarantee that the new residents will be previously-oppressed people of color. You will only be able to guarantee that they will be poorer than the people into whose backyards they are moving.
The Minneapolis case is an almost perfect synecdoche of today’s corporate wokeness-in-profitable-action. You create a problem that was not previously understood to exist — too many lower-middle-class people who own single-family homes in an area. You identify a racial component to that problem — black people in the area have a median income which cuts them out of the same opportunities. Then you design a profitable solution to that problem — building thousands of duplexes and triplexes, each of which yields more profit than the equivalent single-family home. Since families with a median income of $20,000 can’t qualify for a mortgage of any type, these new homes will be rentals. Which in turn will enrich yet another investor class — the people who will own the rentals. The consequences for the people who own homes in Minneapolis today will be significant, because rental units always decrease the quality of life around them regardless of the color (or creed) professed by their occupants. By the time that is apparent, however, the people involved will be working their next scam somewhere else, having profited mightily from this one.
The fiscal interest in this “YIMBY” movement is easy to discern — but what about the Minneapolis residents who are actively campaigning for these multi-family dwellings, including a group called “Neighbors For More Neighbors”? Well, they tend to hew to a particular type:
I believe that’s called “soyface”, is it not? They’re young, they’re renters rather than homeowners, they’re childless. In other words, they’re itinerant, with few or no ties to the communities they are eagerly re-engineering. Most importantly, they represent the single most important change in American politics over the past hundred years: the change in emphasis from commitment to involvement. Historically, we have privileged the committed over the involved when it comes to local politics. On a national level, my vote as homeowner and head of household is worth no more than that of the boomerang kid who delivers my pizza — but locally, I can expect that I’ll be heard and he will be ignored, because I have made financial and personal commitments to my township. It would take real effort for me to sell my house and move, whereas the renters and the grifters can split with thirty days’ notice or less. I’m also paying more in property taxes than the resident of a thousand-square-foot apartment pays through his rent. So it seems reasonable that my voice would count for more than, say, that of someone who walks (or trains) dogs for a living while “staying at” a studio apartment.
When I was a renter and itinerant myself, I did not expect to have much voice in my community’s affairs. The next generation of renters is not so apathetic. Spurred on by the entirely legitimate concern that they have been priced out of home ownership entirely, and seeing themselves more as members of a global community than tied to any particular locality or identity, these young people are anxious to immanentize the eschaton in their own temporary backyards. No wonder they are so eager for increased housing density, even if it damages the lives and prospects of existing homeowners. They’ll never get a chance to own a home, so why should they care if some winner of the birth-year lottery suffers because the empty space behind his lot is replaced with a duplex, a triplex, or a Baltimore-style housing project?
I also have to suspect that, in some cases at least, the suffering of those homeowners is the primary goal rather than a happy consequence. We’re seeing something similar in the gleeful deconstruction of everything from major-league sports to Star Wars by a new generation of culture warriors who fully understand the power to be gained by taking the things your enemy loves and twisting them beyond recognition. They are no more likely to believe in “live and let live” than the commissars of the Khmer Rouge were to permit the unrestricted wearing of corrective spectacles. Part of my day job involves what we call “saving driving” so I’ve taken a great interest of late in the actions and beliefs of the people who want to restrict or eliminate the ownership of gasoline-powered automobiles. A surprising number of them will admit that they don’t really care if there’s a net climatological benefit to banning the Challenger Hellcat Widebody; they find the existence of such things repugnant on moral grounds and therefore: hey hey, ho ho, the 6.2 has got to go.
The great insight these people have had, and what they’ve learned from their success in Minneapolis, is that it’s easier to destroy the zoning protection of an entire city at one go than it is to work neighborhood by neighborhood. On a city-wide scale, their involvement matters more than the commitment of individual homeowners. This is true of more than just zoning, of course. There was about a thirty-year period in this country prior to District of Columbia v. Heller where local municipalities were free to enact any kind of firearms legislation they wanted. How many of them did so? A lot of folks have some pretty stubborn ideas about what constitutes their own best interest — and if you want to circumvent those ideas, you need to appeal to higher, and more amenable, authority.
(A brief, and possibly amusing, aside: The city of Dublin, Ohio had a long-standing grudge against a woman named Sue Davis, who owned the city’s only gun store. The reasons for this grudge date back to the Seventies and had something to do with a land deal gone bad. She’d also managed to secure a very favorable lease on a building which the city wanted to tear down and re-develop. So in 1993, Dublin passed a massive, and massively complex, set of firearms-related legislation — that only applied to weapons sold in a single square mile or thereabouts. Guess where Sue’s shop was? She got the message and moved to a building three miles outside the city limits. Her former gun shop became the site of a multi-story mixed-use development. The gun laws were promptly forgotten.)
One rather unpleasant byproduct of the shift from commitment to involvement in political power is this: you’ll have no place to hide from it. The entire existence of places like Powell, Ohio is predicated on the idea that the community is guided, and safeguarded, by the commitment of its residents. We’ve all sweated blood (or inherited money) to live here and we are going to be deeply suspicious of any proposed changes. I don’t agree with my neighbors on many subjects from rap music to parking race trailers on the street but I can be assured that they share my general interest in keeping this town a safe and placid place to raise a family. Ninety-four percent of residents own their homes. We don’t have bodegas, street theater, or mass transit — by deliberate choice. The Columbus city buses turn around two miles south of the town limit.
This state of affairs has persisted a long time in Powell, and it will persist as long as the residents are permitted to have a say in the matter. Which would be a certainty in any era where commitment trumps involvement, but what would happen if the Minneapolis crowd decided to come here and take a swing at changing the game? I think they’d find a bunch of millionaire attorneys and doctors to be tougher opponents than the lower-middle-class folks just trying to hold on in Minneapolis — but what if their external supporters could out-spend our local interests? At what point would things become truly unpleasant? As in Katy-bar-the-door unpleasant? And whom would history decree as the “good guys”? I suppose history is written by the victors. So we’d better win.
I didn’t write this week for reasons I’ll discuss another time. Last week I wrote about another kind of home in another kind of neighborhood: Honda’s Little Japan.