YIMBY, White Privilege, and the Soul of Our Cities

YIMBY Action members chant over activists of color during an counter protest in California.
At a rally against statewide upzoning bill SB 827, counter protesting YIMBY Action members chanted over activists of color. Photo courtesy of Leslie Dreyer/Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco

“We’ve underbuilt housing for decades.” YIMBY (Yes, In My Back Yard) leaders keep repeating this line. It’s become a mantra that now gets repeated at the highest levels­, from a California state legislative report to a White House paper, to the point it’s become gospel. Never mind that if we dig into it, the facts are very different.

YIMBY leaders also have a compelling explanation for why we have supposedly “underbuilt” for decades. At fault is a combination of NIMBYs and rabid progressive activists.

Equity advocates are familiar with real NIMBYs, older white homeowners who often want to protect their property values by keeping others out. Off and on over the decades, many of us in the affordable housing movement have had to fight one version or another of NIMBY over exclusionary policies. I first encountered the term YIMBY when community organizers were fighting in support of affordable housing and in opposition to NIMBYs. The combination of those with NIMBY sentiments and real estate developers eager to create exclusive communities led progressives to fight for inclusionary housing, demanding that developers create mixed-income communities.

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! (Editor’s Note: Here’s a more nuanced look at that idea.) 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.

Why Is This Such a Compelling Story?

There’s a crisis of housing affordability we are all feeling, one that no longer affects just poor and working-class families, but also hits the middle class, especially younger households. To be clear, it’s not that they cannot afford any housing at all, but that they cannot afford the housing they want.

Because for all this talk of needing to build new luxury developments, the base for this movement would rather live in our funky old neighborhoods—old Victorians in San Francisco’s Mission District or brownstones in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. These are the places that decades of suburban white flight (the parents and grandparents of today’s millennials), bank redlining policies and racial exclusion, bad schools and urban decay left behind to us, the working classes, poor whites, Black, Brown, and Asian communities, and immigrants. A few decades ago people of their class and skin color would likely have crossed the street to avoid our disinvested, dangerous ’hoods, but now, because of their newfound desire, rents for a two-bedroom have been driven up as high as $4,500 a month and even higher.

This is what they want: to live in our neighborhoods, in our homes. But for many of these young arrivals there is a nagging awareness about the impacts they see all around them: the evictions, the overcrowding, the protests and quiet anger, the ongoing loss of the vitality of these communities that attracted them in the first place.

What better way to assuage their guilt than to turn it around and make it the fault of those very communities they are displacing? If “we” urban communities hadn’t “underbuilt” for decades, if we weren’t still protesting and demanding a voice in the development of our neighborhoods, why, all would be all right. If we now get evicted or if whole working-class communities get displaced, it must be our own fault.

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.

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.

For a wider discussion of the range of ideas and policies espoused under the term YIMBY, see “YIMBY: Friend, Foe, or Chaos Agent?

This article appears in the Winter 2018-19 edition of Shelterforce magazine. Subscribe here.

18 COMMENTS

  1. If you want to counter their narrative you need to stop using hoaky marxist BS like “white privilege”. This only destroys your credibility and makes you the racists.

  2. As if housing projects have not been abject failures for all of recorded history. Those that forget the past are doomed to repeat it.

    • What an spectacularly ignorant view. 60% of housing in Vienna is public or subsidized. It works really well and is among the most beautiful cities in the world.

      • oh come on don’t ruin his narrative!! Intentional mismanagement of government has been the modus operandi of the Conservative movement for over 50 years. They create a problem, they cultivate distrust of public institutions, and all a sudden they arrive as “saviors” to inflict privatization & austerity because of problems that THEY created!!

      • the US is not Austria. you’re comparing apples to vegetables if you think our government pulls off public housing the same way other countries do. why did you not mention something like the failures of NYC public housing authority

  3. Actually Carl234, it’s entirely appropriate, and no, it doesn’t make them racist to call out white privilege when they see it. A bunch of white, college-educated 20- and 30-somethings holding a “counter protest” in which they shout down people of color threatened with displacement–and even send one to a hospital–is without a doubt a form of white privilege. And by the way, no one with half a brain thinks that accurately identifying white privilege makes someone racist, and the concept of “white privilege” is hardly Marxist (and so what if it was?). The only people I see associating white privilege with Marxism are dumb right-wingers like Jordan Peterson who either have no real knowledge of classical Marxism or are disingenuously treating Marx as some kind of boogeyman straw man. By basically accusing the author of “reverse racism”, you have “only destroyed your credibility”, as it were – again, another concept that only right-wingers and their knuckle-headed followers believe in, because it represents a complete denial of the historical and contemporary reality of racial discrimination, including the institutionalization of racial inequalities.

    To Fernando: well done! This sums up the YIMBY strategy well, and I think you’re on to something when you liken it to a sort of rebranding of traditional right-of-center policy that works in the current bay area zeitgeist. They talk up the unsubstantiated, pseudo-progressive narratives all the time, e.g. “think of how many families could move into these [luxury condos] instead of commuting from Stockton?”, because that sounds nice to the average, liberal-ish bay area resident, but the reality couldn’t be any further from that. It’s just enough to give them a progressive-lite veneer, while their intentions are quite the opposite. They, not unlike libertarians and Republicans, just want to deregulate and disrupt, while smothering the voices of any locals who might threaten their steamrolling with some kind of democratic process. They care just enough about image to lie through their teeth and feign that they are concerned with “housing for all”.

  4. Fernando, we wouldn’t say you were part of the problem if you hadn’t loudly opposed a bill that would have upzoned the exclusive neighborhoods you complain about. CCHO also opposed a bill that many of their member organizations have since used that streamlines approvals. CCHO’s opposition to the state density bonus law, opposition to SB 817 (which would not have affected any of the neighborhoods you claimed it would), and opposition to removing conditional use requirements for affordable housing give me significant doubts CCHO actually wants to make it easier to build affordable housing in SF.

    And why exactly do you care if the West side of SF gets built over with 5 story apartments affordable to people who work in SF? Why are you so vocal about poor neighborhoods when SF YIMBY is neutral on projects in them, and not saying a word about Cupertino or Mountain View and in fact oppose state laws that would force those towns to build?

    • @watson: Great job illustrating *exactly* the article’s point about how YIMBY’s are constantly trying to fingerprint and blame actual progressive organizations!

      The roadmap where you now point out that SF YIMBY is only “neutral” about actually supporting affordability in poor and working-class neighborhoods is great for us to note. It is progress from antagonizing these project, and vilifying those activists, yes, but maybe someday you all will actually support them.

      In the meanwhile, not everyone can get millions of dollars of funding tech billionaire crumbs and have housing developers as sugar daddies to pay for meetings, etc you know? Since you got the resources to fight for the “upzoning” policies in the rich neighborhoods, it is *your* responsibility to go fight there.

  5. Interesting that libertarian capitalists claim that San Francisco “underbuilt” housing given that local government historically does not build housing. No, developers did not clamor to build housing in cities during the post-WWII era because white flight to the suburbs crimped demand. Lenders are loathe to lend to build housing that is not in demand. Once Wall Street was deregulated in the late 1990s, capital was freed up for speculation. Only after that did we see developers begin to buy politicians and lobby for upzonings.

    What really gets me is that this generation of youngsters expects for San Francisco housing to be delivered to them on a silver platter. Newsflash: for the past 40 years, San Francisco has been more expensive to live in than most everywhere else. The cost multiple of San Francisco to Austin is about what it was when I moved here in the late 1980s.

    You know what? Many who wanted to move here over the decades did not try because they knew they could not afford it. Many who tried could not make a go of it and had to leave. Some of us were lucky enough to stick it out and establish ourselves here. Wages for techies in real terms have been flat since the 1980s. Salaries are high enough to compete for housing and to pay a share of income similar to what I paid in the late 80s.

    These libertarian infused youngsters are demanding free stuff. But it does not work that way. Developers will never build enough housing to push down price because lenders will not lend to finance projects that will cost less at sales time than at project approval time. There are already tens of thousands of entitled units in San Francisco that are not moving towards construction even with prices where they are.

    YIMBYs are being used to lower developer costs. Lower costs do not drive prices lower. Price is always the maximum that the market will bear, it has little to do with the cost of construction. Lower costs goose developer profits. If sales price is less than the costs of construction, then developers lose money.

    Housing in SF is similar to deBeers’ approach to diamond dealing: maintain a false economy of scarcity to prop up price and profit. The nonprofit housing developers and poverty maintenance organizations that are captive to City government that funds them are wholly not up to the task of confronting developer dominance. it is not they who are paying the price, rather the thousands of families who have been evicted and displaced while they ploddingly mark time.

    • how is NOT telling private property owners what to do “demanding free stuff”? it’s the antithesis of that. NIMBYs are the ones demanding something out of the private sector.

  6. There’s no arguments in this article that are incompatible with an understanding of YIMBY that is nuanced and comes from good faith. But this article is neither.

    Both sides of this anti-debate need to get over themselves and realize they have way more in common than not. Because single family homeowners have their priorities exactly in order and they’re all designed to benefit themselves.

    • 100% agree with this. This essay is basically a bunch of whining based on one person’s bad experience with a self-proclaimed YIMBY. The assertion that YIMBYs are against the affordable housing activists is so divorced from reality, I can’t begin to take this piece seriously.

  7. All we hear now is about “affordable housing.” What I want to know is: what do you think about rent control? What do you think about public housing? I will definitely listen to a YIMBY or anyone else who is willing to stand up for those things.

  8. I’m white Hispanic, grew up in a poor family in a crap inner-city neighborhood, went to college on loans, got an urban planning degree, have a career, hate the suburbs, refuse to learn how to drive, and I’ll live wherever I please in my city or any other, in a groovy neighborhood adjacent to transit. If anyone doesn’t like that, they can feel free to go to college, get a career, and give themselves choice, too. I feel not an ounce of guilt or responsibility regarding the idea that you’re a gentrifier if you choose to live in an affordable inner-city neighborhood without being someone else’s idea of the right color/race/income. The city for everyone actually does mean the city for everyone.

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