By Peter Dorfman
Astraw man argument is a common form of logical fallacy that crops up in political discourse with depressing regularity. The way it works is this: Person A takes a position or makes a claim. Person B creates a distorted version of the claim (the “straw man”), and then Person B attacks this distorted version in order to refute Person A’s original assertion.
The latest round of debate on the City of Bloomington’s new zoning map and the proposed UDO amendment to permit multi-plex housing development in what are now single family neighborhoods has been rife with straw man rhetoric. It’s degrading the entire discourse.
Here are five examples of straw man fallacies we’ve been hearing a lot from proponents of the city’s upzoning proposal.
1Upzoning opponents are against plexes. Duplexes, triplexes, quadplexes and even larger multi-unit residential structures exist throughout Bloomington’s core neighborhoods. They were grandfathered in when single family zoning first went into effect in the 1990s. They’re just buildings. There is nothing inherently wrong with them — residents of the core generally find that plexes are fine enough as neighbors, and agree that plexes are useful housing forms.
The opposition to the upzoning proposal stems from the fact that the core neighborhoods already have enough plexes. The neighborhoods are dense enough now. In fact, Bloomington’s core is a model for appropriate density throughout the city. There are lots of underdeveloped areas of Bloomington — the hospital site, the Vectren property by the B Line Trail’s 3rd Street bridge, the High Speed property, the excess convention center land adjacent to 2nd Street, land by Switchyard Park, numerous PUDs, the old Bender Lumber site, the South Walnut corridor and acres of declining retail property throughout the city, to name just a few.
When those areas are as dense as the core (and when the larger lot subdivisions have absorbed their share of new density), Bloomington’s core residents are likely to be much more receptive to a conversation about taking on additional market rate apartment development in their midst.
2Upzoning opponents are worried about how plexes will impact the the architectural integrity of their neighborhoods. Not really. Plexes are not inherently unsightly or out of place, even in historic districts, although they can be — there are oversized, out of scale and just butt-ugly multi-unit structures in many of our most historic and most architecturally consistent neighborhoods. Plexes can be designed to fit into a larger architectural fabric, although six- or eight-plexes, which are explicitly allowed (conditionally) in the R4 districts that blanket core neighborhoods in the city’s draft zoning map, would be radically out of scale for these areas.
But again, it’s not buildings that really concern the opponents of the city’s upzoning plan. It’s the density of population that these neighborhoods would have to absorb that sparks the opposition.
3People who oppose upzoning hate renters. This contention (voiced most recently in a letter to the Herald-Times) is absurd. Most of the core neighborhoods are majority-rental now. The city’s Housing Study, released in 2020, documents this clearly. Renters are perfectly fine neighbors; core homeowners generally co-exist with them amicably.
Bloomington is a college town, and college towns always have real estate markets heavily skewed toward rentals. But the ratio of rental properties to owner-occupied housing in Bloomington is way out of whack. For example, the area that encompasses the Near West Side and some surrounding neighborhoods is only 32.8% owner-occupied (Housing Study, p. 28). Home ownership stabilizes neighborhoods. It is the only means of accumulating a bit of modest wealth most middle class Americans will ever have. It gives owners a stake in their properties and an incentive to maintain and improve them. That improvement makes the quality of life in the neighborhood better for everyone — renters included.
Bloomington is already losing home ownership opportunities in the core as developers buy up small, affordable, small-lot houses to convert them to rentals. The city’s planning staff and the mayor know this. The Housing Study documents it. If the Planning & Transportation staff continue to deny that upzoning neighborhoods to allow plex conversions will drive an even more aggressive investor buyout of Bloomington’s affordable homes, they are cynically misleading the city’s residents and decision-makers.
4Upzoning opponents want to exclude poor people, or people of color, from neighborhoods. Upzoning opponents have taken a lot of this kind of flak from density advocates over the last 18 months. We have been called elitists, classists and racists (most recently, “liberal segregationists”) countless times. Last year, during the UDO hearings, we got the “OK Boomer” treatment. It was, and is, pretty tiresome.
Let’s be clear: If core neighborhood residents generally believed the city’s upzoning proposal would do anything to make it possible or even easier for lower income Bloomingtonians to find affordable housing, in our neighborhoods or anywhere else, it’s likely they would be more receptive to having new plexes in their midst. But we heard these arguments last year during the UDO hearings, over and over again. Opponents of the upzoning plan generally agree that they don’t add up.
New apartments in the core will be market rate and unaffordable to low-income renters. It’s hard to put faith in “Filtering” (the theoretical notion that people currently occupying older, cheaper housing in Bloomington will trade up to the new market rate apartments, freeing up their former dwellings for low-income tenants) in a town where investors are already buying up low-end real estate (including mobile home parks) for improvement and re-development as market rate housing. The city will only lose more home ownership opportunities that should be available to lower income people whose fortunes have improved.
Upzoning opponents know what affects low-income Americans disproportionately affects people of color. We get it. We’d love to help level the playing field. We just don’t accept that ineffectual, symbolic gestures of atonement and solidarity will advance this cause. We view throwing our neighborhoods open to “the market” to create affordable housing opportunities, when all the existing economic incentives drive investor-backed developers to do the exact opposite, as an ineffectual, symbolic gesture.
We also think it’s worth noting that the characterization of people of color as disproportionately poor is a stereotype; there’s some truth in it, but it’s far from universal. In fact, one of the few bright spots in recent US housing trends has been an upturn in home buying by Black millennials.
5Upzoning opponents are worried that proximity to plexes will drive their property values down. No. This is a pernicious mischaracterization by density advocates who use it to label plex opponents as selfish NIMBYs who care only about their own material well-being. Upzoning doesn’t drive property values down. It drives them up. That’s the problem.
It drives property values up because a modest little house is suddenly eligible to be converted to a new use: Not just as a stream of rental income, but as a cheaply acquired source of as many as 12 rental streams (in the case of a quadplex). That’s a powerful incentive for deep-pocketed developers to outbid prospective individual buyers who want the house not as an investment but as a home — a place to live, raise a family, etc. Once Bloomington’s stock of such home ownership opportunities is gone, it’s gone forever.
Despite my strong opposition to what the city has proposed in its 2020 zoning map, I think we can have a civil discussion of Bloomington’s growth pressures in 2021. That becomes a lot harder if advocates on either side resort to cheap rhetorical tricks. Let’s keep the straw men out in the cornfields where they belong.