Is Upzoning Progressive?

Photo: Tony Castro

By Russell Skiba, Ph.D.

One of the arguments made by proponents of upzoning is that zoning policies that encourage higher density and remove barriers to development are progressive.  Jackie Scanlan, Development Services Manager of Bloomington’s planning department, has called the federal Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) Act — which calls upon local communities to end zoning for single family housing and penalizes those that don’t — “progressive.” 

It’s rather odd to hear a member of the Democratic Mayor’s office describing as progressive a bill sponsored by a conservative Republican, our own Representative Trey Hollingsworth. Indeed, Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, gave Hollingsworth a rating of 87% for his support of conservative causes in the last session of Congress.  

Yet Scanlan is not the only one to have argued that “progressive” policies such as upzoning are essential in tackling issues of equity, affordability, and sustainability. So it’s worth asking: Who are the organizations that promote and support the national campaign around upzoning?  In what way are they progressive?

Who Supports Upzoning?

In a video recently circulated around Bloomington by upzoning proponents, a charming young man named Nolan Gray explores the question “Are Developers Evil?” He presents a series of cleverly arrayed movie and TV clips illustrating how developers are villainized and concludes: “Developers, like farmers and doctors, provide an essential service. We should want them to do well.” 

On close examination, though, progressives might be forgiven for feeling less generous towards the organizations that support Mr. Gray.

In his video, Mr. Gray is listed as a research fellow and planner at the Mercatus Center, a conservative think-tank at George Mason University. The center was founded by and still receives much of its financial support from the Koch organization. Several of its board members are closely allied to the Kochs, including board director Charles Koch.

Most of us are aware of the Koch family — conservative billionaires who have spent over 40 years developing and funding a national network of organizations promoting a far right, libertarian agenda.  Far from supporting sustainability, the Kochs were central in Donald Trump’s plan to deregulate auto emissions, and their grassroots organization Americans for Prosperity led a successful national campaign attacking public transit. Koch Industries was the single largest corporate donor to the Republican House members who pledged to try to overturn the election results on January 6. 

The Washington Post has described the Mercatus Center as a “staunchly anti-regulatory center funded largely by Koch Industries Inc.” Greenpeace called Mercatus a “Koch-funded climate denial front group,” for good reason.  In a 2001 public comment on emission standards, Mercatus attacked climate change science, arguing: “data suggest that any warming that does occur will likely be at night, in the winter and near the poles. If a slight warming does occur, historical evidence suggests it is likely to be beneficial, stimulating plant growth and making humans better off.”

In 2016, a group of 19 US Senators, Democrats and Republicans, came together to call out 32 organizations aligned with fossil fuel interests, including Mercatus, for engaging in a coordinated campaign of climate denial. One of the event’s organizers, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI): stated that it was “long past time we shed some light on the perpetrators of this web of denial and expose their filthy grip on our political process.  It is a disgrace, and our grandchildren will look back at this as a dirty time in America’s political history because of their work.”

Can climate change denial and the rollback of environmental protections be called progressive?  Do they in any way reflect the sustainability goals of Bloomington’s Comprehensive Plan?

The “Are Developers Evil?” video was apparently produced by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a right-wing law firm funded by the Koch Foundation and other conservative backers. The Pacific Legal Foundation was founded in the 1970s to counter liberal public interest legal groups supporting tougher environmental and health regulations. They have brought suits, represented the plaintiffs, or filed amicus briefs in cases opposing public sector unions, voting rights, environmental protection, and affirmative action.  

PLF has been particularly successful in challenging and overturning environmental regulations and affirmative action. Called “right of the Trump Administration,” its goal is not merely to oppose specific policies, but to establish precedent that cannot be overturned by future administrations. 

One of Pacific Legal Foundation’s frequent targets has been protections for endangered species. In 2006, it brought a lawsuit that succeeded in removing the bald eagle from the list of endangered species. It has also challenged, usually successfully, protections for numerous other species, including the golden parakeet, the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, the black-capped vireo, the lesser long-nosed bat, gypsum wild-buckwheat, the wood stork, the West Indian manatee, and the wolverine.

Those who believe in equity and inclusion may not wish to involve the Pacific Legal Foundation in their efforts. PLF supported the plaintiffs in the 2007 Supreme Court case, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, who challenged Seattle’s school desegregation plan.  The Court’s decision, in favor of the plaintiffs fighting desegregation, has been viewed by constitutional scholars as marking “a sharp turn in the Court’s historical commitment to addressing racial segregation in public schools.” 

Nor has Pacific become more progressive during the pandemic. PLF has filed several lawsuits challenging the CDC’s ban on evictions during the pandemic.  Most recently they have opposed extending that eviction ban, claiming that it would cause economic hardship for landlords.

In what universe could de-listing endangered species, opposing school integration, and fighting against those placed at-risk by the pandemic be considered progressive? Would that be a place Bloomingtonians could call their own?

In his video, Nolan Gray concludes that “Zoning and housing constraints mean that no new housing can be built.”  This is of course a wildly irresponsible exaggeration: Bloomington has both zoning and housing regulations, and new housing is being built here every day. But the implications of his message should cause concern: In order to build “sufficient” housing, we must eliminate zoning regulations. His message comes through even more clearly in a tweet he posted on January 8, saying simply “Abolish zoning.”

One of the most widely criticized elements of the Bloomington upzoning debate has been the flawed and hurried process through which the Mayor presented his plan and collected input. Bloomington is a town with a strong tradition of participatory democracy — we expect openness, transparency, and real opportunity for community input.  

Yet upzoning enthusiasts tend not to be such big supporters of citizen participation. In an article titled Stop Asking the Public What They Want, senior editor of Strong Towns Daniel Herriges asserts that “It’s no secret that a lot of public engagement is worthless.” 

Another way to de-emphasize community participation suggested by Gray is that the media limit its coverage of public debate at planning and zoning meetings:  “Don’t overemphasize the angry naysayers for things like rezonings, street diets, etc. Don’t give them the lead or headline….The people who show up at the meetings are one unique slice of the community, not ‘the community.’ ”  

Upzoning advocates couch their ideas in buzzwords (“filtering” and “missing-middle”) and seek limits on public debate, realizing that their ideas could otherwise never find wide acceptance in a progressive community.

Let’s be clear: Upzoning is nothing more or less than the deregulation of land use. Deregulation has been a central strategy of conservatives since the Nixon Administration. Hiding behind the notion that the markets are hampered by the “red tape” of governmental bureaucracy, free-market and anti-big government conservatives have tried to apply the hammer of deregulation to weaken or eliminate “government interference” in almost all aspects of American life: civil rights, special education, rent control, voting rights, wildlife protections, climate change, and protections from threats to the environment caused by corporate irresponsibility and overdevelopment.

(A perfect example is the bill currently being sponsored by a group of prominent Indiana Republicans—who happen to have strong ties to the construction industry — that would severely weaken the state’s ability to protect wetland areas from development).  

Though widely discredited by measured outcomes, trickle-down economic theory, the belief that benefits funneled up to the rich and powerful will eventually filter down to the rest of us, remains the core belief of the deregulators. Reagan Republicans invented the term “supply side economics,” to disguise their true intent, and that euphemism has been adopted by the upzoners in their calls for “supply side housing remedies.”  David Stockman, who popularized supply side theory, eventually became one of its harshest critics, admitting that Reagan’s 1981 tax cut “was always a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate…. It’s kind of hard to sell ‘trickle down.’ So the supply-side formula was the only way to get a tax policy that was really ‘trickle down.’ Supply-side is ‘trickle-down’ theory.”

Wherever the deregulators have succeeded in implementing their trickle-down approach, deregulation has had the effect of magnifying disadvantage and inequity, and enabling environmentally destructive practices.  Like all deregulations before it, upzoning operates on the principle that freeing the market and loosening its “constraints” will eventually benefit us all.  But if applied here in Bloomington, it will have the same effect that it has always had on those who are in greatest need of the law’s protections.

Is the goal of upzoning and densification to address progressive issues of equity and affordability, or to enable developers to more easily build wherever they wish and minimize the costs of community oversight? Who will suffer if they are successful?

Who Stands Against Upzoning, and How Do Upzoners Respond?

One might expect that disadvantaged residents of color and local housing activists would welcome policies that claim to increase affordable housing and address segregation. Yet in the places where upzoning has been implemented, its most fervent critics have been Black and Brown and low-income residents, and groups fighting for affordable housing. 

The L.A. Human Right to Housing Collective, a group of predominantly Black residents dedicated to building a city-wide tenants movement, has called upzoning in Los Angeles “nothing but an accelerated gentrification ordinance.”  Just before Christmas, 65 community, civic, cultural, environmental and preservationist groups rallied at New York’s City Hall, demanding an end to the city’s upzoning efforts and characterizing the 15 upzonings supported by Mayor DeBlasio as “a giveaway to his developer friends and campaign donors.”  

Why would lower income and Black and Brown residents speak out so strongly and consistently against policies purported to improve equity and affordability? Put simply — they have experienced the realities of upzoning. Far from increasing affordability, upzoning drives up rents and housing prices, shutting lower income residents out. Far from solving problems of equity, upzoning has caused massive displacement and dislocation of residents of color in upzoned areas.  

Unlike the theories of the “new urbanists,” the negative effects of upzoning are real, and the burden of those effects falls most heavily on the dispossessed and marginalized. It isn’t surprising that the well-off and overwhelmingly White members of the California YIMBY organization, funded primarily by ultra-rich, overwhelmingly White tech industry moguls, fail to understand that. But the LA Tenants Union, a powerful voice for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised, attempts to educate all of us when they call the upzoning strategy “a dangerous ideology that is funded by the powerful to serve the powerful.” 

When low-income residents of color speak out, are they heard and respected by upzoning advocates? Not exactly. At a rally in San Francisco, Black, Brown, and Asian speakers protesting upzoning legislation were shouted down by a group from the California YIMBY organization. “Our members were intimidated by YIMBY. They felt threatened,” said the president of the Chinatown-based Community Tenants Association.  After publishing an op-ed critical of the YIMBY movement, the San Francisco Examiner staff who wrote the piece were subject to a mass doxing campaign: “Our personal information has been shared widely over the internet, and our employers and publishers harassed, presumably to have us fired.”

Shouldn’t it give progressives pause that those who are leading the charge for upzoning and densification disparage and harass those that they claim to be helping?

The Cowbirds Come to Bloomington

Why would progressives, who traditionally see themselves as advocates for the poor and disenfranchised, fall in line with a theory of housing based on the discredited conservative notion of trickle-down economics? How can it be that some liberals and young progressives find themselves promoting catchphrases and theories developed by right wing think tanks financed by the Kochs and other ultra-conservative funders? Perhaps most importantly, how could some who say they care about America’s racist past of redlining and segregation support policies that amplify inequity, driving housing prices up and Black and Brown residents out?

I wish I knew.    

During the pandemic, my family and I have taken to feeding our neighborhood birds. The variety of birds that come to our feeders has been remarkable. The other day a beautiful pileated woodpecker, not a common bird in Indiana, visited our suet feeder. Pretty exciting.

Fortunately, one bird we have not seen in our yard is the brown-headed cowbird. The cowbird is a “brood parasite.” It does not build its own nest, but lays its eggs, usually quite abundant, in the nests of other birds. When those eggs hatch, the mother in the invaded nest cares for the baby cowbird as her own.  The voracious appetite and fast growth of the cowbird hatchling often leads to the starvation or crowding out of her own offspring.  As invasive cowbird populations have spread rapidly throughout the country, they have pushed several species to endangered status.

Make no mistake—the cowbirds of upzoning and densification have arrived in Bloomington. They have taken a discredited conservative economic theory and repackaged it so as to obscure its true origins.  They have clothed unjust and ineffective policies in words like “equity,” “affordability,” and “sustainability,” hoping that liberals and progressives will adopt those as their own. One can only imagine the damage that will be done to our community if the deregulatory theories of upzoning and densification are nurtured by progressives and allowed to come to fruition.

Gentrification and racial displacement are not progressive. Catering to wealthy developers in the vain hope that affordable housing will someday filter down to those in need is far from progressive.  Limiting or short-circuiting public discussion on matters that so clearly affect our future is most definitely not progressive.

Upzoning is not progressive.

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