While mental illness and substance abuse can be contributing factors for homelessness, lack of affordable housing is actually the number one culprit, according to California YIMBY (YIMBY stands for Yes In My Back Yard), a pro-housing community advocacy movement. Amid opposition from groups like Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY), what can be done to reverse this growing shortage? Ned Resnikoff, a veteran journalist and former policy manager, recently joined California YIMBY as policy director. Based in Berkeley, he focuses on expanding YIMBY’s long-range advocacy goals and operations. Resnikoff joins WITHpod to discuss the homelessness crisis in California and beyond, the interconnectedness between housing and climate change, why he says equitably and sustainably expanding access to affordable homes is key and more.
Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.
Ned Resnikoff: Being homeless is stressful on a level that people who have never experienced it cannot possibly imagine. And even being homeless for short periods of time is incredibly stressful, incredibly deleterious to people’s public health. Also, if you’re predisposed to self-medicate with some sort of substance, I mean, good God. I mean, just imagine like if you’re living in a tent on the street, I mean you, like, wanting to escape that scenario for just some brief period of time.
Hello, and welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me, your host, Chris Hayes. If you are right now a person who is attempting to either purchase a house or rent a house, particularly purchase or rent a house, particularly rent a house in a major metropolitan area in America, New York City, where I’m lucky enough to live, the Washington, D.C. metro area, Chicago, the East Bay, Oakland, in San Francisco, notoriously, Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, you know, Austin, Texas, I can name a bunch of places, Nashville, Tennessee, right?
All of the places I’ve named are great cities, awesome places to live, obviously, with all sorts of complicated socioeconomic and political problems and issues, inequality, stratification, you know, segregation, public education, like all of the stuff that we know about the fabric American life, but also like great places to live. And I am a city kid, as you know, if you listen to the podcasts, I grew up in the Bronx, I’ve lived my whole life in cities, I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York and Providence, Rhode Island, those are four places I’ve lived, all lived within, like, the actual city limits, in the city, taking public transportation, living city life, I love cities.
A lot of people love cities, actually. It’s like - there was a period of time where people didn’t want to live in cities. The problem in a lot of cities for a very long period of time was not that rent was too high. In fact, it was the opposite. It was often that people were fleeing those cities. There was tremendous amounts of white flight, disinvestment, people didn’t want to move into the city.
That has not really been the issue for a lot of cities, the ones I just named, for instance, which are all pretty much growing cities in their own way, for years. Something about the long-term structural underbuilding of housing in America, which we’re going to get into, and the post-pandemic disruption has led to this crisis in housing affordability, particularly in major metro areas across the country.
It’s in red states and blue in different regions, but particularly acute, I would say, in blue state, blue cities, like democratic cities, in states that are controlled by usually democratic governance. And in some ways is a big failure of progressive politics in this country. I mean, you know, it should be the case that when the Democratic Party is in control in a state and in a city, they can produce policies that make it affordable for people to live in that city, and by and large, have had a very hard time doing that for a whole bunch of complicated reasons.
One of the outgrowths of that is the homelessness crisis that is quite acute in a bunch of cities. And the way that this gets talked about often to me is like really disgusting and dehumanizing in which homelessness is a problem for people that see the homeless people as opposed to for the people who don’t have a home. This is often the way that it’s like, communicated in local political campaigns, like, “I don’t want to step over this person.” It’s like, “Okay, well, fine.” It’s not an insane impulse to say that, like, it makes you feel unsafe or weird to see people sleeping on the street that not - I’m not gonna, like, judge that as an impulse, but that’s like the beginning of the conversation, right? The conversation is, “Why doesn’t that person have a home?”
And there’s competing theories about that. People say, “Well, it’s drugs, it’s addiction,” it’s all these things, but pretty good evidence like the reason that person is on the street is because housing is too expensive. And whatever else is going on their life, if they’re struggling with addiction, if they’re struggling with very severe acute mental health issues, those would be easier to treat and better if they had cheap housing that they could afford to live in and not be on the street.
And so, all of this comes together in a kind of sclerosis that set in in a lot of places in America where there is not enough housing, there’s resistance to building more, it’s leading to higher rates and high owning crisis and affordable (inaudible) crisis and homelessness. And there is this new movement that has sort of grown up in response to it, called the NIMBY movement. You’ve maybe heard of this, right?
NIMBY is a term for Not in My Backyard, which is a certain kind of a posture you will often encounter if you’ve ever been to or covered a community planning meeting in anywhere in America or if someone says, “We’re going to put X here.” Sometimes it’s a homeless shelter in which people come out and (drove), and say, “You can’t put it here.”
But sometimes it’s just something as simple as like, “We’re gonna put a grocery store or a mini mart or of just a residential market-rate apartment building.” And people come out, “No, you can’t do it. There will be this - it will be bad for the character of the neighborhood.” The opposite of NIMBY, Not in My Backyard, is a movement of people, the YIMBY movement, trying to say, like, “Yes in My Backyard,” like, “We need to build more housing.”
And this has gained a lot of traction. And right now, there’s an organization in California, which is the place where this is sort of most acute. There’s a group called California YIMBY. It’s a pro-housing community advocacy movement. And the Policy Director of California YIMBY is a guy named Ned Resnikoff. He’s written for a bunch of publications about housing policy. He is also a former colleague. He used to work for All In with Chris Hayes. I’ve been very chuffed and proud to watch Ned ascend to the commanding heights of housing policy in America. Ned, welcome to the program.
Ned Resnikoff: Thank you so much, Chris. It’s great to be talking with you.
Chris Hayes: So, let’s start with the organization California YIMBY that you are now the Policy Director for.
Ned Resnikoff: Sure. So, California YIMBY is a statewide organization that focuses on trying to change primarily state law through the legislature but also focuses on regulation as well. There are a number of different YIMBY chapters throughout California, some of which are member organizations of the larger California YIMBY organization. But California YIMBY is the primary organization that’s focused on the state level. And I think that’s important because there’s a lot of great work happening among YIMBY groups at the local level trying to change the local law to get more housing permitted. But ultimately, this is a statewide problem and it’s one that the state really needs to step in on.
Chris Hayes: So, California is sort of the kind of the place where all this seems most intense and most acute, and partly because California is a place that American settlers and non-indigenous people have moved to for years, often either conquering, displacing or doing awful things the indigenous folks that have lived there for literally centuries and millennia. But it is a place that new Americans have moved to for years, has been a rich and welcoming, sometimes in a complicated and unwelcoming way for immigrants. It’s, you know, the Chinese immigrants who built the railroad, it’s a melting pot.
But it’s also like, it’s an amazing place with - it’s gorgeous with beautiful weather. Who would not want to live in California, right? People want to live in California and have wanted to live in California for a very long time. And it’s harder and harder to do so because it’s really expensive. Why is it so expensive to live in California?
Ned Resnikoff: Well, the main reason why is simply that we don’t have enough housing. And there are a number of reasons for that, really starting in the second half of the 20th century, there was the slow-growth movement in California to really push back on what a lot of progressives of the time thought of as out-of-control development. There was a real push to downzone, a lot of cities, which again, was a national movement, but California was really at the epicenter of it. And when I say downzoning, what I’m really talking about is changing the zoning laws so that there’s no buffer or there’s almost no buffer in cities where if you get new residents then you have the room legally to build up.
And a lot of it is also a process that we have this really, really long intensive discretionary review process to get housing built. Some of your listeners, especially those in California, might be familiar with the California Environmental Quality Act, which makes it very easy to sue or to bury proposed projects in litigation and paperwork over the perceived environmental impacts, which again, sounds like a progressive goal. You want to make sure that we build in an environmentally sustainable way. But the consequence of this, in a lot of cases, has been to prevent green housing and green infrastructure from being built.
Chris Hayes: Say more about that.
Ned Resnikoff: Well, one of the things that we now know about cities and climate change, and there’s actually a video you can check out about this on the California YIMBY website, cayimby.org, dense cities, if that density is done in an appropriate way, are extremely climate-friendly. It’s one of the greenest ways to live. I mean the primary reason for that is vehicle miles traveled. So, if you live in a city, I know, Chris, you take the subway every day to work, that’s just a much more environmentally friendly way to get around than driving, building our cities dense and building them with good transit infrastructure and active transportation infrastructure like bike lanes makes it a lot easier for people to live low-carbon lives.
And the Environmental Quality Act, the California Environmental Quality Act, can really be a roadblock to building in that way, like you’ll see, for example, CEQA used to block the development of new housing on areas that are currently parking lots. And there’s just no possible world in which an apartment building is worse for the environment than a parking lot, especially if it’s an apartment building near transit. But there’s a real status quo bias baked into the law that allows sometimes well-intentioned people, a lot of times just NIMBYs who don’t want to see new housing in their neighborhoods to prevent things that would actually lower emissions drastically over the long run.
Ned Resnikoff: Right. So, the Environmental Quality law in California also is a pretty climate change concern law, right? I mean the environmental concerns that were guiding that were before climate was a problem or a crisis. And, like, the most important environmental issue on the planet right now is climate. A huge part of reducing carbon emissions is where we live and how we live, land use, living in dense places, commuting less, driving less. There’s a whole bunch of reasons that density produces climate benefits. And yet you have ostensible environmental law that is an obstacle to the kind of dense development that would be better for the climate.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. And some of the ways this gets used are frankly outrageous. I mean one of my favorite examples, which there’s actually a state law response to this, winding its way through the legislature. There was an organization in Berkeley, where I lived, that tried to get the California Environmental Quality Act, tried to use the California Environmental Quality Act to prevent University of California Berkeley, where I went to grad school, from expanding enrollment.
And that the implicit argument was essentially that undergraduates are some sort of environmental hazard for the City of Berkeley, which just is completely a violation of the spirit of the law. I think it’s kind of insulting. It’s also a real barrier if it had been successful to one of the primary levers of economic mobility in the State of California, which is the University of California system.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah, basically, it was like the court - they were trying to get the court to cap Berkeley’s admissions, right, so that it--
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Ned Resnikoff: Like, because it has to build more housing for admitted students and the people who own houses around there, a bunch of them, including this one sort of like famous guy who’s been interviewed a bunch, who doesn’t come off great in his interviews, and it’s one of the parties lawsuit, like just wants to be like, “No, we don’t want you to build more housing,” because what they really want is, “We like things the way they are, please don’t add more students.” But they’re using this - the California environmental law as the pretext essentially to block it.
Chris Hayes: Exactly, yeah.
Ned Resnikoff: And I should note that this is - I mean to give a sense of how egregious the misuses of this law can be, this is not the residents of Berkeley opposing expanding enrollment for the UC system. It’s this one small group of homeowners that the entire Berkeley City Council actually filed an amicus brief siding with the university against this attempt to cap enrollment. So, I mean that just goes to show that, well, a lot of these rules are sort of justified on the basis of, “Oh, well, it’s community input.” You want to hear from the community. We know that who actually shows up to resist these projects or to resist expanding enrollment at a public university is extremely unrepresentative of the actual community of residents.
Chris Hayes: So, let’s talk about that because the locus of like the - this is like in the weeds but it ends up being so important. It’s something I remember I covered a development fight in the uptown neighborhood in Chicago years ago. And I covered this fight forever and it was like, just like, knock them down, drag them out fight, you know, these community meetings, people screaming at each other, like all this stuff.
In fact, the thing went on so long and my story was so boring that I never published it. It’s like a huge fail. I was like, “Oh, my God, I’ve clocked like a thousand hours on this thing. They ended up building at, I think, the end. But why is the process the way it is, like New York has this very - like there’s these like community development boards and like it’s always a little opaque who sits on them?
And, you know, it’s a very weird thing because it always feels like I’m not sure who to root for because at one level, it’s like the developer, right? So, on one side, it’s like the developer comes to wanna build something and the developers like the sort of cartoonish like Dr. Seuss and like Lorax (LAUGH), you know, because it’s gonna, like, come and like, take all the Truffula trees and chop them down so they could sell their condos, right? That’s the developer.
And then on the other side are like the activists of the neighborhood who are often like, you know, they’re preservationists or whatever, but who often like if you scratch the surface, are like kind of cranks. I don’t want to overgeneralize, all sorts of people have all sorts of reasons. But where is this process from? Like, why is this discretionary process of like the community input, the community board meeting, why, why is that the way that this stuff gets built in major cities in America?
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah, it’s really strange from an international standpoint. I mean there are some countries that are similar. The U.K., I actually learned recently, is pretty much all their building is discretionary so they have to jump through these hoops as well. I think a lot of it in places like California certainly, the reason why it persists is because again, it seems nominally fairly progressive. I mean it’s, you know, it’s democratic, you’re having people gather together to really have a say in how their community is planned, is built. It’s not actually democratic, though, as you sort of alluded to. There’s been some very good research on this by Katherine Einstein and others that shows that the people who show up to these meetings are disproportionately white, disproportionately older, and by a very, very wide margin, disproportionately homeowners.
Chris Hayes: The homeowner renter distinction in this stuff and in urban politics particularly is just enormous because they literally have opposite material interests. I mean I think it’s a good point, I think, that it is - this is a crazy thing, right, about the way this works. In huge swaths of America, there’s not a lot of rental housing, right? Not a ton of rental housing in rural America or there some, right, trailer parks and things like that tend to be rental. There’s not a ton of rental housing in the suburbs, usually by design, again, often with a focus on racial segregation to exclude, you know, undesirables or people of other races from the, you know, predominantly white area that that’s a thing that happens.
In urban environments, you got a lot of rental housing and you got homeowners. And they’re literally like, it’s they’re on opposite sides of the seesaw (LAUGH), which is that if housing prices go up, that’s good for current homeowners and bad for current renters and vice versa. If housing prices go down, that’s good for current renters and bad for current homeowners. So, like, the community when you’re talking about a community that includes homeowners and renters, has like inimical material class interests that cannot be reconciled through the process.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah. And you’ll hear things about renters at some of these meetings that are, frankly, shocking. I mean there are NIMBYs who show up to these meetings who basically don’t consider renters to be citizens of the city. And--
Chris Hayes: Right.
Ned Resnikoff: --I think that’s absurd. I mean I’m a renter, but I - you know, I would like to be a homeowner one day in California.
Chris Hayes: I’m still talking to you.
Ned Resnikoff: Obviously, it’s challenging right now.
Chris Hayes: I even (LAUGH) - you’re a renter and I even had you on my podcast.
Ned Resnikoff: (LAUGH) Yeah, exactly. So, you know, like renters and homeowners, like this doesn’t have to be a test about who gets to be rightfully a citizen of the city. We should be trying to build cities where everyone can be a full political social member of this community.
Chris Hayes: Right. But let me push on this a little bit because I do think like I’m - obviously, I’m having you on and you can hear from my intro that I’m YIMBY sympathetic. But there are some objections to it and there’s also some things that I think a little bit the YIMBY folks can sometimes miss, and this is one of them. I do think that you, guys, the people who are like, “We need to build more housing,” and the process to build housing is broken, it has been essentially hijacked by people who are a sort of obstinate and narrow vanguard of the community and are not broadly representative and have created, like, negative effects for everyone in the community, particularly low-income folks, right?
Because I think there’s a little failure to acknowledge that, like, those folks, the vanguard that you’re objecting to, the people showing up, are often being materially rational. Like, here’s my example, and I want to give you this. I may have used it on the podcast before, but I want to give it to you and have your response. So, I live across the street from a schoolyard. It’s a combination of a parking lot for the church and then the schoolyard for the Catholic Church on this lot of land, okay?
This parking lot is great because, A, there’s no building there, so light comes into my house, and, B, my kids go across street all the time and they play kickball, they play softball, they play, right, my dog runs around. Now, if someone came in and said, “We’re going to build 80 units of rental housing and a 10-storey building on that lot, that would be better for the community, and objectively, materially worse for me, like it would be bad for me. I hope that I would be the kind of person who would be - like suck it up and be like, “This community needs more housing and needs more of that.” But there will be part of me will be like, “Oh, man, that’s a bummer.
And so, I just think that like some of the NIMBY stuff is totally rational, like, yeah, I’m sure it would be nice to like not have big apartment buildings, buy your beautiful Berkeley house like--
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: --I’m sure you don’t want a huge dorm glowering over you. Like, that’s not an irrational instinct. I think a lot of it is pretty rational, right?
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah, I think there’s a rational element and there’s an irrational element. So, for example, there’s a widespread perception that building subsidized affordable housing near homes will drive down the property values of those homes. And I think that drives a lot of the opposition to some proposed affordable housing projects.
Chris Hayes: Yep.
Ned Resnikoff: The evidence on that is that actually, building subsidized affordable housing does not drive down property values for nearby homes. And I think there are a couple reasons why, nonetheless, that idea has remained very sticky. One is just sort of like an intuitive one that, yes, people intuitively understand the link between housing scarcity and their own property values. The other one, frankly, I think, is class and race-based animus in a lot of cases.
Chris Hayes: Right.
Ned Resnikoff: I think also, though, there’s a more attenuated link between self-interest and the need for more housing because absolutely, there are tradeoffs with any kind of construction. You know, a lot of people prefer living in a less dead single family environment, maybe they have a great view, maybe they’re concerned about, you know, parking in front of their house. But I would say that if you look at the East Bay, where, again, I live, and you see the consequences there, or in San Francisco of decades of consistent underbuilding, it’s really caused a lot of social and urban disorder in a way that I think is bad for everyone, including bad for homeowners.
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Ned Resnikoff: I think you mentioned homelessness in your introduction and, you know, you’ll hear homeowners a lot of times complain about encampments near their homes. And I understand that they don’t want that, but the tradeoff is we need more housing.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean I think we all agree that like our tent city is good, like, should we have lots of tent cities in American cities? And I think like, that’s, I think, I would say, a cross-ideological consensus that like, no, like, if we were starting from scratch or if you’re waving a magic wand, like should people be living in, like, huge agglomeration of tents? Like, no, they should have homes. And the question becomes, like, “Well, how do we do that?” And the answer is, “You got to build more homes,” right?
Now, the other pushback on that, well, I think that’s really good point, right, what ends up happening is the sort of what might seem self-interested rational movements in individual cases, aggregate to something that ends up being harmful in a broad sense, right? And San Francisco, I think, is a great example of that.
But then the other question becomes like, and this is the other sort of attack point, I think, in the anti-YIMBY folks, is like, is supply really the answer, right? Like, do the mechanics work the way that you say they are? Does the housing market function like a market for widgets? If you make more widgets and demand remains constant, the price of the widgets will come down? Housing maybe has different dynamics, maybe there’s areas like, if you build a whole bunch of new towers in a neighborhood that was not desirable before, you create a critical mass that makes it more desirable and prices go up counter intuitively. Like that’s the other attack, right, on the, like, supply, supply, supply focus that the YIMBY folks like yourself have, so respond to that.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah. Well, a couple points. First off, California YIMBY does not believe in just increasing market-rate supply and then doing nothing else. We’re proponents of renter protections and also subsidized affordable housing. We think that there should be significant public subsidies going towards making homes affordable, in addition to just making it legal to build more homes.
The other thing is that there’s actually been quite a bit of research on this recently, until the past few years, we didn’t have great data on the link between housing supply and housing affordability. So, you know, there was a sort of intuitive argument about the balance of supply and demand. But now, we’re able to empirically test it. And Evan Mast, who’s our researcher, has done a lot of great work on this and has been able to reconstruct these moving chains.
So, what happens in a city and even happens in a neighborhood is, let’s say you build some new condos and the higher income people who live in that area move into those condos and they vacate their current housing, which is a little bit cheaper, and then the next income tier moves into that housing. And what he’s found is that this actually works all the way down the income ladder, down to the very, very cheapest housing. So, we do know these things work. It’s not the only thing we need to do in order to make cities healthy and affordable, but it is a really key part of it.
Chris Hayes: Right. So, I want to just - I want to restate that because I think that’s important because you’re making two points, right? You’re saying that more supply is necessary but not sufficient for the kind of affordable, available, growing, vibrant urban communities, metropolitan communities you want to build, right, as a matter of policy.
But then the second thing you’re saying, so you, guys, believe in like subsidized housing, and I should say, like, my dad was a housing organizer. I worked at housing organizations in the Bronx, like, this is a world I know very well. You know, I know affordable housing development is a really difficult thing. The people that do it are amazing. It can be really hard to do and do well. So, there’s that.
But then the second thing you’re saying, I think, is really important because this is where I think there’s a counterintuitive idea here, which is that even that being the case, if you just build high-end housing, that’s it, you just come in and you say - like let’s say that my hypothetical building, right, across from my street, please, if you’re a developer, don’t get any ideas, is just luxury condos, that even that is overall good for housing prices.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah. And you can actually see the reverse. So, for example, you live in Park Slope, right?
Chris Hayes: South of it in the neighborhood called Windsor Terrace, which is just South of Park Slope.
Ned Resnikoff: Okay.
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah. So, Park Slope, the beautiful Park Slope brownstones, which are highly coveted, cost millions of dollars, those were originally working class housing. And, in fact, a lot of the objections that you hear now to some new housing development that they’re all kind of cookie cutter, they look cheap and shoddy like those were the same things people were saying about brownstones in the early 20th century.
Chris Hayes: Right. If you walk down the street of brownstones in New York City, like a picture of Sesame Street, if you’ve never, you know, seen it, right, it has the look, it has what everyone calls now the character of the neighborhood and like don’t - and sometimes historical preservation, they’ve all built identically next to each other by a developer ‘cause that was the cheapest way to build it because you didn’t have to come up with new floor plans and all this stuff.
Ned Resnikoff: Exactly, exactly. And what - what’s happened with brownstones is, in part, sort of the reverse of the dynamic that Evan Mast talks about where if you build more housing then housing on the low end becomes cheaper. The same thing works in reverse where if you fail to build enough housing--
Chris Hayes: Right.
Ned Resnikoff: --and population grows then housing units like brownstones become a lot more expensive.
Chris Hayes: Right. So, scarcity will then drive the sort of people at the top end into smaller homes or, you know, whatever, less desirable in market sense, homes ‘cause there’s nowhere else to go.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah. And those properties can be redeveloped as well. So, this is part of the danger is if we don’t make it legal to build more housing, developers can take existing units and either not change the number of units in a building or actually shrink the number of units in a building by consolidating it into a single-family home and make it radically more expensive. And what we need them to be doing is actually building new homes.
Chris Hayes: Right. And this happens in New York all the time. I mean you have tons of buildings. I mean my brother just sent me a text the other day of the apartment building that my aunt lived in Greenwich Village, which was probably a story walkup, she was on the first floor, in what at the time was not like a super desirable neighborhood. In fact, I very clearly remember the syringes on the playground down the block when I used to go play there and the crack vials too.
That building, he sent a picture of it, had been - which was four floor-through apartment is now a single-family home and it must - you know, which costs $25 million or something. But it’s like, right, like there’s your example, right? Like, that was four units of housing that probably could have had, you know, four couples in it or four couples and maybe small kids that now has one family. And then like that happens all the time all over the place.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah, exactly.
Chris Hayes: So, okay, the other objection, because we’re talking a lot about developers here, let’s talk about the developer as a prototype and also the fact that like, there’s an interesting left divide on YIMBY’ism. It’s a - there’s an interesting intra-fractional fight among progressives, I think, about YIMBY’ism. And one of the critiques, I think, against it, and this is not just progressives but all the, you know, bunch of peoples that like, you’re basically shilling for developers, right? Developer is the enemy, developers don’t care about the community, they just want to come in and build their house and make their money and leave. And you, guys, are the kind of, like, velvet glove over the iron fist of the developers.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah, it’s a couple of things in response to that. First of all, the image of the massive, corrupt developer who is just (inaudible) in order to get these giant towers built, that’s the sort of developer that thrives in the environment in places like San Francisco right now and in New York. When you have this prolonged, discretionary process that can take years to build anything, it can take three years from proposing a project to actually breaking ground on average in San Francisco right now. So, who wins from that? The developers who have the resources where they can stick that process out, they have lawyers and they have political influence, those are the ones who are able to build in that environment. If you make the process more rational and you allow it to move faster--
Chris Hayes: Such a great point.
Ned Resnikoff: --then you open the door to smaller developers to come in and to actually compete with those large developers. And so, you don’t end up with this sort of corrupt oligopoly.
Chris Hayes: We’ll be right back after we take this quick break.
Chris Hayes: The harder it is to build, the more you’re selecting for basically the Donald Trump’s, which is like, the harder it is, the more hoops to jump through. You need people with tons of financing, tons of leverage, political connections, weight they can throw around because that’s the threshold to get something built. If you lower that threshold then you’re maybe people who were well-intentioned or (inaudible) just, you know, small or more - or closer to the community, right? Like, you know, I want to put in a - I want to build a three-storey, three-apartment building here in this empty lot, can I do that? Right?
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: In a lot of places, you can’t, like literally you can’t do that legally.
Ned Resnikoff: And that’s something that California YIMBY has been focused on fairly recently. So, a couple of our recent big successes, one is legalizing accessory dwelling units in California. So, those are - say, you own a single-family home and you have a shed out back or a detached garage and you want to convert it into a studio apartment and rent it out. That is something that you can now do and, in fact, a lot of people have been doing.
Similarly, SB 9, which passed fairly recently, allows you to subdivide a single-family lot you own into a duplex. These are not the types of things that like Robert Moses or Donald Trump would be attempting. This is--
Chris Hayes: Right, right, right, right.
Ned Resnikoff: --homeowners just trying to figure out ways to convert their homes so that they get a unit they can rent out to someone, and it’s been very effective.
Chris Hayes: Has it been pop? Like, how has that been working? I mean I know that, like, I’ve had coach house experience in my life where like people - you know, it’s a lot, it’s an urban lot, and it’s got some kind of house or, you know, a large house probably built years ago, right, the front of the lot that maybe is now divided into apartments or maybe isn’t and then like a coach house or some kind of, like, you know, garage, something in the back.
And I gotta say, like, I have such great memories. Those can be some of the coolest spaces in an urban environment, you know, set back from the street, there they’ve got like a little secret garden feel to them. I know people that in Chicago who lived in them that were like (inaudible), like rent wise, they were like, really cheap and really cool. And there’s one in New Orleans of someone I knew once, like they’re just cool, like great use of space in an urban environment that’s housing pinched.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah. We’ve been seeing a lot of them come online. And what I think is really exciting is that you’re also beginning to see these businesses crop up, that exists to help homeowners if they want to split their home into a duplex or they want to build an ADU. You’re seeing more businesses in California kind of help them with the financing. There’s also been some - I believe some programs around the state to try and encourage for low-income homeowners or especially low-income homeowners of color if they want to create an ADU to get some extra rental income to help them build their wealth. You’re seeing a lot of experimentation with that, and I think it’s really cool.
Chris Hayes: ADU is additional dwelling unit?
Ned Resnikoff: Accessory dwelling unit, yeah.
Chris Hayes: Accessory dwelling. So, you know, the other question here, right, is these sort of very front questions of race and class, right, because housing is always about race in America. And when it’s not about race, it’s about class. But it’s always about some version of that too, right? The other side of the tracks, the house on the hill, you know, the bad part of town, right, redlining, like the spatial distribution of people with money and people without and people who are owning and people who rent, people who are white and people who are black, people who are immigrants, people who are native born, like all of this has shot through all of these decisions. And I guess my question is, like, how do you see your YIMBY work intersecting with that? And how is it furthering a vision of like integrated neighborhoods, which are very, very hard to build and maintain in America?
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah, I mean one of the things that I think is really amazing about cities is that they can be a site of cultural, racial, and class-based integration. I think the sort of collisions that you get from people and the cultural products that come out of that, the sort of just exposure to different ways of being--
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Ned Resnikoff: --is just really, really incredible. And I see that as pretty core to what we’re trying to do, is to, you know, finish the job of desegregate in California because it was never completed and we’ve actually backtracked in a lot of ways. I mean people talk about the housing crisis as a - primarily a progressive pathology. And I do think there’s something to that.
But it’s also just the case that we have a lot of laws on the books, including - and inscribed into the state constitution that are flagrantly racist and are making it difficult for us to both build more housing and also integrate cities and neighborhoods around California. A good example of this is something that - actually, there’s a an effort to overturn right now is Article 34 of the California Constitution, makes it so that if you want to build public housing in any city in California, you need to pass a referendum first. And the rationale for that is--
Chris Hayes: What?
Ned Resnikoff: It’s crazy.
Chris Hayes: Wait. Pass a referendum that the state - all state voters or city vote, like who votes on it?
Ned Resnikoff: No, it’s a local referendum, but you basically need to have a plebiscite in a city in order to build any public housing there.
Chris Hayes: Oh, my God. (LAUGH). It’s so wild.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah, yeah. I mean, like I said, it’s just - it’s clearly racist. I mean the intent of it was clearly racist. And this is still a part of the California constitution and these are the sorts of rules that are making it harder for us to get where we need to go both in terms of racial justice and in terms of housing affordability, and obviously, the overlap between those two things is considerable.
Chris Hayes: Well, let’s - you talked about progressive pathologies and then the sort of intersection, right, of like, reactionary white racism and progressive pathology, sort of like creating this potent cocktail that produces, like, zero growth, house under building, I think, really, really typified in where you live in the East Bay, San Francisco particularly, like the epicenter of this, right? They’ve got a height restriction. That height restriction itself makes it incredibly hard to build. Washington, D.C. also has the height restriction. We’ve also seen, you know, similarly unbelievable underbuilding there, unbelievable explosion of housing prices in Washington, D.C.
You know, Ezra Klein has written about this in the New York Times a bit and others sort of have taken on. I think - and I’m sympathetic to it, right, that, like, you get this like - the sort of like red tape capture and this sort of fetishization of small (D) democracy and community involvement produces a situation in which, like, progressive municipalities and progressive states can’t build.
And if you look at like, the Sun Belt, Florida, you know, Maricopa County in Arizona, Houston famously doesn’t really have very restrictive ruling, like, they’ve got it figured out, they’re like libertarian, like, “Hey, just build it.” It’s like working out for them, and that’s a notch in the belt for that worldview versus, you know, regulatory progressivism. What about that argument? Like, are things better in a place like Houston and others than they are in a place like San Francisco? What do you attribute that to? What should progressive cities try to copy and what shouldn’t they?
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah. I mean I think there are a lot of things that Houston does, right? And I have to give a shout out to my incoming colleague, Nolan Gray, who wrote a book, “Arbitrary Lines”. He’s gonna be our research director, and has done a lot of work on Houston. Yeah, it is true that Houston has built a lot more than California cities and has been able to be fairly affordable, not coincidentally. Houston has also made incredible progress in reducing homelessness. There is a recent New York Times magazine piece about this.
I do think that there is something to learn from some of those looser regulatory requirements around zoning in particular. But, of course, you know, I’m not suggesting that California should just adopt wholesale Texas’ policy program. I mean one thing that you’ll notice if you go to a lot of Texas cities, including Houston, is there’s just quite a bit of sprawl. It’s - they’re very car-centric places.
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Ned Resnikoff: And what we need to figure out how to do in California is build a lot of housing and ease the regulatory requirements that we need to ease in order to build dense housing, but do it in such a way that we are hitting our climate goals and approaching climate neutrality.
Chris Hayes: Yeah, that - see, that’s the tricky thing but I think - and I think particularly for me, I’m from the Northeast and, you know, Kate is from the Midwest, these are parts of the country that are like relatively old and relatively sort of already built. And I’ll never forget when I first like - when you first go to Vegas, right, like, there’s a point where you’re driving in the city of Vegas where, like, you just hit the last lot that’s developed, like that’s it, that this lot’s developed, and then on the other side of the road is the desert.
And someday, someone’s gonna come and buy that lot and build some houses on that lot and put in some cul-de-sacs, and then it’s just gonna keep going and like through much of the West, right? It is easier to build environments where you’re not doing infill, whatever the regulatory apparatus is. Building on that empty lot at the edge of, you know, Vegas is gonna be an easier thing to do both logistically and also, like, community-wise than like, you know, the 80-unit tower across the street from me, right, that I’m conjuring, because those places, the tricky thing is to build high-density housing in places that are already pretty built and pretty dense, not sprawling them out.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah, exactly, exactly. It is politically a more challenging thing. And I think there’s also a perception that density is not climate-friendly because when you walk around a dense city, there’s just less nature. And people associate--
Chris Hayes: Right, right.
Ned Resnikoff: These people associate climate friendliness with, you know, like, trees and forests and brooks, and you can certainly have very green parts of a city in the sense that there’s a lot of urban tree canopy or there are gardens. Actually, urban tree canopy is a really important climate adaptation measure to--
Chris Hayes: Yep.
Ned Resnikoff: --have in dense cities.
Chris Hayes: And a huge equity issue in urban neighborhoods because they tend to be - I mean in New York, it’s just like - particularly in Brooklyn, like, the wealthier, more affluent neighborhoods have trees and the poor ones don’t, like full stop, it’s like very stark.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. But I think actually hitting our climate goals and building the cities that we need to build requires thinking in a different way about climate and about environmentalism than we’re traditionally used to where the focus is a lot more on conserving green space. And, you know, green space is great, but we also - we need urban density so people drive less. And there are all kinds of other environmental benefits to urban density as well. For example, energy savings, if you’re in an apartment building and you’re running your AC then there’s some spillover effect also where you’re at least in some small way cooling your neighbors’ apartments as well.
Chris Hayes: Yep.
Ned Resnikoff: All kinds of benefits like that that we really should be trying to take advantage of as much as possible.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean heating structures, I mean the classic rowhouse of the urban east coast, right, Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C., New York, Boston, like, right? The classic rowhouse, like, it’s insulated really well on two sides and has very little exposure. The other, like, those are very, very efficient buildings.
Ned Resnikoff: Absolutely.
Chris Hayes: They’re very efficient buildings to heat, for instance, like they’re just way more efficient than, like, the suburban lot home that’s exposed on four sides on an acreage. And when you aggregate that over, you know, hundreds of thousands of millions of dwellings, you get like very significant carbon savings.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: So, what’s an example - let’s talk - can we talk about Minneapolis maybe a little bit because I feel like that’s been a place where there’s been a big pretty, like, a YIMBY vanguard that’s kind of successfully changed some housing policy and just how that’s going? Minneapolis, which is a great American city and a really interesting place, and tell me about what they’re doing there because they just had a big sort of YIMBY success policy-wise.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah. So, Minneapolis eliminated single-family zoning. And that’s something that has been happening around the country. Berkeley, which was the birthplace of single-family zoning also recently eliminated single-family zoning. I think what you’re seeing, though, in places like Berkeley and Minneapolis as well is that eliminating the zoning is not on its own sufficient in order to get more housing built because it can still be very expensive to build.
And so, in addition to easing zoning restrictions so that you can get denser housing, it’s also really important to think about what are the ways that we can actually make it easier to build. What are the sorts of building requirements that we can do away with because they’re arbitrary, they’re not actually improving people’s health and safety? My favorite example of this and I think a lot of YIMBY’s favorite example of this is minimum parking requirements.
So, if you’re building an apartment building that in a lot of places, you need to provide a certain number of parking spots per unit in the building. And not only is it - it makes it significantly more expensive to build that building, it - which, in turn, contributes to driving up the rents and all those other things, but also free parking is climate disaster. And so, if we could just eliminate parking minimums then you would allow developers to save a not inconsiderable amount on building and also people who, if they’re not paying either explicitly or implicitly in their lease for a parking spot then maybe that incentivizes them to ditch their car and try getting around by bus or rail or e-bike.
Chris Hayes: Right. I mean a big thing, and I think about this all the time because I know people in my life who I’ve - are dear to me and live in cities and need to use cars for mobility reasons, right? And they really bristle. I mean you saw this, like, outer borough rebellion against congestion pricing in New York, and it wasn’t like just the New York Post in the tabloids, it was like genuine organic like - and people will then point out, “Well, actually, there’s a real class valence to people who own cars in cities,” and that’s absolutely true. But this was like the kind of, like - you know, there’s a certain kind of, like, metropolitan middle-class person with a car who wants to be able to conveniently drive places then there are certain people who really need to, right, for mobility reasons. They can’t - you know, they can’t ride an e-bike, they can’t ride a scooter.
But what you want to produce as a city where - I always say this to these people who I’m, like, shadowboxing with my head, right? These arguments with people like me who don’t need to drive, you want to get the people who don’t need to drive not driving because it actually makes it better for the people who do need to drive, right? Like, it makes - like you want to clear the roads of the cars that don’t need to be there so that the people who do need to drive can drive. You want to clear the parking spots of people who can take the subway or can take an e-bike or can take some alternate means so the people who have to go to a doctor’s appointment and park there, because they’re mobility constrained, have a parking spot. Like, again, it’s a little bit of that thing you talked about before about if you build the condos and people move up into it, like you want to kind of shift that burden so that we can allow people who need to use cars in urban spaces to use it.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean another point about this with regard to our climate goals, I think there’s a perception that electric vehicles that Tesla’s are going to solve everything, that’s really not the case. I mean you’re still going to have all kinds of emissions both in the manufacturing of those vehicles but also from the particulate matter that is thrown up by the wheels on the road. And I’m not saying that e-vehicles aren’t part of the solution. They certainly are. I mean both the electric vehicles are a dead end side and the electric vehicles will fix everything side are wrong.
Chris Hayes: Yeah, right, exactly.
Ned Resnikoff: We need to both make electric vehicles the norm among people who drive cars but also, as you said, reduce overall driving.
Chris Hayes: We’ll be right back after we take this quick break.
Chris Hayes: Just to go back to Minneapolis, right, because you talked about the sort of the changes they made, I think this is an important thing for people to understand and make sure I’m getting this right. So, there are sort of two things to think about, which is, there’s zoning and then there’s the process to get something built. So, like zoning says, “This area is zoned for state residential development,” right, which means you can build it here, right? Like that’s just like you may, you may put a strip club here, you may not put it here, you may put a single-family home here, you may not put it here, you may put a multi-family apartment here and here. But then after you get past the may, the question is, “Can you actually get it built?” And that’s where this sort of discretionary process comes in, right? So, it’s not - zoning is not enough.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: If you say, like, “Oh, sure, yeah, you could totally, go, knock yourself out, try to build a 10-unit rental there.” You’re zoned for it. And then it’s like, okay, now, actually tried to build it and there’s a community process, and there’s lawsuits, whatever. So, one of the things that I think I’ve heard YIMBYs advocated for, and I’m not sure if this is actually what Minneapolis has done or not, but like the idea of, like, multi-unit by-right? Right? Like you don’t have to go through a process on a plot of land where (formal), you could build a single-family home to build a duplex, that, like that’s just like - that’s not discretionary anymore. And that’s like a key part to bridging this sort of second part of the story, which is not just zoning.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah, absolutely. By-right development, I think we need a lot more of, it’s going to drive down the cost, it’s going to allow us to scale up with the housing, we need a lot faster. It’s also more democratic. And I think this is a point that I wish was better understood that, you know, we talked about how unrepresentative these community meetings are.
What if, instead of having this convoluted sort of opaque process for deciding what can and cannot get built on a project by project basis in your community, in your neighborhood, in your city, your duly elected representatives could come up with a general plan for the city and people could have input on the general plan and then things that conform to the general--
Chris Hayes: Right.
Ned Resnikoff: --plan could get built?
Chris Hayes: Right.
Ned Resnikoff: And you wouldn’t need to show up at like 6 P.M. on a Tuesday and stay until midnight to give comment on an individual project because it would just be, like, “Well, is it in the plan or not?”
Chris Hayes: Right. And then the plan can be democratically decided whether that’s - you know, you have a city referendum or you - or the people that you elect like make that plan. But that’s a great point, like that actually is more broadly democratic. And again, it’s like the difference between, like, democracy and, like, stakeholders, right, stakeholder is like who can show up to the meeting at 5 o’clock on a Tuesday, which always, always is disproportionate.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah, absolutely.
Chris Hayes: The other thing I want to talk about is the homelessness question. We sort of touched on it at the beginning. Let’s sort of come back around to it here because I do think, like you mentioned the Houston New York Times article, I do think there’s skepticism, there’s real skepticism. I encountered this all the time in people that, like, the problem for homelessness is housing.
And part of that skepticism is born of the fact that I have encountered as a New York City subway goer, many a person who is either living in the subway or living on the street, who is just very obviously manifestly unwell. You know, they are unwell. And I think a lot of people look at that and say like, “Well, it’s not - housing is not this person’s problem, the fact that they are unwell.”
And, you know, there’s compassionate versions of that or that - like, this person needs to get the care they need so that they’re not - you know, they’re not in the distress they’re in. There’s less compassionate, including, like, you know, borderline fascistic, like, Travis Bickle versions, which is like, “Clean them all up. I don’t want to see it, like this gum needs to be washed away,” right? So, there’s a huge spectrum, but even across that spectrum of like compassion to, you know, reactionary backlash, the idea that, like, the problem is housing is counterintuitive to people. Explain the logic.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah. Well, there are a couple of things. I mean, first of all, the folks who you’re most likely to run into on the street who are and has - have very severe behavioral or substance use problems, those are not representative of the majority of people--
Chris Hayes: Right.
Ned Resnikoff: --who are un-housed.
Chris Hayes: This is a really key point. You cannot stress this enough. I’m sorry to interrupt.
Ned Resnikoff: Right.
Chris Hayes: Like, this is a really key point, like the people that are most salient to you perceptually on a streetscape are almost, by definition, not representative of a community of un-housed people at a given moment in a given city.
Ned Resnikoff: Exactly, yeah. Most people who are homeless are homeless for short periods of time, possibly intermittently. There’s sort of chronically homeless individual, who, again, has these very severe behavioral problems, that’s a minority. Now, that being said, I understand why that’s a population of special concern to people who live in the area or taking public transit.
But the important thing to keep in mind there is two things. First of all, the relationship between mental illness, substance use, and homelessness does not all go one way. So, I was actually listening earlier today to your episode with Olga Khazan, and she was talking about stress being part of the reason why everyone is, you know, acting so weird and--
Chris Hayes: Yeah.
Ned Resnikoff: --in particular, the stress of the pandemic creating this sort of mental health crisis. Being homeless is stressful on a level that people who have never experienced it cannot possibly imagine. And even being homeless for short periods of time is incredibly stressful, incredibly deleterious to people’s public health. Also--
Chris Hayes: Yes.
Ned Resnikoff: --if you’re predisposed to self-medicate with some sort of substance, I mean good God. I mean just imagine, like, if you’re living in a tent on the street, I mean you - like wanting to escape that scenario for just some brief period of time.
Chris Hayes: Yeah, I think it’s actually a pretty easy - I think this is a really important point, the cause direction here, and I’ve had this conversation with people, like, just do the thought experiment, like you have to sleep on the ground, not just for one night, for seven nights, right? I would have a few drinks every night (inaudible) no question, or other substances, I don’t know like - but--
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: --that would probably - like, it’s not good for your sleep in the long term, but like if I needed to fall asleep in a hard ground, like probably when I find someone to knock me out a little bit. And so, like, that - I think that’s just like so logical, but people really don’t think of it in those terms.
Ned Resnikoff: And the other element of this too is it goes both ways, again, in this - in the sense that if your pre-existing mental health issue is being exacerbated by homelessness or if you have a new mental illness that has developed as a result of the prolonged stress of homelessness or you are heavily dependent on, you know, alcohol or fentanyl or whatever else, then the best thing that someone can do for you to help you get that under control starts with giving you housing.
And it’s not the only thing for people who have, again, these severe issues like they need other wraparound services. But if you have a drinking problem and you’re trying to quit drinking then having a stable residence that you can do that from where you feel safe and secure, where you can close the door, that is just going to make things - it’s gonna be challenging no matter what, but it’s just going to make it so much easier.
Chris Hayes: Yeah. And I think that the final part of this, and again, I’ve used this argument of people ‘cause - again, because I’ve encountered people who have a hard time, like acknowledging is like, do you think in rural Mississippi - like do you see homeless people in rural Mississippi? No, you do not? Do you think rural Mississippi or rural Louisiana or rural anywhere, like, doesn’t have people with drug addiction or have mental health issues? Like, obviously, right?
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah.
Chris Hayes: You know, so there are parts of the country that are very poor, A, or, B, have high levels of substance use. I mean this has been the, you know, huge narrative, right, about - huge parts of the country, particularly through Appalachia that, you know, oxy and things like that, where they don’t have homelessness because the housing is cheap and they still have all the same levels and there’s empirical work, if I’m not mistaken, that has sort of borne this out when you look at it.
Ned Resnikoff: Yeah. You know, there’s been a lot of empirical work on this. There’s a book called, “Homelessness Is a Housing Problem,” that came out recently where they spent a lot of time looking at these causes. There’s also been some great work from economists at Zillow, looking at the link between housing affordability and homelessness.
But you can also just look up for yourself. If you look on the CDC website at which states have the highest per capita rate of fentanyl overdose deaths or overdose deaths in general, then West Virginia is at the top. But in terms of rates of homelessness, West Virginia has one of the lowest homelessness rates in the country. And again, it’s exactly for the reason you said that they have incredibly cheap housing there.
I do think, though, that we’ve made some really incredible progress over the past few years in California. And it has yet to be born out in the sort of building at scale that we really need and the amount of human suffering that’s resulted from the inadequate pace has been just unforgivable. But that progress is still happening. And I think we’re going to continue to have bigger and bigger policy wins if we can just keep up the momentum, if we can keep up the pressure. And I think eventually, we will solve the housing crisis in California. I don’t know how long it will take. It will take too long, but I think it’s going to happen.
Chris Hayes: Ned Resnikoff is the Policy Director at California YIMBY, which stands for Yes in My Backyard, a pro-housing community advocacy movement. He’s also a former colleague of mine. He worked at MSNBC on All In with Ned. What a great pleasure? I learned a ton from this convo. Thank you.
Ned Resnikoff: Thank you, Chris. This was great.
Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to my old colleague, Ned Resnikoff. Man, that was great. These are issues I really care a lot about. And hope you enjoyed that. We’d love to hear your feedback. Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. Be sure to follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod.
“Why is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the Doni Holloway, Tiffany Champion and Brendan O’Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory, and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.
Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email WITHpod@gmail.com. Follow us on TikTok by searching for WITHpod. “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by Doni Holloway, Tiffany Champion, Brendan O'Melia, engineered by Bob Mallory and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to nbcnews.com/whyisthishappening.