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YIMBY in action: How pro-housing policies became a political rallying cry

Birthed by the housing crisis, can a push to build more homes become the centerpiece of a political coalition?

YIMBYism—Yes In My Backyard, an exhortation to build—began as a rejection of a rejection. But what started as refutal of Not in My Backyard sentiments has become an ideology in itself: a locally based, decentralized, pro-housing political movement.

Just a few years old, the YIMBY push to add more homes to cities comes at a time when slow development, the power of single-family homeowners, and the status quo of restrictions and regulations that has shaped housing policy are facing backlash in major American cities. As advocates and backers see it, it also may form the centerpiece of a progressive coalition that could have a large impact on an increasingly urbanizing country.

“This is one of the fastest-growing, organic, grassroots movements I’ve ever seen,” says Matthew Lewis, a longtime journalist and organizer who now directs communications for California YIMBY, one of the nation’s larger pro-housing groups. “And I mean organic. People, complaining about the rent being too high, go to one city hall meeting, find out the process is insane, and start a group. It’s incredible how much attention it’s getting and how salient the policy issues have become.”

Active in cities from LA and Portland to Boston and Minneapolis, YIMBYism lives in the center of a Venn diagram of urban ills: the intertwined issues of rising rent, scarce opportunity, and increasingly long commutes. Both are accelerated by a lack of affordable, accessible housing and an apparent standstill in new construction amid skyrocketing demand. Not surprisingly, it first took root in 2013 and 2014 in the increasingly wealthy Bay Area among activists like Sonja Trauss and her Bay Area Renters Foundation (BARF). Early YIMBYs pushed back against unnecessary and sometimes comical barriers to building, like the Berkeley homeowner complaining a new building would block the sun from the zucchinis in her vegetable garden.

YIMBY political groups still have no blanket national organization. But YIMBYtown, an annual three-day national convention that took place in the Boston area last fall, now draws crowds in the hundreds (it’s been called “Woodstock for housing activists”).

“It’s clear that this is a housing shortage—and the answer is to build housing,” Laura Foote-Clark, head of San Francisco-based YIMBY Action, told The Guardian. “You generate policy by yelling about things.”

Opponents paint YIMBYs as being in the pocket of real estate interests: naively helping rich developers at best, or outright shills at worst, with funding from tech millionaires. But for every recent policy victory, such as upzoning approval in Minneapolis, Austin’s new affordable housing bond, or statewide rent control in Oregon, there have been many more defeats, most notably, the ambitious slate of housing bills in California, perceived as a huge blow in the home state of the originators of YIMBY organizing. YIMBY candidates for local Bay Area offices suffered defeat at the ballot box last November.

But YIMBY groups and the progressive politicians who support their ideas say those losses obscure the changing nature of the debate, which is rapidly moving in their favor. California State Senator Scott Wiener, a San Francisco legislator famous for repeatedly introducing a bill allowing for more dense development near transit lines, has twice seen his ambitious vision thwarted (the latest version, SB50, has been delayed to 2020).

But he says there’s victory in defeat, namely the “broad and diverse” coalition that he’s assembled, including lobbying heavyweights like the AARP. At the state level, Governor Gavin Newsom has called for a “Marshall Plan” for housing production,

“This is a coalition that understands we have a massive shortage of housing, and need to build millions of new homes at every income level,” says Wiener. “That’s absolutely fundamental; it’s basic.”

Wiener believes this coalition is the future of housing policy, and is linking up at the moment housing has become a true national issue. When leading Democratic contenders offer detailed, multi-tiered housing plans, and the New York Times runs two major stories about single-family zoning within the space of a week, it’s clear the debate has shifted. When the links between dense development, climate change, and transportation policy, as well as social equity and opportunity, come together, YIMBYism seems like less a fringe, niche issue than an animating core of progressive ideals.

“There’s been more focus on the housing crisis in this Democratic primary so far than in the history of the Democratic party,” says Randy Shaw, a San Francisco housing activist and author of Generation Priced Out. “It also helps that we have the California primary in March next year. When the media is here, saturating the town halls, they’ll hear a lot about the housing crisis.”

Apartment construction in the Mission ay neighborhood of San Francisco.
Getty Images

California dreaming—and Minneapolis vision

In the last year, the two political battles that have shaped national perception of YIMBYism, and its challenges and hurdles, have played out across California and in Minneapolis. While the Golden State has arguably the nation’s worst housing crisis, with rising home prices and a shortage of new construction leading to dwindling affordable options, a spike in homelessness, skyrocketing transportation emissions, and a middle-class migration elsewhere, YIMBYism has run into a series of political roadblocks. Conversely, Minneapolis, a city that those who aren’t familiar might overlook as a site of cutting-edge housing policy, has effectively banned single family-only zoning citywide.

The experiences of activists and advocates in both states have shaped two different visions on YIMBYism.

In California, not surprisingly, YIMBYs have gone on the offensive, pressuring lawmakers, pushing for statewide legislation as localities quash development reform, and getting engaged in the political arena. One of the best examples is the YIMBY Democrats of San Diego, a political group that has, in a few short years, become a force in local politics. According to Maya Rosas, an urban planner and group cofounder, the group has already become influential in local elections, hosting candidates to court their votes and issuing voting guides and recommendations. San Diego’s Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer—the only GOP leader of a U.S. city of a million or more residents—tweeted in January that he wanted the city to go “From a city of NIMBYs to a city of #YIMBYs!

Politicians “understand YIMBY politics are good politics,” says Rosas. City council president Georgette Gómez sought their endorsement, and they’ve endorsed on every level, including mayor and even candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Maya Rosas (in green, center) speaking at a YIMBY Dems meeting in San Diego. “San Diego faces the same issues Los Angeles and San Francisco are going through, though the dollar figures may not be as high. It’s definitely a crisis that everybody is dealing with.”
Dike Anyiwo

One of their dues-paying members, Scott Peters, represents San Diego’s 52nd Congressional district and has proposed his own housing legislation. Rosas views the group’s rapid rise as indicative of the hunger for housing solutions on all levels of government.

“I’d pair that appetite for answers with the growth of the Justice Democrats, and the movement to contest congressional races and support progressives over long-time incumbents,” she says.

Rosas points to the upcoming election for California’s 53rd district, which has long been represented by incumbent Congresswoman Susan Davis. For 2020, however, Davis is facing two challengers pushing more progressive platforms. It’s meant more policy debates among candidates and their supporters, and has led all three candidates to seek YIMBY Dem support.

“The proliferation of more contested congressional races has created a space to house the conversation on housing, which hasn’t been part of a campaign re-election before,” says Rosas. “Now, it’s going to be a contested endorsement, and Rep. Davis is trying to find time to attend one of our meetings herself. It’s absolutely shifting the conversation and making sure more people are addressing housing.”

Contested primaries and intra-party challenges haven’t been part of the roadmap for the Neighbors for More Neighbors organization in Minneapolis. A community group that spearheaded the passage of the city’s progressive Minneapolis 2040 zoning plan, the organization prefers the title pro-housing to YIMBY, but shares many of the same goals, according to member Lauren Richards.

“The reality is, housing has always been an issue at the city and county level,” says Richards. “But with the way that cities are exploding in population now and really trying to grow, there’s an understanding this isn’t just a local issue; it’s a regional, state, and national issue. The fact that people can’t afford homes in Minneapolis affects the entire region just like people not being able to afford homes in New York City has implications across the country.”

The campaign waged by Neighbors for More Neighbors, as well as allied community groups and pro-housing politicians, has been held up as a model for the country. During its extensive outreach work, the organization made the intertwined issues of equity, the environment, racial justice, and transportation a huge part of the discussion.

I feel like we’re able to be a leader in this space,” says Richards. “Other cities are looking at us to say, hey, this is something we can do after all.”

But at the same time, Neighbors for More Neighbors doesn’t have plans to become more of a political organization, like the YIMBY Dems in San Diego; it would rather stay focused on advocacy. Currently, the group is working with groups in neighboring St. Paul to pass an upzoning plan similar to Minneapolis 2040. As Richards sees it, while the forces that have catalyzed local pro-housing advocacy are similar, each place has its own unique problems. A decentralized, local approach offers the best chance for success.

“The housing challenges in Minneapolis aren’t the same in San Francisco, Seattle, or New Orleans,” says Richards. “Each one of these cities has their own understanding of what they need. We’re all about exchanging ideas, but we feel like it’s important that this was a local effort.”

Already, the activism in Minneapolis, California, and elsewhere have inspired more YIMBY groups to take shape. Casey Berkovitz, one of the leaders of Open New York, the city’s young YIMBY group that formed in 2017, says the fights over SB50 and Minneapolis 2040 helped inspire the group to get active.

“It’s a combination of popular attention⁠—there’s more of that now than there’s ever been⁠—and having model legislation to point to,” he says. “If Oregon can pass statewide upzoning, why not New York state?”

Many YIMBY groups outside of large coastal cities find that those outside of their cities or regions may not understand just how much of an issue affordability has become. For New York City YIMBYS, it’s a different problem: many think that a city with such a large, active real estate industry doesn’t have a shortage of new housing.

“The gut reaction is that New York City has tall buildings and skyscrapers, so how can we have a problem with, say, single-family zoning?” says Berkovitz. “But we have a growth problem and a rent problem. Here, it’s about historic districts, or areas zoned for two-story buildings that should have four-story buildings.”

With that in mind, Open New York has focused on neighborhood advocacy, working to push for greater density in areas such as Manhattan’s SoHo or Gowanus in Brooklyn. Even with new building in New York, affordability is still a key issue.

Challenges to growing the YIMBY movement

While the YIMBY groups have momentum, and a central crisis, housing affordability, that is only going to get worse in coming years, the group also faces hurdles to continued growth and effectiveness.

According to Rosas, the age of the movement, and the age of its members, presents resource challenges. Grassroots YIMBY groups have passion, but overall, younger Americans, often renters, vote less frequently, and don’t have the political connections of somebody who has lived in the same house for 40 years. While the YIMBY movement can be a “tight-knit network of advocates,” she says, as evidenced by publications such as Market Urbanism and Greater Greater Washington, online organizing, and social media groups such as the NUMTOT Facebook page, YIMBYs simply don’t have the kind of capacity, funds, and political capital of their opponents.

“Our biggest barrier is not being able to organize as quickly as we want because we’re all volunteers,” says Rosas. “I daydream about how many members we could have if I or any of our board members had the time to go to meetings across the county and talk about what we stand for, or have booths at community events, or just the time to go speak at hearings.”

According to Shaw, these groups also get characterized unfairly as “libertarian developer shills.”

“Look at YIMBYs in San Francisco, who were on the front lines fighting for shelter for the homeless,” he says. “The pro-housing movement is on the rise everywhere.”

Shaw also points to way local elections often play out. In citywide elections, where the entire, diverse electorate has a voice, pro-housing candidates, who focus on issues with rent and affordability, often win. In smaller, council or district election, homeowners tend to elect representatives who support their property rights and may push back against development. That leads to many cases where pro-housing mayors spar against anti-development city councils and citizen advocates, or as Lewis says, “you have to listen to the loudest, whitest, richest, neighborhood busybody.”

“We’re challenging long-held orthodoxies, right?” says Sen. Wiener. “It’s a status quo that’s been with us for many many years, and we’re saying we should do things differently, that we should zone for housing and protect density and protect housing availability. I wish we could solve these problems legislatively in a few years.”

But even today’s biggest challenges, especially the depth of the affordable housing shortage, have upside in the future. Rising rents only makes YIMBYs grow stronger, and inspire more members to join the movement. Rosas points to the fact that the AARP, America’s pre-eminent lobbying group for seniors, backed Wiener’s SB50 bill. They, too, see how a future of rising housing prices will eventually threaten low-income seniors.

“As the housing crisis gets worse, our room for getting more people involved sadly increases as people realize that something has to happen,” says Rosas. “I think that leaders within the Democratic party, seeing the importance of our clubs, will shift with time. I think it’s a matter of time before the Democratic party wholeheartedly embraces YIMBYism. Sooner or later, the housing crisis will impact people of every generation as bad as its hitting the millennials and Gen Xers”.

Can YIMBYs help shape the 2020 agenda?

Perhaps one of the big questions is how much YIMBYism plays into the 2020 election. While many candidates, including Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris have introduced extensive housing plans, the issue didn’t come up once during the first round of candidate debates.

“The fact that we have three candidates with three housing policies that are more comprehensive then we’ve seen in years is exciting,” says Richards. “And it’s great that the presidential candidates aren’t just looking at it from the lens of homeowners. In Minneapolis, half the population is renters, and these plans address rental and tenant issues in ways that haven’t been addressed in previous political campaigns.”

And the campaign and election have just begun. Jenny Schuetz, a housing policy fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, believes housing and development have the potential to be much bigger issues, especially as candidates roll out environmental plans and infrastructure investments, and begin tackling intertwined issues of land planning and integrating housing, transit, and jobs. For instance, the Green New Deal doesn’t say anything about land use, while Biden’s plan talks about land-use planning as a way to reduce sprawl. But bringing all these issues together could truly tie together a lot of progressive goals into a single package.

“There’s room for someone to tie this all together,” she says.

Other power centers in society aren’t exactly waiting for mainstream politics to catch up: Google’s just-announced $1 billion investment in Bay Area housing is just the latest example of a big tech company funding affordable housing. While there are questions about its potential impact in one of the nation’s most expensive and restrictive housing markets, it does send a message, says Lewis.

“It’s an important symbolic move saying to the government, ‘ya’ll are failing, we shouldn’t have to do this, you should be embarrassed,” he says. “The shame factor from these big companies is a big deal.”

Even the Trump administration has, unexpectedly, weighed in as well, creating a national commission to explore local zoning laws that inhibit construction. Schuetz says there’s “cognitive dissonance” with this particular administration, one that has repeatedly pushed to cut support for affordable housing, suddenly having a new-found commitment for low-income renters.

But the engagement, even cynically, in the case of the government, shows the potential power these issues may have. Housing, and the lack thereof, is finding its way into more and more political debates and discussions, and becoming an even bigger part of social policy and local politics. The YIMBY rise has come at exactly the right time, and may be the push that turns a niche issue into the centerpiece of a new kind of coalition.

“I’ve always felt that housing,” says Shaw, “is the foundation of everything.”

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