Adapted from testimony to The City of Charlottesville Planning Commission, July 25, 2017
By. Neil Williamson, President
As you conduct the “legal” review of Charlottesville’s Zoning Ordinance, the Free Enterprise Forum is concerned that you may be actually, perhaps unintentionally, working against some of the comprehensive plan goals. Decreasing heights, densities and intensity of development may seem to be reflecting the opinions of some vocal opponents to economic expansion but how does it impact the City’s goals for a vibrant community with affordable housing and economic opportunities for all.
This is not a development problem, it is a political problem, and it exists nationwide.
I recently reviewed the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) San Francisco platform and I believe there are many parallels to Charlottesville. If you insert Charlottesville instead of San Francisco to their preamble, I believe it could be endorsed across the political spectrum:
We believe that San Francisco has always been, and should continue to be, an innovative and forward-looking city of immigrants from around the U.S. and the world. San Francisco is not full, and the Bay Area is definitely not full. Ours is an inclusive vision of welcoming all new and potential residents. Anyone who wants to should be able to afford housing in the Bay Area.
Quartz Media’s Dan Kopf recently wrote an article about the YIMBY movement:
[Sonja] Trauss and fellow San Francisco YIMBY Party members, a group that now includes more than 500 people, believe that the only way to solve San Francisco’s housing problem is by building a hell of a lot more houses. To advocate for this, YIMBYs, many of whom are millennials tired of skyrocketing rents, have aligned themselves with private developers and against long-settled locals who see new housing as an intrusion on their lifestyle and, more importantly, a threat to the value of their homes. YIMBY groups have also emerged in New York, Seattle, and Boston, among other places, challenging the much more prevalent NIMBYs (“not in my back yarders”) who favor keeping things as they are.
The YIMBY solution is different than many others advocating for affordable housing. Rather than seeking government mandates for subsidized housing or funds to be placed into a “housing affordability trust fund”, YIMBY platform seeks to impact the supply/demand curve by increasing the supply:
We strongly support building new housing. We have a severe housing shortage. Increasing supply will lower prices for all and expand the number of people who can live in the Bay Area.
We should build more housing in every neighborhood — especially high-income neighborhoods.
High density housing goes with high-quality public transit and walkability. However, housing can be built before or in anticipation of the construction of future transit improvements.
The people most hurt by a housing shortage are those with the least means.
So many of the conversations at the Planning Commission and City Council are focused on the topic of density. In 1982, when Charlottesville and Albemarle reached their revenue sharing agreement, the City’s borders were set, no growth via annexation. Somewhere in the late 1990s and early 2000s, population densification become a negative rallying cry of those opposed to increased development of the city. Perhaps as a tip of the hat to these concerns, the SF-YIMBY platform boldly declares “Density is good”:
We are unapologetic urbanists who believe in the virtues of cities. More people living in close proximity to each other can improve their lives and the lives of those far beyond city limits.
- Density is sustainability: it reduces urban sprawl, reduces water usage, uses energy more efficiently, and creates a smaller carbon footprint.
- Density is accessibility: it encourages walking and biking, makes transit more efficient, reduces social isolation, and increases residents’ access to diverse cultural products and to each other.
- Density is opportunity: it increases access to jobs, supports diverse businesses, promotes innovation, and enables people to be more productive.
- The Bay Area is a particularly efficient place to build housing because of its moderate climate.
- People should be free to choose to live in places that are urban, compact and walkable, low-density and car-centric, or rural. Not everyone wants to live in a dense city. However, current policies restrict the supply of urban housing, leaving suburban life as the only affordable option for many.
Kopf’s article included an interview with Sonja Trauss regarding her definition of a YIMBY:
What exactly does it mean to be a YIMBY?
It means you are an advocate for housing. It means you believe that not having enough housing to accommodate newcomers is terrible public policy that leads to displacement.
YIMBYs want there to be neighborhoods of all varying levels of affordability close to job centers, so people can participate in the city’s economy. What ever your your situation is, we think you should be able to live in the city center if you want to.
The thing about housing is that, in many places, decisions about it are made in a distributed way. In California, no city can just decide to build 10,000 houses, though sometimes mayors will say that. The reality is that the decision is made almost building by building.
If you are in a growing metro area, like San Francisco, there will be times when housing development is proposed in your neighborhood. Being a YIMBY means piping up and supporting that development at neighborhood meetings, or by emails to the government.
No platform is complete without policy recommendations and while we in Virginia can not speak to the need for California Environmental Quality Act reform ,we can endorse the majority of the SF-YIMBY policy prescriptions. It is interesting how many of these topics have been raised in Charlottesville over the last few years.
We believe in long-term planning. Once a citywide or neighborhood plan is made, the process for building should be streamlined, well-defined and predictable. It should not impose significant delays on or add significant costs to a project, nor should individual property owners or neighborhood associations have the power to hijack it.
- As-of-Right building: development plans approved at the departmental level if the project is within existing zoning.
- Mandate or incentivize cities to follow regional master plans and statewide housing policies or mandates.
- California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) reform.
- Raise height limits.
- Form-based zoning.
- Mixed-use zoning.
- Complete streets.
The Free Enterprise Forum strongly requests that you look at all the consequences (perhaps unintended) in your so called legal review. Consider how these changes balance against the YIMBY platform. We believe the impacts of many of the changes currently proposed are far beyond a simple legal review, and worse, are counter to the community goals for housing supply, economic vitality, and quality of life.
Neil Williamson, President
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County.
Photo Credit: Yimby Toronto