The Stealth Guide To Nimbyville

18 thoughts on “The Stealth Guide To Nimbyville”

  1. This sounds like a terrible way to live for the “tenant”. If there is no lease, and everything is under the table, then they don’t have any security or recourse if the landlord fails to maintain the dwelling, if there’s a personality conflict, or if they just want them out for whatever reason. It’s a completely “at will” form of living, and it must take a psychological toll.

    1. Yes and no. These arrangements aren’t between strangers. It’s all word-of-mouth between friends, co-workers, and family. I once looked in to building a legal backyard cottage (until I looked in to the process, costs, regulations, restrictions… no thank you) and floated it by the neighbors to make sure they were comfortable with the concept. Everyone handed me a list of potential tenants.

      You’re correct that it’s all very funky, but I lived in an illegal rental in the city many years ago and did have some minor problems with my landlord. Turns out it’s easier to negotiate a mutual compromise without lawyers and bureaucrats and things came to a quick reasonable compromise. If I had been in a legal apartment I would have had to use a lawyer that I couldn’t afford and the landlord would have had the upper hand – financially. There is no perfect system. This is what it is. And in the absence of any alternative people work it all out somehow.

      1. Who were most of the tenants on the list, if you don’t mind me asking? I know this is a common situation for grad students, temp visa workers, project-based workers… basically credentialed people only planning on being in the area for a defined time. But was it schoolteachers/young professionals/etc also? I’d think the informality would make it harder to put down roots and grow in the community. Also, I’d think the networking aspect of it would leave it MUCH more susceptible to housing discrimination. But then again that fits w/ the NIMBY idea of keeping the neighborhood “desirable”.

        I bristle in general at the “renters make bad neighbors” subtext in a couple of these comments. I think good people make good neighbors, bad people make bad neighbors, and social equity in the community is just as important as having a financial stake.

        I don’t mean to be overly critical- big fan of the blog, and your post was fair, but something about the renter “wariness” in the comments struck me a little off. I’m in Brooklyn, though, and renters are a big part of the community here.

        1. Heavy sigh.

          “I bristle in general at the “renters make bad neighbors” subtext.”

          You didn’t hear that from me. I’ve been a renter and I’m now a landlord. We can’t pretend everyone will own their own home from cradle to grave. That’s just ridiculous. How many NIMBYs were renters for years before they bought their tract home on a cul-de-sac? Home ownership is just one part of a series of lifelong situations. Then again, people do what they do so we have to find pragmatic work-arounds.

          “Who were most of the tenants on the list?”

          Overwhelmingly the renters are friends-of-friends. White. Well educated. Comfortably middle class. Only the lack of new housing stock and obscenely high property costs prevent these renters from being home owners or living in traditional apartments.

          “I’d think the networking aspect of it would leave it MUCH more susceptible to housing discrimination.”

          I would never describe any of my neighbors as racist. It’s a super crunchy liberal Northern California demographic. However… 65% of Sonoma County is white. The overwhelming remainder of the population is Latino with a sprinkling of Asian and black (and increasingly young people who are a mixture of all of the above.) Yet every one of the renters on my block is white.

          Here’s my take on the situation. These above-the-garage and basement style units lend themselves to single people or childless couples. A family with kids gets complicated unless they’re blood relations of the owners. You see a lot of that. But the family looking for a two or three bedroom place to live isn’t going to find themselves in a middle class suburban room mate situation unless they’re all cousins. Is this “discrimination”? Technically, yes. You couldn’t turn away a renter because they have children in a regular rental situation. Is it understandable in the gray area I’m describing? Yes. And remember. No one is putting an add on Craigslist for these units. No one makes a public announcement that a rental unit is on offer for $X. There are no written contracts. These rentals don’t technically exist in any real legal sense.

          There’s a significant portion of the population that’s currently living in the last scraps of existing rental homes, apartments, trailer parks, and aging motels. These are the ones getting squeezed hardest and priced out. It’s not like they can just move to the next town or the next county to find cheaper accommodations. Napa? Marin? San Francisco? Noooooo. They’re the hardest to absorb in non-traditional ways. The nurses and schoolteachers are relatively easy.

          The “solution” (not something I fight for or against) is to build infill housing on vacant crappy suburban strip mall sites. I’d be fine with lots of fully detached single family homes if that’s what the market and regulators found acceptable. But the high cost of land, new construction, and government regulations make small or medium sized buildings nearly impossible unless they’re million plus dollar bungalows. Only very large structures are economically viable. Those monster buildings are exactly the kinds that terrify local home owners the most. And they are by definition very expensive once they hit the market.

          So here’s the deal. I grew tired of the “should” approach to anything years ago. Communities “should” embrace diversity. Society “should” be inclusive of all income levels. Honestly… We’ve lost that fight too many times. People are primates. We self segregate. I can’t fix that. What I can do is explore the ways in which people wiggle around the multitude of intractable roadblocks.

          A great example is an old post I did on a self funded and self organized affordable housing project in LA.

          1. appreciate the response. Again, big fan of the blog, and I didn’t mean to put you on the defensive- I think your treatment of this stuff is very honest and you’ve got some great insights. It’s just the situation, and sometimes an unfortunate one.

  2. Here in Portland Ore, the city had been encouraging the legal construction of ADU’s by waiving some of the development fees, but then tax time came and the county assessed the detached ADU AND the main house as if they both were new construction, thereby jacking the taxes up:

    The city pretended that this was all a total surprise to them, but I have a hard time believing they had no idea what the county was going to do with tax assessment when the city rolled out this big Pro-ADU policy years ago.

    I went on a Tiny House community tour nearby me where there’s a cluster of 4-5 tiny houses sitting behind a regular house on a large property. Each tiny house pays $300 for rent/utilities–basically everything. The tiny house people explained how they had gone to the permitting dept and tried to get everything permitted and above board but the city officials kinda gave them a nod and wink and told them that as long as there was a regular sized permitted house on the property, that as far as the city was concerned, the tiny house residents were simply “recreating” in the tiny houses and living as roommates in the big house. It was heartening to hear that the city didn’t come down on them even though they’re living in a very gray area. The tiny house people explained that keeping things looking “cute” goes a long way in not pissing off the neighbors.

    Thanks again for your blog!

  3. I’m one of those CA coastal single family home owners. Being a one-car family living in a mild climate, I thought our garage would be ripe for a quick in-law conversion. The city thought otherwise of course. I would have to build a separate attached garage to replace the one I “own”. Given the small 1950s lot size, it’s physically impossible to do that. The permit lady was pretty amused that I’d be so naive to inquire.

    So I talked with my neighbors about the extensions they put on. All of them said it was 2x what they thought it would be when the whole process was over. 100k+ ballpark. This is before we get to the ADU permitting process.

    So yeah, the neighborhood is rife with both legal and illegal extensions. Some of them are AirBnB’d. Based on the number of cars jockeying for parking come nightfall, some of them have to be FT rentals. I heard of one poor guy living in one of those Home Depot sheds in somebody’s yard. No one cares as long as it’s out of sight.

    What gets the neighbors riled up, however, are infill apartments. The end result is that the only projects that get through are the big-time mega block high-end condos funded by national REITs. Their the ones with the lawyers, the muscle and the money to grease the wheels (impact fees, high CA land costs, etc.) to get it done. Then the neighbors wonder why the only thing that gets built around here is million dollar condos. Go figure.

  4. the major difference between what you have here:

    Owners adding rental spaces.

    They live there. They have an absolute vested interest in policing the people they bring into their homes, as do all their neighbors. Anybody gets out of line, it is easy to shut that down. Even when they sell/move out. The only people who can possibly continue the situation is an owner/operator. No REIT is going to take on a bunch of un-permitted “single” family dwellings.

    And your proposal.

    You put in apartments, owned by an out of state conglomerate, they do not give 2 rats behinds about your neighborhood, they don’t live there, AND they have lawyers paid for by the rents of the people causing issues in your neighborhood. So the owners don’t care, and the tenants don’t care. The police don’t care, the city is making bank off the developers and they don’t care.

    Not all owners care as much as they could should, but almost all of them care more than a tenant. If the tenant lives in the same space as the owner….the owner cares enough for both.

    And that is long before you get into the race/class based stuff.

    If you ask the NIMYB’s….they would not have a problem if the owner of the apartment building lived in it or next to it. The problem is once you allow it, you have no control over what happens after that….and that can get ugly.

    By the time you can generate enough “heat” to take care of a problem. It is too late.

    So the pressure is exerted where it can be….before it happens.

    It is absolutely garbage city/town “Planning”…but it is what it is. You would need a much bigger hammer, that was actually swung down on absentee/slum lords. Including jail time, before NIMBY’s will be comfortable with what you are suggesting.

    Your only hope is the worst case….where the neighborhood is so far gone, it gets wrecked and you start over with a clean slate. Or maybe you catch it just before it is all the way gone and the desperate left behinds are happy to have anything done at all.

    1. Did I actually make a proposal? Did I advocate for any “solution” in this blog post? I did not. You’re projecting.

      What I did do was explain the way in which rental units were successfully added to the built environment in a way that was socially and politically acceptable.

      1. go read your hard infrastructure post.

        And personally I agree with you. We should allow more “right-sizing” of neighborhoods to increase density. There is no reason that SF should not look more like Paris. 5 story apartment/condos for as far as the eye can see. There is a happy medium between 1-2 story with over abundant parking and Manhattan.

        So, you don’t make “proposals” but anybody reading this blog knows what you are talking about.

        Why is this “suspect” granny flatting acceptable where a 4 suiter apartment building would be dismissed out of hand.

        Or knock down any 2 of those houses and put up 20 3 story town houses.

        NIMBYism is why one of these 3 situations is allowed to exist and the other 2 are so difficult that they hardly ever get done, even though the second 2 are better for almost everybody.

        1 of the NIMBY reasons is the lock in of upward appreciation….BUT a second I elaborated on above. And that is the very real potential deterioration of the neighborhood when you start bringing in people who are there but have absolutely no ownership stake in the neighborhood.

        Owners have the largest investment most of them will ever make in the neighborhood they live in. Absentee landlords and tenants have barely above 0% stake in the neighborhood.

        These people are based in texas

        They are about to put 300+ “luxury” apartments within 1 mile of my address. I guestimate their ROI is 10 years based on what they paid for the property/site prep/construction.

        I did not protest this. I did not fight it. My city needs more residents and I welcome this with a faint hope that this will help the long term trend upwards. More people walking around my neighborhood is a good thing.

        If in 10 years they can’t rent “luxury” apartments? They will just squeeze the lemon until it is empty and walk away.

        300 people who own/live in the neighborhood putting a rent able unit above their garage in their basement. Brings the same number of people in….but now you have 300 people make sure 300 other people are good neighbors or they are gone.

        This apartment complex ?????? they won’t care if the just graduated frat bros pee on the neighbors front door as long as their check cashes. Mind you that is the least of the potential ugly that will occur if they decide the property isn’t worth maintaining at a “luxury” level.

        Everybody can see what happens when you no longer maintain what you built…..

        Detroit/South Chicago/East Cleveland

        Nobody wants absentee landlords/renters.

        1. So here’s the deal.

          In a tight high demand desirable location even rental apartments owned by absentee landlords fill with pretty good people who pay top dollar. The twenty something kids next door to me here in San Francisco pay $4,200 a month for small one bedroom apartments and they’re all charming Ph.D types. I like them a lot more than the old heroin junky who used to live there twenty years ago before the neighborhood gentrified.

          On the other hand, I have relatives in an outer suburb of LA. Nothing but fully detached single family homes on large lots as far as the eye can see. For decades these homes were owner occupied. Then… the economy crashed, demographics shifted, property values dropped, homes became difficult to sell, and the middle class began to decamp to other places like Arizona. The single family homes with backyard pools and front lawns switched to rentals. When market rate renters couldn’t be found the distant landlords took people with Section 8 vouchers. When a few homes on the block were rentals it wasn’t too bad. As more and more of these stranded asset properties suffered from poor maintenance things slid downhill. Again, the building form and ownership structure has been trumped by larger market and cultural forces.

          People can obsess all they want about how much better suburbia is from those nasty dense cities. Or vice versa. People make a place great. Or not. The buildings are just ballast. The political battles to preserve things in a particular way are usually lagging indicators.

          1. I’ve been in a number of places in Southern California where the nice Brady Bunch neighborhood disguises slum living, with every bedroom rented to a separate family plus another in the living room. This includes a lot of fairly nice neighborhoods. They’re generally pretty unpleasant living spaces inside with families trying to live their lives in 10×12 rooms, all the doors shut, and significant bathroom and kitchen sharing issues. Apartments would be much nicer for all concerned and forbidding them doesn’t keep Those People out – they’re already there.

  5. “don’t mean a detached granny cottage or attached apartment. Those are either outright illegal or so difficult and expensive to build legally that the numbers simply don’t add up. Instead, I’m talking about de fact second units as part of otherwise conforming single family homes.”

    Actually, California State law officially prohibits making secondary dwelling units illegal. You cannot require a Conditional Use Permit, a public hearing, etc. They are considered as of right construction as long as certain minimum lot sizes are met (5,000 square foot in my working class suburb).

    The sticking point which you bring out is that the SDUs have to pay the impact fees (water, sewer, etc). Just like an apartment in a new complex. They do get some break in permit fees (if it is senior housing a la granny flat, no school fees). And, they have to meet building code requirements. So, the barriers are often cost more than legality.

    After I self-immolated, I chose to provide my rent money to older ladies who needed the cash rather than paying three times as much for a commercial apartments. The trivial privacy issues are worth the cost savings.

    1. I’m well aware of the California state laws regarding ADUs.

      So how do you feel about a $40,000 water meter hook up for the ADU? How about a $24,000 permit? How about a requirement that the ADU needs its own (entirely redundant) sewer line that involves ripping up the street and trenching the property – figure $20,000 minimum? On the other hand, none of those things (other than a much smaller permit fee) apply to a garage/bonus room or master bedroom addition. See how that works?

      1. well…as you noted, that is why, despite theoretically permissive laws, you can count on two hands the number of permitted SDUs in a suburb of 100,000 people in the past five years!


  6. I am both heartened and saddened by this, but I found it most interesting that there are significant benefits to this remaining *illegal*. That’s really insightful!

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