Moving the Goalposts

Moving the goalposts is a well-known political tactic, where you change your standard of success in response to worse than expected results from your policies (or better than expected results from your opponent’s policies). For example, you might start with the goal of catching a certain criminal dead or alive, but when you fail to do so, restate the scope of the mission to diminish that person’s importance. Or you might keep adjusting the budget and schedule for an infrastructure project so that no matter the cost and completion date, you proclaim it finished on time and on budget.

Opponents of urban development like to do the same thing. For example, considering only the fury rained down on “McMansions” by certain op-ed columnists, you might think the City of LA had been totally unresponsive to homeowner concerns. But in fact, the city already had a “mansionization” ordinance from 2008 and has rushed additional interim measures into place. The noose will be further tightened when final updates are made. However, there should be little doubt that in a few years, the new “mansionization” ordinance will still prove too liberal, and homeowners will be back raging for further controls.

The rationale is similar. If you view politics as a zero-sum game, no amount of success for the opposition is acceptable. Success will be continually redefined until the opposition can be shown to have none. Likewise, there is no amount of redevelopment that many NIMBYs consider acceptable except for none. If a land use regulation makes development more difficult, it will initially be hailed as a success, but if some development continues to occur, the regulation will be deemed to have come up short. The goalposts will have moved.

For another example, in 1986, Prop U downzoned much of LA’s commercially zoned land from FAR 3.0 to FAR 1.5. The lower FAR has proved to be an insurmountable barrier in many areas. However, LA continues to be a desirable place to live, and rising home prices have put development pressure on some commercially and industrially zoned land. Sure enough, some are now proposing to downzone from FAR 1.5 to FAR 0.75. The goalposts move.

If you care about urban economic growth, or affordable housing and gentrification, the best you can ever hope to do by working with these opponents is fight defensive actions. You can slow down their march to zero growth or the loss of affordable housing, but you can’t change the destination. In many cities, opponents of development have organized so powerfully that there is little else the city can do at the moment.

In the long run, you can’t keep giving pieces away to people who will only be satisfied when they have it all. Eventually, you have to stop the goalposts from being moved in a way that works against your interests.

2 thoughts on “Moving the Goalposts

  1. Pingback: Time to Hold the Line on Downzoning |

  2. Pingback: The Progressive Case for Up-Zoning Minneapolis |

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