The YIMBYs are starting to win a few
Slowly but surely, progressives are realizing that they need to build, build, build
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stunned much of the political Left when her PAC, Courage to Change, came out as strongly in favor of YIMBYism. And she’s not the only one, either:
AOC is asking prospective candidates to rewrite the rules on zoning — the weedy and arguably most consequential city policies to housing — so cities can build more of the kind of housing that actually relieves the housing crisis, namely multifamily, mixed-income buildings…
This is a sign that the political winds are shifting on the progressive side of American politics. For a long time, and to this day in some parts of the country, socialists adhered to what I labeled the Left-NIMBY Canon — the belief that building new housing raised prices and caused gentrification. It was easy for them to paint the YIMBYs as neoliberal carpetbaggers, parachuting into local politics with econ papers in hand, ready to displace the locals. And since YIMBY groups hadn’t had time to build relationship to local tenants’ organizations, leaders like AOC were naturally nervous about supporting them.
But just a few years later, YIMBYs suddenly look like they’re gaining the upper hand. First, the state of Oregon and the city of Minneapolis banned single-family zoning. The changes weren’t radical — instead of creating a construction free-for-all, they just allowed duplexes or other forms of “gentle density”. But it’s a big deal, given the sanctity of single-family zoning among many suburbanites (The Fed has set up a cool dashboard where you can monitor the effects of the zoning reform). Then came an even bigger victory, with a pair of laws in California in 2021 — one of which allows duplexes and ADUs everywhere, and the second of which encourages cities to allow significantly more housing density near public transit stops. And in NYC, the city council voted to upzone some ritzy neighborhoods of Lower Manhattan.
It’s important to stress that these are very modest changes. There are not going to be any new Manhattans from these laws, or even any new New Jerseys. Instead we’re looking at suburbs and suburb-like urban areas that can fit a few more people than before. And the process will take time — there’s no mandated new construction, so densification will have to wait for homeowners and landlords to decide to subdivide their properties. If these new laws — or even this kind of new law — is as far as the YIMBY movement ever gets, it’ll be disappointing.
Still, it’s a start, and announcements like AOC’s suggest that there might be more where this came from. Meanwhile, at the federal level, the Biden administration is taking a page from Singapore’s book with a plan to build and sell 100,000 affordable homes using existing funds (something I’ve been calling for for a while). That sends a strong signal to the Democratic party as a whole: Building housing is the Thing To Do right now.
What’s behind this sea change? Rapidly rising rents are a big part of it; the idea that Covid and remote work would empty out cities and bring back affordability is dead, at least for now, and renters are hurting. But that doesn’t fully explain why progressives are going YIMBY, because there’s still that Left-NIMBY Canon out there to deal with. Why are progressives rejecting the idea that building more housing equals gentrification?
One reason might be that YIMBYs are just winning the intellectual argument. A steady drumbeat of new research continues to confirm that building new housing — including the kind of market-rate housing that NIMBYs fear — expands supply and makes housing more affordable. For example, a new paper by Bratu, Hajunen, and Saarimaa, using Finland’s uniquely detailed data on households, finds:
The supply of new market rate units triggers moving chains that quickly reach middle- and low-income neighborhoods and individuals. Thus, new market-rate construction loosens the housing market in middle- and low-income areas even in the short run. Market-rate supply is likely to improve affordability outside the sub-markets where new construction occurs and to benefit low-income people.
That agrees completely with the results of papers like Mast (2021), Pennington (2021), Asquith et al. (2019), Li (2019), etc. Whether you want to explain it as good old supply-and-demand, or appeal to a more nuanced theory of segmented markets, the result is the same: Building new housing, including market-rate housing, reduces rents. And a very cool new paper by Diamond and Moretti compares incomes with cost of living across cities, and finds that less-educated Americans suffer the most from the scarcity of housing in big cities.
But to be honest, I think academic studies have only a minor effect on how these political debates play out. Far more important, I suspect, is the establishment of political coalitions. YIMBYs passed their recent bills by assembling a diverse coalition of allies, including retired people, women’s groups, realtors, and Habitat for Humanity. And in the future, I suspect that the most important coalition will be a partnership between YIMBYs and tenants’ organizations.
If you come at the issue of development from a purely free-market perspective, then you might think that regulations to protect tenants from being evicted or having their rents raised might interfere with the effort to build new housing. But YIMBYs are themselves left-leaning folks, who care deeply about protecting the vulnerable — indeed, that’s why they want to build housing in the first place. And looking at successful examples of dense development from countries like Austria or Japan, they’ve realized that abundant construction can coexist with strong tenant protections:
It was this philosophy that let California’s YIMBYs to campaign vigorously for California’s statewide rent control bill in 2019. And it led them to support not just the pro-housing bills SB 9 and SB 10, but also SB 8, which extends pandemic-era demolition protection for tenants.
These measures are naturally going to turn off so-called “market urbanists” who revile rent control and other regulations (and as for whether these things are actually good, well, that’s a topic for another post). But in the future they will help build bridges to a far more politically important ally — tenants’ groups.
YIMBYs have also found a winning message on social media. Activists like Darrell Owens have driven home the point that single-family zoning has an explicitly racist history, thus drawing an explicit connection between YIMBYism and anti-racism. Meanwhile, Left-NIMBY arguments have become increasingly far-fetched, with figures like Nathan Robinson arguing for historic preservation (despite the rampant abuse of that idea) and whining that the word “NIMBY” is a slur. And the Left-NIMBYs have been especially embarrassed at the fact that their new most vigorous ally appears to be…Tucker Carlson.
Of course, this just shows that YIMBYs will ultimately have to overcome a far more potent foe than Left-NIMBYs…namely, Right-NIMBYs. As Republicans benefit from thermostatic politics, with a likely comeback in the midterm elections later this year, supporters of dense development will find themselves coming up against opponents who have no need to couch their opposition in theories about “luxury” housing and gentrification.
So densifying America is going to be a brutal, long, uphill slog, no matter what. But it’s a task to which smart young activists, thinkers, and organizers have increasingly set their minds. Our history shows that rarely do such campaigns fail without changing the country in some tangible way. YIMBYism addresses a real and pressing economic problem, but it also touches a deep need in the human spirit — the need to live close to other human beings. The pandemic isolated us all from each other, and urbanism is one way of reaching to reclaim the physical contact we’ve lost.