In-Depth: Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) introduced this bill to prioritize grants for local measures that will increase housing supply and affordability:
“We know that certain land use policies can help make housing more affordable and less discriminatory. Increasing the density of residential zoning to include multifamily homes, planning housing and transit development in conjunction with one another, and allowing for accessory dwelling units. White these decisions are rightfully made at the local level, the YIMBY Act will incentivize policies to increase affordability and reduce discrimination. If a local government applies for federal CDBG funding, they’ll need to provide an account of their land use policies and the benefits to their communities.”
Original cosponsor Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-IN) added:
“A safe and stable home serves as a bedrock for families. Our federal laws should encourage building affordable housing for our neighbors, not driving up the costs and creating barriers through burdensome and restrictive land use policies.”
Up for Growth Action supports this bill. Its executive director, Mike Kingsells, says:
“Up for Growth Action stands ready to help Sen. Young and his colleagues eliminate exclusionary zoning and other artificial barriers to housing that that perpetuate inequity. Many of these regulations have shameful roots in racism, and today they contribute to the housing shortage and affordability crisis that impacts large parts of the country.”
Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson has expressed support for YIMBY proposals on multiple occasions, including on a June 2019 trip to Minneapolis during which he made public comments criticizing single-family zoning’s effects and encouraging more local governments to follow Minneapolis’ example of eliminating single-family zoning (which the city did in its 2040 Comprehensive Plan) as part of its efforts to address homelessness:
“The correlation seems very strong: The more zoning restrictions and regulations, the higher the prices and the more homeless people. So, armed with that knowledge, we have to work with these various places. And I don’t think there’s anybody that wants to see homelessness and squalor. We just have to start utilizing the facts and utilizing the evidence to create the policies.”
The Trump White House has made efforts to address affordable housing. On June 25, 2019, President Trump issued an executive order establishing a White House Council on eliminating regulatory barriers to affordable housing. The order charged the council with investigating the regulatory barriers that hinder housing development, defined as “overly restrictive zoning and growth management controls; rent controls; cumbersome building and rehabilitation codes; excessive energy and water efficiency mandates; unreasonable maximum-density allowances; historic preservation requirements; overly burdensome wetland or environmental regulations; outdated manufactured-housing regulations and restrictions; undue parking requirements; cumbersome and time-consuming permitting and review procedures; tax policies that discourage investment or reinvestment; overly complex labor requirements; and inordinate impact or developer fees.”
In September 2016, the Obama White House published a policy paper, the Housing Development Toolkit, using then-unprecedented YIMBY rhetoric to call on local governments to rethink their zoning laws. The administration called for higher-density developments, speedier permitting and fewer restrictions on accessory dwelling units (e.g., basements and garage apartments), all of which it argued would help address homelessness and rising rent costs.
David Garcia, a researcher at the Terner Center for Housing Innovation at the University of California Berkeley, says the complex American development approval process leads to higher costs and length delays for new construction and ultimately less housing being constructed. He observes, “In America we've created this system where every single project needs to be poked and prodded and examined before we've given it a thumbs-up to build and have more people to live in our communities.” While Garcia concedes that these requirements may be necessary, he also contends that it’s important to ask “whether or not they’re in line with the goal of actually building more housing.”
Fernando Marti, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, a coalition of affordable housing and community economic development advocates in San Francisco, condemns YIMBYism’s “neoliberal deregulatory worldview”:
“[YIMBYism] tells people who want our homes that they deserve, by virtue of their whiteness and their status as part of a young college-educated elite, to get them. And there lies the genius of this narrative. An agenda for building up the power base of the neoliberal right is not going to get too far in liberal beachheads like San Francisco or New York using the traditional Republican platform. It needs a new story that appeals to young millennials, and it has found it in the “pro-housing” language of the YIMBYs. But in the end, it’s pushing the same underlying principles: the way to a more efficient future is to destroy belief in regulation, public investment, and democratic participation, whether the arena is charter schools or health care or housing affordability. But this story is as thin as the next market crash. We know ‘we’ did not underbuild for decades. It is we, in fact, who built these cities; we who stayed in these neighborhoods while their grandparents fled to racially exclusive suburbs; we who welcomed our brothers and sisters fleeing from Jim Crow and NAFTA and death squads and queer bashing; we who created the urban cultures they so desire; we who continue to fight for cities that center people and homes and communities and culture and environment; we who had and still have the vision of a city that continues to change and evolve, but always, always, is built on democracy. Our vision includes everyone. To continue to build this city for everyone will require new housing, yes, and will require new models to replace the suburban single-family model that collapsed in the financial crisis of 2008. But unless our vision is to introduce new resegregated urban regions with cities exclusively for the rich, and the poor displaced to the suburban peripheries, we will have to work together on an agenda that is the antithesis of the neoliberal deregulatory worldview espoused by much of the YIMBY leadership. We must embrace market regulation, dedicated revenues for and deep public investment in affordable housing, and true democratic participation.”
This legislation passed the House Financial Services Committee by voice vote and has the support of 10 bipartisan cosponsors, including six Democrats and four Republicans.
Of Note: Housing construction per household is at its lowest level in 60 years. According to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, the U.S. built 260,000 too few homes to keep pace with demand in 2018. The combination of low housing stocks, high demand, and stringent restrictions on new development in coastal cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York has led to acute housing affordability problems in these areas.
“Yes in My Backyard,” or “YIMBY,” is the inverse of “Not in My Backyard” (NIMBY). The movement and phrase both originate from Toronto, Canada in 2006. YIMBY advocates support urban development to bring rents down and believe overly restrictive local zoning rules are contributing to depressing housing supplies and higher rents.
Matthew Lawlor, an attorney specializing in real estate law in Boston, describes five characteristics of YIMBYism. He finds it:
Is intensely local, with grassroots organizations playing a major role in the movement and advocacy work tending to remain local, rather than regional or national;
Arises in response to specific trends in the local population and housing market;
Secondarily, arises as a specific response to NIMBYism;
Pulls from a broad spectrum of people who are concerned about various aspects of urban places, including affordable housing, urbanism and active mobility (i.e., promoting walking, cycling and transit); and
Is generally an “organizing wing” of the New Urbanism, which recognizes that good development projects vocal neighborhood support.
Sonja Trauss, director of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, describes YIMBYs as “advocate[s] for housing” who “believe that not having enough housing to accommodate newcomers is terrible public policy that leads to displacement.” She adds:
“YIMBYs want there to be neighborhoods of all varying levels of affordability close to job centers, so people can participate in the city’s economy. Whatever your situation is, we think you should be able to live in the city center if you want to… If you are in a growing metro area, like San Francisco, there will be times when housing development is proposed in your neighborhood. Being a YIMBY means piping up and supporting that development at neighborhood meetings, or by emails to the government.”
The Atlantic reports that across the U.S., YIMBY groups have found success in “appealing to people’s sense of equity and fairness.” Gabriel Metcalf, president and CEO of the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), says this strategy is especially effective with progressives:
“I think there are more people understanding housing as a social-justice issue. While they might not like their communities changing with higher-density buildings, more people understand that they are necessary to live up to our values as progressives.”
Despite the rise of YIMBY sentiment, opposition to construction remains. In July 2017 the Atlantic reported that “[t]hroughout the Bay Area, and the country, there’s still significant resistance to building housing in many expensive communities.” As an example, it cited a May 2017 meeting in Menlo Park, California over a proposal to meet 150 affordable housing units, which was “met with typical NIMBYism.”
Writing for In These Times’ June 2018 issue, Toshio Meronek pointed out that YIMBYism as it’s currently practiced in the Bay Area is a “deeply polarizing force” that has sidelined the work of established housing advocacy groups fighting against working-class communities of color’s displacement. Meronek reports, “In San Francisco, these housing advocates are wary of the YIMBYs’ free-market bent, particularly when the movement is made up of so many young, white tech workers” who aren’t always sensitive to established minority communities’ concerns.
Maria Zamudio, an organizer with the Plaza 16 Coalition, an anti-gentrification group based in San Francisco’s Mission District, tells a personal story about her eventual disillusionment with San Francisco’s YIMBY movement. When she first saw the term YIMBY in 2016, she was interested: although suspicious of the group’s “homogenous whiteness,” she though the campaign could help demystify complex issues such as land use and zoning. However, she came to sour on the YIMBY movement and to see the YIMBY ethos as an oversimplification that ignores development’s racist history. She now believes the YIMBY movement “is about developers and speculators who are starting to get a bad rap and need to rebrand themselves.”
More broadly, many anti-gentrification and displacement groups argue that the new development YIMBYs advocate threatens their communities. In California, a statewide YIMBY group’s efforts to pass a controversial bill going after single-family zoning was fiercely opposed by organizations representing low-income communities of color, some of which accused the YIMBYs of having a white privilege problem and others which criticized the YIMBYs for being too cozy with the Bay Area’s tech industry (which funds much of of the Bay Area’s YIMBY activity).
In response to these criticisms, YIMBY groups contend that any new housing is better than none at all. In a September 14, 2017 meeting at the San Francisco Planning Commission in which she argued in favor of a proposed 75-unit development in the San Francisco Mission that was intended to be mostly market rate units, Trauss pointed out that the people who’d live in the unit would “live somewhere,” and eventually displacing “someone somewhere else” in the absence of that particular development because “demand doesn’t disappear.”
Summary by Lorelei Yang with contributions from Eric Revell(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / photovs)