The Long March of the YIMBYs
Slowly, the tide is starting to turn.
A spectre is haunting America — the spectre of YIMBYism.
Seven years ago when I first encountered it, the YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) movement was almost a joke — a handful of transplants living in San Francisco who wished the city were more like New York. The idea that such a small band of squawking misfits might one day mushroom into a nationwide movement for housing abundance would have sounded either sarcastic or insane. And yet here we are.
YIMBY organizations have sprouted up all over the country, and are even appearing in other countries like Brazil, Canada, Italy, Peru, Sweden, and the UK who suffer similar housing shortages. And even where the YIMBY label isn’t used, the same stories are emerging of the same battle lines being drawn. On one side are those who seek to freeze the U.S. pattern of urban development in stasis, while on the other side are the increasingly vocal people — most of them young — who have had enough of the spiraling cost of living in the country’s most desirable metros.
The supporters of stasis — generally referred to as NIMBYs — have the weight of history and institutions on their side. From the 1970s onward, Americans erected a dense thicket of laws designed to freeze their urban development patterns in amber. Many of these took the form of local housing regulations — single-family zoning, maximum height laws, minimum lot sizes, parking requirements, setback requirements, and so on. These regulations were supported by local homeowners who showed up to planning meetings and dominated local government. That dominance in turn was made possible by America’s urban fragmentation — our metro areas tend to be carved up into a bunch of tiny towns rather than amalgamated into huge municipalities, a pattern that was originally put in place for the purpose of racial and economic segregation. And on top of all that, parochial interests were empowered by badly-designed federal and state environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the California Environmental Quality Act; these farmed out environmental protection to local groups, allowing anyone to challenge development projects on environmental (or “environmental”) grounds.
If you want a terse, to-the-point introduction to how the NIMBY system works in America, check out Jenny Schuetz’ book Fixer-Upper: How to Repair America’s Broken Housing Systems. For a more narrative history (including the history of the earliest YIMBYs), check out Conor Dougherty’s Golden Gates: The Housing Crisis and a Reckoning for the American Dream. For coverage of these issues as they play out in the moment, make sure to follow the writings of Jerusalem Demsas (formerly at Vox, now at The Atlantic) and the blog of Darrell Owens.
Anyway, this fortress of NIMBYism represented a compromise of sorts for Americans disturbed by the chaos and change of the 60s. Rich White people got their manicured, unchanging suburbs, while poor Black people got some measure of protection from the “urban renewal” that had previously disrupted their communities. But in the 2000s and 2010s, that compromise began to break down. The clustering of knowledge workers into big metros and college towns, the overall growth of population, the exurbs hitting the limit of feasible commute time, and a number of other factors disrupted the urban pattern the 70s had tried to freeze in amber. The result was spiraling rents in the places Americans most wanted (or needed) to live, causing displacement of lower-income renters from urban cores. The rise of remote work, which is spreading knowledge workers to smaller metros, has taken this housing crisis nationwide.
It was inevitable that some kind of backlash would happen; you can only force people to pay so much for the places they live before they get mad and revolt. And it was predictable that the revolt would begin in California, the country’s most NIMBY state. YIMBYism is the form that backlash took.
The YIMBY movement is not a typical American movement. Its goals are narrower than most economic movements — it’s not about changing the whole role of government, it’s just about getting more housing. At the same time, it’s an ideological big tent — most YIMBYs are lefties (because most people in overpriced metros are lefties), but a few are libertarian types or fed-up businesspeople, and a few are hardcore socialists. This combination of narrow goals and freedom from broader ideology allows the movement to launch a pragmatic, multi-pronged assault on housing scarcity. YIMBYs want deregulation when it comes to things like zoning and parking requirements, but they also strongly support public housing and a vigorous role for state development planning. In other words, YIMBYs just want housing, and lots of it, any and every way they can get it.
The California upzoning campaign
It’s instructive to watch the YIMBYs’ progress in California, because that state is really the epicenter and the pace-setter for the YIMBY/NIMBY clash. From 2018 through 2020, State Senator Scott Wiener introduced two bills, SB 827 and SB 50, that would have massively upzoned every part of California that was near a transit hub. Both bills were defeated, leading some to conclude — prematurely — that the YIMBYs would never make a dent in the NIMBY fortress.
But the YIMBYs didn’t give up — they just kept introducing more bills. A series of bills in 2016 and 2019 — SB 1069, AB 68, and AB 881 made it much easier for homeowners to build and rent accessory dwelling units (ADUs), also known as in-law units or granny flats. This was a very modest reform, but it represented an important psychological foot in the door.
Another pair of small victories came in 2021. SB 478 prevented cities from using various regulations to de facto outlaw multifamily housing in areas that are officially zoned for multifamily. And SB 9 officially ended single-family zoning throughout most of the state, allowing duplexes and fourplexes almost everywhere — a move similar to what Oregon did two years earlier.
These were also very modest victories. Duplexes and ADUs aren’t going to revolutionize housing supply. But they were an important moral victory, because they explicitly moved the state of California away from a commitment to the single-family zoning model. The message was that California was beginning to turn YIMBY.
And in 2022, a pair of far bigger victories is in the offing. AB 2097, which ends minimum parking requirements near transit hubs, and AB 2011, which allows certain kinds of housing to bypass the cumbersome approval process in certain areas, have both passed the legislature and are now awaiting Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature. These measures are expected to lead to a lot more housing than the bills of 2019 and 2021. Darrell Owens has a lot more details at his blog, including both policy details and some info on how the political fight was won:
The California enforcement campaign
But even as they were fighting for upzoning, the California YIMBYs were carrying out a parallel assault on housing scarcity in their state — strengthening the role of state planning and improving the state’s ability to enforce existing housing laws.
Since 1969, California has had a statewide planning process called RHNA (pronounced “Rheena”), which requires localities to plan for certain amounts of housing (called a “housing element”). Traditionally, cities would simply make a joke of this process, submitting plans that contained ridiculous proposals (turn City Hall into housing!) that would never get done, and massively overestimating how much housing their submitted plans would create. California has also had a law since 1982 known as the Housing Accountability Act, which supposedly requires cities to approve housing projects in a timely manner, but which was widely skirted due to weak enforcement.
A trio of bills in 2017 made these state laws much less of a joke. SB 167 added more enforcement provisions to the Housing Accountability Act. SB 828 and AB 1397 strengthened RHNA. (For those interested in the technical details of all this stuff, I recommend Chris Elmendorf’s Twitter account.)
But laws like this are nothing without vigorous enforcement. For decades, California cities have cheerfully skirted their legal requirements, confident that the state didn’t have the resources to enforce its diktats. But YIMBYs are on the case here as well. They successfully got California’s Department of Housing and Community Development to create a legal unit called the Housing Accountability Unit to enforce housing law compliance throughout the state. And the Office of the Attorney General created a Housing Strike Force to do the same. Working together, the HAU and the HSF are hunting down the worst NIMBY cities, learning their tricks, and bringing down the hammer of the law. Any legal revolution needs an army of lawyers to carry it out, and now California has that army.
Already, the threat of enforcement of existing state laws is striking fear into the hearts of the NIMBYs. HCD recently announced that it would review San Francisco’s notoriously farcical housing element. If it concludes that SF has been pulling the state’s leg (which of course it has), the state could short-circuit the city’s development review process as a remedy. Dean Preston, a San Francisco supervisor who has become notorious for blocking new housing projects, has ranted and railed about the crackdown on Twitter, but to no avail. YIMBYs, it turns out, are now strong on Twitter as well.
(It’s worth noting, by the way, that the nonprofit California YIMBY has been instrumental to many of these efforts. If you want to support California’s crusade to create abundant housing, that organization would be a good place to start.)
Where does the YIMBY movement go from here?
California’s struggles to upzone and to enforce housing law are an inspiration to other states, and even to other countries. But there’s no guarantee that this will quickly lead to a big increase in housing abundance. As Bloomberg’s Justin Fox has pointed out, a big upzoning effort in Minneapolis in 2020 hasn’t had significant effects yet. The Minneapolis Fed has found that since the passage of the much-heralded Minneapolis 2040 plan, housing in Minneapolis has grown, but not more than in other similar cities:
Hopefully California’s more vigorous upzoning policies and more stringent state enforcement represent a more comprehensive, multi-front assault on NIMBYism than Minneapolis has been able to carry out. But if California’s measures fail to produce a housing bonanza, expect the YIMBYs to only redouble their efforts. The thicket of anti-housing laws, regulations, and procedures built up by American cities since the 1970s is incredibly dense, and paring it back will likely take many years.
And expect YIMBYs to also open new fronts in the war on housing scarcity. They’ve become the main champions of public housing in California, putting forward a bill called AB 2053 that would create a California Housing Authority to build social housing throughout the state. That bill was defeated in the legislature, but as with upzoning, expect the YIMBYs to keep trying.
YIMBYs are also finally managing to build important political alliances. For years, YIMBYs strove in vain to ally with tenants’ organizations, but like homeowners, these tend to be wary of development that might change the character of their communities. As Owens explains, YIMBYs were able to win support for their most recent round of upzoning bills by winning unions to their side. And the recent victory of Matt Haney in a closely watched San Francisco supervisor election points to the same coalition — Haney is a long-time staunch supporter of unions, and also ran on a YIMBY platform.
YIMBYs may even get more political support from other ideological factions. For a long time, many leftists believed in the dream of 1970s-style stasis, buying into a canon that held that housing development raises rents instead of lowering them. But this canon is slowly crumbling, leading to a schism within the Left, with some moving toward the YIMBY position. More and more leftist writers are recognizing the overriding need to increase housing supply in the U.S. And Georgists — a group who traditionally have focused only on land value taxes — are realizing that a broader, YIMBY-like focus on housing abundance suits their goals as well.
These victories — legislative, coalitional, and ideological — showcase the fundamental strengths of the YIMBY movement. By focusing on a single goal — abundant housing for all — while being eclectic and flexible about the methods used to achieve that goal, YIMBYs naturally open themselves to a huge variety of approaches and alliances. If the NIMBY system is a mighty stone fortress, the YIMBY movement is like the ocean waves, calmly and relentlessly probing for cracks in the walls. Eventually, one will break, and the edifice that has frozen our cities for half a century will come crumbling and crashing down.
You have to give a fair bit of credit to Phil Bokovoy for the defeat of NIMBYism. While living half the year in NZ, he sued to stop new housing being built in Berkeley, then forced UC Berkeley to withdraw offers already made to incoming students on the basis that there wasn't enough housing for them. If a YIMBY propaganda outfit had done a cartoon with a villain like this, it would have been dismissed as an absurd caricature.
Good article. Next frontier is places where housing isn’t as insane as SF/NYC but still unaffordable. Read the facebook group of any upper middle class suburb in the Midwest about proposed developments and you’ll want to drink bleach. Those will be a tougher nut to crack but it absolutely needs to be done.