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Can a grassroots movement fix urban housing shortages?

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Advocating for growth at a new conference for YIMBYs

Photo by Pung/Shutterstock

Hyped by the New York Times as “Woodstock, but for housing activists,” the second annual YIMBYtown convention gathered advocates in Oakland, California, last week to address the challenges of building more affordable housing.

While the comparison to the hippie music festival is unfortunate—many YIMBYs are millennials who blame baby boomers for the current housing crisis—there was a similarly hopeful vibe that change is in the air.

Although the YIMBYs (that’s Yes In My Backyard, as opposed to Not In My Backyard or NIMBY) have a reputation for stirring shit up online—Victoria Fierce, the cofounder of YIMBYtown and Oakland/Berkeley-based YIMBY group East Bay Forward, proudly said as much during first keynote—the folks in attendance were not the stereotypical urbanist archetype ranting about housing stock on Twitter.

From young to old, YIMBYtowners ran the gamut, including Berkeley students fresh from high school, plucky Londoners, many people of color, and a woman sporting a “Not Your Intersectional Feminist at Hand” shirt.

That was one of the goals of the event, according to conference organizer Kieryn Darkwater: To build a community around acceptance, including a code of conduct every attendee had to sign. “We wanted to make it an inclusive space for people who are often harassed,” says Darkwater, who wore a sash throughout the event that read “Mayor.”

conference swag: shirts with “legalize housing” slogan.
Pro-housing swag.
Photos by Brock Keeling
Scott Wiener and the crowd gather for a selfie.
California State Senator Scott Wiener gathers the crowd for a selfie.

The vibe at the conference, in a coworking and gallery space in downtown Oakland, was grassroots and earnest, as it should be—this movement is still very young. Less than five years ago, publicly advocating for growth was seen as detrimental to neighborhoods. Today, with almost every large U.S. city experiencing an affordability crisis and growing homeless populations, growth of some sort is seen as essential, and, as of recently, environmentally sound.

The problem is getting neighbors to agree on how and where to do it.

It was fitting to have this year’s conference in the Bay Area. For years, San Francisco’s progressive lawmakers, brimming with good intentions to preserve the city’s character, aimed at keeping new housing stock out of the city. Which is why the city has had a minimal degree of success creating new homes, with most available units intended to serve the upper crust. The city’s median one-bedroom rent is $3,370, with studios inside new constructions starting out at $3,390.

Today, that’s changing. Supervisor Aaron Peskin, for example, who once helped block a luxury condo project along the waterfront, joined adversaries on the board to help legalize accessory dwelling units across the city, one effective tool for alleviating housing shortages.

San Francisco is a saint compared to the Silicon Valley towns to the south. Cities like Cupertino, Brisbane, and—notoriously—Palo Alto lure headquarters of global tech industry giants to town but have all but refused to build the acceptable amount of new units to house new residents. As business, retail, and restaurants boom in the South Bay, housing is intentionally left by the wayside.

"Palo Alto’s greatest problem right now is the Bay Area’s massive job growth,” Palo Alto Mayor Patrick Burk explained to Curbed SF in 2016. “We don’t want to turn into Manhattan.”

Attempting to sway public opinion in favor of building more housing is exactly the kind of challenge YIMBYtown’s 400 eager attendees seemed ready to accept.

Over a four-day period, speakers from all over the country gave keynote speeches and presided over workshops focusing on how their communities are trying to sway their neighbors to join the YIMBY way.

The sessions ranged from inspirational to pragmatic. Sasha Marshall, who works in Houston’s grants management division, explained how her city is successfully creating new housing for low-income citizens. When Marshall casually said that Houston has no zoning laws, audible gasps fell from the lips of Bay Area attendees. Weihuang Wong, an MIT graduate student, presented a data-heavy analysis of how a plan to make housing more affordable would hypothetically support more housing growth in San Francisco.

But the conference’s highlight was a keynote address from California State Senator Scott Wiener, who recently proposed the Housing Accountability and Affordability Act (SB 35) which would streamline the approval process for housing projects.

Wiener had harsh words for those who claim new development makes existing housing more expensive, a common argument against YIMBYism.

“The unfortunate thing is that there are some very malicious people—and I will not name any names, but San Franciscans know who I’m talking about—who intentionally put out theories that are false, like the theory that supply and demand simply doesn’t apply to housing,” he said. “The idea that building more housing makes housing more expensive... and that if we reduce the amount of housing, then housing will be more affordable, is a ridiculous argument.”

The crowd cheered.

By this point, Wiener’s talk had been interrupted several times by a demonstration which had assembled outside the venue by Gay Shame, a radical, avant-garde protest group. During his talk, a dozen protesters chanted “Queers kill techies” and “It’s not your backyard!” The front steps of the venue had also been graffitied with the phrase “Queers Hate YIMBYS” the night before the conference. (The group has targeted tech workers and led personal attacks on YIMBY leaders.)

Wiener directly addressed the protesters, saying he knew they wanted the same thing as most of the people in attendance: Affordable housing and more of it. However, it will be difficult for the two groups to agree on how to solve the problem, he said. “There are some people where the ideology of ‘development is the enemy’ is so deep that you will never reach them.”

“Scott just kept talking and this whole time people are outside screaming ‘Kill all YIMBYs!,’” says Darkwater, who was impressed with Wiener’s tenacity but troubled by what the protesters were yelling. “There were a lot of queer and trans attendees, including me.” Organizers invited protesters inside to participate in a discussion but the invitation was not accepted. “We want to have a conversation, even if people disagree with us—sometimes viscerally,” says Darkwater. “We want to have that conversation.”

The protesters’ accusations that YIMBYs are “pro-gentrification” may be the toughest issue for the movement to address going forward. There is a far-left cohort of housing advocates who believe that only subsidized, 100 percent affordable housing is acceptable to build because, as they argue, market-rate housing displaces low-income residents.

It was during Wiener’s talk that Berkeley resident Darrell Owens asked the conference’s most pointed question around displacement. "What are we doing to address exclusionary zoning that’s inherently racist, that favors high-income communities?” he asked. “What are we doing at the state level to make sure we can’t continue this modern form of redlining, which unfairly targets low-income people?"

This issue had also troubled Laura Fingal-Surma of Progress Noe Valley, which has been working to gain momentum for upzoning its wealthy San Francisco neighborhood to allow more housing units. “Too many of the opportunities for housing growth—and, therefore, projects to support—are in lower-income and marginalized communities because higher-income neighborhoods implemented exclusionary zoning to replace explicitly racist tools like restrictive covenants and redlining.”

Upzoning, then, is only one part of the puzzle: The ability to propose and finance development needs to be passed into the hands of lower-income communities. “Right now unless you have more money than god it’s basically impossible to build anything,” says Darkwater, who is affiliated with East Bay Forward. “We want to take the fight out of these projects by changing the code so it’s easier for these communities to build in their own neighborhoods—the small townhomes and infill houses that marginalized and underserved communities do need.”

Next year’s event will be organized by A Better Cambridge, a YIMBY group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where different issues around zoning and development are sure to surface. But Fingal-Surma notes that one big takeaway was that each advocacy group had more in common than they thought. “Our issues are simultaneously unique and the same,” she says. “I was moved by the diversity of housing stories and energized by the shared positive vision for our cities. The positivity in the names of the orgs alone was inspiring—A Better Cambridge, Portland and Seattle for Everyone, Abundant Housing LA. Hearing them out loud over and over gave me goosebumps.”

As the YIMBY movement goes mainstream—stories about the conference have appeared not only in the New York Times, but also The Atlantic, NPR and dozens of local publications nationwide—its acolytes are shouldering an immense burden to rescue cities from economic and humanitarian crises, tackling not only the conundrum of lower rents, but larger systemic issues like homelessness.

Yet because much of this change happens at the local level, the focus on these serious issues are often overshadowed by city council battles bordering on parody, like the “zucchini moment” at a Berkeley meeting where Fierce lashed back at a woman who claimed she would not be able to grow zucchini in her garden if there was a two-story housing project next door. (This explains the large number of zucchini references on YIMBY Twitter.)

A conference like YIMBYtown might polarize people further (If you’re not a YIMBY, are you automatically a NIMBY?) or it might help pro-housing tactics to become more widely accepted, allowing residents of neighborhoods to adopt YIMBY ideals as it suits them. “I think now there’s a greater knowledge of it, and I’m not sure if that makes it harder or easier,” says Darkwater. “If we can make the argument to encourage empathy and say, ‘These are real human beings, these are real people you can help,’ if you can frame it that way, I’m hopeful that will go a long way in getting people’s support and changing the narrative.”