A small group of disgruntled millennials in California started using the term Yes in My Back Yard (YIMBY) nearly a decade ago. They were entirely new to housing activism and pushed a simple theory: making it easier to build would lead to lower rents.
“We just wanted more housing,” says Sonja Trauss, who’s known as a founder of the YIMBY movement. “So wherever there were proposals for projects, we wanted to show up and say, ‘Yes, housing. It is good, actually.’”
Trauss describes herself as an anarchist who likes to “make my own decisions and just do whatever I want.” She ran unsuccessfully for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2018 on a nonpartisan ticket. Trauss and most of the YIMBYs who spoke to Shelterforce for this article would identify themselves as progressives or leftists, but when the YIMBY message caught fire in the mid-2010s, it nonetheless became a platform on which free-market libertarians and capitalist-minded developers also found firm footing.
After all, there was a lot for them to like in the YIMBY platform. YIMBYs, like real estate developers and free-market devotees, are typically fervent supporters of across-the-board upzoning (some want to abolish zoning altogether), loosening the permitting process, and removing as many barriers to building market-rate housing as possible.
This anti-regulatory stance and the supporters it brought with it—combined with a slew of cash donations from the tech industry, a seeming disregard for any non-supply causes of high housing costs, and a lack of understanding about the racial dynamics of urban development and displacement—concerned many affordable housing and tenant activists. Housing justice advocates remained skeptical even when YIMBYs were fighting for things they had long tried to win themselves, like ending exclusionary zoning in suburbs.
It’s “really easy” to paint YIMBYs as “shills for developers” and ignore that a lot of the people who are in the movement are “just millennial renters,” says Paul Williams, founder and executive director of the Center for Public Enterprise, a nonprofit that focuses on public investment. Williams, who calls himself “a housing organizer, Socialist, and pub[lic] housing advocate who’s also a YIMBY,” says most YIMBYs are middle-class renters who realized there was a housing shortage, including for themselves, and decided to try and fix it. The YIMBY movement’s problem, he says, is that they haven’t been selective in what tactics and arguments they support or who they partner with.
“If you’re trying to build a coalition and you’re trying to use the deregulation argument then you’re trying to get moderates and conservatives on board,” Williams says. The difference is, “the moderates and conservatives, their issue isn’t that they hate regulations. Their issue is they hate apartment buildings. They’re NIMBYs. They don’t want change in their neighborhood, and they don’t want apartments and they don’t want more mixed income.”
It hasn’t helped that certain self-identifying YIMBYs have been actively pitting themselves against anti-displacement activists, whom they accuse of being fronts or unwitting cover for NIMBY homeowners. Twitter in particular has become a forum where YIMBY hostility is rampant. Loudmouth YIMBY bros regularly attack any Twitter user who disagrees with the premise that more housing in any given area is always better. They “have cleverly defined anyone who does not accept every proposed housing development with no changes and at the moment it is announced as a NIMBY,” Dean Preston, a Democratic Socialist who’s on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, said in an interview. It also doesn’t take much poking around “housing Twitter” to find neoliberal podcasters and gadflies opining about how free-market urbanism is the solution to the nation’s housing crisis. They’ll often also bulldoze anyone who suggests a more nuanced or tenant-rights-focused approach.
“Housing Twitter is totally deranged,” says Tara Raghuveer, a tenants rights activist and the Homes Guarantee campaign director at People’s Action. “Especially in this fight between YIMBYs and people they accuse of being NIMBYs and then people like me who are like, ‘We just want social housing. We just don’t want to market to ruin everything.’”
Sam Moss describes this particular flavor of YIMBY as an “asshole reply-guy urbanist” and “douchebag” who “doesn’t even participate in any actual YIMBY Action organizing.” Moss is executive director of Mission Housing Development Corporation, a nonprofit affordable housing developer in the Bay Area, and also a founding board member at YIMBY Action. Just because they’re there and they’re loud doesn’t mean they represent the YIMBY movement, Moss says. “The tension is exacerbated by people who live online and do not know how to organize for anything, to be frank.”
Now nearing a decade of existence, the YIMBY movement is still largely focused on increasing housing development, and they certainly still have hostile adherents on Twitter. But some in the movement are trying to distance themselves from the more problematic parts of their earlier history. Many have taken to using different language, calling themselves “pro-housing,” or saying they want “abundant housing” and “housing for everyone” rather than adopting the “YIMBY” title. And many groups have consciously expanded their platforms, adding nuance and trying to indicate their support for equity and tenants rights along with more housing.
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While YIMBYs still unapologetically support housing construction—whether it’s market rate or subsidized, government-built or privately developed—many organizations have also shifted their platforms and added to them. What used to be a simple “build, baby, build” directive has evolved, says YIMBY Action Executive Director Laura Foote.
“Within our core policy framework, we have what we used to call the ‘core four,’” Foote says. “Then we created an equity overlay on the core four and decided that was too complicated. So we made it the ‘fundamental five.’” YIMBY Action’s five policy positions are:
- legalizing housing (i.e., relaxing zoning laws)
- funding affordable housing
- increasing housing stability (i.e., strengthening tenant protections)
- streamlining the permitting process
- fixing incentives (i.e., implementing a carrot-and-stick approach to induce jurisdictions to build more housing)
A Word from the Founders
As fledgling activists fighting for more housing, Foote and Trauss say they didn’t initially understand zoning or take it into account. “Zoning sort of seemed like something that was hard for residents to impact,” Trauss says. So early YIMBYs focused on supporting already-proposed projects. Over the years, YIMBY activists have shifted their focus away from supporting multifamily projects in neighborhoods where that type of development was already allowed—which tended to be traditionally gentrifying areas where lower-income, often Black and brown residents were at risk of being pushed out by the proposed market-rate developments YIMBYs supported. Instead, they now focus their efforts on upzoning single-family neighborhoods in exclusive, higher-income enclaves.
[RELATED ARTICLE: YIMBYS: Friend, Foe, or Chaos Agent?]
“I think that’s the transition,” Foote says. “Now we have a bigger framework of, ‘we are powerful enough to really fight the zoning itself,’ and to make this conversation about where are we even allowed to propose housing … And that’s given everybody the ability to have more space for what’s going to be short-term versus long-term solutions and how do we do them both at the same time.”
The movement’s primary goal, however, is still to build millions more units as quickly as possible in as many places as possible with as few barriers as possible. “We’re very, like, social housing: good. Market-rate housing: good. Co-ops: good. Whatever. We are market indifferent,” Foote says.
Trauss—who’s now executive director at YIMBY Law, a group focused on enforcing state housing laws—and many other original YIMBYs say the movement cares deeply about low-income and Black and brown renters. And over the past few years, several YIMBY groups have been actively involved in fighting for legislation to protect tenants. For example, California YIMBY and YIMBY Action sponsored California’s Social Housing Act, which would have created a statewide housing authority tasked with producing union-built, collectively owned, mixed-income housing.
Other, newer pro-housing groups may have learned from YIMBYs’ earlier gaffes. Abundant Housing Massachusetts, for example, purposely included a broader range of issues in its platform. Jesse Kanson-Benanav, Abundant Housing’s executive director, recalls that the first annual gathering of YIMBYs in Boulder, Colorado—YIMBYtown 2016—didn’t incorporate issues central to low-income tenants and tenants of color. At this year’s event, YIMBYtown 2022 in Portland, Oregon, several panels discussed tenants rights and affordability issues.
“It’s been an evolution, and I think an evolution for the better. We are trying … to be much more thoughtful about how we engage on things like tenants rights issues while we continue to push for things like ending exclusionary zoning and building more housing for people of all income levels across the region,” Kanson-Benanav says. “We lean heavily on the need for high-income, wealthy, overwhelmingly white homeowner communities to build more housing.”
Mission Housing Development Corporation’s Moss (who happens to be married to Foote), says one way the YIMBY movement has changed is through increased consciousness regarding which projects they support, where those projects are, and how a given project could affect current residents.
“I do think across the country YIMBY movements say to themselves, ‘Where is this building being built? What neighborhood is it in?’” he says. “I think they are going into decision-making, before any YIMBYs speak on behalf or not on behalf of a project, thinking about this much more, if not first, as compared to what it was like five years ago.”
While Moss is a YIMBY supporter and says, “I agree with YIMBY that building new market-rate housing is not the devil,” he also concedes that “I disagree with them a lot. I want them to be more progressive.”
He’s not alone. Jordan Grimes, who leads Peninsula for Everyone, a YIMBY Action chapter based in the Bay Area’s San Mateo County, says the movement has “changed a lot since its inception” when the early YIMBYs “suddenly found themselves unable to afford homes and rent and were looking around going, ‘I did everything you told me to do. What the hell?’” Those new housing activists concluded that the way to fix a housing shortage that was decades in the making was simple: build more homes. Since then, Grimes says, most people in the YIMBY movement have gone from just saying “yes” to more housing to saying, “yes, and—.”
“The movement has realized there’s a lot more nuance,” Grimes says. “There are all these different effects that require amelioration before the supply will come online. You can’t just let vulnerable tenants twist in the wind while you wait for a bajillion homes to come online. You have to protect people. So I think the movement has grown a lot. It’s not where I’d like it to be yet, but there’s a broader understanding.”
Unfortunately there can still be significant local conflict over the right way forward. YIMBY Action and many tenant and labor activists are currently supporting competing propositions in San Francisco—propositions D and E, both on the November ballot. Each has the goal of increasing the construction of affordable apartments and appear similar on the surface, but they take different approaches to everything from income targeting to depth of permit streamlining to apartment size to the practicality of requiring more affordable units.
The implications are hotly contested. Proponents of both Prop. D and Prop. E say their approach will result in more actual construction of affordable units of the sort people need more while the other will create delays or direct resources to those who don’t need it the most.
Who Is at the Table?
Alex Contreras, who’s been working in housing advocacy since 2019 and is the founder and executive director of the Happy City Coalition, a Los Angeles-based group that promotes housing for all and expanding public transit, agrees that the movement has grown and evolved. But Contreras also says the two largest YIMBY groups—YIMBY Action and California YIMBY—still have a lot of internal work to do, especially on their boards of directors, which are “predominantly white, predominantly male.”
“That’s an optics issue, but it also comes from the fact that these two statewide orgs simply aren’t doing the work that they need to do to diversify,” says Contreras, who’s Mexican American. “I think within the past four years there’s definitely been a huge push by people of color within the movement to vocalize a series of concerns that were not being vocalized and say, ‘Hey, the reason why you have to diversify spaces is if it’s the same voices at the table over and over again, you’re not going to hear different perspectives and you’re going to miss out on important policy outcomes as a result—like very important policy outcomes.’”
Johann Hannesson, a volunteer and lobbyist for Portland: Neighbors Welcome (P:NW), a grassroots organization that supports abundant affordable housing and tenant protections, agrees that whiteness and relative wealth within the YIMBY movement have alienated already-marginalized tenants. Many in the YIMBY movement joined because they saw their own housing choice opportunities diminishing, not because they’d experienced poverty, housing instability, or active displacement.
“The crux of it is we’ve had everybody coming in from these very disparate places,” Hannesson says. “Some because they’ve always been there, and some who were new to it because the waterline finally rose up to where they were at. Other people have been underwater this whole time.”
Andrés Oswill, an anti-displacement advocate for P:NW and chief of staff at Oregon Futures Lab, argues there are ways to get away from the alienation early YIMBY attitudes and actions created. One way is for groups like P:NW to leverage their relatively privileged position and access their advantaged social capital to benefit existing tenant advocacy groups. The activist group is largely led by college-educated, higher-income volunteers, many of whom are city planning students or are otherwise interested in and knowledgeable about policy.
“Our members are really good at tracking stuff. So we’ll pay a lot of attention to things that can be really helpful for other groups who may not have the same capacity. Or, we have become very effective at lobbying the City of Portland, specifically certain bureaus and [Portland City] Council. These are things we can leverage on behalf of tenant advocacy,” Oswill says. “We recognize what we’re good at and then ask how do we use that for things that are not just our thing to build goodwill and make genuine connections.”
P:NW has been very intentional about asking the many Portland tenant advocacy groups, most of which have low-income or Black or brown leadership, what they need and how P:NW can best show up to advocate for them.
“A key component is not steamrolling but showing up and asking for people’s input and not just for their support, asking them, ‘How can this be something that allows both of us to collaborate for our interests and come forward as a unified front, even if it’s a brand new one?’ with some sort of genuineness,” Oswill says.
A Movement by Another Name
Contreras is among a group of YIMBY-identifying movement participants who say it’s time to drop the YIMBY moniker altogether. They say the term is heavy with negative connotations thanks to the controversies of the past decade and therefore divisive.
“It has become associated with white tech bros, or just white men in general. [The idea is] the only people who are YIMBYs are white men, which is objectively not true, but that’s what it’s perceived as,” Contreras says. “If YIMBY as a housing movement is going to become more inclusive of everyone’s needs, I think ‘YIMBY’ is fine as, like, an umbrella term but I don’t see it as a political identity.”
Many newer YIMBY satellite groups are focused on increasing housing supply and subscribe to what could be called YIMBY ideals and the YIMBY platform, yet they are eschewing the term, instead choosing names like P:NW, East Bay for Everyone, or Abundant Housing Massachusetts. These groups describe their approach as “pro-housing” or in support of “abundant housing” and often have no official link or affiliation to any of the larger, original YIMBY chapters.
Alex Shoor, executive director of Catalyze SV (which is short for Silicon Valley), says that when his group began organizing in 2016, they purposely decided not to use the term YIMBY in their name for several reasons, including the group’s desire not to be identified as the opposite of NIMBYs.
“If you’re saying, ‘We’re not no, we’re yes,’ that doesn’t really allow you to craft what your movement is about. It’s just responding to what you’re a countermovement to, which, in my knowledge and experience in social change movements, isn’t a great way,” Shoor says. “And we found that it was divisive . . . and so we said, ‘Well why would we choose a name that would turn off our very stakeholders from participating in our organization?’”
From an organizing perspective, Contreras says, the name YIMBY feels limiting. People “immediately shut down” in conversations about housing and transit issues when it comes up. They contend that as more people of color and lower-income people join the call for more housing, whether market-rate or subsidized units, the movement should drop the YIMBY name to make sure everyone feels welcome.
“As a movement shifts, as a culture shifts, language changes with it. That’s why I don’t think YIMBY is a good identifier, because it just doesn’t signal a lot about a person’s politics or their political ideology,” Contreras says. “The white leaders of this movement also have to contend with the people of color within this movement who are angry with the YIMBY name because of what it signifies. And how are you, white people who are leading this movement, going to rectify that? What actions, what practical, tangible steps are you taking to address these concerns?”
Shoor and Contreras co-led one of YIMBYtown 2022’s “unconference sessions”—panels developed by YIMBYtown participants with no input from conference organizers. Their session was called “Is ‘YIMBY’ the best identifier for our movement?” Shoor says that in 2016 when his group was deciding on a name, they came up with four, two of which included “YIMBY.” They surveyed about 75 stakeholders in and around Silicon Valley, asking which names they liked and disliked, finding that the two options that contained “YIMBY” were the most polarizing.
“One of the qualitative comments that came out of [the survey] was that the term wouldn’t unify people, it wouldn’t bring them together,” Shoor says. “I think we can call it a movement in the sense that everyone has a lot of similarities on what the outcomes are. It’s a movement with a purpose, but a movement that still needs to work on its name.”
Peninsula for Everyone’s Grimes says his organization didn’t use the YIMBY branding because “the reality is that if you pull a random person on the street over and ask them if they’re a YIMBY or not, they’re going to look at you like you have two heads.” Grimes says that even where he’s from, deep in the Bay Area housing affordability hotbed of San Mateo, the term “YIMBY” is “certainly more well-known just in the social justice spaces.”
Ernest Brown—who’s Black, is a board member at YIMBY Action, and last year moved back to his hometown of Atlanta, where he chairs Abundant Housing Atlanta—agrees with Grimes that although “YIMBY” has meaning in places like the Bay Area, in Atlanta the term carries far less weight. He also thinks the movement has “matured to a point where we no longer simply want to be the opposite of our enemies.”
“YIMBYism falls within the small group of people who knew what a NIMBY was and knew they didn’t like that, so now they wanted to identify themselves as not that,” Brown says. “We have to be able to communicate to a much larger audience, so using internal lingo, like ‘YIMBY,’ was useful within a kind of group signaling, but now [isn’t] useful for mass communications.”
On the other hand, Darrell Owens—who’s also Black, from Berkeley, self-identifies as a “Left-YIMBY,” is a member of East Bay for Everyone, and works as a policy assistant at California YIMBY—doesn’t think the name matters.
“Whatever you call it—YIMBY or ‘for everyone’ or ‘abundant housing’ or ‘pro-housing’—new labels, same opposition,” Owens says. “It doesn’t really make a difference and I think we should be clear about that. This isn’t a battle of labels; it’s a battle of ideas.”
This article looked at the YIMBY movement’s changes largely through the lens of its adherents. In our upcoming tenant organizing series, “Tenant Power Returns,” we will go deeper into how YIMBYs have been trying to support tenant rights and explore the relationship—or potential relationship—between the two movements from the tenant organizers’ perspective.