Housing Crisis Caused by NIMBYs

Student Homelessness is a Frustratingly Avoidable Problem

Anti-development NIMBY policies limit the country’s ability to prevent housing insecurity.
November 20, 2022
7 mins read

There is an ongoing battle over the future of housing in California and the United States as a whole, and college students are caught in the middle. Two factions have emerged amidst a nationwide homelessness crisis: the anti-housing development NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard) and the pro-development YIMBYs (Yes In My Backyard). California’s response to its particularly severe housing crisis has long been influenced by a combination of out-of-date laws preserved through the misguided selfishness of NIMBY homeowners. With student homelessness on the rise, NIMBY policies threaten to devastate future generations by refusing students their basic needs, forcing them out of college and off of a path of great potential.

California is at the front lines in the fight against homelessness, and the situation has gotten much worse in recent years. The most notable example of the troubling rise in homelessness is in Sacramento, where the homeless population has risen by 70% over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Given the widespread loss of income and employment during the pandemic, one might assume that this upward trend is tied to the economic effects of COVID-19. However, a study of Sacramento County shows that the primary contributing factor to this rise in homelessness is the rising cost of housing.

Rent is skyrocketing because the American housing market is in its worst state since the global financial crisis 15 years ago. A sharp decrease in demand brought about a steady decline in house prices, making the 2010s the worst decade on record for housing construction in America. Supply greatly exceeded demand, but the market was partially revitalized by the entry of a new generation of young adults — Millennials — into the work force, each one eager to buy their first home. This sudden surge in demand combined with the limited supply of housing caused home prices to spike.

Expecting a repeat of the 2008 housing crisis, builders were cautious to invest in new properties, expecting another drop in demand. They were wrong. As stimulus money poured in and working from home became the rule of the land, people were ready to buy new homes. The supply couldn’t keep up with the demand, and prices climbed accordingly. Looking back across the last 15 years of U.S. real estate history, the obvious solution is to just build more homes to make up for the stagnation of the 2010s and the slow start of 2020. Of course, the obvious answer is rarely the easiest to accomplish.

Housing insecurity affects many types of students in California, whether they attend UC Berkeley or a small community college. However, it does seem to hit disadvantaged groups the hardest. A 2019 statewide survey found that 19% of California community college students have experienced homelessness and 60% have experienced housing insecurity. Furthermore, minority groups were more likely to experience these conditions than their fellow students. Housing insecurity, often coupled with food insecurity, has a negative impact on a student’s ability to learn and focus on academics. Given the disproportionate impact of homelessness upon minority students, school diversity falls victim to this crisis, as underprivileged students are forced to choose between tuition bills and rent.

Initial efforts to address student homelessness include providing temporary shelters and permitting students to live in their cars on campus, which, while seemingly undignified, does guarantee some level of safety for students who need a safe place to park at night. The far more effective solution of increasing the availability of affordable student housing is impeded by legal red-tape and community resistance. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) intends to preserve the ecological health of a region by setting strict guidelines for safe building and development. This 1970 law utilizes an out-of-date understanding of environmental impact, and is often manipulated to block essential housing plans.

Enter the NIMBYs, short for “not in my backyard.” These homeowners and activists nominally object to many forms of development for the sake of the environment, but such objections often prevent clean energy infrastructure without offering alternative solutions. With CEQA and a friendly court on their side, the NIMBY movement successfully proved college students to be an environmental burden, cancelling the dreams of thousands of prospective UC Berkeley students. A slight increase in noise and traffic was deemed more significant than the lost opportunities of thousands of qualified students who were denied admission. For those who were admitted, the problem of housing and homelessness remains, as NIMBYs would rather increase homelessness than damage their property value.

If students are valued so little that they are considered pollution, the future of this country is grim. NIMBYs and laws like CEQA fail to truly understand the environmental and economic impact of development, treating all development as a burden rather than a benefit. With laws like CEQA giving unqualified and selfish homeowners outsized influence over the state’s response to homelessness, the efficacy of any counteractive effort will be greatly diminished. Thankfully, the California state government is pushing back against NIMBY policies, but the fight will be long and exhausting.

The state government is wielding its power to keep NIMBY-friendly cities in line, and schools are investing in promising alternatives to keep the worst of the crisis at bay. Nevertheless, significant change is necessary. Homelessness, housing insecurity, and NIMBYism are not unique to California, and the struggle to combat them is fraught with obstacles. So long as this national crisis continues, it is essential that students arm themselves with the knowledge to defend their interests. Know who is to blame, what needs to be fixed and what you can do to fix it.

Evan Tsuei, Westmont College

Writer Profile

Evan Tsuei

Westmont College
Economics & Business

Terminally online and chronically sleep-deprived, Evan is a devout Portlander who loves discussing politics, literature and Asian culture. Remember, trains are better than cars, cats are better than people, buy gold, bye.

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