Is California Overpopulated? (Santa Barbara edition)
California underwent rapid population growth for much of the 20th Century, which put a strain on resources. However, recently the population started declining, with California actually loosing over a quarter-million residents between July 1, 2020 and July 1, 2021. The Public Policy Institute of California’s current population projection for California in 2030 is at 44.1 million, up from 39.5 million in 2020, but the actual population will likely be lower. California’s population is stagnating because of declining birthrates, the exodus, and lower levels of immigration than in the past. Despite stagnation, overpopulation is still often blamed for California’s environmental problems, a declining quality of life, and used as justification by NIMBYs as why to not build new housing.
These population dynamics were brought to light last December, at a City Council meeting in the NIMBY stronghold of Santa Barbara. The City Council voted unanimously to exempt the affluent neighborhoods of the Riviera and Foothill from SB9, the new state ordinance that allows for lot splits in single family home neighborhoods, due to fire risks. An Edhat Op-ed accused City Councilman, Oscar Gutierrez, of advocating for age discrimination, for asking “if they could enact an ordinance to prevent old, sick and disabled people from living in the SB foothills to develop more housing in high fire areas.” Gutierrez, who voted for the exemption, is a proponent of rent control and affordable housing but not necessarily a YIMBY. He was perhaps trolling well off elderly NIMBYs who have too much spare time to spend complaining at city council meetings about any changes in zoning or new development.
One NIMBY commenter to the op-ed proclaimed that “THERE IS NO HOUSING CRISIS! (Yes I’m shouting, sorry.) The birth rate in California is below replacement. (Google it, it’s true.) The 2020 US Census showed that California lost so much population over the last 10 years, that it will have one less seat in the House of Representatives.” NIMBYism is a major reason for California’s overall population decline and why the City of Santa Barbara actually declined in population from 2020-2021. Their next point was that “with an effective vacancy rate of 0%, by definition, every dwelling in Santa Barbara is affordable to those living there.” Tell that to the many people who grew up in Santa Barbara, even from the upper middle class, who can no longer afford to stay, or the many UCSB and SB City College students who cannot afford rent.
Their most absurd claim was that “Each one of us is competing with the other 8 billion people for resources including housing (Now more than ever because of the internet). Santa Barbara is a desirable place to live. Many of those 8 billion people would like to live here. There is effectively infinite demand for housing in Santa Barbara.” Using overpopulation as the reason as to why Santa Barbara cannot accommodate new residents, contradicts the first point about population decline, and relies upon a hypothetical of total open borders, which echoes the globalized liberal capitalism that neoliberal YIMBYs like Matt Yglesias espouse. If competing with the entire world is the problem, then why not grant favoritism to those who grew up or lived long-term in the region, who are further screwed over by restricting the supply, over outsiders biding up housing?
The NIMBY commentor adds that “In a market with infinite demand, increasing supply (Building more housing) has absolutely no effect on pricing. I’ve lived here for 45 years and have yet to see increasing housing supply lowering prices.” Santa Barbara has hardly built any new housing over the past few decades, and Santa Barbara County’s housing supply grew by only 3.6% over the past decade. The NIMBY’s final point is that “The one sure way to lower housing prices in Santa Barbara is to make it less desirable and our elected officials are doing all they can to make that happen.” This encapsulates an extreme zero-sum mentality that people must either accept a lower quality of life or a hypercompetitive rat race, just to live anywhere decent.
While it is often hard to tell apart ageing liberal NIMBYs from MAGA “xenophobes,” a lot of California’s anti-growth mentality dates back to the population skeptic movement, from when the state was undergoing rapid population growth. Paul Ehrlich, who wrote The Population Bomb, had a huge influence on not just California’s environmental movement but also on NIMBYs in the ultra “progressive” stronghold of Berkeley. For instance Phil Bokovoy, a retired investment banker and president of Save Berkeley Neighborhoods, justified his lawsuit that temporarily caped UC Berkeley’s enrollment in that it was “about preserving Berkeley’s culture and diversity,” but also warned that Berkeley “will “end up like Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur” should it allow too many people to live there”, and that “I think the fundamental problem is population growth.” Another Berkeley NIMBY, Jeff Hoffman, who also wrote an op-ed apologetic towards ANTIFA violence, stated in a Daily Cal op-ed that “you are blind to the obvious fact of human overpopulation and constant population growth, so you immediately go on to discuss a supposed lack of housing and how more needs to be built,” and advocated for “limiting our families to one child until the human population is low enough to leave room for every other species on our planet, including UC Berkeley students.”
California also has a history of immigration skepticism for environmental reasons. For instance Californians for Populations Stabilization, a Santa Barbara based environmentalist and immigration skeptic organization, that advocates for zero population growth, and Joe Guzzardi, a Progressives for Immigration Reform analyst, who writes for Santa Barbara’s Noozhawk, and has been studying the impacts of immigration on population and the environment for decades. Even the Sierra Club came close to taking an immigration skeptic stance but decided not to in 2004, due to an ultra-wealthy financier, David Gelbaum, donating $100 million, under the condition that the Sierra Club would not adopt any immigration skeptic planks.
Unlike Left-NIMBYs, who virtue signal in support of immigration, I respect the consistency of the environmentalist immigration skeptics. My critique of them is not that they are fundamentally wrong about the impacts of immigration on resources. However, rather that since immigration skeptics are fighting an uphill battle against powerful special interests, such as Big Ag, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley, they tend to align with NIMBYs on local politics, who have more political clout. NIMBYism is an ineffective substitute for stemming the tide of immigration and mostly ends up screwing over young native born Californians.
A stereotypical categorization of California housing politics is that NIMBYs are older homeowners who are either “xenophobic” or limousine liberals with “we believe” signs. However, there is also NIMBYism from younger leftwing anti-gentrification activists, such as San Francisco’s DSA. YIMBYs, on the other hand, tend to be younger, from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. On housing and immigration, the issues that most impact supply and demand, YIMBYs are generally very pro-immigration while NIMBYs seem divided.
Being a pro-immigration NIMBY, such as Malibu resident Rob Reiner, who views immigration restriction as racist, while being an unapologetic NIMBY, is the most contemptible policy position, in that it increases demand while constraining the supply. There are other issues that impact affordability such as speculators, but supply and demand is still crucial. While being a pro-immigration NIMBY is utterly convoluted, that combo has long dominated California politics. This dichotomy is encapsulated by Silicon Valley, which has long been zoned for single family housing, while trying to accommodate a surge of new tech immigrants, further exacerbating the housing shortage. In contrast with California, Japan’s price of housing hasn't increased in 25 years. The reason being, an increase in supply, which YIMBYs celebrate, but also immigration restrictionist policies that limit demand, a policy combo that is practically non-existent in California politics.
NIMBYism functions as a politically correct form of population control for California Boomers, in the same way that anti-natalism does for the younger left-leaning demographic, as being anti-immigration is politically taboo and explicit eugenics is beyond the pale. Zoning is a mechanism to manage populations, which is why both NIMBYs and YIMBYs play the race card and accuse the opposing side of being for eugenics. Left-YIMBYs will often say that NIMBYs are eugenicists for excluding lower income residents of color, but a left-NIMBY, who promotes an agenda for diversity and open immigration in Canada called YIMBYs eugenicists: “From Vancouver to Toronto to NYC, YIMBYs attacking an older generation who simply want to age in place is a common eugenicist position that they simply are incapable of hiding,” plugging an article comparing YIMBYism to the eugenics of the Handmaiden Tales. Another left-NIMBY Tweeted in response to my pro-housing article that “Why are you invoking The Great Replacement, a white nationalist trope? A more blended country is better. Fewer kids mean tighter labor markets in the short-term, more resources for climate refugees from the Global South in the long-term.”
The Left-NIMBY strategy of trying to block all market rate housing while only approving low income housing on anti-capitalist grounds, has also been adopted by older, well off NIMBYs. Those whose motive is wanting tranquility in retirement, yet still feel the need to virtue signal to the left. This applies to the failed UC Berkeley enrollment cap and is also encapsulated by a NIMBY op-ed in Santa Barbara’s News-Press, advocating that a sensible way to tackle Santa Barbara’s housing crisis would be a moratorium on new hotels to make way for low income units, but also to limit the number of new jobs created. This NIMBY op-ed echoes the same tropes as leftwing anti-gentrification activists, but is disingenuous, as the News-Press is a conservative paper and the op-ed opposes rent control, which is the policy cornerstone of the NIMBY-left. The op-ed also promotes an extreme scarcity mindset of sacrificing hotels, which contribute to the local economy, to more pedestrian oriented urbanism, a fun resort-like atmosphere, and supply eye candy for the beach, just for a measly amount of low income units. Thanks to NIMBYs, many wealthy places in California feel in decline and underutilized, but if Santa Barbara reformed its zoning, it has the potential to become America’s Nice or Costa del Sol.
Overpopulation or overcrowding can be a dog whistle for wanting to avoid “the wrong kinds of people.” However, people naturally have subjective biases and preferences for the types of people they want to live around. People are not interchangeable units but unfortunately there is a lack of honesty about these preferences. Since California’s population is stagnating, the focus needs to be on issues besides overpopulation, such as demographics, social capital, culture, and good urban planning.
NIMBY policies in California stifle overall population growth. However, British researcher, Edward Dutton, has a good critique of NIMBYism from a rightest perspective, that those who are more k-selected, as opposed to those who reproduce regardless, are more impacted by the scarcity of adequate living space. Dutton blames NIMBY policies for stifling the fertility of native Britons the most, much like NIMBYism has for White Californians. It is a combination of a lack of adequate living space, plus the left’s polices on issues such as education, that cause White flight and declining White family formation, even among the well off.
California’s rootless transient nature has always been the case to a degree, being a colony of a colony, and then not becoming heavily populated until the 20th Century. NIMBYism only exacerbates this rootlessness, making it impossible to put down long-term, intergenerational roots. It is a cliche on YIMBY twitter to post screenshots from older NIMBYs on Nextdoor, telling the younger generation to just leave, because California is overpopulated. While the flexibility from that rootlessness may have contributed to innovation in culture and technology, it is time for California to mature to become more rooted, or continue to spiral into decay.
While the degree of population density is also a personal subjective preference, there is a lot more nuance to the dichotomy of high vs. low density. Both high and low density models have similar problems with social atomization and livability. For instance an example of low social capital, high density might be your typical LA apartment complex, that is car oriented, lacks any walkable street life or communal amenities. However, examples of more livable and high social capital models of density, are the traditional compact village model, that inspired New Urbanism, pedestrian friendly European cities such as Amsterdam, and even the futuristic self-contained cities that are popular in Asia. Places where residential, grocery stores, retail, schools, and recreational amenities, are all under the same complex. The same applies to low density, where there could be close knit rural communities, but also spread out auto-oriented exurbia, where people spend most of their free time indoors.
The kind of hyper density associated with China and India is not ideal, but Europe which is often idealized for its urbanism, is much more densely populated than California. California’s average population density, at 253 people per square mile, is tied with Costa Rica, the 117th most densely populated nation. In contrast, the Netherlands is at 1,183 per sqmi, Taiwan at 1,689, Singapore at 20,827, and Monaco at 54,531. Overall California is not that densely populated by global standards, but poor planning for growth has harmed the quality of life. For instance California cities have terrible auto traffic but the density of pedestrian traffic, that is common in European cities is rare, except for perhaps Downtown San Francisco, pre-pandemic, or Disneyland.
While new suburban sprawl development in California may not be as bad as it was in the late 20th century, it is still an issue. Sprawl is a symptom of a number of factors, including a lack of smart planning for growth, NIMBYism preventing infill in urban areas, bad urban policies such as in education, and demand for new housing from immigration. While I am sympathetic to the idea of reclaiming sprawl back to open space, it is impractical without radical anti-capitalist and anti- property rights solutions or catastrophic disasters such as increasing droughts and oil shortages, or a housing crash that dwarfs that of 08. Thus areas that are underutilized or blighted need people to be revitalize or retrofitted. California has a lot of problems, but the fact that so many wealthy people want to live in coastal urban California, in part due to the weather, gives the State some leverage to dramatically increase the tax base with zoning.
While I am harsh on NIMBYS, YIMBYs also deserve their fair share of flack for cheering on rapid population growth, just for the sake of growth. For instance Matt Yglesias’ One Billion Americans and Louis Mirante’s, legislative director for California YIMBY, advocacy for one billion Californians. YIMBYs also have a kind of vulgar productionist mentality about development, such as Market Urbanism advocating that “if Carmel-by-the-Sea were completely razed and redeveloped into apartment buildings like in Flatbush – which, to be clear, should happen – it would have a population of over 100,000 in the square mile within city limits” Another YIMBY, Nolan Gray, advocated for “two, maybe three million-plus cities on this stretch of coast” from Santa Barbara County to Big Sur. These kind of radical pro-growth positions, that call for paving over open space, detract from good urbanism and reasonable zoning reforms. There is an ecological carrying capacity but that cap can shift due to other factors such as technological innovation and building compact walkable communities.
The debate over overpopulation brings up issues of ecological carrying capacity, such as a NIMBY trope that no new development should be approved due to water shortages. However, 80% of California’s water use is for agriculture, about 12% for landscaping, while only about 5% of water is used for interior single family home usage, and 2.7% for multifamily unit interior usage. California actually increased its population by 20 million while reducing water usage. A lot of these issues discussed, such as zoning, demographics, and ecological issues, rely upon a framework of scarcity. However, California Gubernatorial candidate Michael Shellenberger promises an end to scarcity, with cheap energy due to nuclear power, that would also produce infinite quantities of water with desalinization, and infinite quantities of food with cheap fertilizer. Shellenberger has also criticized overpopulation concerns from both immigration restrictionists and environmentalists, as neo-Malthusian and that they could feed into bigotry and anti-humanism.
California is one of the most beautiful places in the world and has characteristics that should make it the most desirable place to live. The exodus and declining quality of life prove how awful the State leadership is, or perhaps that California is a victim of its own success.