Having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I have seen “not-in-my-back-yard-ers” (NIMBYs) up close and personal. NIMBYs are extremely vocal residents who oppose new housing on generally spurious grounds: “This will cause gentrification,” “I was not notified of this,” “What about the parking and traffic?” and the like.
As a result of public pushback, lawmakers across cities have created what amounts to a vetocracy, a system of governance where a small minority can block the will of a large majority –– disabling actions that are heavily favored when it comes to building housing.
For example, most new housing in California goes through what is known as discretionary approval, meaning that if a housing development meets all the design codes, zoning laws, building codes and so on, the city council or planning commission can still refuse to allow the project to go through, often based solely on a few public comments. Discretionary approval and other roadblocks to new housing have led to millions of badly needed housing units not being built over the last 50 years. As a result, housing costs in California have spiraled out of control, up to the point where a single person in San Francisco making $100,000 per year is eligible for low-income housing.
The vetocracy’s reach goes much further than to block new housing — it has made projects relating to public transportation nearly impossible to build at a reasonable cost. New housing developments in LA tend to include more parking spots than housing units, even near metro stations, primarily due to LA’s egregious parking requirements. Creating lots of mandated free parking encourages car use, which further clogs up roads and makes public transportation unviable. Most parking rules come about due to the vetocracy that flippantly objects to new buildings on account of “concerns” about parking, no matter how ill-founded.
Additionally, California’s “environmental” law called the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) furthers this vetocracy by allowing any citizen to sue any public project on “environmental” grounds, forcing transit groups and other authorities to spend millions of dollars on frivolous lawsuits. These lawsuits contribute to the excessive costs of public transit projects, to the point where the Silicon Valley Bay Area Rapid Transit extension, despite being two thirds the length of Copenhagen’s metro extension, is more than triple the cost of the latter.
One might think that politicians, with their powers hamstrung by the vetocracy, would be among the leaders of the charge to end it. However, elected officials often actively support the vetocracy of NIMBYs, since older adults — who are more likely to participate in the vetocracy — vote at higher rates. For example, our city councilmember, Kevin de Léon, recently asked Metro to delay the redevelopment of Colorado Boulevard, and has tried time and again to stall the North Hollywood to Pasadena Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line through vetocratic efforts such as requesting additional community meetings.
While community meetings may be useful at times, they tend to serve as outlets for a vocal minority to express their anger and eventually kill projects that the vast majority of people support — such as the many, many housing developments that have died at the hands of NIMBYs. Community meetings also leave out people who would materially benefit from such projects. In the case of the NoHo–Pasadena BRT line, a commuter from Burbank who spends two hours a day stuck in traffic on SR 134 on their way to Pasadena will never get a voice at a public meeting at Eagle Rock City Hall, despite the fact that they will benefit massively from the public transit expansion. Older and richer homeowners, who have the time, money and will to block BRT, will be the ones listened to at local community meetings, though, and their opposition is heeded far more often than the will of the not-quite-as-active general public.
Public transit is crucial to providing mobility to not only commuters, but ALSO college students, seniors, disabled people, low-income people and so on and so forth. Many students at Occidental do not have access to a car — myself included — and rely on bicycles, scooters, light rail and the bus in order to leave campus and explore LA. If we want to build a city that serves everyone, including students, and is truly great, we must start by ending the vetocracy that prevents necessary public transit and housing from being built.
Avinash Iyer ‘25