YIMBYs: Friend, Foe, or Chaos Agent?

The relationship between pro-building “Yes in My Back Yard” activists, longtime housing advocates, and anti-displacement organizers varies across the country, but has often been fraught with difficulties. Is there a way forward?

Laura Foote (in yellow shirt at center) at a counter-protest to a rally opposing statewide upzoning bill SB 827. She's surrounded by fellow protestors who are holding signs that read "We Need More HOmes" and "More Homes for All."
Laura Foote (in yellow), director of YIMBY Action, at a counter-protest to a rally opposing statewide upzoning bill SB 827. Photo courtesy of Leslie Dreyer/Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco

This article is an exploration of how the YIMBY phenomenon is interacting with the affordable housing world, and people’s subjective experiences of its rise. It will not try to settle any of the underlying debates on research or policy. For more thoughts on supply and demand, housing markets, filtering, local control and suing the suburbs, see the rest of this issue and go to shelterforce.org/tag/YIMBY.

NIMBYism and exclusionary zoning have been twin banes of the affordable housing movement in this country for decades. The more or less explicit racism and classism behind the resistance to building supportive housing, affordable housing, and even just apartments that are somewhat more modest than surrounding buildings has been well documented. Zoning restrictions have been a common tool used to realize these goals once explicit racial discrimination became illegal. Residents of Yonkers, New York, were so upset by a fair-housing ruling in the 1980s that required the city to build a small amount of scattered-site public housing that the resulting drama spawned a book and an HBO miniseries called Show Me a Hero. In 2017, the mayor of Houston vowed similar defiance.

Aggressive resistance to new multifamily developments is one of the reasons why some affordable housing groups that work in more affluent areas are now rethinking their methods and buying existing developments to either preserve their affordability or make affordable, rather than building new and going through the hassle of drawn-out public fights in order to get permits and variances. “One way to think about this is how long would it take to build 14 new affordable units that would take vouchers in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The answer is ‘never.’ That’s how long it would take, never,” Michael Bodaken, former director of the National Housing Trust (NHT), told Shelterforce in an interview last year, describing one such market-rate building where after purchase NHT would begin accepting Housing Choice Vouchers for 20 percent of the units.

Fighting exclusionary zoning has been a long and complicated process. There have been moderate wins for fair share housing measures in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California. But implementation is often hotly contested, and enforcement is spotty. Although NIMBY fears are usually unfounded, responding directly to opposition to a particular development is often politically tricky. Affordable housing developers generally don’t want to alienate city governments, which they rely on for permit approval and funding, and city officials don’t want to alienate their most vocal constituents. This dance has led to a lot of discussion of messaging, including suggestions as sad (but sometimes necessary) as “don’t use the term ‘homeless veterans’”—even if that is who will be housed.

“In our experience, it’s often hard for nonprofit developers to take an adversarial approach with cities,” says Sam Tepperman-Gelfant, deputy managing attorney at Public Advocates, a California-based civil rights nonprofit that has a long history of suing cities that don’t fulfill their affordable housing obligations under California’s Housing Element Law.

But as the housing crisis has expanded to affect a wider range of incomes, especially in very high-cost growing markets, a group of often younger activists has emerged who feel no such restraints about directly and forcefully calling out anti-renter, anti-apartment opinions. They call themselves “Yes in My Back Yard,” or YIMBYs.

“Chipping away at NIMBYism has been frustratingly slow, and some might argue, ineffective,” says Peter Cohen, co-executive director of Council of Community Housing Organizations (CCHO), an association of community development corporations in San Francisco. “YIMBYs say, ‘To hell with it. We’re going to go in with a Molotov cocktail.’”

YIMBYs “show up at city council [meetings] and will stay there all night,” says Michael Lane, who was longtime policy director of Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California and now works at Silicon Valley @ Home. “At the beginning they had more energy and attitude than institutional or historical memory perhaps,” but Lane says he’s been happy to mentor the YIMBY movement and bring them up to speed because “we need all the support we can get.”

After so many years of being politic, it would certainly seem like it would be satisfying for housers to let those with less to lose say what they themselves haven’t been able to.

And yet, while housing activists have longed for a wider range of people to see housing as a crucial issue and step up in its defense, this surge of interest has led to a surprising amount of conflict. YIMBY activists’ relationships with the affordable housing community have varied notably from region to region, and the nature of YIMBY philosophy and activism is being actively contested. Affordable housing developers and housing justice activists are playing active, and sometimes reluctant, roles on both the inside and the outside of that struggle.

How Did We Get Here?

The story of YIMBY activism as a force in the housing world really took off in California’s Bay Area. In 2014, Sonja Trauss, a former math teacher with a master’s in economics who had moved to the Bay Area three years earlier, founded the Bay Area Renters Federation (yes, BARF). In the same year, Laura Foote (then Laura Foote Clark), also a recent arrival who worked in entry-level sales at Yelp, founded GrowSF. Both groups advocated for more construction of housing. In 2016 BARF and GrowSF together formed the YIMBY Party to make endorsements and canvass. A year later, Foote formally incorporated YIMBY Action, a membership-based advocacy group with a handful of chapters in the region, which replaces GrowSF and the YIMBY Party. Trauss is still involved with BARF, but also now leads California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA), a nonprofit organization that brings lawsuits supporting denser housing in wealthier exclusionary communities.

Though the term “YIMBY” had been used in the affordable housing field before then, Trauss and Foote’s organizations popularized it as a name for a perspective that supported building a lot more housing in San Francisco, and the surrounding region, as a way to relieve the area’s critical housing crunch, and the term took off online.

YIMBY talking points focused on lowering housing cost by building more of it, especially dense housing near jobs and transit. They criticized zoning that limited multifamily development and restricted density, decried a development-by-development approval process that subjected all new housing to the objections of neighbors, and argued that these things were to blame for slow rates of new housing creation. One of their catchphrases became “legalize housing.”

Through the Looking Glass

Members of the San Francisco Community Tenants Association hold a large red resign during a rally against SB 827.
Members of the San Francisco Community Tenants Association participate in a rally against SB 827. Photo courtesy of Leslie Dreyer/Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco

What happened next differs markedly according to whose lens you are looking through.

From the perspective of many tenant activists and affordable housing advocates in San Francisco, the wave of newly minted pro-housing activists appeared to be largely made up of white, relatively affluent tech workers who were more likely to be new arrivals than the lower-income residents they usually worked with. They didn’t have, or make, connections with existing advocacy organizations, and lacked historical context or an understanding of the intricacies of housing policy. Tenant and affordable housing activists saw YIMBYs cheerleading for any development project that increased density—no matter where, no matter for whom, no matter the potential consequences—talking up broad-brush zoning reform that treated all neighborhoods the same, criticizing environmental review, and emphasizing that market-rate development was better than no development at all.

They also saw YIMBYs jumping into electoral politics, supporting developer-friendly politicians whom progressives considered to have problematic positions on tenants rights, homelessness, and other social justice issues, such as police accountability. State Sen. Scott Weiner, who has vocally taken up YIMBY talking points, but also some anti-tenant and anti-homelessness stands, is a frequently mentioned example.

Then in 2015, a slide from a BARF slideshow that listed “break the alliance between rent control advocates and affordable housing advocates” as one of the group’s declared objectives got shared around, leading many to conclude that YIMBYs saw tenant advocates as an enemy.

Many housing activists became concerned that YIMBYs were a Trojan horse for a supply-side, anti-regulation, pro-developer agenda. These concerns seemed justified as libertarian voices, often online, flocked to the banner of YIMBYism to say things like unfettered building will solve the whole housing crisis, even homelessness, and environmental regulation needs to be done away with. Aimee Inglis, program director at the statewide group Tenants Together says the increased emphasis on building more gave electeds “an out to avoiding making a real decision on regulating rents and evictions,” because it’s easier to instead say “we just need to build more.”

“More than once we heard ‘if we just clear the books and let developers build as much as they want to, it will trickle down to the people on the margins,’” says Russ Adams, executive director of The Alliance, a coalition focused on regional equity issues in the Twin Cities region of Minnesota. Those advocates seemed to fail to recognize how market forces, absent any proactive affordability requirements, would utterly fail to address the housing needs of people at lower-income brackets, Adams says.

“We need a ton of housing, and in this case I think the market is the only institution that is able to build the housing that we need,” Trauss told Reason TV in 2016.

Even the willingness to challenge NIMBYism directly did not always feel like a plus. Cohen recalls a 100 percent affordable senior housing project recently proposed on the edge of a core inner neighborhood called Forest Hill. “It was getting [close] to [the] boundary of NIMBYland,” he explains. “The site and project was going to be a lift; it had to be done right. YIMBYs decided to adopt that project. It was going to symbolize the breaking down of the exclusionary outer neighborhoods.” Cohen’s experience was that the YIMBY participation, while intended to be helpful, was the opposite. “They came in . . . thinking they could power over the neighborhood resistance. All it really did was fuel it.” Early in 2018, the city pulled the funding, for many reasons, but Cohen believes inability to defuse the NIMBYs because they were being provoked is one of them.

A Different Angle

But Bay Area YIMBY leaders say their positions have been mischaracterized—that their willingness to see market-rate housing development as a positive force has been twisted to imply that they don’t care about affordability or tenants rights and are opposed to all regulation. “From the beginning people have been putting words in my mouth,” says Trauss. “All I said was more housing is better than less housing and the housing crisis is especially bad for renters,” and the first response, she says, was an op-ed claiming she was pro-Airbnb [which, for the record, reduces housing supply]. “That really set the stage for the rest of the experience,” she says.

“People were like ‘I can’t believe you’re against rent control.’ Nobody said anything about that! You can have strong rent control and lots of building,” she says. In fact, Trauss says she would have strongly preferred an actual statewide rent control bill to 2018’s Prop 10, which merely would have allowed local governments to enact stronger rent controls, something she doubts would have happened given how few have passed the weaker versions already allowed to them.

Trauss says the wording of the slide about “splitting rent control advocates and affordable housing advocates” came as she was still learning the lay of the land. She admired tenant advocates who were doing things like direct-action anti-eviction protests. But she also noticed a group of people she says she would now call “slow growthers” who would regularly show up to oppose market-rate housing by saying they were supporting affordable housing, as if the two were in opposition. Foote and Trauss firmly believe they are not. “I was naïve and took them at their word and called them affordable housing advocates,” says Trauss. That was the distinction she wanted to make—to encourage tenant advocates not to ally themselves with property owners and landlords who did not have their interests at heart, but instead convince them that more building was a pro-tenant, anti-displacement stance.

“I want tenant protection for me and people more vulnerable than me,” says Foote. “But in the system we have, tenants have so little negotiating power, there’s a huge incentive for landlords to get around those protections. The best tenant protection is the ability to say ‘Fuck you, I found a better deal.’”

Likewise, the idea that YIMBYism is a markets-will-fix-it-all philosophy rather than one that is actively in support of affordable housing funding frustrates Foote to no end. “Relying on market-rate developers for the needs of an entire community is a fool’s errand,” says Foote. “The market will not provide enough affordable housing. It just won’t.” (She does believe sufficient changes in zoning and regulation would result in the market generating needed moderate- and middle-income housing.) Focusing on inclusionary policies rather than forcefully advocating for increasing funding and direct construction of affordable units constitutes “politicians getting people to yell at developers instead of yelling at them for their public policy failure” to actually raise taxes and provide affordable housing, Foote argues. “All I want is a welfare state,” she quips.

Trauss has seen online commenters say the market will solve the entire housing crisis by itself, but says she’s never heard anyone seriously argue that in person. “I think it’s a straw man,” she says. “I seriously think those [online comments] are Russian bots.”

“Libertarians show up [to YIMBY Action meetings] because they’ve heard what the far left has said about us,” says Foote, “and then they’re like, ‘Wait, you’re a bunch of lefties!’ and we’re like, ‘Yup, sorry.’”

Ideology vs. Personality

Though there is more common ground than the fastest hot takes would lead a reader to believe, there are still real differences between many YIMBY voices and housing justice activists in terms of understanding how housing markets behave and therefore what the best solutions are. Their beliefs differ, for example, most strongly on the effects of market-rate and luxury construction on housing cost and displacement, with YIMBYs firmly believing that market-rate development reduces displacement and housing activists believing that, at least in neighborhoods at risk of gentrification, it causes it. They also disagree on the likelihood of the market providing moderate-income housing if allowed, the economics of inclusionary housing policies, and what the role of local control should be in land use decisions.

Lisa Owens, executive director of the housing justice organization City Life/Vida Urbana, led an interruption of the YIMBYtown national conference.
Lisa Owens, executive director of the housing justice organization City Life/Vida Urbana, led an interruption of the YIMBYtown national conference, declaring that the people most impacted by displacement must lead the solutions. Photo courtesy of City Life/Vida Urbana

There is, however, very little disagreement that the Bay Area, which has seen a huge increase in jobs and population recently, does need more housing, especially affordable housing, and that it needs to be located throughout the region, especially in places with lots of jobs and/or good transit access and low-density housing. “We been to meetings at the Silicon Valley Foundation,” says CCHO co-executive director Fernando Martí. It’s a high-rise office, with a huge open parking lot next to it [in Mountain View]. How much housing could you put there? Could you run a Google shuttle from there to the Cal Train stop?”

Similarly, there’s agreement that exclusionary zoning is a problem. “I deeply empathize with the frustration of not being able to pass stuff at the city level because of NIMBYism,” says Shanti Singh, communications and development coordinator at Tenants Together.

Despite these agreements, and the fact that everyone involved expresses an abstract interest and willingness to work on common ground with people who differ from them on other points, cooperation has been hard to pull off in this case. This is in large part because of the current atmosphere around housing politics in the Bay Area, which is described as “toxic,” “ugly,” and extremely personal by nearly everyone involved.

San Francisco YIMBYs got media attention, and a whole lot of tech funding, by being brash and aggressive. But people who were working with low-income tenants say the provocative approach often came with a disregard for racial power dynamics and a disrespect for the lived experiences of people at risk of displacement.

Jumping off from the YIMBY position that opposing market-rate building does not help with displacement, YIMBY sympathizers have sometimes promoted a narrative that seems to explicitly lump anti-displacement activists together with NIMBYs as part of the problem One example is a Reason TV video about the YIMBYs from 2016 whose narrator lists “well-intentioned progressives who want to help the poor by only allowing certain types of housing to be built” (while displaying a montage of anti-displacement activists of color) as one of the causes of the city’s housing crisis that YIMBYs are trying to fight. Both Trauss and Foote are clear they don’t think this video is an accurate portrayal of their positions. Foote says the narration is “over-broad” and “totally lacking nuance,” and they both say the montage about “well-intentioned progressives” is misleading on several fronts. They may disagree with those Foote calls “100 percent affordable or nothing” anti-displacement activists who are working to build housing, but they don’t consider them the problem or NIMBY equivalents. That’s reserved for homeowners (of all political stripes) in well-off neighborhoods who oppose new construction, often justifying “their nostalgia and concern about parking with social justice language” about supporting affordable housing (but don’t then do so), says Trauss.

In 2016, Trauss famously compared Latinx Mission District residents who were opposing a development to Trump supporters who want to build a wall to keep out immigrants, and she has refused to apologize or back down. “That was crazy, insensitive, and deeply racist,” says Joe Rivano Barros, former communications director for YIMBY Action.

Trauss does in fact stick by the comment, saying it was directed only at one particular person—the speaker before her at a hearing where pretty much everyone was accusing everyone else of being Donald Trump. That speaker “really was ragging on the new people who were going to move to her neighborhood,” says Trauss. “It really is toxic to believe newcomers are going to ruin your neighborhood. You can’t look at American history and say local governments having the right to prevent people moving somewhere is a good thing.”

Then in April 2018, at a rally against SB 827, a controversial statewide bill to upzone all areas around transit, YIMBY Action members, mostly white, showed up and chanted “Read the bill!” over activists of color who were trying to speak.

These things seemed so blatantly inappropriate, unhelpful, and hurtful to organizers who work with marginalized populations that many found it hard to believe the folks doing them were acting in good faith.

“It’s been absolutely ugly,” says Singh. “A really nasty three years.” While she knows that YIMBY groups in other cities, even other places in Northern California, like San Mateo, have supported tenants rights, or inclusionary housing goals in market-rate development, she says that in San Francisco “that would get you screamed at [and called] a militant obstructionist NIMBY. I’ve been called a NIMBY for doing that.”

Rivano Barros, who still supports the YIMBY philosophy and solutions, says YIMBYs as an organizing force “failed to take seriously the concerns coming out of [the anti-displacement activists] camp” and “failed to take seriously the real trauma that is associated with development and the worries about top-down development choices made by politicians who are not trustworthy in many people’s eyes.”

Some anti-gentrification activists have been pretty awful in their own right, notes Foote. Beyond what seems to be willful misconstruing of YIMBY positions, Foote says, she has seen protesters claiming she’d marched with the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and saying that Trauss’s baby should die. The group Gay Shame frequently compares YIMBYs to cops, and even the KKK, on its Twitter feed.

Foote also acknowledges that it took YMBYs a while to understand the history of displacement in communities of color, and to realize that the main problem in terms of housing supply was not necessarily in those neighborhoods, but in places like Cupertino, which were adding tons of jobs but refusing to add any housing. But she says they’ve matured a lot. “We’re trying to pick different fights these days. When we first started, where housing was being proposed was in low-income communities of color, so we looked near where we lived. We weren’t yet to the place where we were saying that we need to take the fight elsewhere. We were naïve, though we had good intentions.” Nonetheless, Foote feels that many affordable housing and tenant advocates wrote YIMBYs off from the start, rather than sitting down with potential new allies to help them understand the details.

Foote has issued a formal apology for her group’s shouting over the speakers from gentrifying neighborhoods at the SB 827 rally, saying they had come prepared to challenge wealthy homeowner groups and didn’t adjust their plan to the reality of who was speaking. She ended the apology by saying “We should have done better and we will do better in the future.” She also told Shelterforce that she did reach out and have some one-on-one conversations with SB 827 opponents who had been at that rally. She says they were “some of the best conversations I’ve had on this topic,” that she learned a lot from them, and that she thinks a better understanding was reached.

But as a symbol of how fraught the atmosphere had gotten, she says, “none of them wanted it to be known we had spoken.” 

Trying to Avoid the Drama

The pervasive sentiment of “we don’t work with YIMBYs” has been incredibly frustrating for East Bay for Everyone (EB4E), a YIMBY group across the Bay in Oakland that has tried to distance itself from the drama and problematic statements coming out of San Francisco. Rather than focusing narrowly on a pro-building message, EB4E took more of a broad solidarity approach, explicitly coming out as pro tenants rights and opposing police surveillance, for example. East Bay for Everyone has come to the position that it will not intervene in development fights in low-income communities of color, says Victoria Fierce, one of its founders, who moved to Oakland from Ohio in search of a tech job about five years ago. She sees the intensity of those fights as “an indication that we need to be building affordable housing all over so we’re not putting pressure [on sensitive places]. … There are bigger fish to fry out there.”

Fierce now works with Trauss at CaRLA, a nonprofit organization Trauss founded with Brian Hanlon, the president of California YIMBY, to bring lawsuits supporting denser housing in wealthier exclusionary communities that tend to find ways to keep it out, exactly what most housers who work in gentrifying areas say they wish YIMBYs would focus on. “As far as communities where there are a lot of lower-income people, minorities, people experiencing oppression, [CaRLA has] an explicit policy that we will stay the fuck out of that,” says Fierce. (Read more in “Is Local Control Good or Bad?“)

Nonetheless, when EB4E tried to develop a joint statement against amping up police surveillance in the BART transit system with the Democratic Socialists of America justice committee, Fierce says the effort was derailed by anti-YIMBY purists. They were “inches away from having this co-signed statement of the two groups saying we oppose this thing and we’re going to organize and turn out against it,” she says, when it was derailed by “a white cis dude who would not be likely to be targeted by police himself, coming on the Listserv and saying ‘No no no, we will not work at all with YIMBYs no matter what.’ It was frustrating as hell.”

Fierce, who herself has been criticized for calling an activist of color in Richmond a “segregationist” for opposing a particular upzoning measure, a comment she says she understands was not OK and apologizes for, remains committed to trying to create coalitions. When EB4E gets criticized, “we’re not like, ‘No you’re wrong, we won’t play with you,’” she says. “We say, ‘Oh, let’s compare notes.’ Then we turn around and use it to grow, figure out how to be better.”

Some housing justice activists in San Francisco are quite willing to talk with YIMBY membership or sympathizers. Yes to Affordable Housing (YAH), an education and advocacy organization started by a group of young housing organizers, spends a lot of time educating people on the history and reality of housing markets, racist housing policies, and power dynamics. YAH’s mission is to center justice in housing activism, says Megan Orpwood-Russell, YAH’s program manager and organizer, and they focus on reaching and activating the people most affected by the housing crisis. But they will, and do, talk to almost anyone. YAH has a Housing 101 presentation that it offers everywhere from book clubs to high schools to tech offices. She finds that a lot of people are eager to understand the complex situation better. “There are people looking for the thing that isn’t the NIMBYs and isn’t the YIMBYs,” she says.

One difference, even within the common ground, is in what they feel is most urgent. While YIMBY groups feel an urgency to allow “missing middle” housing to be built to relieve competition pressure on places where lower-income folks live, anti-displacement organizers feel equally urgent about passing tenant protections and ending evictions. Exclusionary zoning is just not going to rise to the top priority for a tenant organizer while there are rampant 100 to 200 percent rent increases, no-fault evictions, and people increasingly facing homelessness, says Inglis of Tenants Together. “It’s important for us to keep an eye towards longer-term solutions,” she acknowledges, “but we’re in crisis. We have a mountain of stuff falling on our heads.” Having people who seem to have more access to power and resources say, “Oh you’re not working on the real problem,” is galling, says Inglis.

A Bigger Picture View—State and Federal

If you step up to the state level, even in California, the interactions on this topic are somewhat less personal. It is still frustrating to have YIMBYs and their newfound tech cash “sucking a lot of the air out of the room,” as Tyrone Buckley from Housing California puts it. (California YIMBY, which launched in 2017, had raised over $3 million as of May 2018, including a $1 million donation from Stripe. As of 2017, SF YIMBY groups had raised over $1 million from donors like Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, according to Mercury News.) In Buckley’s experience, their presence has given energy to the real estate lobby and can distract legislators from other housing priorities.

But alliances in areas of common ground seem to come more easily at the state level. California YIMBY is “very supportive of our proposals to try to secure more funding for subsidized affordable housing,” says Buckley. “And they’re vocal about it. They lift up our proposals on their social media.” The challenges come in differing understandings of the effect of market-based proposals, he explains. So there is still tension, for example, over inclusionary housing.

Housing California and Nonprofit Housing Association of Northern California (NPH) talk regularly with state-level YIMBYs. “We sat down with them, talked through the issues, showed them the politics [of their early proposals] didn’t work,” says Lane, NPH’s former policy director. “Any upzoning—the league of cities, counties are going to oppose every step of the way. They will only overcome that with a broad equity-based coalition.”

Lane says he sees some legitimate evolution on the part of the state-level YIMBYs. “I’ve seen people move off the idea that you can solve homelessness with market-rate housing,” he says. “Some of the leaders I’ve spoken with have been respectful and willing to listen. … We’re not fully aligned at all, but it’s a constructive engagement. It’s a sort of détente.”

SB 827, a statewide proposal to upzone around every transit node, was one of the biggest legislative fights in California last year, garnering national attention. YIMBYs were enthusiastically supportive. Anti-displacement activists argued that a large portion of the areas that would be targeted were communities of color at risk of displacement, while only a few were actually exclusionary areas, because those areas resist transit as well. A University of California–Berkley mapping project found that “nearly half of the developable land in the Bay Area that would have been subject to SB 827 was in areas experiencing gentrification and displacement pressures or that were at risk of gentrification, while only 11 percent of the total acres covered under SB 827 were in areas considered more affluent or exclusive enclaves.” (Definitions of “at-risk” are among the contested spaces of this debate.)

Despite the attention, the bill died in committee. This session it has been reintroduced as SB 50 with a set of new protections and exceptions for “communities of concern.” At the time they were interviewed for this article, affordable housing and anti-displacement activists were reserving judgment on the bill.

Except for the most diehard libertarians, most mainstream YIMBYs do understand that market solutions alone will not solve housing problems for low-income households. This is partly why the reception to the movement can be much more positive when you step away from local development fights or zoning reform discussions and look at state- and national-level affordable housing advocacy.

Joey Lindstrom of the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), for example, says that aside from the inevitable Twitter fights, his organization has had positive experiences with YIMBYs, from San Francisco and elsewhere. He has found them actively willing to stump for additional federal funding for affordable housing, and even public housing. When he spoke at the third annual YIMBYtown conference, held in Boston in September 2018, he was expecting to clash with more libertarians, but says he found everyone there to have pretty good grasp of what the market could and couldn’t do, and to be actively interested in equity.

Lindstrom and Lane both see a potential benefit to YIMBY activism beyond its support for direct affordable housing funding. One of the big dangers of the housing crisis now affecting middle-income households, Lindstrom says, is that those households start wanting part of the already-too-small housing subsidy pot for themselves. As a result, NLIHC has found itself fighting against things like the Middle Income Housing Tax Credit proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon. However, says Lindstrom, that shouldn’t be necessary. While filtering, the idea that as higher-cost housing is built previously high-cost housing becomes more affordable, doesn’t work very well to create housing for low-income people, it does work for to create housing for middle-income households, he argues. If we changed zoning and related policies to let that happen, we should be able to protect the funding that’s sorely needed to reach lower-income households. “Let’s not spend billions in subsidies on a problem that could be solved without subsidy,” he says.

From Lindstrom’s perspective, the local acrimony seems to be largely personality based. “Both of these local movements have a ton of merit and need to win,” he says, “and it’s frustrating to me to see them working against one another.”

Leaving the Bay Behind

Such cooperation is possible. Many affordable housing organizations in the Pacific Northwest, for example, have had fairly different relationships with their local YIMBY groups. The Housing Development Consortium (HDC) in Seattle, roughly CCHO’s counterpart, is the convener of Seattle for Everyone, a broad coalition devoted to pushing for implementation of the city’s HALA (Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda) recommendations. Those recommendations include upzoning in many parts of the city in exchange for mandatory inclusionary housing, in what is often called the “Grand Bargain.”

Though the process of developing HALA and agreeing on things like the percentages of affordability required was plenty fraught, the implementation phase seems to have brought more cooperation. Patience Malaba, advocacy mobilization manager for HDC and coordinator for Seattle for Everyone, considers the coalition to be a YIMBY group, and considers the city’s individual local YIMBY groups to be strong affordable housing allies. Seattle YIMBYs support inclusionary zoning, affordable housing, and tenants rights, says Malaba. “We have sat down with them and strategized about how do we get our messaging to the same place,” she says. “How do we include people at risk of displacement? We had YIMBY groups go out of their way to reach out to those groups.”

The city itself has brought an explicit racial equity focus to its policymaking, says Malaba, which has helped shift the whole conversation. Upzones have been smaller in areas at risk for displacement, with a range of conversations about tools to mitigate displacement. From HDC’s perspective, YIMBY groups have been on their side of that conversation, “reminding elected officials to not leave anyone behind.” The difference is mainly been that YIMBYs also advocate for housing across the whole income spectrum as well.

YIMBYs are also helpful allies who can show up at planning hearings to counteract anti-development NIMBYs and advocate for density and affordability in ways HDC, which focuses on systems change and policy, doesn’t have the capacity for, says Malaba. “We don’t have the liberty or the capacity to go site specific,” she explains. “They can take things further and louder.”

“King County needs 156,000 affordable homes right now,” adds Leah Haberman, HDC’s communications and outreach manager. “There’s not an option not to build. We don’t try to stop growth. We try to grow in an equitable way.”

Things are similar in Portland, Oregon, says Lisa Bates, a professor at Portland State who is active with the Anti-Displacement PDx coalition and other tenants rights organizing work. Having recently emerged from a fight for inclusionary zoning, activism around zoning and density in Portland currently revolves around the details of the “residential infill project,” or RIP. RIP would allow duplexes and triplexes in some parts of single-family zoned areas. Portland for Everyone, a broad coalition advocating for more housing via changes like RIP is “not an Econ 101 crew,” says Bates. It could be seen, as the Seattle for Everyone coalition is, as a YIMBY group for its positions on increased density and housing supply, but the term doesn’t get used very much.

The developers in the coalition did fight against inclusionary zoning and are uninterested in supporting tenants rights, Bates says, and they sometimes try to use YIMBY as their new catchphrase. But they do it inconsistently, and they represent an old-school real estate perspective, not a new wave of libertarian YIMBY activism. “We need more housing, but we need to be careful about where and how,” says Bates. Still, “here the traditional NIMBY is the still the bigger issue.”

Portland for Everyone is housed within and fiscally sponsored by 1000 Friends of Oregon, an environmental group that has an interest in maintaining the region’s urban growth boundary through allowing sufficient building within the boundary. One of the reasons the coalition has successfully included low-income folks and people at risk of displacement, says Bates, is that its first staffer was a person with “longtime social justice activism cred” and not “a fresh-faced eager beaver with a master’s in planning who read about submarkets on the internet.” Focusing on displacement, which can happen for different reasons in different neighborhoods, rather than the much-disputed term “gentrification,” has also strengthened the coalition, Bates believes, and allowed various neighborhood organizing efforts to come together.

The hope is, with the infill zoning changes, that nonprofit builders will have more options to build affordably, says Bates. Displacement concerns have been at the forefront of crafting the details, though they are still being debated.

It’s not that everything is easy outside of the Bay Area. In the recent groundbreaking comprehensive planning process that Minneapolis undertook, equity-focused housing activists sometimes felt trapped between NIMBYs and libertarian YIMBYs, says Owen Duckworth, director of organizing and policy of The Alliance, who coordinates the Equity in Place coalition. You have “YIMBY voices saying density will solve all these housing problems and other folks saying we can’t accept more density because it will change the character of neighborhoods, [based on] racist fears of who might move in to more affordable housing.” But that’s not a binary choice, points out Duckworth.

In the end, however, that planning process turned out relatively well. While the national media is celebrating the city’s historic abolishment of single-family zoning as a victory against the legacy of racism (a very YIMBY-esque talking point), Adams, of the The Alliance, is much more excited about some of the provisions surrounding the zoning change, such as an inclusionary housing measure, a significant increase in funding for affordable housing development, and some tenant protections.

“I think that nobody believes simply allowing for more triplexes in our wealthiest, middle- and upper-income neighborhoods is going to translate into affordable apartments without intentionality,” he says. “The Twin Cities has already experimented with this ‘simply produce more units’ approach. In the last 15 to 18 years we’ve seen thousands of new market-rate apartments built; meanwhile the housing crisis worsened and we’ve lost roughly 15,000 affordable units to market forces.” Minnesota has a strong affordable housing infrastructure, notes Adams, from philanthropy to organizing, and some electeds, especially a city council president, who get it, which has helped to keep their message on track. Even better, equity advocates were able to counter the developers’ talking points against inclusionary housing successfully enough that local YIMBYs did not adopt them, and did not show up to oppose the provision.

Something else that gives Adams hope is a case in St. Paul where equity-focused housing activists and YIMBYs collaborated on a major win for both. In 2017, an auto plant closed down in a very wealthy neighborhood called Highland Park. The 135 acres was still owned by Ford Motor Corp., and was going to be sold to a developer, but the city could determine the density the site could accept via the rezoning process. There was a “very energetic, sometimes vicious battle between neighbors over the density,” recalls Adams. The different visions would have meant the difference between 2,000 and 4,000 units on the site.

A group of environmental, affordable housing, transit, and faith-based groups “sat down with [local YIMBY group] Sustain Ward 3 and said ‘We’re going to be showing up to these public meetings . . . and delivering a message of, yes, we want a maximum density, but you have to come forward with some affordability requirements,” says Adams. “They were very nervous at first, but after some conversations realized we’d be building power together. We won. The master plan included the maximum density with a 20 percent affordability requirement, half of that affordable at 30 percent of AMI. Very ambitious. All because people were unified.” (See Generation Priced Out—for more on this story.)

Boston residents participants marched to a nearby national gathering of YIMBYs with a sign that reads "Displacement is the Crisis ... We Are The Answer."
After Boston residents on the frontlines of the displacement crisis voted on elements of a “People’s Plan” for housing, participants marched to a nearby national gathering of YIMBYs to deliver a message: “The people most impacted must lead the solutions.” Photo courtesy of City Life/Vida Urbana

Boston Tries to Do It Differently

When it comes to both housing markets and housing politics, it’s clear that San Francisco is not representative. Unfortunately, it is often treated as if it is. The stories from the bitter atmosphere of the Bay Area, plus the trolls on Twitter that feed on it, have been many people’s first, and formative, impression of the whole concept of YIMBYism.

Perhaps one of the most delicate dances on this front is happening in Boston, which hosted the third national YIMBYtown conference last September. Shelterforce spoke with organizers within two of the local YIMBY groups in Boston (one of which was founded before the term YIMBY was widespread) and two people who are active in trying to develop a regional/statewide YIMBY group and who helped organize the conference. They all work within the affordable housing field, and have for most of their careers.

Much of how they describe what they are interested in lines up quite well with what YIMBY-skeptic housing justice activists are concern about—a priority on equity and displacement and an understanding of treating different neighborhoods differently. “There are three buckets of communities that require different policy solutions,” says Andre Leroux, of Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance, a coalition of affordable housing, planning and environmental groups. “There are the overheated markets where you need anti-displacement policies and more investment in affordable housing. There are suburban communities with jobs and good schools that are not building where you need policies to require they do their fair share. There are the gateway cities, older industrial cities that have more affordable housing. The policies needed there are not so much about housing at all, but about quality of life, transit service, fare equity, more jobs.”

Leroux is eager to relieve demand pressure on inner Boston neighborhoods by requiring communities to host their fair share of housing, but that is slow going, in part because people who are more comfortable with denser housing and might be inclined to advocate for it tend to move to already-dense places. That’s one of the reasons YIMBY voices often show up in overheated urban markets. It’s easier to advocate where you live. But, says Leroux, organizing efforts in those more affluent communities are in fact taking shape.

Jarred Johnson an affordable housing professional and has been involved in both Dorchester Growing Together, a local YIMBY group, and efforts to create a regional one. He’s interested in the YIMBY approach because he has seen how much zoning, parking requirements, and permit red tape make affordable housing development difficult and slow (and therefore more costly), even though within the city of Boston, out-and-out NIMBYism is not a major force.

For Johnson, affordable housing is the top priority. He figures the first step around transit stops, for example, should be to make a zoning change that allows multifamily housing as of right only if it is affordable. “The folks with the resources will be able to outbid if you [upzone and] don’t have protections, limitations,” he acknowledges, but says that leaving those desirable spots without multifamily housing will also drive up costs and keep working-class families out. (YIMBY Action is currently working on proposing an affordable housing overlay upzoning proposal for all of San Francisco.)

Boston YIMBY leaders are also unequivocally pro-tenants rights and are not knee-jerk opposed to regulation or zoning. “What is the use of building more housing if we can’t ensure people can stay in that housing?” says Jesse Kanson-Benanav, an affordable housing developer with B’nai B’rith Housing and a founder of A Better Cambridge, a local YIMBY group. “First refusal, right to counsel, just-cause eviction—the vast majority of Boston-area YIMBYs support these things.” Dorchester Growing Together shares eviction defense actions on its Facebook page. Leaders speak of anti-displacement activists with respect, as important allies doing crucial work, not as unwitting aids to NIMBYism.

Unfortunately, despite this orientation, the relationship between community organizers doing anti-displacement organizing in Boston and YIMBY activism has gotten off on a very rocky footing. That may be because individuals volunteered to host the YIMBYtown conference before they had done much local organizing and relationship building as YIMBYs per se. Though they saw the conference as an opportunity to push equity in the national conversation and possibly reframe what YIMBY stands for in the popular imagination, locally that order of operations turns out to have been a mistake.

Many Boston community organizers who are focused on anti-displacement work followed the route of Lisa Owens, director of City Life/Vida Urbana, who hadn’t paid much attention to the YIMBYs until the conference was announced. When she heard that her allies in the affordable housing development world were getting involved, she started to look into what it was all about. For background research, she and others turned to news stories about San Francisco and Twitter. Unsurprisingly, this made them nervous.

Armani White, a community organizer in Roxbury, said he knows many residents who were turned off of Twitter entirely because of what they experienced there. “People think Twitter is the land of white young housing activists who shout over them,” he says. Although Leroux, Johnson, and others say they spent a lot of time trying to corral the wilds of “Housing Twitter” in the lead-up to the conference, making it clear they didn’t endorse and wouldn’t stand for the negative, divisive, or know-it-all things being said, White notes that volunteer community organizers check social media every few days at most, and may have never experienced the organizers’ pushback to the problem elements.

The conference planners, despite an intentional effort to create a diverse planning committee and talk about equity at every step, also made some awkward missteps. Having their first outreach to City Life/Vida Urbana be an invitation to produce an “equity track” at the conference is one example, since that communicated a message that equity was going to be a tacked-on afterthought rather than a core concern. Locating the conference at Roxbury Community College, in a gentrifying community of color, also fell flat. Though the intention was to not be in a high-rise downtown as developers would likely do and instead be more accessible to regular Bostonians suffering from the housing crisis, the surprise move was read by many in the neighborhood instead as a stating of intention to bring luxury towers to neighborhoods like theirs. “We’re already a super dense neighborhood,” says White. “Why focus on us?”

It also doesn’t help that, like elsewhere, the organizers in Boston who want to develop an equitable pro-housing approach can’t control who identifies as YIMBYs. Anti-displacement organizers say they’ve been running into people in Boston calling themselves YIMBYs who have been doing things like calling people NIMBYs for advocating for higher percentages of affordable units and providing uncritical support to developers with atrocious tenants rights track records. Helen Matthews, communications coordinator for City Life/Vida Urbana, says, for example, that in her “historically redlined, predominantly Latino, and now rapidly gentrifying neighborhood,” YIMBYs have been cheerleading for a large proposed development even though it doesn’t even have as many affordable units as the master plan requires. “When my neighborhood’s master plan was being drafted,” Matthews adds, “young people of color led a campaign to raise the affordability requirements in the plan. Several YIMBYs criticized their organizing and their demands for meaningful affordability.”

Can We Have Planning Before Upzoning?

For the past year or so, CityLife and the Boston Chapter of the Homes for All coalition have been actively working on creating a citywide vision for an equitable and affordable Boston. They have been coordinating a joint planning process, with the ultimate goal being a comprehensive “people’s plan” they can advocate for at the city level. “Multiple neighborhoods had been calling for affordable housing and anti-displacement measures,” says Darnell Johnson of Homes for All, but they realized they needed to work together. At the first citywide People’s Assembly in this process, those attending came up with an “aspirational goal” of new development being 50 percent affordable, with substantial deep affordability. They are also discussing goals for jobs, hiring standards for projects that use city money, transportation, health, and environmental issues.

“What to do with people moving in can’t be answered in a vacuum,” says Owens. “We need a set of comprehensive policies that keep people here now and accommodate people moving in . . . in a way that ensures that Boston remains welcoming to working-class people as well as higher incomes. Boston is tiny—higher income parts of the city still impact other neighborhoods [that are] adjacent. … We can’t look at one neighborhood separate from another. … This is not an argument against building, it’s an argument for building smartly with anti-displacement policies, as well as deep affordability.”

“I think we actually would love the idea of having more apartment buildings in West Roxbury, in ways that are affordable to low-income people,” says White. “But it doesn’t make sense in terms of order of operations to give the zoning relief before we talk about how to protect the people that live there. Zoning relief without specific protections is short sighted.”

The first People’s Assembly coincided with the YIMBYtown conference. So at the conclusion of the assembly, a group of about 100 participants marched the half mile from the nearby church where they were meeting to interrupt the conference. The goal was to “let them know there are some differences that the housing justice movement has with the national YIMBY movement,” says Owens.

NLIHC’s Lindstrom, who happened to be speaking when the protest arrived, says that when the protesters spoke they were interrupted several times—by applause. “People in the room actively agreed with them,” says Lindstrom. “Support was not isolated in that moment,” either, he says. “Much of the conference was devoted to ‘How do we as YIMBYs align our concern with anti-displacement activists?’”

Those who disrupted the event presented a pledge to those assembled saying we’ll work with you if you commit to these principles. The pledge focused on honoring the leadership of working-class communities of color and not seeing market-rate housing as the only solution. And what sticks with those who presented the pledge is not the applause they got, but the fact that no local YIMBY groups signed it.

Every YIMBY-affiliated Boston advocate Shelterforce spoke with expressed 95 percent agreement with the pledge, and but said they had wanted to discuss some wording tweaks before signing it. One concern was wanting to be clear that it’s OK to push back against community resident attempts to control development when those attempts are being driven by people with privilege and exclusionary motives. The other was to clarify that while they agree that market-rate housing is not the only, or even the major solution, at least within Boston, that doesn’t mean it won’t have any role and they can’t support it where it would do no harm. They thought it would be worse to sign the pledge and then be accused of breaking it.

CityLife was not interested in discussing the pledge. “If you want to be part of the conversation, be part of the conversation,” says Owens. “Our entire work is the conversation. Listen to your neighbors talking about affordability, listen to them debate changes to zoning code. It’s happening in every neighborhood. It’s not sitting down with CityLife to discuss the wording of a bullet point.”

That said, Boston’s anti-displacement activists and YIMBY activists have one thing in common—cautious optimism.

Since YIMBYtown, “we have noticed that folks that were on the housing justice side of the YIMBYs making more of a distinction between what they believe in and some of the more objectionable stances [of other YIMBYs],” says Owens. “That’s a positive thing. Whether they were early or late to the game doesn’t matter to me. They are now talking about anti-displacement. To the extent that the local YIMBYs are able to contest that space with the national YIMBYs, that’s a good thing.”

“One of the strengths I see in Boston is that we have groups like CityLife that are willing to check us,” says Beyazmin Jimenez, a housing activist who has a day job in the field and volunteered on the YIMBYtown conference and has attended CityLife meetings. “I hope that we can align our voices so that we can make some real impact on the housing crisis we are all facing.”

What Lies Ahead?

The emergence of the YIMBYs seems to be accentuating existing fault lines within the affordable housing world. If the end result is clarification of the ways anti-displacement work and fights against exclusionary zoning and building missing middle housing can and should become a joint effort toward equity, that will be a good thing. If it turns housers against one another, it will be an incalculable loss.

Given the way the conversation has been going, a couple of equity-focused YIMBY advocates said they or their groups are considering abandoning the term, trying to leave behind its stigma and distance themselves from the problematic associations.

But Jimenez, for one, is emphatically opposed to that choice. “This is deeply personal to me” as a woman of color, she says. “I grew up with a mother who was a single parent, watching her struggle with having us live in unsafe and unaffordable housing,” and she feels ceding the term to the problematic factions means they would win. “Just because one person’s voice is loud in the room, they win,” she says. “I mean, that’s like the whole NIMBY factor, right?”

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

Corrections: Andre Leroux’s place of employment was originally misidentified; he actually works for Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance. The hashtag #YIMBYmustdie was associated with an incorrect Twitter account. It is actually used by @TheSuperAmanda. Laura Clarke’s field of work was originally incorrect; she actually worked in entry-level sales for a tech company. We originally misidentified the founder of CaRLA; it was co-founded by Sonja Trauss and Brian Hanlon, the president of California YIMBY.

 

4 COMMENTS

  1. Great post! Probably the most honest and accurate thing I’ve read in a while, honestly.

    I saw a need for the movement to make in-roads to other groups so I started the YIMBY Arts project and it’s been starting to take a life of its own lately. I think that there’s a spirit of cooperation in the air so I’m thinking that 2019 will be a very good year for getting things done. Hope everyone else is feeling the same, too.

  2. Unlike Ryan, I actually found this piece to be incredibly frustrating to read, and that’s coming from someone who has been working on the affordable housing side of the equation. From the title of this piece on through, I found Miriam’s characterization of YIMBYs to be quite disparaging. The tone of the writing felt very self-righteous, as though the long-time affordable housing advocates are seasoned and the YIMBYs are just a bunch of clueless white Millennials. I also found it ironic the inclusion of this line: “When it comes to both housing markets and housing politics, it’s clear that San Francisco is not representative. Unfortunately, it is often treated as if it is.” This, given that the vast majority of this piece was built on the supposed clash between YIMBYs and other advocacy groups in the Bay Area, compared with the more moderate realities she documented in other places.

    Beyond all that, my broader concern about painting YIMBYs as generally unconcerned–or at least only recently concerned–with anti-displacement and tenants rights, is that I’m not convinced that they were designed to overlap. What I mean is that YIMBY groups, in my opinion, seem to be borne of the viewpoint that regulatory changes are necessary to combat the over-representation of NIMBY voices in housing politics, not necessarily to amplify the advocacy voices of those concerned with renters’ rights. YIMBYs, therefore, have primarily focused on reforms to land use and zoning regulations. I view them as complementary to the anti-displacement and tenants rights groups, rather than conflicting with. Put another way, the push that YIMBYs have been making toward land use/zoning reform should be a welcome part of the recipe for more and better housing–a recipe that also includes inclusionary housing, anti-displacement strategies, and other protections. Suggesting that YIMBY immaturity is damaging other groups’ work, or suggesting that YIMBYs be assimilated into these groups is, in my view, a mistake that only cements the seemingly relentless power of NIMBYs. And, if we’re honest, if decades of housing advocacy hasn’t stymied the protectionist tendencies of wealthier homeowners, maybe we need the YIMBYs more than we think we do.

  3. Since I don’t live in any of the metros discussed above, I don’t have first hand knowledge of what the article discusses. But the article left me with the impression that many housing activists often behave immaturely, dividing the world into “100 percent allies” and “enemies”. We all need to realize that someone who agrees with us 60 percent of the time (or even 40 percent) is a sometime ally, not the enemy.

  4. Very good article. What it portrays (intentionally or not) is the confusion between those who want lower rents/costs and (mistakenly) think that if more housing is built it will lower rent (YIMBYs) and those trying to help people who cannot afford housing that exists or is being built. That they have anything to talk about at all is pretty amazing.

    I would agree that it characterizes as clueless young techies who are outraged that they can’t buy a place where they want at the price they want. Pretty accurate from what I’ve seen.

    The interesting thing for me is that they are squabbling about housing being too expensive in the very few very dense cities where it actually is expensive. There is almost no growth in the cities mentioned because they are so densely packed which alog with the high salaries makes them expensive. Boston metro area grew 10% over 2000-2017 while Austin grew 69%. San Francisco Bay area grew 15% while Charlotte grew 90%. Almost all the growth in the top 50 metro areas was in the sprawling, low-density cities of the South East US where housing is cheap. more here:
    https://meetingthetwain.blogspot.com/2018/10/on-move-1.html

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