It was exciting to be present at the first of what I hope will be many YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) gatherings in Boulder earlier this month. More than 100 people flew in to the college town from both coasts (and some places in between) to talk about how to build better cities and combat naysayers who want to turn back the clock on growth.
This movement, or group of thinkers, writers, builders, and planners, is inchoate, largely coastal, and overwhelmingly white and male, which could condemn it to be another clique of tech bros who think all political problems can be solved by technocratic advances and “systems thinking.” But it’s also politically diverse (the attendees included long-haired libertarians, free-marketeers who supported deregulation, and social justice advocates who believed in rent control) and filled not just with technophiles but street-level activists, single-family homeowners, people from small towns where NIMBYism is quite literal, and at least one current candidate for local office.
So what is YIMBYism? In brief, it’s the idea that a good housing policy is one that supports growth and welcomes newcomers, promoting affordability through a combination of reasonable regulation (opinions on the definition of “reasonable” differ) and new development to address the housing shortages in cities across the US. YIMBYs seek to increase participation by groups that are underrepresented in debates about housing (young people, renters) to combat the disproportionate power that single-family homeowners and their allied activist groups (think: the Wallingford Community Council and the Seattle Displacement Coalition) enjoy.
The ideological differences among the YIMBYs I met in Boulder were more significant. Members of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SFBARF), for example, considered rent control sacrosanct, which wouldn’t fly with the guys from Brooklyn-based Market Urbanism, whose tagline is “Urbanism for capitalists.” Nor did an excellent presentation on winning people over to your point of view, by the Sightline Institute’s Anna Fahey, win over some in the room, who argued that trying to talk to opponents with totally divergent worldviews was a waste of time.
But after watching and participating in workshops and presentations from YIMBYs from Austin to Iowa City, I ended the weekend feeling like this was the start of something. Maybe not a political revolution or a takeover of the traditional neighborhood movement, but far more than a group hug inside a bubble of consensus.
One thing that struck me right away was how in awe urbanists from other cities were of Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda (HALA), the plan crafted by a group of urbanists, developers, environmentalists, social-justice advocates, and neighbors to help keep Seattle affordable while preserving the city’s quality of life for the next 20 years. In particular, the Grand Bargain—an agreement in which developers agreed to set aside between 2 and 8 percent of new units for people making 60 percent or less of the area median income, or pay into an affordable-housing fund, in exchange for greater density—seemed to blow people away as an inspiring example of a city working with developers to capture affordability while giving them something of value.
Of course, the reality is that the Grand Bargain remains tentative, threatened by neighborhood opposition to even modest (typically one-story) height increases. Still, it was fascinating to see Seattle held up as a model of any urbanist idea; when you live here, it’s easy to feel that the de-suburbanization of Seattle will never happen because single-family homeowners have all the power. From the outside, at least, things look more promising than they can in the trenches.
“The housing crisis is rarely referred to as a shortage.” This was a concept Sightline’s Fahey introduced on Day 1, and it’s one I returned to again and again over the weekend. It’s absolutely true: When people talk about the “housing crisis,” what they often mean is rising rents, but rising rents happen when there isn’t enough housing, and the solution to the problem is: Build more housing. When you frame Seattle’s increasingly unaffordable rents as a shortage, not the result of nefarious actions by greedy developers, you arrive at different policy solutions: Construction, not height caps. Mandatory affordable housing, not rent control.
The YIMBY movement has its blind spots. The folks who showed up, although surprisingly diverse in ages, skewed strongly male and white, like many discussions that involve stereotypically “male” topics like housing, planning, and development. I proposed, and Seattle YIMBY activist Laura Bernstein co-moderated, a discussion called “Men, Shut Up!” after watching conversation after conversation dominated by dudes who seemed in love with the sound of their own booming voices. Only problem was, our panel got combined with another discussion called “#YIMBYSoWhite”—a marginalization of exactly the sort that both conversations were hoping to address.
There were other oversights beyond the gender and complexion of the folks at the conference—oversights that, I confess, didn’t occur to me until others pointed them out. Where was the geographic diversity? While the middle of the country was nominally represented by folks from Cleveland, Iowa City, Denver, and Austin, the gathering was predictably dominated by urban dwellers from the coasts, especially California. Also, the very location—a college town where average housing prices are higher than Seattle’s, with an 89 percent-white population—served as kind of a coastal stand-in, totally unrepresentative of the many diverse cities across the US that are facing the same questions about housing costs, density, and gentrification as coastal cities like San Francisco and Portland but with key differences that arise from their locations and demographics.
YIMBYs are acutely aware that power is determined by who gets a seat at the table, but when they’re the ones making that decision, they’re as vulnerable to human nature—inviting the people you’re comfortable with, going to a place that looks like the place you’re from—as anyone. This isn’t meant as a criticism of the specific conference organizers; I’m not claiming I’m above familiarity bias myself. What matters is that when someone points biases like this out to you, you’re willing to listen and change, and my hope (and expectation) is that the next YIMBY conference will be someplace like Atlanta or Miami.
Finally, it’s important to remember that people all arrive at their perspective for reasons, and that people can change their minds. The primary motivation for people who want the police to arrest people for being homeless, or for the city to halt all construction until all of North Seattle has sidewalks, isn’t hatred, it’s fear. People don’t want their cars broken into, so they think the solution is throwing addicts in jail or giving them one-way tickets out of town. People think the people moving here are technodrones with no interest in becoming part of the community or putting down roots, so they fight increases in density that might allow “those people” into “their” neighborhood. The trick is to find community and neighborhood leaders who are willing to listen to evidence and give it to them, along with reassurances. (It helps to have messengers who fit the profile of the people you’re hoping to convince, which is why Ballard homeowner and single mom Sara Maxana—@yimbymom on Twitter ,and pictured below—is such a great emissary for the cause).
In an example I used in another session on finding consensus, people don’t like heroin addicts shooting up in their local parks, so they think the cops should arrest them for possession. The problem is, there aren’t enough jails or enough financial resources in the entire city budget to keep every minor offender in jail indefinitely, and treatment beds are far more expensive than those who say “just force them into treatment” imagine. If we can agree that some number of people will always use drugs, maybe we can also agree that people can’t get well if they’re dead. And if we can agree on that, maybe we can start to talk about safe consumption spaces where people can use under medical supervision, with access to treatment and other services, instead of on the sidewalk or in the bushes at a public park. And once a few people change their minds on that, a community dialogue can happen. Some people will always oppose safe injection sites or three-story buildings or the removal of even a single tree, but the vast majority are willing to listen, if we are willing to listen back.
I’m looking forward to next year. In the meantime, it’s time for YIMBYs to get to work.