In a newly released stand-up clip, Dave Chappelle has once again upended the conventions of bourgeois morality. In this case the standing up occurred at a Monday night town meeting in Yellow Springs, Ohio, where the comedian did something some people found a little unseemly: He threatened to pull the plug on his investments in the city, which include a planned restaurant and comedy club, if officials approved a zoning change to permit town houses and affordable housing.
Offended? You’re not alone. This is simply not how affordable housing gets rejected in polite society. You’re supposed to declare your town a mountain lion habitat or defend the sacred views from the highway. You say you weren’t consulted, or that the housing is too ugly, too affordable, or not affordable enough. Just complaining about the parking shortage is plenty good enough for most of us.
Then again, that’s why we love Dave Chappelle: because he’s not afraid to break down the euphemisms, the conventions, the tired clichés, and say what he’s really thinking. Like in Monday’s Yellow Springs city meeting, when he reiterated that he was serious about withdrawing the millions of dollars he had invested in the town. “I cannot believe you would make me audition for you,” he told city leaders. “You look like clowns.” And then: “I am not bluffing. I will take it all off the table.”
The Village Council chose not to rezone the land. There would be no affordable housing in Yellow Springs that day.
But it would be a mistake to read this as a story about a local business magnate throwing his weight around. Behind Chappelle stood a much more typical local uprising that, in reality, is far more representative of the roadblocks to building more housing in prosperous places than the comedian’s threats.
For almost two decades, Chappelle has lived on the outskirts of this quaint college town east of Dayton. He talks a lot about how much he loves Yellow Springs, where he attended middle school and spent childhood summers with his father, the dean of students at Antioch College. “This place hasn’t changed in 100 years. It’s aesthetically almost identical,” he told David Letterman a few years ago.
Yellow Springs isn’t some Trumpy suburb where you can get up and say you don’t want poor people living nearby. It’s a deep-blue island of Democrats in red Greene County, a handsome hippie village with a 140-year-old newspaper and the kind of lively little main street that counts as a regional attraction.
And it’s not being forced to build affordable housing by a lawsuit or a mandate. In 2017, the village (population 3,697) commissioned a 444-page housing needs assessment that concluded that many housing choices in the village were not affordable, which left local employers and the community itself at a competitive disadvantage. Survey respondents overwhelmingly said housing in Yellow Springs was a problem because it was too expensive. Yellow Springs was a hard place for seniors to downsize and stay in the community. And its schools had space for more students.
Enter Oberer Land Developers, an Ohio-based company that purchased a 52-acre plot on the village’s southern edge. It was a site that Yellow Springs had eyed for multifamily housing since 1977, and planners worked out a deal with Oberer to upzone part of the property for denser development of town houses and duplexes in exchange for a park and a plot for affordable housing. Some residents have spoken eloquently in favor of the project, extolling it as a benefit for the village’s current residents.
But some squeaky wheels didn’t like it, for all the reasons you would suspect. Over the past couple of months, for example, the village has heard from: A wetland biologist worried about mosquitoes. A nearby homeowner worried about traffic. Neighbors worried about gentrification, overdevelopment, a closed and opaque planning process. At a town meeting in January, Max Crome, an architect who has a house nearby and a practice in the Bay Area, browbeat the city manager into letting him screen-share a presentation in which he accused the volunteer government of spreading “misinformation” and combed through historical, black-and-white satellite photos in an attempt to conclusively demonstrate that there had been a dump on the property in the 1970s. “What’s the point in having duplex and town homes if they’re not affordable?” he went on. “This whole process has been a process of affordability-washing.”
In December, from Crome’s computer, a well-known comedian who had retained him to design some new projects in town gave a rousing plea for Yellow Springs to dream bigger. “The average age in the village is 49 years old. Without its school, the city will not live beyond the retirees who decided to settle here,” Chappelle said. “These changes are inevitable, but we do have a decision about what they are or could be. Let’s use more of a visionary eye, instead of a reactionary one, because the potential of this place is immense—and Oberer is not the only solution.”
I couldn’t find a more substantive explanation of Chappelle’s opposition, but I don’t necessarily conclude from his speeches that he’s against “affordable housing” per se so much as he thinks the village can and should stop the entire development in its tracks. After all, this place hasn’t changed in 100 years.
Now it’s set to get more of the same. As city planners have reiterated again and again, Oberer owns the land. It has the right to build six single-family homes an acre. Some project opponents want the city to yank the zoning permission away at the last minute—a move the Village Council president, who supported the project, thinks is illegal. Another option is to attempt to purchase the land from the developer, which could cost tens of millions of dollars.
It’s hard to totally discount the weight of Chappelle’s threats, but the consensus among project opponents—including the council member who cast the decisive vote against rezoning—was far more typical of your average prosperous, liberal enclave than being blackmailed by a big investor. The main problem, Council Member Carmen Brown said, was that the upzoned project wouldn’t be affordable enough.
But now there will be no affordable housing, and no multifamily housing either. “Your zoning does not require any affordable housing,” George Oberer reminded opponents of the zoning change. And Council President Brian Housh was more explicit: “If it goes straight subdivision, you don’t have any say at all!”
Since the rezoning failed, the Oberer subdivision will include a couple hundred single-family, market-rate homes instead of a denser development. In a kind of housing-politics edition of the trolley problem, Oberer’s opponents will be left wondering if they bear responsibility for the lousy, suburban, as-of-right project that was slated to occur before the city tried to flip the zoning switch. This same misguided sense of political possibility guides well-meaning civic activists everywhere, who let the perfect be the enemy of the good and wind up with neither.
Perhaps Chappelle, Crome, and the other opponents will find a way to scuttle the subdivision and build a more visionary development, if that’s really what they want. Maybe Chappelle will buy the whole thing himself. For now, their purported pursuit of a better project has left their village with a worse one.