What the 2020 Elections Mean for Housing Politics #YIMBY
Audio selections from YIMBY Action. Interviews, panel discussions, speeches and more, including round-table discussions…
2020 is starting to look like a good year for housing advocacy groups, particularly for the #YIMBY movement and many of its allies. I run the YIMBY Arts project on YouTube/Twitch right now making content related to housing politics and Andrew Yang, if you didn’t already know — this is my personal take and does not represent the views of any YIMBY organization out there, official or not.
In the very near future, Up For Growth and YIMBY Action (go Laura!) is planning on pushing a bi-partisan Yes-In-My-Backyard bill at the national level, which is a definite first for us. To think that just a few years ago we were struggling to get anyone — and I mean literally anyone — to talk about the housing shortage as an issue at all. This bill represents a major step forward in our movement that is likely to be a monumental moment for us when it makes its way through Congress next year.
Another encouraging sign is that if you’ve been paying attention to the Democratic Primaries this year, housing — while not fully at the front, yet — is starting to make its rounds as an issue that politicians are talking about. From Bernie Sanders’ Housing for All, Warren’s Housing Plan for America, to Andrew Yang’s Zoning Policy (which explicitly mentions NIMBY), the issues of housing is starting to make the national stage, slowly but surely.
But politics — particularly housing politics at the local levels — can be extremely complex. Because YIMBYism and NIMBYism is both local and bi-partisan, talking about housing issues can be a minefield full of eggshells and dysfunctional quasi-cooperative/destructive relationships that are nearly impossible to untangle. Politicians have traditionally steered clear of its conversations in fear of angering god-knows-who, which is why up to now, most people have stayed silent.
As YIMBY agendas start to move into the national stage, however, it will require YIMBYs to be clear about who they are and what they stand for in order to get the support we need to pass more ambitious agendas through the pipeline, most of which will require bi-partisan support. Yes, housing politics is complicated, messy, and emotional, but it is the job of the federal government to see things objectively with a dispassionate perspective to ensure that all of the stakeholders are “playing fair”. This will inevitably lead to “simplifications” that some will say are reductive — but it is this simplification that will be needed in order for the movement to progress. This will also be good for YIMBY’s branding and sense of solidarity, because as it stands now, people don’t really *actually* know what we stand for, other than a vague idea that we happen to be pro-housing.
In 90% of the conversations I have with everyday people about YIMBY, I still find myself having to explain what YIMBY and NIMBY actually means, so we have a lot of work to do on the messaging front. I think NIMBY is starting to become a household name now and people instinctively know what that is, but YIMBY, on the other hand, is still ill-defined since it’s still a relatively new movement in the space.
As evidence, when I stick the #YangGang hashtag into any of my videos, I automatically get hundreds, if not thousands of views, while #YIMBY has literally yielded me nothing — aside from a few NIMBY bots (not from Russia, btw) making bad-faith snarky comments here and there. As it stands now, the YIMBY brand does not drive traffic, nor does it drive any conversations in the public without the extraordinary passion of the YIMBY members themselves — but I think a lot of us are tired of doing this *all the time* and wouldn’t mind seeing the conversation drive itself on some level.
YIMBYs are very active online but face a difficult structural problem because the internet is currently designed for global/national communications, rather than local/regional. This has made it extremely difficult for local YIMBY activists to organize effectively, but we have persisted with it nonetheless, since the problem has gotten so bad that we were basically left with no choice. The hope is that by making YIMBY national, we can make it a little easier for regional groups to operate by giving them direction and structure from the federal level and above.
The “YIMBY” Brand
The YIMBY movement is, by most experts’ view, a moderate to moderate-left group, with a heavy emphasis on (both academic and non-academic) policy-making surrounding issues of housing and zoning policy. Our movement has been a hodgepodge of a lot of different interest groups (which has been a lot of fun, I’ll admit) but as the “YIMBY” brand starts to get more defined and specific, not all groups will be comfortable with the direction that things will go. I do see a few avenues where cooperative relationships are still possible, but in my opinion I do think that we need to be more clear about where our strengths and weaknesses lie so that we don’t end up stepping on each other’s toes.
There was a brief period when the YIMBY movement was united under the umbrella idea of “we need more housing” and stayed fairly consistently on topic, but over time the group started to factionalize into their own “camps” as its members started getting more interested in specific aspects of housing politics and policy. We had YIMBY Socialists, YIMBY Mobility/Transit Groups, YIMBY Environmentalists, YIMBY Neoliberals, YIMBY Georgists, and basically every type of identity/interest group you can imagine out there.
For the most part, most of these groups got along and remained amicable. Over time, however, disagreements started to emerge and the momentum of the movement faltered when YIMBY sub-groups ended up splintering off into doing their “own thing”, often abandoning the YIMBY label in favor of something more generically “pro-housing”. Though unfortunate, this is a natural result of local politics done without direction from an higher level organization.
I’ll be the first to admit that the movement in its early days have made every mistake in the book, which has lead to some embarrassing moments that we’re probably going to have to own up to at some point. But we have evolved since then, and have gotten better at what we do as we attempted to learn from the mistakes we made in good faith. Did any of us really want to get involved in politics? Not really. All we wanted was a place to live, to not live in fear of the landlord raising our rents month to month, year by year.
Now that I have the opportunity to talk about these issues on a national scale, I will be pushing very hard for housing issues to be talked about in the day to day conversations of American people, and what the federal government can do to alleviate the housing crisis that many US cities face today.
I worked briefly at the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development in San Francisco a few years ago (under the direction of the now-late Mayor Ed Lee) as a Data Specialist, which introduced me to the world of housing politics and all of its complications and problems that lurk within. I’ve been an enthusiastic YIMBY supporter and volunteer ever since, since I genuinely believed that this was *the* group that was going to move the needle the most, as far as housing policy goes. Agree or disagree, the passion and enthusiasm of YIMBY members were undeniable and I had assumed that it would have gone somewhere, eventually. I don’t think I was wrong, even now.
I was, up until this week, the Online Director and member of the steering committee of the YIMBY group in Los Angeles, Abundant Housing LA. I decided to take a hiatus from these duties in order to focus on spreading the YIMBY message to the #YangGang and anyone else who might be interested in learning more about housing and housing issues both online and off.
I come from a background of government workers — my dad was an engineer for the US Navy for a very long time, and has worked at all levels of government (federal, state, city), while my mom worked as a teacher and now-administrator for the Department of Education in Hawaii. I’m not an “expert” of government by any means, but I do know a little bit about its inner-workings and the lingo behind how things get talked about behind the scenes. And I do feel like there are a few things that need to be talked about in the open, particularly for the YIMBY members out there who are genuinely interested in seeing things improve.
Brief History of YIMBY
It depends on who you talk to, but the consensus among the housing crowd is that the YIMBY movement originally started in San Francisco, with figures like Laura Foote, Sonja Trauss, and Kim Mai-Cutler raising the alarm bells in regards to the housing shortage crisis that was happening at the time. It started with a few people going to planning commission meetings in order to make public comments here and there, which, over time, grew into a regular activity for the self-described “housing obsessed”. Eventually it turned into a “thing”, then they rallied around the avocado (🥑)as a symbol of the millennial generation being screwed over, now fighting back. Eventually they settled on the name YIMBY — “Yes In My Back Yard” — as a reaction to all of the “no”s they’ve gotten from the NIMBYs at ever meeting that they’ve attended. (Randy Shaw, a boomer YIMBY who has been a long-time affordable housing advocate in the SF Tenderloin neighborhood, has more details about the movement if interested.)
It would seem to make sense that the movement was birthed in the city where the crisis is the most severe — in recent years, San Francisco has gained the reputation as being one of the most expensive, inhospitable cities in the United States today. (And due to political dysfunction, things are not getting better, unfortunately.)
The YIMBY movement is now a worldwide phenomenon, and can be found in countries as far as the United Kingdom and Sweden, since the problems surrounding NIMBYism seems to have struck a chord with activists all across the world. NIMBYism seems to be a problem particular to the West, since the zoning policies in Asia tend to be more rational since they’re more comfortable with the idea of urban density as a whole. Most Asian countries also seem to be more comfortable allowing the federal government to make decisions about zoning policies, since in theory they’re the best equipped to handle the regionalized issues of housing density, population levels, and homelessness prevention initiatives that local governments often have trouble dealing with on their own.
Economically, housing production needs to become cheaper and faster in order to bring down construction costs so that the savings can be passed onto renters and homeowners as a whole. Politically, we need to stop the political partisanship surrounding housing issues and find bi-partisan solutions to address the real issues at hand. Culturally, the American Dream of the “single family home with a big yard” mindset needs to be updated to make it more compatible with the realities that exist today. None of this will be easy, but we have to break out of our denial and start moving in the right direction if we really want things to improve.
Housing Politics Tribal Map
As of 2019, this is the most honest take I have on the housing politics landscape right now. Most of my experience lies in the San Francisco/Los Angeles so results may vary, depending on what you live. (NIMBYism in Hawaii has a very different flavor, for example.)
The various descriptions of each group can be found in the slides link above, but the most complex relationship in the field right now is the relationship between YIMBYs and socialists since it doesn’t tend to map very neatly into org charts like these. YIMBY has always had a tenuous relationship with socialist groups in particular since we technically both agree that more housing is needed (and there is a large overlap in age demographics), but differ in opinion in regards to the “hows”. Socialists generally are opposed to market rate housing as a whole, citing that these “luxury” units (they are actually middle-class housing but feels “luxury” because of rising rents) are out of reach for most people, preferring government-based solutions instead — rent control, non-profit low-income housing, public housing, and so on.
As far as NIMBYs are concerned, it doesn’t matter — housing is housing, and they will say “no” to basically everything, regardless if it’s public, non-profit, or private. The initial idea with the YIMBY movement was to get the two groups to collaborate, at least for a little while, in order to work on the things we actually agree with. (Such as the Article 34 repeal coming down the pipe to bolster public housing projects in California). But the alliance hasn’t been easy to maintain, to say the least.
Socialist groups do have one strength, however: they are very media-savvy, as people like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Orcasio-Cortez has proven to the world, over and over. The strength of YIMBYs on the other hand, is their policy knowledge — they love the gritty details about housing and housing policy that nobody likes to talk about and they are willing to dive in very deep to make sure that they get all of the nuts and bolts of these ideas lined up correctly. I do believe that there is a point of cooperation between the two groups in there somewhere, but we do need to be more honest about where our strengths and weaknesses really lie, instead of everyone trying to be everything all at once. Only then, in my opinion, will the YIMBY movement start to mature in ways that are actually productive.
Artists like Alfred Twu has somehow managed to bridge the Socialist-YIMBY gap in his own works (he has graciously provided most of the visuals for the YIMBY Arts project) and somehow goes back and forth between these groups while maintaining cordial relationships with everyone he interacts with. His openness and spirit of cooperation should be a model and inspiration for the rest of us all, in my opinion.
2020 is the Year for Housing
The YIMBY movement has struggled with a lot of things over the years, but we are still here, stronger than ever. Membership in most YIMBY groups have constantly been rising which is a good thing for us, but it’s not something we should necessarily be celebrating — it means that the problem in the housing space is getting progressively worse, not better. But there has been a change in perspective within the YIMBY movement now — after many years of struggle, many of us now believe that we are now actually winning. Housing has now become an issue that everyone is talking about — and if people are talking about it, then at least now there’s a chance that the problems surrounding it may actually get fixed.
Personally, I look forward to the day where the YIMBY movement is no longer needed, and we can hang up the banner and congratulate ourselves on a job well done. But we’re not quite there yet — there’s a lot of work yet to be done, and we should be preparing ourselves for the long journey ahead.