At one level, the Yes, In My Backyard (YIMBY) movement has made extraordinary progress. Its core mantra—ending exclusionary zoning and legalizing apartments citywide—has been promoted by President Biden, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), major editorial boards, and prominent columnists. The leading national political figure opposed to YIMBY zoning strategies is Donald Trump.
But the nation’s housing shortage is worse than ever. In the over dozen cities whose housing policies I profile in Generation Priced Out, only Berkeley is undergoing a housing production boom. Berkeley’s boom was triggered by the type of zoning changes that YIMBYs call for throughout the nation.
Growing support for YIMBY ideas remains blocked by politics.
No state or progressive city has legalized 6-8 story apartment buildings on transit corridors citywide. Instead, new laws allowing new duplexes, fourplexes, sixplexes, and ADU’s are deemed big victories. Such laws are big in the context of ending fifty plus years of exclusionary zoning. But they are way too small in meaningfully increasing affordability and addressing climate change.
Measures that would materially make a difference—like California State Senator Scott Weiner’s SB 50—are defeated. YIMBYs small wins have not opened the door to building the housing cities need.
YIMBYs Big Weakness
The problem is clear: YIMBYs lack the political clout of their adversaries.
Too many YIMBY spokespersons are academics and policy wonks not rooted in the communities whose voters elect politicians. Some YIMBYs do not care about how a low-income neighborhood feels about a proposed project; their mantra says “Build, Build, Build” and anyone who questions that is wrong.
The successful YIMBY political coalitions in Berkeley, Cambridge and Culver City have strong tenant support. This has not been the case in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York City, though the leading YIMBY groups in these cities have become strongly pro-tenant and prioritized housing for the unhoused.
Winning big victories locally or statewide requires YIMBYs including tenant activists as part of their base. I know it will not be easy. Bad developers have displaced so many tenants that it’s easy to understand why an anti-developer mindset among tenants takes hold. But YIMBYs working in neighborhoods and communities can earn the trust of tenants and others not currently allies. This doesn’t happen from social media posts; it requires human interaction and trust built from working on common issues of concern.
A Housing and Climate Change Emergency
Given the worsening housing shortage and climate change, the current pace of legalizing apartments is grossly inadequate. We don’t have the luxury of waiting a decade to see how new fourplex laws work out; we need to start now allowing large apartment buildings on transit corridors in all cities.
I see a split among YIMBYs. Some are hard-line, “production at all costs” advocates. They require allies to support every proposed project regardless of its community impacts or feasibility. The more politically effective YIMBYs seek to broaden the YIMBY base by aligning with tenant, homeless and affordable housing advocates.
The former approach offers a road to political nowhere. It makes those taking hard-line positions feel good but does not advance a YIMBY political agenda.
YIMBYs must strengthen their alliances with tenant and affordable housing activists. There’s no time to wait. This alliance does not guarantee the land use changes needed, but in the progressive cities I often write about it would make a huge difference.
Some tenant activists have deep hostility to YIMBYs. But there are a lot more who see the benefit of a larger pro-housing, pro-tenant coalition. YIMBYs should not worry about convincing the former group and build relations with the latter.
Local politicians vote against land use reform out of political self-interest. They fear voting to legalize apartments will alienate their homeowner base. Opposition from tenant activists to zoning reforms adds to the political risks,
Berkeley, Boulder, Cambridge, and Culver City show how YIMBYs can form winning political coalitions locally (Austin and Portland have had mixed success). Assembly races in San Francisco (Matt Haney) and Culver City (Isaac Bryan) show how YIMBYs can help elect pro-housing, pro-tenant state legislators.
The upcoming November elections offer a critical test. If YIMBYs can mobilize to elect pro-housing candidates at all levels, it can reshuffle the political dynamic that blocks real land use reform. In contrast, defeats will solidify the unsustainable land use status quo.
YIMBY activists should already know the races to work on. If you do know which candidates to support, contact your local YIMBY group.
November offers the best chance to create a new political reality for building a lot more housing. Let’s get it done!