This post by Matt was originally published in July 2019

A recent Huffington Post article shines a light on a rather surprising political battleground in many cities around the world – seemingly progressive residents going feral against change in their neighbourhoods.

In May 2018, a public meeting in a wealthy enclave of one of America’s most progressive cities devolved into a two-hour temper tantrum as longtime residents incensed about a proposed tax to fund homeless services shouted down its proponents.

“Lies!” the crowd bellowed as an attendee explained that the tax would be levied on corporations, not citizens. “Shill!” “Plant!” “Phony!” they shouted as another supporter spoke. “Coward!” a man yelled at a homeless woman as she took the microphone.

Kirsten Harris-Talley, the co-chair of Seattle’s Homelessness Task Force, had to pause to ask the increasingly unruly crowd to calm down: “Can I finish what I’m saying?”

“No!” the audience chanted back.

This was not an isolated incident.

Last September, a community hearing over a proposed homeless shelter in Los Angeles had to be cut short after boos and jeering repeatedly interrupted speakers. Throughout 2018, public meetings in Minneapolis to discuss changing the city’s residential zoning code erupted into shouts and insults from audience members. At a public meeting last August on homelessness in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, audience members chanted, “Lock her up!” at a female representative of the mayor’s office.

In Auckland we also have a few infamous examples. Like the February 2016 Auckland Council meeting on the Unitary Plan where young people desperate to be given a chance at affording a home were booed and jeered by wealthy homeowners.

More recently things got so bad that after daring to make streets safer for pedestrians by putting in pedestrian crossings and lowering speed limits in St Heliers, Auckland Transport pulled out of a meeting because they literally feared for the safety of their staff.

While St Heliers isn’t exactly a bastion of progressiveness, similar behaviour has been seen in Grey Lynn and, most recently, Pt Chevalier.

In many cities, it seems that people who are otherwise quite progressive behave very differently indeed when it comes to change in their own area. Back to the Huff Post article:

Rowdy public hearings are nothing new in city politics, of course. But campaigners and elected officials told HuffPost that the nature of local opposition has changed in recent years. Where protest movements and civil disobedience were once primarily the tools of the marginalized, they have now become a weapon of privilege — a way for older, wealthier, mostly white homeowners to drown out and intimidate anyone who challenges their hegemony.

“Most of the abuse I got came from older suburban or retired folks, and always from people who considered themselves progressive,” said Rob Johnson, a Seattle City Council member who retired in April after three years in office. During his tenure, he supported proposals to increase housing density, expand public transit and establish safe use sites for drug addicts.

Despite representing a constituency with bright-blue voting records on immigration, reproductive rights and LGBTQ equality, Johnson’s progressive positions on local issues provoked a large and organized backlash. In 2017, after supporting a plan to install bike lanes on a major thoroughfare, Johnson received a death threat on social media. Opponents posted his home address on Nextdoor. Eventually, he stopped visiting local businesses and even skipped events at his children’s school to avoid the increasingly frequent confrontations with other parents.

This is a somewhat odd conundrum. People who in many respects are extremely worried about issues like homelessness, inequality and climate change are also those at the forefront of opposing the very initiatives that can make the biggest difference in helping to address those issues.

Perhaps because there’s at least some recognition of this hypocrisy, a lot of the focus of the discussions ends up on process issues like consultation. Doesn’t this sound familiar?

Alex Baca, a housing program organizer for the pro-density nonprofit Greater Greater Washington, said neighborhood opposition groups nearly always claim to support public transit and affordable housing in general but use technical arguments and procedural roadblocks to make sure such projects aren’t built in their neighborhoods.

Examples of this can be found in nearly every city experiencing job and population growth. In San Francisco, residents of a wealthy neighborhood opposed the construction of low-income senior housing, citing concerns that it was seismically unstable. Seattle homeowners sued a homeless housing project over a technicality related to its permitting. In Boise, by some measures the fastest-growing city in the country, one of the arguments employed by residents fighting the construction of new townhomes is that they will reduce pedestrian safety.

“It’s like playing Whac-a-Mole,” Baca said. “No matter what you propose, they’ll tell you that if it was just a little bit different, they could support it. But then you come back with the changes they asked for and they find a new reason to fight it.”

I think a lot of this issue is generational. Privileged boomers who are at the forefront of these NIMBY efforts had their formative years in the 1970s and 1980s, when developers were just “how do I squeeze every dollar and who cares about anything else”. So many boomer progressives have always seen developers as the enemy. Furthermore, many people of that same generation were “anti-establishment”, whether this was hippy movements of the 70s or “government is the problem” attitudes of the 80s. Therefore instinctively they’re super happy and keen to push back against government, councils etc. (even though they now are the establishment themselves).

“The boomer generation came of age at a time when neighborhoods were fighting back against highway expansions and power plants,” Baca said. “To them, preserving their neighborhood is progressive.”

The excellent “War on Cars” podcast also touched on this recently:

It will be interesting to see how this issue plays out over the next few months ahead of this year’s local body election.

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31 comments

  1. We should call a public meeting and invite all of the special interest groups, lobby groups, arm chair experts and assorted nut jobs to attend, They could all shout and argue with each other for hours about everything. We could then sell tickets to the spectacle.

  2. AT refusing to meet with a bunch of aging geriatrics like it was trying to avoid some Jan 6th insurrection level push-back is and will never not be hilarious. It says far more about AT than it does about St Heliers – which really should be given more of a once over than ‘less parking’ as a historic sea-side village. Run trams through the thing, close the main road and rebuild the a wharf and then you might be scratching the surface.

    Having grown up near that part of Auckland though, I can tell you a bunch of the ill-will towards AT was due to buses that would never show up on time, if at all, or leave you stranded for exams, or finish an hour earlier at night than places like Glen Innes or other services. Thankfully a lot of those issues have been smoothed out, but there’s still some weird stuff out there like one bus an hour on weekends and services that end at 7pm. The Spinoff seems to gloss over stuff like this for some wild reason. Can’t imagine why.

    1. If you don’t understand genuine fears for the physical safety of AT staff at consultation meetings then you have obviously never attended one of these meetings. I’ve witnessed several men cornering and isolating female staff of council ti berate them an inch from their face, a man literally fleeing on a bicycle while being chased by a vocal opponent to cycleways.

      I’m a little surprised that the council don’t ask police to attend these events as there seems to be clear cases of harassment or assault at every single one.

      1. Do you work for AT? I suspect you are exaggerating to the extreme. That said, of course no one condones threats and violence. The way Ludo and his family were treated is just awful.

        1. I do not work for AT. Before I went, I also believed that people talking about actual physical harm were “exaggerating to the extreme”. I would encourage you to actually go to some of these meeting to observe just how aggressive and violent some of the NIMBY ringleaders are.

        2. Sailor Boy, that’s pretty concerning behaviour you’ve seen. Disgusting really; no other take on it.

          One might say it’s par for the course given the insane levels of aggression and impatience us cycle commuters face on the road daily.

        3. We’ve had a few years of that in Wellington, regarding the Island Bay cycleway, where the local anti-cycleway brigade whipped a small segment of the community into a hysteric fit, over the “killer cycleway” (in reality, I suspect over the loss of car-parking directly outside their house). Some of those people can get pretty toxic – and by chasing away anyone who was pro-cycleway, they can then claim overall success thanks to their echo-chamber.

          And re toxic Council meetings, if you think that the actual physical meeting is bad, you should read the comments on Twitter. Puts you right off humanity.

  3. A family who have recently moved into new townhouses in Te Atatu Peninsula are experiencing NIMBYism on the ground. Anyone from the development parking a vehicle on the street gets abusive letters placed in windscreen to not park on “their street” or has the side of the vehicle keys by same.

    1. How bizarre. Why? New townhouse developments are usually planned around parking only on the street.

      1. There was an article in the weekend paper about a dude in Hobsonville who bought an electric car. He parks on-street and runs an extension cord across the footpath at night.

        1. Yes, I saw that – and what was even more mystifying to me was that he appeared to be parked in his driveway in front of what looked uncannily like a garage in his townhouse. I think the answer to his problem appears to be more within his reach than he is letting on. “The big black roller door goes up, and your car goes inside.” Problem solved…

        2. It is probably full of junk. I have a double garage and two cars that have to sit outside due to tools, equipment, half finished projects and things we haven’t gotten rid of yet. But who buys an electric car when they haven’t got a place to charge it?

        3. Not having a petrol station inside doesn’t stop most people buying ICE cars either.

  4. I see this behaviour in personal friends, who I consider to be progressive, having supported all the “right” causes for decades. But when you talk to them about intensification in their inner Auckland suburb, or the removal of a single tree for some greater purpose, even when replaced by multiple new trees, the conversation turns toxic very quickly. I genuinely despair.

  5. People have a massive fear (rightly or wrongly so) about their property value decreasing. Higher density is only seen as negative for these values.

    I do find it bizzare and massively hypo-critical that infill and development has been happening for over 50 years, yet for some reason it gets to be ‘paused’ in some areas. Change is inevitable, keep one silly street for heritage, then upzone the rest.

    1. TBH I think the old suburbs did pretty well avoiding this infill. A lot of the settlement patterns on the North Shore created by infilling sections is so dysfunctional it is not even funny. They have both still a very low density, and no usable outdoor space.

      Now we can basically build up the existing building footprints to 4 to 5 storeys. The streets are pretty wide with room for trees, and often with existing trees, so the resulting streets will still be a LOT less bleak than their European counterparts.

      1. Definitely. I was trying to work out options for train routes in the shore and it’s almost nothing but low density suburbs, low density commercial and malls.

        And the roads are all hills, valleys and cul-de-sacs

        1. Yup, unless you just drop rails onto the Busway, the only options are to tunnel from the CBD to Albany via either Birkenhead/Glenfield on one side or Takapuna and running up through the bays on the other. Even getting decent feeder buses to any underground stations would be tricky as so many roads can’t be expandede

    2. For property values, the problem I think is we are really good at spending a lot of money to make only a small amount of areas “nice”, creating a few winners and a lot of losers. So far, winners are mostly suburbs where you don’t have apartments so there will be some expectation that when apartments are built, the neighbourhood will move to the group of losers.

      It also depends on to what extent people mortgage themselves to be able to afford a neighbourhood as nice as possible. If you are mortgaged up your eyeballs and your neighbourhood goes “down” you are indeed pretty badly screwed.

      That said, at the same time there is criticism that those apartments are not affordable anyway.

      I think the best thing Auckland Council can do to ameliorate this fear is to actually start taking care of its existing high density areas. It will not work if you tell people in Grey Lynn that apartments are not a synonym for slums, while at the same time treating the streets between the nearby apartments in Victoria Quarter as slums.

      1. Roeland – I’m keen to hear more about these slums in Victoria Quarter. Could you be more specific? Genuine enquiry – I’m not sure what you mean, or what you are basing this accusation on. Slums tend to be categorised as slums due to intense crowding or inadequate sanitation or both. Is this happening in the Victoria Quarter?

        1. They are not actually slums. But this is not thanks to the council, but despite how the council treats the area.

          The buildings themselves are, let’s say, unremarkable, but that is how a lot of housing is. As far as I understand they are mostly OK. On the other hand some streets, and especially a lot of footpaths are visibly in a state of disrepair. Which is weird because this area has a lot of pedestrians and a lot of ratepayers to pay for upkeep.

        2. I wonder if the land is still in private ownership, and has not been taken over by AC ? That often happens – and the private owners seemingly never do any maintenance to their own facilities.

        3. They’re all just public streets as far as I know. This is an old area.

          Maybe Vogel Lane is privately owned.

          If anything, if you see a space that is somewhat nice, you’re probably on private land. Check for instance the contrast between Nicholas Street, and the private lane going in parallel: https://goo.gl/maps/DMyFcdw1UTXoCwJ56

  6. Seeing no one else has gone there,l feel compelled to compare the All Black’s to Auckland Council and AT,and believe there are some learnings to be had from it.
    NZ rugby,in their wisdom,elected to go with continuity (BAU),in its management structures,which with hindsight, is proving to be “unacceptable”,to quote the CEO.
    We get similar outcomes from both AC and AT,(BAU),which produces similar results.
    BAU ignores the fact ,that there are outside influences, in rugbys case,the Irish,the French,the Springboks,who adapt and change,leaving the All Black’s floundering in their wake.
    AC and AT continually want to press on with BAU,conviently forgetting there are future generations, who deserve better management.
    In rugbys case,they will probably “pivot” to a new model, all be a little too late,not seeing a lot of pivoting,with the other two though.

  7. I am starting to think that the answer is to spend all the money on world-class, gold-plated PT from places like the NW and East Auckland to the city. A swanky new line through Mt Roskill and Hillsborough through to Onehunga and on to the airport.

    Blow the $15bn budget there. The rest of the Isthmus? Nothing except perhaps bike lanes. If they want their heritage retained let’s not spoil it by putting in 20th century light rail…

      1. The dots to the bottom left there represent Councillors and Local Board members who need to sit down and think through their purpose in life.

        There have been times over the last couple of years when they could have put the pressure on Plans and Places to provide better advice, but chose not to. Terrible performance.

      2. Fascinating. So in half the local board areas, population *fell* in 2021? And by up to 4% which is not a small amount?

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