Susan Kirsch is a 78-year-old retired teacher who lives in a small cottage home in Mill Valley, California, on a quiet suburban street that looks toward a grassy knoll.
A Sierra Club member with a pesticide-free garden, she has an Amnesty International sticker on her front window and a photograph on her refrigerator of herself and hundreds of other people spelling out “TAX THE 1%” on a beach.
The cause that takes up most of her time, however, is fighting new development and campaigning for the right of suburban cities to have near total control over what gets built in them. We met just before the pandemic, after Kirsch sent an email inviting me to coffee and in the note suggested that my reporting on the nation’s housing problems could benefit from her slow-growth perspective.
We’ve become friendly in the two years since, and as I’ve absorbed her cheerful demeanor and come to appreciate her distrust of large institutions, I’ve tried not to reduce her philosophy to a single and oversimplified term.
But just so we know what we’re talking about, Susan Kirsch is a NIMBY.
NIMBY stands for “Not in my backyard,” an acronym that proliferated in the early 1980s to describe neighbors who fight nearby development, especially anything involving apartments. The word was initially descriptive (the Oxford English Dictionary added “NIMBY” in 1989 and has since tacked on “NIMBYism” and “NIMBYish”) but its connotation has harshened as rent and home prices have exploded. NIMBYs who used to be viewed as, at best, defenders of their community, and at worst just practical, are now painted as housing hoarders whose efforts have increased racial segregation, have deepened wealth inequality and are robbing the next generation of the American dream.
It seems like a lot to dump on what amount to hyperlocal disputes that largely consist of homeowners trekking down to city hall to complain about a new condominium building or proposed row of town homes.
But take a step back: What’s at stake in these disputes is the structure of American civilization. In a country with little national housing policy, the thicket of zoning, environmental and historic preservation laws that govern local land use are the primary regulators of a multitrillion-dollar land market that is the source of most households’ wealth and form the map for how the nation’s economy and society are laid out.
Around the country, cities and states that have struggled to tame rising housing costs are now trying to wrest control from neighborhood activists like Kirsch. Their logic is that too much of the power over whether new housing and infrastructure projects get built is left to a relatively small band of activists who pack late-night meetings to tell their city councils that whatever is being proposed is “out of character” and should be built somewhere else — not in their backyard.
To distinguish themselves from NIMBYs, the current generation of housing activists has adopted new “backyard” variants (YIMBY, “Yes in my backyard”; PHIMBY, “Public housing in my backyard”; YIGBY, “Yes in God’s backyard”) to declare how they are for things (everything, subsidized housing, building on church parking lots) that a NIMBY presumably is not.
Politicians have piled on: In California, homeowners who are used to being catered to with a host of regulatory and tax policies recently woke up to discover that their governor, Gavin Newsom, told The San Francisco Chronicle, “NIMBYism is destroying the state.”
Before we go any further, I am obligated to note that Kirsch does not appreciate the word “NIMBY.” She describes herself as someone who helps communities “feel empowered and self-reliant.” She has, nevertheless, made peace with the term.
After all, this is a person who once wrote an op-ed that said the removal of five trees in Mill Valley sent “existential messages to our fellow citizens of the world.” Who has fought for two decades to prevent a developer from putting 20 condominiums on a hill at the end of her street.
Kirsch’s nonprofit, Catalysts for Local Control, opposes just about every law the California Legislature puts forward to address the state’s housing and homelessness problem.
In Zoom meetings with her members, she describes lawmakers’ intentions in dark terms and drives the message home with graphics that say things like, “Our homes and cities are under attack.”
It might seem kitschy if it weren’t so effective. Kirsch was 60 when she began her fight against the condos down the block. Eighteen years later, the hill remains dirt.
Stories like that, one project fight after another, form a larger story about how the state and nation dug themselves into a growing housing shortage. The impulse behind NIMBYism is timeless: People who already live somewhere have always raised objections to newcomers. The feeling applies to renters as well as homeowners, crosses boundaries of race, class and culture, and has been a part of urban life for centuries.
But California has gone further than most in empowering it. And until fairly recently, this was seen as something to be proud of.
That turnabout is what’s so baffling to activists like Kirsch. In the late 1970s, when she moved to Marin County, California was in the vanguard of an ideological backlash that created modern environmentalism and rejected the assumption that a growing economy and more people were always good — a cause championed by state and national politicians and celebrated everywhere from songs to magazine covers.
California is now a different place with a different struggle, and a lack of housing is at its center. It’s not just that the $800,000 median home price is too expensive, or that the 100,000 people who sleep outside are a daily tragedy, or that the outflow of cost-of-living refugees has helped steer it into population decline. It’s that those statistics have raised hard questions about the state’s governance and sense of self.
How does a place that prides itself on progressive politics have so many policies that exacerbate inequality? How do homeowners whose window signs say they welcome every oppressed group rationalize a housing system that has caused their own children to flee?
Kirsch does not deny that California has a housing problem but has a different narrative about why. In her telling the state’s problems have little to do with the lack of housing — a diagnosis that unites basically every liberal and conservative economist along with the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations — but instead blames investors who buy single-family houses, big technology companies and inequality generally.
She wraps her opposition to development in a “small c” conservative philosophy that a smaller local government is better and more responsive to its citizens than a bigger one farther away. Where many people see gridlock, she sees having her voice heard — and in the midst of a brutal housing crisis, fewer people want to listen.
“It feels like huge forces conspiring to take away control from people at the lowest level at which they live,” she said.
Yimbytown vs. Nimbytown
“We are winning.”
Alan Durning, founder of the Sightline Institute, a sustainability think tank that pushes for dense housing, was feeling triumphant. He was on a stage in Portland, Oregon, addressing the 2022 Yimbytown conference, which bills itself as a gathering of pro-housing activists and draws heavily from the ranks of embittered millennials who feel locked out of the housing market and under the thumb of rising rents.
Durning had just referenced a host of new state and local development laws — from California to Seattle, Minneapolis, Austin, Texas, and Connecticut — that in the past two years have shifted the national conversation around housing. New rules that allow homeowners to build second homes in their yards. Sweeping legislation to discard single-family zoning restrictions that ban apartments in suburban neighborhoods. When he mentioned a more obscure set of rules that limit the amount of parking in new developments, someone in the crowd of 300 went “Woo!”
A few weeks after the conference, the Biden administration released its own cheer in the form of a “Housing Supply Action Plan.” Among other measures, the plan aims to increase the nation’s supply of housing by using grant money to reward cities that reform land-use regulations in the manner Yimbytown celebrates. The administration pegged the nation’s housing shortage at 1.5 million units (other sources put it as high as 3.8 million).
That deficit is the product of two main trends. The most recent one is the Great Recession, which left the homebuilding industry so hobbled that even now, 17 years after the housing bust began, new home construction has yet to eclipse the mid-2000s peak. The other built gradually over decades as cities installed a cat’s cradle of land use rules that empowered NIMBYism and made housing scarcer and more expensive. In the hours before the Yimbytown gathering began, an unseasonable April snow fell on Portland’s streets. As attendees walked and Ubered to a Portland State auditorium for the conference, they passed sidewalk tents under a fresh layer of frost.
“It puts a knot in our stomachs, a clutching feeling in our chests, we have feelings of fear about being excluded, about being pushed out, about being unwelcome, unable to keep up,” Durning said in his speech. “That’s what housing feels like in Nimbytown. But here in Yimbytown, we’re about the opposite of all that.”
He added, “We want abundance of housing.”
The word “abundance” was not incidental. It refers to an emerging framework that says many of America’s deepest problems stem from shortages — too few houses, not enough colleges, a lack of wind and solar projects — and that the only way to solve them is to build.
Encoded in YIMBY ideology is a belief that the best thing to do with NIMBYs is discard them. But since the successes of one generation become the burdens of another, they should first understand them.
Small Is beautiful
Forty-nine years earlier, Kirsch was also young, idealistic and in Portland. She’d grown up on a farm in Minnesota, in a town with 1,400 people. After a series of urban teaching jobs broken up by trips from the Midwest to Washington, D.C., to protest the war in Vietnam, she took a yearlong road trip with a man she called “the adventure husband.” The final stop was Portland, and they rolled into town in a van.
Back then, the idea that the activist circuit might include a stop at Yimbytown would have seemed preposterous. Instead of “build baby build,” the national feeling had swung from the post-World War II boom to a new posture that three decades of mass suburbanization and urban redevelopment had created a crisis of too much.
The pebbles to this backlash had been sprinkled through songs like the 1962 tract home satire “Little Boxes” (“And they’re all made of ticky tacky/And they all look just the same”). Or the speech two years later in which President Lyndon B. Johnson warned of “an ugly America” troubled by decaying cities and lifeless sprawl that a raft of social critics said were breaking community spirit and creating an epidemic of loneliness.
Kirsch was partial to “Small Is Beautiful,” which was published in 1973 by economist E.F. Schumacher. The book cast doubt on a growth-at-all-costs mentality and was but one entry in what historian Kevin Starr called “this developing genre of population and land use apocalypse.”
“Part of how it influences me is I think greater self-reliance and self-resiliency are qualities that keep a community or culture strong,” Kirsch said of the book. “And the trends we have now, with being able to have efficacy in your own life, is part of what I think is being diminished.”
Instead of celebrating the arrival of new citizens, new power plants, new cloverleaf interchanges, California scholars started semi-seriously lamenting that they couldn’t require visas for people arriving from elsewhere in the United States. Environmental activists came to define themselves by what they could stop.
“It became a politics of quality of life rather than a politics of prosperity,” said Jacob Anbinder, a doctoral candidate at Harvard whose dissertation is on the emergence of anti-growth politics in the postwar period.
Marin County, a woodsy enclave that sits across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, enacted some of the strictest growth-control measures in the country — proudly. In the early 1970s, when a group of Marin homeowners mobilized to stop a nearby town-home development, the county commended them for distinguished public service.
But housing fights could also be proxies for racial exclusion. Even though discriminatory practices such as redlining — banks refusing to offer mortgages in nonwhite neighborhoods — had been outlawed by federal civil rights legislation, economic segregation persisted. Today Marin County is the most segregated county in the Bay Area.
Marin was Kirsch’s next stop after Portland. She arrived in Mill Valley in 1979, where she remarried, had kids and stretched to buy a house for $112,500.
Phil Richardson surveyed a tiny home on his dining room table. It was a model of a town home he wants to build, and it lay atop a bath-towel-size aerial photograph of Mill Valley.
The model and the photo were one small piece of a growing archive of drawings, renderings and environmental reports that document Richardson’s failure to build two dozen condominiums on Kite Hill, a plot of trees and bushes that sits next to a small office building at the end of Kirsch’s block. Various proposals and millions of dollars in land, legal and consulting fees later, he has yet to placate neighbors.
Richardson is a small-time developer who works from a home office decorated with models of World War II tanks and battleships. In a recent interview at his home, he recounted the time he met Kirsch to talk about his town homes. She told him he should scrap it and build a park bench.
He started the project in his late 60s and is now 86. He is determined to see it through. “My wife thinks I’m crazy,” he said. “I think the town could use the housing.”
Later, he added: “I’d still like to know her motivation. Forget my project: What drives her bus?”
Kirsch first heard about the proposal in 2004, after she got a public notice in the mail. The plan — then called Blithedale Terrace — was for 20 earth-toned town homes with pitched roofs and wood shingles. She convened a group of neighbors in her living room to see if they had an opinion about it.
“And we did,” she said.
There ensued a decade of meetings, lots of legal back-and-forth, and a sign that said “Save Kite Hill.” The city also got a lot of letters. They said the project was an “insane” idea that would create “unimaginable density” and lead Mill Valley toward an “LA-like destruction.”
Most of the letters raised questions about parking and traffic. Others voiced a more esoteric set of concerns, like “confusion for the post office.” One writer averred that anyone who lived in the new condos would be accepting a higher cancer risk, since their homes would be downwind from the wood-fired oven at a nearby restaurant.
“From my backyard I see the hillside,” Kirsch wrote from her Hotmail account. “Explain how my property value is not deflated if open space is replace(d) with view-blocking, dense, unsightly buildings.”
Richardson set Blithedale Terrace aside in 2013, nine years after proposing it, to focus on another development elsewhere. Kirsch used the dispute to start a slow-growth platform.
She’d fought the developer through a group called the Freeman Park Neighborhood Association. It morphed into a larger organization called Friends of Mill Valley, then a group called Citizen Marin. In 2016, having raised her profile through activism, Kirsch ran for the Marin County Board of Supervisors. She lost with 42% of the vote.
‘We’re all getting clobbered’
In retrospect, 2016 was a turning point of a different sort. It marked the beginning of a blitz of state legislation that would force cities to accept higher density neighborhoods in the form of backyard units and duplexes that could no longer be prohibited by local governments, and even higher density in the future, after the state reformed a long-standing planning process to increase the amount of growth cities have to plan for.
To make sure cities actually comply, Newsom recently created an “accountability and enforcement unit,” a sort of NIMBY patrol that monitors whether localities are approving new housing.
When you ask a planner or policy wonk how this happened, they point to a series of dull but important bills that were modest in isolation. Stacked together, however, they’ve shifted power over housing away from city councils to state bureaucrats and local planning and building departments — a move intended to prevent activists like Kirsch from having so much influence over whether new housing gets approved.
They also got comparatively little press coverage or debate, because most of the attention was consumed by a more extreme series of bills proposed by Scott Wiener, a state senator from San Francisco, from 2018 to 2020. The bills had various forms — none passed — but would have forced California cities to allow four- to eight-story buildings within 1 mile of rail stations and bus stops, regardless of local rules.
“I’m a former local elected official and former neighborhood association president; I am a huge believer in making decisions at a local level and people passionately tending to their community,” Wiener said. “But we’re going over the cliff, and whatever the benefits of local decision-making, and there really are benefits, it has failed to produce the housing we need.”
One afternoon in 2018, after traveling to San Francisco to hear Wiener talk about his plans at a police station, Kirsch and a group of furious attendees left the meeting for a nearby restaurant, where they founded a organization called Livable California. Its aim was to take the fight for local government to the Statehouse.
“The whole thing was, we’re all getting clobbered; we’ll have greater impact if we unify,” she said.
Livable California is now the most recognized brand among a class of new groups protesting the state’s housing moves. The groups do things like organize neighborhood associations and produce research that paints the idea of a shortage as overblown. (This charge is discordant with the volumes of research on the topic, the state’s low per-capita building rate, and its surfeit of illegal and overcrowded homes.)
Many of the most active members are from wealthy enclaves like Marin, but the fight to maintain local control over housing attracts a more diverse group than the stereotype of a rich, suburban NIMBY would suggest.
In California and around the country, activists who fight gentrification in cities frequently team up with suburban homeowners worried about development to oppose broad zoning reforms. Even if these groups don’t agree on housing policy, they often side with having those decisions made at the city or neighborhood level, where the political sphere is small enough that a group of volunteers can still be effective.
“Community activists organize in person,” said Isaiah Madison, who is 26 and Black, a resident of Los Angeles’ historically Black Leimert Park neighborhood — and on the board of Livable California. “But when you take it to the state, you’re just a number. There are so many issues, and so much bureaucracy and politics and money, that community gets lost.”
Over the course of several interviews, many of the most active homeowners expressed a feeling of upper middle-class regression. It seems unfair to them that people who did exactly what society told them to do — buy a house, get involved in their neighborhood — are now being asked to accept large changes in their surroundings.
More than anything, they are furious how an epithet like “NIMBY” can reduce someone who cares about their neighborhood to a cartoon. Yes, they are the people who fight development. These are also the people who make and distribute lawn signs. Who attend late-night city meetings to ask probing questions about bids on the city’s dog-catching contract. Who organize the block party and help start library programs that everyone else takes for granted.
“The state is crazy in trying to make all these cities their enemy,” said Maria Pavlou Kalban, who is on the board of directors of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association and recently founded a statewide homeowners’ and neighborhood group called United Neighbors. “These are people that are really seriously trying to answer the problem of ‘Where do our kids live?’”
When the conversation shifts to solutions, however, the conundrum of local control resurfaces. In an interview, Kalban outlined a plan to build higher-density housing on high-traffic corridors, which sounds perfectly reasonable. It also sounds like the town homes Richardson has been trying to build since 2004.
The Homevoter Hypothesis
Housing is a “bundled purchase,” or a big decision governed by a million little variables: the number of bedrooms, the size of the yard, the quality of local schools, proximity to work, family and transit. Hanging over all of this is, of course, the price.
Housing politics is driven by emotion, specifically the fear of losing what you have. Economist William Fischel, a professor at Dartmouth, laid out the financial dimensions in a theory — “The Homevoter Hypothesis” — that holds NIMBYism is a form of insurance. Since you can’t buy a policy that will protect you from the neighborhood going to hell, the thinking goes, people compensate by packing planning meetings to fight anything (be it a dump, a freeway or a low-rent apartment complex) they perceive as a threat.
People usually get involved in local politics for a distinct reason — they are angry at their school board, for instance, or worried about a condo complex at the end of their street — but they stay involved because they make friends and derive purpose from the work. It becomes something to do.
Over the past two decades, Kirsch said she has spent almost as much time on her deck drinking wine and talking housing with fellow activists as she does with longtime friends.
In our own conversations she dedicated as much energy to railing about how corporations are too big and billionaires too under-taxed and inequality so troubling as she did to the state housing policy. And so I asked the obvious question: With so many things to be angry about, why spend so much time fighting some condos?
“I suppose it is just that feeling of home,” she said. “Just that feeling of home and the safety and security and groundedness that goes with having a safe place to go to at the end of the day, where you can believe you can have security, you don’t need to worry about how are you going to have money for both food and insurance and dental care for your kids and all of those things, that metaphor of home as a place of comfort.”
The natural follow-up was what about the next generation, who say they are fighting for that too? She defaulted to neighborhood control.
“Local communities would do a much better job of solving these problems,” she said. “Using the language of centralized power is what charges me to do this — I think small is beautiful.”
Richardson recently put forth a new proposal for Kite Hill. This time it would consist of 25 condos that range from 800 square feet to 2,100 square feet, including six subsidized units for households making around or below the area median income. He’s feeling better about his chances thanks to changes in state law, but, at 86, is getting short on time.
“I’m going to win or I’m going to die,” Richardson said. “It’s one or the other.”
The city has yet to schedule a public hearing on the new proposal, but he is hopeful there will be one later this year. Whatever the date, Kirsch plans on being there. She has some things to say.