Mark Simon

We all have seen the multicolored lawns signs proclaiming that those who dwell within hold certain progressive values regarding equality, human rights, science and the freedom of all people to love and live as they choose.

Until it is time for those people to move into the neighborhood.

Nothing brings out a suburban liberal’s latent conservatism quite like the possibility that someone might find it easier to move next door.

The latest focus of the landed gentry is Senate bills 9 and 10, which would make it possible to build a little more housing in places where everyone already has a “chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard,” in the precision of the oft-misquoted campaign slogan. SB 10 is more theoretical — allowing rezoning of single-family lots that may or may not actually exist somewhere near transit.

But SB 9, well, hoo boy, it is the spawn of the devil. The new mantra is that SB 9 “ruins every single-family neighborhood.” Every one? That’s one hell of a bill. Furthermore, legislators who support the bill have sold out voters, or ignored them, and are in the clutches of greedhead developers who only want to make money and do not care if they, you know, ruin neighborhoods. Others are a “mouthpiece for developers,” as some chucklehead recently called me from the safety and security of social media.

Well, as long as we can have an honest disagreement of opinion.

SB 9 would not ruin neighborhoods, of course. It has the potential to change single-family neighborhoods by allowing a modest addition of multiple-family “units,” the latter always being an unfortunate term of art, right up there with housing, to describe the simple and basic human desire for a home. An affordable home, preferably and realistically.

In a debate where no one is going to be persuaded, it bears repeating: SB 9 does not destroy neighborhoods. It changes them. And it’s not even a sweeping change.

But let us consider an even more fundamental question: Why should single-family neighborhoods remain solely single-family neighborhoods?

When did a neighborhood become sacrosanct? Untouchable? Sacred?

Probably right around the time they were built, really.

This attitude about neighborhoods is a vestige of covenants and redlining that created them as exclusive enclaves. And if we were raised on the post-World War II vision of fairness and equal opportunity for all, then such notions were built in neighborhoods that were protected from ruination by overtly discriminatory real estate practices. Now, the discrimination is economic, but the result, and, unfortunately, the attitudes, are the same.

That there is broad and deep economic inequality is too well established to be debated. It is at the heart of our political dislocation — and our anger. Too many people feel left out and left behind and the natural inclination is to look for someone to blame when hard work no longer seems enough to guarantee financial stability.

The answer is the same as it always has been in this country and, in particular, on the Peninsula, when hundreds of thousands of veterans came back from the war with a hunger for a small, modest slice of the American dream. They wanted a home.

With a home, you can build wealth, you can borrow, you can advance, you can fund college and retirement. A home is, and always has been, the American foundation for economic advancement.

But if no one can afford the same opportunities afforded to the rest of us — by pure luck and good timing — then it is beholden on us to provide those opportunities, not to rabidly guard our own good fortune.

Despite how it may appear, I do understand what it could mean to a neighborhood of single-family homes to have a four-plex suddenly rise up next door. I do recognize the sacrifice this might call for. On the other hand, my neighbor put a second story on his house decades ago and I do not sense that it impacted my life in any meaningful way, except that I was happy for my neighbor, who is a genuinely good guy.

Frankly, I would feel better about all this entrenched neighborhood protectionism hoo-ha if those same people got behind high-rise, high-density development on El Camino Real, where the real solution to the housing shortage lies.

But often it seems to be the same people who oppose both.

All of which leads back to the actual point I am, perhaps, not making. More housing does not ruin a neighborhood. It changes it. And it is change they oppose. And this is a textbook definition of a conservative — in this case, in progressive’s clothing.

Mark Simon is a veteran journalist, whose career included 15 years as an executive at SamTrans and Caltrain. He can be reached at marksimon@smdailyjournal.com.

Recommended for you

(7) comments

Nancy Reyering

Civil discourse is important, and so is separating fact from opinion. Writers who imply that they have the moral high ground and use disrespectful descriptions of those who hold different views are often uninformed about the nuances of the “other side’s” opinions.

Portraying neighbors as selfish NIMBYs or YIMBYs is disparaging but ultimately won’t change anyone else’s mind. And, as we know in the abortion issue, to just take a single high stakes case, taking a stand on moral grounds is a right in our society, but it does not make those on the other side immoral or stupid.

There are many factors at play with growth and housing needs in California: affordable housing, fire safety, conservation, to name only a few. And the worst thing about SB9 & SB10 is that neither will help create affordable housing .

Assuring projects are suitable, safe, and weighing risks and benefits of increased density, are all complicated decisions, and why control should remain local, rather than dictated by the state. I personally support increased density along transportation corridors, but not in the WUI.

craigwiesner

Thanks for writing this and sparking a lively discussion. I was most moved by your comment about El Camino Real. Seeing so many empty storefronts as I drive mile after mile breaks my heart. All of that property, sitting empty year after year, would make such a great combination of housing (rental, condos) and ground level retail/business. I wish there were better incentives to get landlords/investors to develop these blighted spaces, sell them, or gift them to cities/charities so that they could revitalize that corridor and our communities. Of course such "incentives" if created by governments could cause more hoo-ha! But hey, isn't government all about hoo-ha?

aurosharman

Great column. There was a very good video from the Pacific Legal Foundation ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIjskDtki8A ) exploring how we got here. We created a thicket of regulations around building that ensure that the only people who build anything are _experts at navigating the system_, and at greasing palms, rather than leaving the possibility for random homeowners to improve their own properties. As StrongTowns puts it, they employ That Guy ( https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2021/3/16/have-you-met-this-guy ). SB9 is well-designed to leave those connected insiders out of its scope, because it requires a three-year residence commitment, and cannot be applied to adjacent properties by the same applicant (including paper entities trace back to common ownership). And of course SB10 is entirely opt-in for City Councils -- it actually _expands_ local control.

Both of these are very incremental changes, as Jon May wrote the other day, and both actually increase the scope of action for local actors (homeowners for SB9, and Councils for SB10). The sturm and drang around them would be comical, if it weren't perpetuating the housing crisis, which underlies a host of health and economic problems.

Terence Y

Well, Mr. Simon, if you have both conservatives and progressives, and every shade in between, agreeing that SB 9 is the spawn of the devil, that should tell you something. Let’s hope that if SB 9, or SB 10 are enacted, these same folks will sign the referendums put forth to repeal these spawn of the devil, special interest group funded bills.

HFAB

Terrific article, Mr. Simon. Fearing "developers" who may build a fourplex is cognitive dissonance. Just about every homeowner can be considered a speculator. People who buy houses fully expect their investments will increase over time to provide them, at the very least, a comfortable retirement. They don't seem to balk when they have tripled their investment or even jaw-droppingly more.

Dirk van Ulden

HFAB - you are wrong. We never bought our home expecting a significant increase in asset value and never viewed it as an investment. We wanted a home not a house. The increases are a relatively new phenomenon. Also, both of my sons have been able to purchase homes without any of my assistance other than steering them toward rewarding careers. To state that nobody is able to purchase a house is nonsense. Who are buying these multi-million dollar homes around here? Many, many hardworking young couples who had the foresight to get educated and not rely on sustenance from the government.

aurosharman

It's just a simple mathematical fact that the value of a downpayment on a house, as priced in _hours of labor at the median wage_, has exploded. When people were flooding into this region in the '50s and '60s, a person working for a median income could save up enough to buy a place in their 20s. Now even as somebody making significantly more than the median, you have to save into your 30s or even 40s.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.

Thank you for visiting the Daily Journal.

Please purchase an Enhanced Subscription to continue reading. To continue, please log in, or sign up for a new account.

We offer one free story view per month. If you register for an account, you will get two additional story views. After those three total views, we ask that you support us with a subscription.

A subscription to our digital content is so much more than just access to our valuable content. It means you’re helping to support a local community institution that has, from its very start, supported the betterment of our society. Thank you very much!