Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

A YIMBY and a “Left NIMBY” Duke it Out

A conversation with housing activist Darrell Owens of CA YIMBY reveals that the terms NIMBY and YIMBY might not mean what you think.

The name of the YIMBY movement stands for “Yes in My Backyard,” a counter to the infamous NIMBY, “Not in My Backyard.” YIMBYism has attracted attention in the press in recent years. This magazine has generally run coverage critical of the movement. In the interest of giving YIMBYism a fair hearing, however, Current Affairs recently invited Darrell Owens, policy analyst at CA YIMBY and activist at East Bay for Everyone, to come and discuss what he feels the misconceptions about YIMBYs are. The full conversation can be heard on the Current Affairs podcast. The following transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for grammar and clarity.

Robinson

You and I have been quietly—or loudly—antagonizing one another online for a while…

Owens

I had some good commentary. But I made comments that were unwarranted and that were personal about your drip [fashion/style]. And that wasn’t necessary. You’ve got great fashion.

Robinson

I like it when people make fun of my clothes, because I think “they’re making fun of my clothes because they can’t handle my arguments.”

Owens

Exactly. It’s true. I’ve gotten tired of these meaningless fights on Twitter.

Robinson

It’s a toxic place, more heat than light. I think this is an opportunity to have a really good conversation. We’re here today to chat face to face to produce light rather than heat. I have certainly said a number of critical and antagonistic things toward the YIMBY movement of which you are a part. And you had a recent interview in Jacobin magazine—a magazine I deeply respect and love, the leading magazine of the socialist left in the United States. The argument that you made in that interview was that the contemporary YIMBY movement has been in some ways misunderstood, and that it has also been undergoing a shift. The headline was “Parts of the YIMBY Movement are Moving Left,” and you wanted to emphasize what the movement is really about. So why don’t we start with the basics for people who don’t know the whole “YIMBY-NIMBY debate,” to whom these acronyms may be bewildering? Lay out what YIMBYism means to you.

Owens

The idea behind YIMBYism is just the idea that you should build more housing relative to population growth. And it’s not something that started a couple of years ago. It’s been around for a very long time. Obviously, the acronym started off in response to NIMBY—which is the Not In My Backyard movement, the phenomenon where people oppose housing near them. That became a very common slogan to refer to people who were generally oppositional to housing, usually low-income housing, in the ‘80s. And then around the 1990s, there were nonprofit low-income housing developers using YIMBY to say, actually, we support building more low-income housing.

And the idea of “YIMBY” as a movement actually started around 2006 or so in Sweden, where they have a terrible housing shortage. And so people there said, We should build more housing, obviously. So YIMBY has been through various phases. It became very popular when it started in San Francisco. And ever since then it has spread all over the country and all the way up to the White House. It’s a pretty big deal. But I think that it fundamentally means that you should just build more housing. And I know that that doesn’t seem like it should be controversial. We can have a discussion about the type of housing, the design, the location, and so forth. But it’s a remarkably contentious issue. That’s how we got here.

Robinson

Let’s start off by defining NIMBYism. I think that where you and I definitely agree is in our opposition to NIMBYism. I’ve even tried to preface my critiques of the YIMBY movement by saying that I think that NIMBYism, we can both agree, has been a scourge. I would see it as self-interested property owners who oppose all changes, especially ones designed to make cities more inclusive, more dense; and people who oppose affordable housing projects in their area because of their “quality of life.” When Los Angeles was going to build little tiny shacks for homeless people, they said it’s going to ruin the neighborhood. The example that comes to mind here in New Orleans was in the French Quarter, where there was this big fight for years over whether to build a Cuban restaurant in this empty building on the corner. There are signs put up by residents that say “NO CAFE HABANA.” And I just think “What?” It seems like the stupidest fight, and it strikes me as classic NIMBYism. So how would you identify the NIMBYism that YIMBYism has had to rise in reaction to?

Owens

I think NIMBYism is really just the fear of change, at a very high level. And it can and often does overlap with property values. But in my five years of experience, I’m not even convinced that much of NIMBYism is even motivated by property values. A lot of it is just that people don’t like change. And generally, when you have an ability to improve other people’s lives, especially when it comes to the civic sector, people view themselves as having a right to play gatekeeper, to entitlement. Here in California, a town called Redondo Beach failed to zone properly to account for fair housing rules. And when the people are complaining about the state cracking down on them, their complaint is “Well, I worked to get here. So everyone else has to work to get here, too.” It’s a very interesting level of entitlement about not only your property values and your so-called quality of life, but also about who has the right to live in a city.

Robinson

I don’t know that fear of change can be identified as a problem in and of itself, because it seems to me that the fear of particular kinds of changes is entirely justified, whereas the fear of other kinds of changes is not justified. There are particular fears that I think of as totally legitimate.

So, for example, my parents’ neighborhood in Florida has all these beautiful oak trees, and there’s a lot of building going on in the development. And there’s a developer who was trying to chop down a bunch of 200-year-old oak trees so they could squeeze more houses onto the lot. And the environmentalist groups were fighting him to protect the trees. So the developer can say, “Well, you’re a bunch of NIMBYs, you don’t like change.” And they’re saying, “Well, no, we like the oak canopy of this neighborhood.” So I don’t know that I would say fear of change is the problem. There are different values. They like trees. Their fear is legitimate. There’s the fear of, for example, your neighborhood being taken over by short-term rentals and AirBnB, which is happening here in New Orleans to the historic Black neighborhood of Tremé. A bunch of companies are buying houses and turning them into AirBnBs. 

So it seems to me that everything is about what kinds of change we’re talking about. Is there something you think is inherently wrong with all opposition to change?

Owens

No. The idea is that if you were to see “fear of change” as a big circle, then I would say NIMBYism is a tiny circle within that circle, and that it’s a fear of change in the sense that it would help other people. A fear of change in the sense that you’re not getting something. That is, I think, what motivates a lot of it. Of course, opposing changes that are going to be detrimental to a neighborhood is good. But the problem is always going to be: what is that actual detriment? And for a lot of people, it’s not equity minded. They’re not concerned about displacement or the environment. I think a lot of it, honestly, in my experience of doing this for a long time, is just people’s fear of having more people live in their neighborhood, people’s fear of seeing the street look a little different than it did yesterday. And I actually am kind of sympathetic because I used to be a NIMBY myself. So I get where a lot of that fear comes from. But I do think that it is ultimately detrimental to creating the sort of society where everyone has housing.

I NIMBY things myself. For example, at my group at East Bay for Everyone, we fought against developers who wanted to destroy lots of acres to build more suburban sprawl. I’m a huge NIMBY against suburban sprawl all the time. I’ve helped write state laws in California to protect thousands of rent-controlled housing units throughout the state. And right in my own backyard, a developer wanted to demolish a rent-controlled triplex and replace it with a 10-unit building. And I said, Okay, fine. But if you do that, you have to replace all the rent-controlled units in your new property. The units were vacant. This was just a homeowner with some old units they hadn’t been renting out for a long time. But ultimately, my law made them actually change the project.

For example, throughout the state of California, lots of rent-controlled housing that was being demolished was actually saved because of the law. It requires replacement for developers to do. So NIMBYing things is good. But the problem is, NIMBY cannot be universal all the time. And a lot of the time, it’s not about protecting tenants. It’s about keeping people out of their neighborhoods and keeping types of buildings they think don’t look great out of their neighborhoods over the social goal of providing more housing. So I agree with you that not all fear of change is bad.

Robinson

What you’ve just said suggests to me that the whole NIMBY-YIMBY framework can be kind of misleading. Every sensible person is ultimately what we might call a DWIMBY—depends what in my backyard. When you say “I’ve NIMBY-ed things,” are you really a NIMBY? I mean, yes, you’re saying “I don’t want this in my backyard,” and we agree there are certain proposed projects you don’t want. But then do you want to be a NIMBY? I feel NIMBY is always a pejorative, and once we have a “NIMBY-YIMBY” thing, the NIMBYs are bad, the YIMBYs are good, but then we have to say “Oh no, actually, it’s far more complicated, sometimes NIMBYing is good,” which to me suggests that the whole NIMBY-YIMBY framework might be entirely misleading and causing people to fight over things they don’t need to fight about.

Owens

I mean, sure, if you interpret YIMBY as, always say yes, and NIMBY, conversely, as always say no. And there are those kinds of people. I can see how people say it’s simplistic. But in a country where we’ve had tremendous population growth, and yet insufficient housing supply, and especially in a lot of these major metropolitan areas where we have record low vacancy rates, I agree that there are project-by-project considerations. And that’s why planning is so important. Right now, it’s property owners and homeowners at the expense of everybody else. And, broadly speaking, we do need to build more housing in the United States, and especially in our major cities. So I think that YIMBY is actually a fine term. It doesn’t mean that you’re going to say yes to every single project everywhere. And I think that’s fine.

Robinson

I do feel as if a lot of the people who are YIMBYs end up pejoratively describing a lot of people as NIMBYs who are not opposing the kinds of things that the YIMBYs say they want. I’ll give you an example. Your blog has an entry classifying the different types of YIMBYs and NIMBYs. And you say there is a person called “the left NIMBY”—this is NIMBY as a bad thing. You describe what the left NIMBYs believe. And they believe, you say, that

“no market adjustments will make the housing crisis better, … that the proliferation of new market housing causes displacement by increasing area rents with its very mere presence. A hundred percent affordable housing to them is better than market rate housing, even if the inclusionary units are the same amount due to the absence of market units. The left NIMBY rejects there’s any housing shortage and thinks of housing as exclusively an allocation issue. … Left NIMBYs are big vacancy truthers.”

And under examples of left NIMBYs, the only one who is listed by name is Nathan J. Robinson!

Owens

I don’t remember citing you, but that makes sense.

Robinson

You list the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, San Francisco political groups, Nathan J. Robinson. Now I don’t believe I have ever advanced any of the positions that you attribute to the left NIMBY there. And yet, I constantly find myself called a NIMBY by people identifying themselves as YIMBYs!

Owens

I think that might have been unfair. I’d looked into a lot of your housing positions, and it seemed to be focused on the preservation stuff. So I can change that; it’s not a problem. But I think I was more broadly describing a lot of left critiques of YIMBYism, which are all those things I’ve mentioned, which are very prominent. I don’t know how it is in New Orleans, but all those positions I described are, especially on the coasts, pretty prominent positions for a lot of non-YIMBY left wingers. I think they’re pretty accurate. Now, I probably shouldn’t have labeled you that way. I think that you have a much more interesting take about architectural preservation and stuff. So, do you think that those positions I wrote about are made up? I understand your frustration about being cited there.

Robinson

I think that a lot of people who you might think would hold those positions, hold positions that are somewhat more nuanced.

Owens

I would like to think so.

Robinson

It would be easy to see how I might hold those positions. But, for example, new market housing to me depends entirely on what kind of market housing we’re talking about. Obviously, there are a bunch of empty parking lots downtown in many cities. Yes, it would be nice if they would build some new buildings there and house some people. I don’t think that’s going to increase rents necessarily. I think it all depends on the situation. “Vacancy truthers.” What’s that? It sounds like 9/11 Truthers.

Owens

“Vacancy truther” is a funny term that we’ve made up to basically describe people who always tell us that there’s no housing shortage and that all we have to do is just acquire all vacant units and then the problem will be solved. The problem is that usually they don’t understand how vacancy rates are calculated. So they tend to think that any apartment going between one tenant to another, or one house to another, is sitting around vacant forever, or something akin to Detroit.

We run into this constantly. I’m pro vacancy taxes. I think that we should reduce vacancy rates. But at the end of the day, the vacancy rate in the U.S. for rental housing is the lowest it’s been in 40 years. And at this point, it’s virtually at an all-time low. And the homeowner vacancy rate in the U.S. is also at its lowest rate since the census started recording vacancy rates. So the idea that we have a whole bunch of vacant housing, and we don’t have to build any more housing, is a very prominent argument that you see a lot of progressives advance. But it’s just not true.

Robinson

In the interests, however, of trying to end the acrimony, I feel like calling someone a “truther” is a way to get them to dislike you.

Owens

Yes.

Robinson

If we’re trying to understand people who say, “well just look at all the empty houses, let’s put people in the empty houses,” for them I think it probably comes from an emotional reaction to seeing lots of empty luxury apartments, not from some statistical analysis. I live in the French Quarter in New Orleans, and we have a housing shortage. But also, I walk through my neighborhood and see a ton of houses that are just owned by wealthy people from out of state, the pied-à-terres. These residents come in and use them once a year for Mardi Gras. And I have to say, that gets under my skin. It really does, especially when I see this huge homeless population. There’s a mile-long stretch of tents under the highway at the moment. And I’m not a “vacancy truther” because I wouldn’t say, because I don’t know, that there are more empty houses than the number of homeless people. But it does seem a very obvious symbol of injustice to see empty houses and to see homeless people in the same city.

Owens

So if you read my piece called “Vacant Nuance in the Vacant Housing Debate,” that’s my first Substack post that addresses the issue.

Robinson

It’s really good.

Owens

And I make that same point. You see a lot of tent cities all over the place. I’ve done statistical data analysis on San Francisco, which has all these vacation houses. They should absolutely be taxed. Now, will they be turned over to homeless people? I don’t think that’s going to happen, at least not via a tax. I mean, you could maybe do some kind of public acquisition. But I totally agree. I understand that there’s an emotional response to it. And that’s why I said it. But a lot of these acronyms are more in reference to people who are high up in the policy world who do know this information. It’s not aimed at average people who are like, Oh, my God, there are vacant, seasonal summer homes and there’s a homeless person. It’s aimed at people who are deep into the housing debate, the kind of nerds that I fight with all the time who very much espouse those opinions despite knowing that the vacancy rates are at all-time lows. But I do support anti-vacancy tax measures. I think it’s a good idea, as I wrote about in the article.

Robinson

In the interest of trying to bridge divides and end acrimony, I do think there is a tendency among people who self-identify as YIMBYs to describe a lot of people pejoratively as “NIMBYs.” And I think it makes those people (the so-called NIMBYs) angry, especially when they are tenants’ rights activists. So I interviewed a very controversial figure among YIMBYs, San Francisco City Supervisor Dean Preston, who is, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, the furthest-left member of the Board of Supervisors. He’s a DSA member who has been a tenants’ rights lawyer and activist for many years. And a group of YIMBYs put out a report saying he was a NIMBY who was blocking all sorts of development in his district. And when I interviewed him he said this was all mistaken. They portrayed him as a NIMBY trying to protect all the rich people in his district. And he said, essentially: that’s ridiculous. I’ve been fighting for low-income people my whole career. And they distorted all these things. What I was trying to do was extract concessions from developers to put more affordable units in buildings. And they were saying “Oh, you’re opposing all these housing projects.” And he said that it made him feel that unless you support whatever the developer wants to build, the stick of “NIMBY” will be used to whack you. Why do you hate housing? Why don’t you want to build housing? So perhaps you could respond to that.

Owens

Yeah. So I could go off on Dean Preston, who very much is deep into the San Francisco YIMBY-NIMBY divide. I’ve known of the guy since the old days. But at the end of the day, I think that the problem we have in places like San Francisco is an extremely corrupt political process in which there are no coherent rules in terms of what a project is required to do in order to get built. And so this leads to very high-profile instances of political payoffs. It makes it very hard for anybody but big developers to build housing in a city that tends to be oriented toward the luxury market. The idea is that you should have pretty clear universal rules in terms of how housing gets approved so that it can be done in a quick and equitable way.

In my experience, many people where I’m from are very pro tenants rights and don’t think that we should build more housing. But there are also a lot of people on the left who think we should build more housing. So as I talked about in the Jacobin article, there’s DSA member Alex Lee, who’s in the state assembly, who is a YIMBY socialist. I know tenants’ rights activists and East Bay residents who are very pro-YIMBY. They butt heads with the NIMBYs—NIMBY as in people who think that we shouldn’t build any more housing or that all the housing should only be subsidized housing.

There’s a real phenomenon consisting of people who will fervently insist that there should just be no more new housing. You can say that you’re trying to extract concessions, but at the end of the day, San Francisco’s affordable housing crisis is really bad. I don’t care to focus too much on Dean Preston. But doing project-by-project negotiations is just a way that invites political corruption and hasn’t really proven to build a lot of affordable housing. So what I advocate for are clear, coherent rules that require affordable housing that everyone just follows. And also, realistically speaking, state law forces much of the city council to approve housing. It’s called an anti-NIMBY law. It’s the Housing Accountability Act. It forces city councils to approve housing based on whether it is zoning compliant and in compliance with the affordable housing requirements of a local municipality. My point is that I don’t want these kinds of corrupt, backdoor project-by-project negotiations. You want to make sure that you have a universal rule set that’s very clear to the populace.

Robinson

One of the things that you tried to advance in the Jacobin interview was the position that there are a lot more YIMBYs like yourself than is normally understood. And there has been a change, so there are plenty of YIMBYs who would support rent control, who would support measures to make sure that people don’t get evicted, and that developers don’t just buy their building, evict everyone, knock it down, and build luxury condos. In other words, YIMBYs that support social housing.

Would you accept the point, however, that it is certainly very easy to get an impression of the YIMBY movement as being a group of neoliberal market fundamentalists? You said in the Jacobin article that this was a lie.

Owens

I don’t think I said it was a lie.

Robinson

You said that anyone who says that YIMBY is about trickle down is [“intentionally lying.”] But in your blogpost classifying different people, you talk about neoliberal YIMBYs:

“Neoliberal YIMBYs are fundamentally supportive of growth: in jobs or housing under the principles of market fundamentalism. Their answer to rent gouging or evictions are a steady supply of private housing that they argue empowers market consumers rather than landlords. They will cite research contrasting housing availability with eviction rates or rent control’s impact on housing supply.

Size: Large online presence. Prominent in San Francisco and New York City housing spaces. Strong presence in think-tanks and national punditry.”

And when you get to left YIMBYs, you say they have a mild presence. So would you accept that it is very easy—given the large presence of the neoliberal YIMBYs and the mild presence of the left NIMBYs—to get the impression that YIMBYism is a kind of market fundamentalist pro-developer movement?

NPR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND

Owens

If all you do is listen to three or four blue checks on twitter, I can see how you’d get that impression. But in my experience, a lot of left YIMBYs will be treated with hostility, and not just because they’re listening to Matt Yglesias or something. I agree that the neoliberal YIMBYs tend to be very loud. You can find left YIMBYs if you choose to see them: for example, National Low Income Housing Coalition, AOC, who requires you to have YIMBY principles to get her endorsement. I do think that a lot of leftist anti-YIMBYs choose not to see lefty YIMBYs when they find it inconvenient—or will try to pressure those left YIMBYs to abandon their opinions. I’m not saying you’re doing that. But I see it consistently on the left.

We saw that with this article. The overwhelming majority of commentary I got in response to that was, Wow, this is great. A lot of big-time lefty Twitter users came into my DMs and said, “I agree with you, I think it is really good.” But then you saw so much haggling over the fact that, No, YIMBYism can’t be allowed on the left. These people had no engagement with the article whatsoever. Just entirely labels and identity. This kind of phenomenon exists on the left. I even think that article, with its dictionary-like listing, is outdated now. I see more lefty YIMBYs now. It’s becoming quite a contentious issue.

Robinson

Does AOC use that term to describe herself? Or is it just that she has endorsed building more housing? There’s a Reason magazine article that says that a lot of people call AOC a YIMBY, but actually, she’s a fake YIMBY, because she actually opposes [certain] developments in her district, so she’s actually a NIMBY.

Owens

She did retweet an article saying “AOC wants to flood your state with YIMBYs.” But I’ve never heard her call herself a YIMBY.

Robinson

I do think the YIMBY movement has a problem in the fact that you have this sizable group of people who are in fact neoliberal market fundamentalists who are very loud online and use the label YIMBY. Reason magazine defines YIMBY as those who believe in market solutions to housing. And that’s not you. I know that’s not you, because you laid out in Jacobin all the ways in which you’re not a market fundamentalist. But then you have to keep going, “No, no, I’m not those other people who use this same word, I’m actually a leftist.”

Owens

I mean, we can play games with labels—I’m not accusing you of playing games. Reason magazine can say that, but Reason magazine didn’t make up the name YIMBY. And even the origins of the YIMBY movement were not market fundamentalism. It’s from Sweden, which has huge tenant protections and rent control. We can change our names. In my experience, whether something’s labeled as YIMBY or not has no bearing on whether people support YIMBY policies. I think a lot of people on the left just don’t support YIMBY policies.

Years ago we had a debate about calling ourselves something different. So YIMBY started using “pro housing,” which made people like Dean Preston very mad. But whatever you call yourself, if you think that there should be more infill housing, and that there should be more housing built, and you don’t have a problem with privately financed housing, a lot of lefties will take issue with it—the same ones who are telling us every other day that we should just change our name, and then everything’s good.

Socialists deal with the label problem all the time. Oh, we can’t call ourselves socialists because some socialist did something bad. I hear what you’re saying about the whole libertarian, neoliberal people being very loud. My response to that is to elevate left YIMBYs who aren’t those people. But when I did the Jacobin article, I got tons of lefties crapping on it because they don’t actually agree with the ideas in the article. So it wasn’t really about the labels. The article said that YIMBYs are moving left. I actually think that’s not entirely right. A lot of young lefties are becoming YIMBYs and therefore dragging the center of gravity away from the libertarian, neoliberal tendencies. They have a presence, especially on Twitter. But it should be good that a lot of lefties are reclaiming the acronym away from the people you describe.

Robinson

You say that lefties are reacting to the article because they disagree with the ideas. [So] what are the things that you think you believe, as a leftist, that are not accepted by those leftists, the ones who are not just rejecting the YIMBY label because they have the wrong associations with it, but rejecting a core part of the ideas?

Owens

The idea that we don’t need to build any more housing and that we can just acquire vacant units and everything’s good; that allowing private developers to build any housing is trickle down economics; that housing supply has no impact on rents. Basically, those are all the responses.

Robinson

I suppose we might have a difference of opinion over how many people would affirm the propositions that you’ve just listed.

Owens

I agree with you. I don’t think it’s actually that big of a deal in a lot of progressive spaces in the real world. Actually, especially at the federal level, in my experience, it’s an almost non-existent thing. But in local politics, it is a thing. For example, just today Ron DeSantis came out against abolishing single family zoning.

Robinson

Yeah, well, he sucks. We’re talking about leftists.

Owens

Right. But in that Bloomberg article, they do note that there were some left-leaning people in the city who also thought that abolishing single family zoning was bad because it would let private developers build multifamily housing. I come from Berkeley, which is kind of the birthplace of single family zoning in  a sort of racist way in the early 1900s but also the birthplace of a lot of left NIMBY stuff. Many leftist back in the ‘60s and ‘70s thought, well, if we just stop housing construction through privately financed developers and then just price control everything, this will solve the problem because it will curb property speculation. Now, I firmly believe that the way to curb property speculation is the universal public ownership of land.

But, anyway, what ended up happening is the housing crisis got really bad and a lot of the lefties split and said, Okay, actually, we do need to build more housing. We’ll keep rent control stuff, that’s good. But we need to build more housing. And the other lefties were like, No. We can still just do acquisitions. Only subsidized housing. So I do think that left NIMBYism is quite real. But I agree with you that it’s not anywhere as prominent in terms of decision making as people make it out to be. As I said in the Jacobin article, the number one issue that YIMBYs deal with is right-wing groups and liberals who don’t want more housing.

Robinson

This problem is probably biggest in the San Francisco Bay area, which is the American capital of the rich hippie lefty hypocrite.

Owens

Yes. You’ve got a lot of that in San Francisco. But even in Silicon Valley, the problem is that these tech jobs produce no housing. In the last decade, San Francisco added nine new jobs for every one new housing unit. So there’s a huge imbalance. And people tend to be pro housing when it’s not near them.

Robinson

What about the argument that the YIMBY organizations have in fact been heavily funded by the Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs and the housing developers? Housing is a Human Right has a criticism of your group, saying California YIMBY, which they call “a land use lobbying group for Big Tech,” continues to refuse to reveal exactly who contributes to its organization and “​​has never replied to Housing Is A Human Right’s demand to name the lobbying group’s top 50 contributors, even though its pro-gentrification agenda harms millions of Californians.”

So is there Big Tech and real estate money behind groups like the one that you work for?

Owens

So, no. Well, back in the day, tech founders gave money to YIMBY groups, and by “giving money” I mean $100,000, and Stripe gave $100,000 to YIMBY groups. That’s true. But California YIMBY’s operating budget is [around] $6 million, which is just pretty standard for nonprofit operating budgets.

That critique is coming from Housing is A Human Right, which is basically just a catchy name for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a $1.6 billion nonprofit that basically takes pharmaceutical drug money and dedicates it to political campaigns to stop housing construction.

Real estate developers absolutely don’t fund us. That’s not true. Real estate developers are the Building Industry Association and the California Association of Realtors both of whom have opposed our bills before and killed the public housing bill. That criticism you read comes from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the biggest slumlord in LA. It’s run by this Beverly Hills billionaire named Michael Weinstein. And he very much hates YIMBYs because they wanted to block his view one time. He paid all this money to buy web searches so that when you type YIMBY the first thing that comes up is their front group. But again, California YIMBY has a pretty normal nonprofit budget.

And honestly, if you’ve been in nonprofits, almost every nonprofit group gets money from a corporation or something that just wants to look good and donates. That’s pretty normal nonprofit stuff.

Robinson

But are they right about the lack of transparency? Has the group disclosed its funding?

Owens

No. You just look up nonprofit donations. Anyone can do it. You just use the little web tool. And you can see budget sizes and who funds various groups. CA YIMBY is a 501(c)(4). It’s pretty normal. Again, this criticism is coming from the $1.6 billion corrupt AIDS Healthcare Foundation that runs slumlord tenants out of Los Angeles, talking about how California YIMBY is bad because they want to build more housing. It’s totally nonsensical. And that group funded a lot of the rent control campaigns throughout the state of California. So what am I supposed to say? That I don’t support rent control because it’s funded by a Beverly Hills billionaire who runs corrupt projects out of Los Angeles and has a multi-billion-dollar industry? No, this is just kind of silly. You evaluate ideas based on the substance and not based on the fact that California YIMBY got a $100,000 donation from Stripe three or four years ago.

The reason that San Francisco Bay Area tech groups support—and by support, I mean occasionally donate—is that a lot of those tech companies have blue collar workers who are in the Bay Area and have to basically get bused in or shuttled in from an hour or two away from Silicon Valley. Again, these cities have jobs/housing ratios that are really out of balance. San Francisco’s is 9 to 1, and San Mateo County is 13 to 1. Santa Clara County is, I think, around 9 to 1. So the tech companies know that they need some people who can actually afford to live there. So some of them will support pro housing groups. For instance, groups like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative give tons of money to equity organizations. It’s just normal nonprofit stuff.

Robinson

They also argue that one of the most prominent YIMBYs in the California legislature, Scott Wiener, is the leading recipient of real estate money. Do you think that is correct?

Owens

Maybe. I don’t know. But in California, Scott Wiener has written laws that have basically streamlined more subsidized housing than any other law in the state’s recent history and has basically put onto the ballot the articles in the California Constitution to repeal the ban on public housing. So that’s just the reason why this is really complicated. I know this is gonna sound silly. But Michael Weinstein, the Beverly Hills billionaire, hates Scott Weiner, because of an issue about PrEP [Editor’s note: pre-exposure prophylaxis means taking medications to prevent HIV, particularly for people who have ongoing risk of exposure to the virus, such as from sex or drug use]. I don’t know how much I should get into this. So AIDS Healthcare Foundation does a lot of work in the gay community, and Scott Wiener was very prominent in the gay community. And they butted heads.

Michael Weinstein passed the law that made it so that all porn stars in LA must wear condoms. Basically, I think Wiener supports PrEP, and Weinstein doesn’t. And ever since then, Weinstein has been attacking Wiener. Weinstein put up billboards and offensive flyers talking about Black urban renewal and then the NAACP had to come out and denounce him. Weinstein is a super corrupt LA billionaire who is funding this Housing As a Human Right thing.

Robinson

I probably shouldn’t ask more about the complexities of California politics.

Owens

I guarantee that if the YIMBYS had the same influence as the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, those descriptions would actually be a lot more accurate.

But with regard to real estate, developers love housing shortages. That’s how they make money. In San Francisco, it takes years to get anything approved. It’s a boon for big developers and big corporate developers. They love that stuff. Real Estate groups—Blackstone and Invitation Homes and BlackRock and all those big mega corporations that are buying up houses—admit in their filings all the time that there’s a tremendous housing shortage in the country. And they depend on areas with few houses because they know that’s where they’re going to make the most money. That actually was pointed out in a documentary in which the corporate landlords were saying, Yeah, we believe in a housing shortage. And I also mentioned this point in the vacancy nuance debate article. You don’t have to believe in supply and demand, but corporate landlords definitely do, and that’s how they make their money.

Robinson

The whole debate could be made a little less toxic if we could draw just a few more distinctions between different types of development and admit the thing that we were talking about earlier: everyone’s a NIMBY on some things, everyone’s a YIMBY on some things. Or everyone should be, at least. Obviously, there are people who—just as we’ve said—support everything or nothing. But in between, the sensible position has to be “let’s make distinctions.” Not all market rate housing is necessarily luxury housing. But it could be. There are places where there could be a proposal to knock down an old building with a bunch of rent-controlled apartments and build a luxury tower for oligarchs. That’s different from taking a parking lot or an empty patch of land and trying to ease some of the pressure on housing by building 100 new apartments. We can add some nuance. What you do in your writing is to add nuance that actually does get us beyond YIMBY-NIMBY as absolutist kinds of categories.

Owens

I totally agree. That’s actually something that I very much agree with. I actually disagree with some of the more center-left YIMBYs on big luxury super high-rise buildings. Those are the result of existing zoning codes that have been written by NIMBYs, who focus all the housing into one little area and it becomes like New York with these pencil high rises. There was a time when we had a lot of infill apartments like three or four storeys tall which used to be pretty affordable. Wood frame, eight-storey or less buildings are relatively affordable. Super high-rise, steel construction is always going to be very expensive, and it’s not going to be as affordable. I agree with that.

However, still, the supply of housing very much matters. There’s a book that’s good called Homelessness Is a Housing Problem. It’s actually designed to fight against right-wing tropes about homeless people as lazy. What the data consistently shows is that in areas with high vacancy rates—which means there’s more available housing that people just naturally need throughout their life—there are fewer homeless people, and the median rent is lower. That is pretty conclusive data.

I agree that we should take a nuanced position about housing. Stringent ideologues who make everyone’s life hard try to interfere with nuance. But we can’t be so toxic to different ideas. You talk a lot about preservation, for example. And I agree with you on a lot of that. And actually, a lot of YIMBYs don’t agree with me on that. I’m not saying I think that a lot of YIMBYs think we should just destroy every old building instantly. There is some value to an old Victorian house or a craftsman house. We can have historic preservation laws. What if we had a proposal to turn a single family house into multiple units? We could give the developer instant approval because it would maintain the facade and it’s an internal subdivision. If it’s a demolition, okay, fine. But then it could just go through the standard approval process. So let’s reward people who create density through subdivisions, or by maintaining the facade of buildings. I think that’s a really good idea. But many people don’t care about historic architecture. There’s a broader conversation to have, which is that historic architecture is subjective in terms of what’s valued.

Robinson

I understand why there are people who hear the term preservation and they go, No, this is NIMBY bullshit. That’s why, in fact, Noah Smith, who is a prominent economic blogger and who is very pro YIMBY, hates me. He thinks I’m a bad lefty NIMBY. He said, you know, Nathan Robinson is talking about historic preservation, unaware of the fact that that term is abused and misused. I think there was a fight in Berkeley that Robert Reich might have gotten into over this house from the 1800s. Have you seen the house that he wanted to keep?

Owens

He’s my neighbor. I live right by it.

Robinson

It’s the ugliest house I’ve ever seen.

Owens

I don’t think Reich wrote the letter. I think it was his wife and he threw his name on it. Agree, the house is ugly and poorly maintained. But it is the oldest house in that neighborhood. A lot of Berkeley YIMBYs talked to Reich when it happened, and I think he’s actually YIMBY now.

Robinson

It’s funny. You’re gonna be pro preservation, and I’m gonna be like, No, fuck that house.

Owens

It is an ugly house. I think the neighbors were concerned with not only protecting that ugly house, but also about the trees being cut down. I agree with that. Trees are so important. We don’t want concrete jungles. We need parks within walking distance. And I hate lawns. I think they’re so useless. But there’s a really interesting conversation to have about that.

Robinson

I am not actually that much for “historic preservation,” I’m more for aesthetic consistency, like if a neighborhood has a certain feel. If we could have nice buildings that were more dense, I don’t care what you knock down.

Owens

I hear what you’re saying, and I agree.

Robinson

People say it’s about aesthetics but they actually just don’t want people.

Owens

They don’t want more people, and they don’t want more density. And I’m talking to architects here. If you make your building classical or faux Victorian or whatever, it does score points among people who will not hate it as much.

Robinson

Yes. I think you should call their bluff. If people are saying it’s about aesthetics, then give them the aesthetics they want, but denser. And then force them to say what it’s really about.

Owens

It’s just so subjective, though. In San Francisco there’s the classic, beautiful Full House house. But if you actually go to the Full House house, and you look at it in person, it’s a literal box with a gingerbread house-style facade slapped on the front. I understand not wanting a lot of ugly buildings. And I mean this in a heartfelt sense: I would take a neighborhood that has modern architecture but is a lot more affordable and has a lot more cooler people in it than what we have in the Bay Area now. New York has old, beautiful brownstones and Victorians that are full of nothing but rich people who don’t who don’t contribute to the real culture of the community. I think that’s what the NIMBYs have always said.

Robinson

We don’t have to choose. We can have beauty and density.

Owens

I do agree. I think that when really dense apartments have trees, it’s just really great. What people hate are cars. When you talk about noise and traffic and too many people, it actually means cars.

Robinson

Trees are the main thing that make a place beautiful. Architecture has a minimal role in making a neighborhood beautiful. Even brutalism looks beautiful when you cover it in plants. Any building looks nice when it’s covered in plants.

Owens

Yes. And every neighborhood sucks when you have a huge parade of cars. Or when they’re polluting up the neighborhood with tons of smog. That’s the real issue here. When people say they hate cities, what they mean is that they hate cars.

Robinson

I disagree with you on almost almost nothing policy wise.

Owens

Agree. We don’t disagree on anything policy wise.

Robinson

We’ve been forced into these weird YIMBY and NIMBY categories that don’t make any sense. It obscures the level of agreement between us. I do think there is work to be done by the left YIMBYs. If you maintain that it’s not fair to call YIMBYism an astroturf movement by developers, then there is work to be done in making sure that the branding conveys the other parts of the agenda beyond deregulation. When you go to the San Francisco YIMBY website, for example, and you look at the agenda that they lay out, it’s all about zoning. There’s not much about anything else. It’s a kind of neoliberal approach. So that’s my critique of YIMBY. Give your critique of the left NIMBYs like myself.

Owens

Honestly, since we’ve been talking, I’m probably going to move you off that citation. I hate the astroturf allegation because it’s not astroturf. There are no secret developers. But I’ve moved away from that term: left NIMBY. I’ve been calling them anti-YIMBYs. My response to them is that if all the studies in the world are never going to convince them, then at the very least can we work together on dealing with exclusionary zoning in affluent areas or wealthier areas? That’s what a lot of progressive policy is moving toward. I hear your point about the neoliberal and market types. But recently the YIMBYs in LA endorsed the rent control campaign in Pasadena. If you choose to look only at the tech oriented YIMBYs in SF and ignore the other ones, it doesn’t accomplish anything.

I do think that there is an ideological divide between YIMBYs and some tenant group left people in terms of how the housing crisis should be fundamentally solved. I don’t actually think that it’s much of a difference in policy. I think to them, it’s kind of an ideological thing. They don’t like the fact that YIMBY solutions are often technocratic. They think that it should really be a mass movement solving the housing crisis. And they think that because the YIMBYs propose these policies that they say will help ease the housing crisis or will resolve the housing crisis, that, therefore, YIMBYs are harming the ability to create a mass movement. The fact is, the more renters you have in a community, the easier it is to do tenant rights, right? So in like 85 percent of the Bay Area, there’s a prohibition on any housing that’s denser than one unit. Same thing in LA. That makes it really hard to build tenant power and renter rights when renters are banned in your communities. So I tell lefties, we can work together on this. I think the YIMBYs have shown, time and time again, the total willingness to back rent control and just cause eviction. But again, as always, a couple of loud few try to divide everyone and constantly antagonize and attack. Personally, I don’t let my enemies or detractors define my policies or my goals. 

I really do want to see a lot more public sector housing development. This has been a really good conversation. I’ll take your name off the left NIMBY list.

Robinson

Freddie DeBoer wrote an article about YIMBYs in which he was critical of the online culture. You said that he expressed his frustration that YIMBYs aren’t focused on social housing. But he was actually wrong. You said that the highest profile proposals for social housing were written or sponsored by YIMBYs in California, in Hawaii, and YIMBY allies in Portland. And one of the reasons that you express frustration is that you don’t think these things are given credit or associated with your movement. You said that I should acknowledge these things. So I want to give you just a chance to explain what you would like to draw attention to and to describe a housing agenda for the left.

Owens

The thing about the California social housing proposal is that a lot of lefties were on board. It was written by a socialist YIMBY. There was actually a lot of white lefty support for that. But I will concede that focusing development in low-income areas is a product of exclusionary zoning, and that should be dealt with and reformed and stopped. We need to focus on the fact that we have a national housing shortage. And so focusing on removing exclusionary zoning—and what are essentially renter bans, single family zoning, and anti-multifamily housing ordinances—is of paramount importance. It’s always been the foundation of fair housing movements. A lot of the national level low-income housing groups already do this. So I’m really talking to the local ones when I say that we should work together on abolishing exclusionary zoning. We need reform to stop these corrupt city groups and councils and processes where basically big developers are the only ones who can build housing. We need simple, straightforward, clear rules—no payouts and backdoor deals. And we need a public housing developer.

And if people on the left would stop saying that we shouldn’t build any more housing, that would be great. I’m not even asking people to do the YIMBY thing. It’s fine for a group to focus on one thing. I don’t want to start telling people how to do rent control. I will defer to experts there. But I don’t think that these groups should fight against proposals to build more housing, especially if it’s anti-exclusionary zoning. Opening up high resource neighborhoods to multifamily housing is good. And stopping suburban sprawl is very important.

Robinson

When I talked to Dean Preston, he said that he agrees completely with that. He said that there are affordable housing advocates who for years have been advocating for some of the positions that the YIMBY folks take. For instance, when they go into exclusionary rich communities, or suburban communities, they argue that there should be apartment buildings instead of single family homes. That’s a long standing position that he and others have championed for a long time.

Owens

It kind of goes both ways. Dean Preston attacks YIMBYs all the time. When he does it, he’ll say, Oh, it’s because they attacked us first. He called YIMBYS astroturf back when nobody even cared about him. He attacks YIMBYs all the time. What’s he talking about when he says ‘rich communities’? Even when we get into these exclusionary zoning conversations, people don’t even agree on what a rich area is. So I don’t think that we should only build housing in the most affluent places possible. But yeah: middle class and high-income areas need to stop blocking housing. Frankly, polling consistently shows that Black people, Latinos, and renters are most in favor of building housing, and whites and property owners the least in favor. PPIC (Public Policy Institute of California) showed that in California. This isn’t some cry of the minority here. It’s not actually popular to block housing. Many people, especially in minority communities, live in overcrowded housing situations. I’m not sure about New Orleans, but where I’m from in Oakland, a lot of low-income areas built duplexes and triplexes to handle larger families or more households. And they’ll always get crackdown by anti-housing zoning ordinances. So I agree that we shouldn’t focus all of our low-income development in low-income communities. But that’s not a YIMBY policy. That’s written after like decades of exclusionary NIMBY policies doing that.

We need to make sure that we put housing in higher resource areas. And I got good news for San Francisco and for everybody. The housing element process requires you to abide by Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which is an Obama-era law that requires you to put more multifamily housing in affluent neighborhoods. So this is a good opportunity for San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area in California to practice what they preach and come together and make that happen.

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