Current Affairs

The Only Thing Worse Than A NIMBY Is A YIMBY

Pro-development activists try to trick you into thinking it helps the poor to destroy neighborhoods to make way for luxury condos. We need a radically democratic preservationism.

Nobody likes a NIMBY. The “Not In My Backyard” resident is the one who objects to the building of a homeless shelter or methadone clinic in their neighborhood, because it will negatively affect their property values and possibly bring them into contact with the poor. When you think of the villainous NIMBY, you might imagine someone like billionaire Bill Koch, who waged a 12-year campaign to stop a wind farm being built near his house on the Nantucket Sound that he thought would spoil his view. Examples of these people abound: consider the Los Angeles residents complaining that a city councilman is “putting their neighborhood at risk” by putting a series of pitiful “tiny home” cabins for unhoused people in a nearby parking lot.) To those of us who believe that poor people need more houses, and the planet needs more windmills, there is no one more exasperating than the wealthy person who moans about their Quality of Life, which they are unwilling to compromise one iota no matter how large the benefit to others might be. They are also frequently racist, attempting to stall projects that might result in more Black and brown people living in wealthy white areas. 

Enter the YIMBYs. They define themselves as taking the opposite approach: instead of saying “not in my backyard,” they say “yes in my backyard.” The YIMBYs’ number one demand is to build more housing. The organization YIMBY Action describes itself as:

… a network of pro-housing activists fighting for more inclusive housing policies and a future of abundant housing. We drive policy change to increase the supply of housing at all levels and bring down the cost of living in opportunity-rich cities and towns.

California YIMBY has a similarly innocuous pitch:

We work with housing policy experts, elected officials, and grassroots organizations across California to craft and pass legislation at the state and local level that will help accelerate home building, solve the affordable housing crisis, and reduce climate pollution.

The Atlantic described YIMBYs in 2017 as a “growing presence.” Payment processing company Stripe gave California YIMBY $1 million in 2018; the label is especially popular in Silicon Valley. A new report from New York real estate publication the Real Deal documents the expanding presence of a YIMBY group called “Open New York” who “want the city to build its way out of the housing crisis.” 

The YIMBY pitch is generally quite simple: everyone knows there is a housing crisis in many of America’s cities, and that the rent is too damn high. Thus we need more housing. Increased supply will reduce prices. Unfortunately, the dastardly NIMBYs, those sticks-in-the-mud who don’t believe in change, try to prevent new housing from being built. 

But while YIMBYism is presented as the forces of progress and social justice fighting against wealthy entrenched interests, the picture is misleading. As a Guardian report on the phenomenon noted, YIMBYs are not anti-capitalists. They are allies of developers who believe in letting the “free market” determine what kind of housing will be built: 

[M]embers of yimby groups consider themselves progressives and environmentalists, but they’re not afraid to throw the occasional firebomb into the usual liberal alliances. They frequently take aim at space-hogging, single-family homeowners and confound anti-capitalist groups by daring to take the side of developers, even luxury condo developers… Their willingness to lobby for market rate housing in traditionally minority neighbourhoods has seen them called techie gentrifiers and developer stooges. Their penchant for market-based solutions has seen them called “libertarians” with “trickle-down economics”.

The Real Deal’s report says detractors call the YIMBYs “Ayn Rand’s spawn” and “shills,” a “tentacle of the real estate lobby… motivated by principal, not principle.”

It’s certainly true that YIMBY groups tend to embrace economic ideas associated with free-market thinkers like Rand. The idea, generally, is that the problem of affordable housing is a problem of supply. Thus zoning restrictions should be rewritten to allow for more development. There is little interest in having the government build new public housing. Instead, when YIMBYs say “we need more housing,” they mean “we need to allow developers to build what sells.” And even though they talk a lot about the need for affordable housing, they tend to be opposed to requiring developers to make housing affordable, assuming that the Invisible Hand of the free market will take care of that. You can see in Open New York’s FAQ section that they are (1) very cagey on the question of how committed they are to making new development affordable and (2) very defensive about Definitely Not Just Being Real Estate Industry Shills:

Q: By “build more housing,” do you mean affordable housing?

A: We want more construction of both affordable and market-rate housing. Both are good and both are urgently needed. The city should focus on providing affordable housing for those who need it most. If we allow more construction, fewer people will need help finding housing, and the city’s resources for affordable housing would go further. We can’t subsidize our way out of a shortage.

Q: New housing tends to be expensive in New York. Won’t new housing make NYC more expensive?

A: This is a common fallacy, but we believe it is mistaken. If you’re concerned about housing affordability, look at the effect of new market-rate housing on the housing market as a whole. New market-rate housing takes pressure off of existing housing. If you’re interested in diving in deeper as to why, this article does a good job explaining the fallacy. If this sounds like supply-side (aka trickle down) economics, something you should justifiably be wary of, here’s why it’s not: supply-side urbanism is a misnomer.

Q: But new housing is billed as luxury, with expensive construction methods and finishes. Can it really be affordable?

A: Developers market all new housing as “luxury.” A restaurant can call itself “gourmet”, but that doesn’t make it high-end. And even if it is high-end, that means fewer lower-end units being renovated for occupancy by richer people than the current occupants.

Q: Are you secret shills for the real estate industry?

A: Nope! We are New Yorkers who spend our spare time trying to address a problem that we care deeply about. None of us make any money from our activities with Open New York.

(My “Are You A Shill For The Real Estate Industry?” FAQ has people asking a lot of questions already answered by the FAQ.

We can see, then, that YIMBY groups like Open New York strongly believe developers of luxury condos are the allies of affordable housing. They reject complaints that, for example, a beloved old building full of working-class residents is being emptied (via the brutal process of mass eviction) and demolished to make way for a new gleaming pencil-tower for billionaires. This is because they subscribe to a simplistic, but very popular, economic theory that believes helping the rich helps everyone. 

Here’s an excerpt from the article linked in the FAQ on how it’s a “fallacy” and a “myth” that we need more affordable housing rather than market-rate housing: 

What really matters is not whether new housing is created at a price point that low- and moderate-income households can afford, but rather, whether the overall housing supply increases enough that the existing housing stock can “filter down” to low and moderate income households.”… that process depends on wealthier people moving into newer, more desirable homes. Where the construction of those homes is highly constrained, those wealthier households end up bidding up the price of older housing—preventing it from filtering down to lower income households and providing for more affordability.

(Funnily enough, while conservatives often insist that there is no such thing as “trickle-down economics,” here we have a very clear example of it in the wild—but with the word “filter” used instead of “trickle.”) 

Economist Noah Smith, a supporter of the YIMBY framework, says that progressives simply do not understand economics:

….[I]t has become an article of faith that building market-rate housing raises rents, rather than lowers them.  The logic of Econ 101 — that an increase in supply lowers price — is alien to many progressives, both in the Bay Area and around the country.

But what is called the “logic” of Econ 101 is often a fairy tale, a story about a world that could theoretically exist rather than the world that actually does exist. In the “Econ 101” fairy tale about housing, more housing helps everyone no matter what kind of housing it is. Thus it does not make any sense to oppose development, and we should relax zoning codes (and forget about historic preservation, which is pure nostalgia, or rent control, which is a doomed attempt to interfere with market forces) to maximize the number of available units.

The story is insidious because it makes intuitive sense. Like many Econ 101 tales (e.g., raising the minimum wage kills jobs), it has a superficially compelling logic, and it is only when you think a bit harder (i.e., when you get past the “101” class) that you realize it might be false. There is no necessary economic reason why increasing the total number of housing units in a city helps make housing more affordable for poor residents. Consider the pencil towers. Let’s say that in order to build one, an early 20th century building full of lower-middle class residents was purchased, the residents evicted, the building flattened. There were 30 single-family units in the old building. Our new pencil tower is 100 floors high and has 100 units. All of our pencil tower’s units are full of state-of-the-art appliances and high-end fixtures, and cost $2,000,000 each. They are swiftly bought up, 20 by rich people who live in the city, 30 by rich people lured to the city by its new pencil tower, and 50 by rich people who have no intention of living in the city but think pencil tower condos are an asset worth owning in a swiftly-gentrifying city.

What has happened? Well, we’ve increased the supply of high-end housing, but we’ve actually decreased the amount of housing in the city available to working-class people. Even if we assume that the local rich who move to the pencil tower will make their previous dwellings vacant—which will then be occupied by the slightly-less-rich, who will in turn vacate their own previous homes—in the elaborate perfect game of musical chairs envisioned by the Econ 101 story that causes housing to “filter down,” there are still more people for fewer units in our city. The overall housing supply has increased but the per-capita housing supply has not, because we’re luring rich people from elsewhere to our city. If the working-class person evicted from their home of 30 years wants to rent someplace else in town, then even according to the most simplistic supply-and-demand theory, their rents are going to be higher. (Perhaps there are indeed houses that are now cheaper as a result of the aggregate supply increase, but they are a three hour commute from the city.) The fact that there may be multiple different housing markets within a single city also means that something that helps the consumers in one market does nothing for the consumers in another, but does cause a lot of disruption and displacement that is rarely factored into economistic analyses of costs and benefits. (Because economists tend to view people as dots on a spreadsheet, the pain of someone being evicted from a home they’ve lived in for 30 years is not really part of the discussion, even though it is an important part of the story of why it is “rational” to resist the coming of the Pencil Tower.) 

A simplistic Econ 101 way of looking at the world also causes people to ignore all sorts of difficult-to-quantify but nevertheless quite real values. YIMBYs do not have much sympathy with preservationists or people who want to keep the character of their neighborhoods. But neighborhood culture and the preservation of local memory are important, and preservationism is not just for the wealthy. It often seems that way because, as a matter of empirical reality, it is the wealthy who have the greatest ability to defend their neighborhoods against the forces of “progress” (that just so happen to coincide neatly with what makes developers rich). But here in New Orleans, for example, French Quarter residents successfully resisted efforts to stick a highway through the neighborhood while residents of the largely Black Treme neighborhood did not. This was because of a lack of power. Preservationism seems like a bourgeois movement because the bourgeois have economic muscle, but nobody deserves to have the future of their neighborhoods determined by developers rather than the democratic process. 

There’s no reason why good public housing can’t be built. It is done elsewhere successfully. (See, e.g., the remarkable Vienna model or the public housing success of Singapore.) Even the article cited by Open New York concedes that it takes decades for luxury housing to “filter down”—in the meantime it just displaces people through the horrific process of eviction. The theory of trickle down economics is not necessarily wrong that if you make the rich rich enough, some benefits will accrue to the poor. But it is a vastly inefficient way to help the poor. Instead of building condos for the people who don’t need houses, and hoping that eventually market forces will slowly reduce prices at every level, it’s possible to build for the people who do need houses. There is also no need for progress to involve bulldozing beloved historic places.

The rich NIMBY is an odious character. But it is the YIMBYs who are most insidious, because they manage to look like the allies of affordable housing and social justice while actually helping to reshape cities into the lifeless playgrounds of the super-rich exemplified by New York’s Hudson Yards development. Fernando Marti of Shelterforce explains well the ugliness of the YIMBY worldview: 

But according to the YIMBY leaders, now we equity advocates are the problem too, little different from the NIMBYs, rabid progressives who are too naïve or ideological to understand how the market really works. In this story line, in the name of fighting evictions and displacement, we progressives, we communities of color, we poor people and immigrants, we working-class queers stupidly don’t realize that luxury development now will eventually become the affordable housing of the future! … It’s simple supply-and-demand they say, Econ 101, and we obviously didn’t go to college if we don’t understand that simple truth. They say we foolish activists abuse environmental regulations and planning processes that allow for democratic participation to stop or slow development. So the answer to the problem is to do away with those pesky regulations, limit public input, and give up on any attempt to get real estate developers to mitigate their impacts on our neighborhoods. This is the viciousness of the YIMBY argument: It 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.

We can preserve without being reactionaries. We can believe in building new houses without letting developers control the future of our cities. The NIMBY-YIMBY dichotomy is a false one, a piece of propaganda designed to make us think everyone who opposes any particular development is privileged and everyone who supports it is socially progressive. The terms are ultimately grossly unhelpful, obscuring the underlying issues. Any understanding of the desirability of development depends on deeper questions like: whose backyard are we talking about? Who is saying yes? To what? Why? And does the story they are telling hold up under scrutiny? 

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