A couple weeks ago, an online news site called Truthout published a piece entitled “YIMBYs: The ‘Alt-Right’ Darlings of the Real Estate Industry” (they later deleted the “Alt-Right” from the headline in order to “be more accurate and representative of the story’s contents”). YIMBYs, who promote market rate development in cities, tend to consider themselves allies in the fight for affordable housing. They tend to be fairly progressive folks who are committed to finding ways to maintain affordability for existing communities in cities. It was no surprise, then, that the YIMBY internet exploded with scorn and defensiveness when an organization describing itself as looking to fight “systemic injustice” called them, in turn, members of the alt-right, and white supremacists. I was part of that group; I’m a YIMBY. And, for the record, I’m not often called a white supremacist.
I did the normal thing when someone called me a name – I posted on Facebook that the article was garbage. However, I found myself still thinking about the piece a couple of days later, and finally decided to admit what I knew all along; as piece could only make me that defensive and derisive if there was some truth in it. People post stupid things on the internet every day; why did I (along with many of my colleagues) feel the need to articulate how stupid this particular one was? The answer: because there was likely a kernel of truth in it. I think the article was poorly written and willfully ignored most of what YIMBYs stand for in an attempt to get publicity. It seems, though, that YIMBYs need to do some work on messaging if what we actually think is going to be broadly talked about.
The term “YIMBY” (“yes in my backyard”) has grown in popularity over the past two or three years in response, unsurprisingly, to NIMBYs (“not in my backyard”). NIMBYs, broadly speaking, are opposed to some sort of new development in their neighborhood. They might be trying to stop homeless shelters from coming in or trying to prevent changing their neighborhood. They might say that say new residents would add to competition for parking spaces, or they might readily admit that increasing the supply of housing makes their asset less profitable. Regardless of motivation, they don’t want new people living near them.
YIMBYs, on the other hand, believe that solving the affordability crisis in cities demands, among other things, the construction of new housing. The laws of supply and demand point to the fact that prices can decline in one of two ways: demand must go down, or supply must go up. To YIMBYs, the equation is pretty simple: increasing the supply means that housing prices will, at the regional level, go down (or increase more slowly). In fact, because demand for housing is increasing steadily in urban areas in the US, we need to be adding housing units just to keep the same level of affordability.
The Truthout piece was largely centered in San Francisco, and that makes sense. The affordability crisis in San Francisco is much more sever than anywhere else in the country: this week’s story involves public school teachers who are homeless because they can’t afford housing. YIMBYs in San Francisco have long decried how slowly new housing is being built in the city. The numbers are stark: San Francisco has added 446,000 jobs since 2010. Over the same period, it added less than 16,500 housing units. That’s 27 jobs for every single additional housing unit. Admittedly, these numbers are skewed because 2010 was the nadir of the recession. Even so, current employment is 289,000 jobs above the 2008 peak – translating into 18 jobs per each additional unit. All these new jobs are being filled by people who want to live in the city. You don’t have to be a real estate guru to recognize that San Francisco’s current affordability crisis is being driven in large part by growth in demand for housing far outstripping growth in supply.
Development at any level of the market makes things more affordable at every level thanks to a process called filtering. Take, for instance, development at the very highest level. As the wealthiest people move into these new digs, moderately wealth people move into the places they leave behind. This process repeats itself all the way down through the market. If you think it sounds a little like trickle-down economics, you’re not wrong – except there’s evidence that filtering actually works, to an extent. Because of filtering, YIMBYs are open to and encourage development of market rate housing (IE, housing that isn’t subsidized for low income families and renters).
Of course (and this is where Truthout takes issue), there is another group who thinks that market rate development is a very good thing: developers. By and large, developers are considered the bad guys when it comes to affordability. Whether or not they are being justly excoriated, they do stand to make massive profits off of the affordability crisis: the extreme level of pent-up demand means they can make a killing off producing new housing. Developers do, however, tend to have pretty dirty hands when it comes to political deal-making. In many cities, real estate developers are major contributors to local elections. In New York, for instance, many of the scandals in the de Blasio administration have involved developers illegally donating money and currying favor with City Hall. What’s more, developers are economically incentivized to fight any affordable housing measures. In many cities, development rights are tied to a developer agreeing to rent their units for below the market rate, resulting in a loss of potential income for them.
YIMBYs and developers, then, make for odd bedfellows. YIMBYs are trying to promote development as part of a larger affordability strategy, while developers want to buildbuildbuild without being forced to make any concessions to those who can’t afford their units. It’s no wonder that YIMBYs are coming under attack: by defining ourselves in large part by what we oppose (IE, we’re anti-anti-development) we hardly distinguish ourselves from the developers who actively fight other tools in the affordability struggle.
That needs to change.
In many parts of the country, YIMBYs have been successful. We’ve changed the conversation, and most people now recognize that we need to build more if we’re going to ensure economic diversity in our cities. With that success in hand, it’s time to start developing a more robust platform. When you are the opposition party, you can be “about” one thing. However, when you command the conversation, you have to shift to a place of greater nuance. Now that it’s widely agreed that building is important, we need to step back and recognize the limitations of our own philosophy. We need to recognize that the conversation is nuanced, and building can have odd impacts at the local level. We need, specifically, to engage with two issues on which we haven’t spent nearly enough time:
- At the neighborhood level, building can have unintended impacts. Rick Jacobus wrote about this last year, and it’s become the touchstone for my thinking about housing and development. His piece is great, and you should read it. His central argument is that, even though development must reduce costs at the regional level, increasing supply can actually increase prices at the neighborhood level. Development can signal that a neighborhood is up-and-coming, that it’s safe, or that it’s cool. The very act of development can increase demand by more than it increases supply in a local area, leading to price increases. So, while increasing supply is good for the region as a whole, individual neighborhoods are right to be ambivalent about its impact. City policy, therefore, needs to ensure that all neighborhoods shoulder the burden evenly so these impacts aren’t hyper concentrated in neighborhoods where folks don’t have the resources to push back against developers. Under the current system, developers simply focus on areas where community members can’t push back effectively.
- Building new units is only one weapon in the fight for affordability. It is a tool that was long ignored by housing advocates, and that’s why we needed to draw attention to it. Now that we command the conversation, we need to also support stronger tenant protections and controls against abuse in the system. We need to recognize that it’s time for us to lend our support to rent stabilization programs. We need to talk more about the fact that the private market won’t make housing affordable for everyone, and develop better strategies for developing housing for the folks who will never be able to afford a market-rate home.
So Yes in my Backyard! We absolutely need to build more housing units to accommodate the increase in demand for living in the city. It’s time, though, to broaden the conversation. It’s time to recognize that we are, to an extent, in bed with some players who are motivated purely by financial profit, and that even as we work together we’ll need to resist them. Currently, we’re being had – rapacious, profit-seeking developers are using our arguments to explain why what they’re doing is the best and only way to overcome the affordability crisis. Before we slay the beast of unaffordability, we’re going to end up pissing off a lot of developers. We can look to drug companies for an example. Even as we cheer the development of new drugs, we insist that there’s an ethical cap on the profits they can realize. Finding the right balance between incentivizing development and using it to promote affordability is a difficult task, and one that we’ll need to constantly refine as markets and tastes change. Market rate development is a powerful tool, but it will only realize its full potential if we put in the hard work to make sure it operates in tandem with other, equally important affordability tools.