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.
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.