YIMBYs Need to Start Shilling for Developers and Tech

Flyer from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, who has basically been using the money they gamed out of the non-profit sector to fund anti-housing propaganda and initiatives all over the country. Everything listed here has been debunked by housing and policy experts, but unfortunately it still had an effect on public opinion.

If you’ve been around the YIMBY movement for any given time, you’ve probably already heard the accusations thrown at the movement already: “Developer Shills”, “Tech Shills”, “Capitalist Zealots”, etc. It doesn’t seem to matter whether we’re advocating for low-income housing or homeless shelters at our events — in NIMBY’s minds, we’re “in the pockets” of Big Housing and Big Tech, no matter what we do or say.

It’s interesting that the word “developer” intersects between the two industries because what they have in common is that they both bring into the world one thing — change. NIMBYs will say that they’re “not against housing” philosophically but when the time comes to actually do it they will immediately change their tone and start blocking it again. YIMBYs often assume the worst when NIMBYs do these kind of maneuvers but I don’t think this is necessarily done out of malice — the #1 motivator for NIMBYism is fear, if anything. And the fear is that of “development” itself — the idea that things will be different in the future, rather than the same.

Because NIMBYs more often than not live in immobile, socially and economically segregated neighborhoods (the exclusive single-family zoning laws don’t help here), they usually have a tenuous grasp of reality, fueled by a lot of paranoia about external forces coming in and “taking away” what they have. Some YIMBYs might think that housing is the only thing that NIMBYs fear, but the paranoia is all across the board — suburbia is the birthplace of the anti-vaxxer movement and all kinds of other bizarre conspiracy theories, after all. After defunding educational institutions from their own neighborhoods for the last few decades, some of its ill-effects are starting to show even in neighborhoods that have managed to amass a lot of personal wealth.

But money talks, BS walks. NIMBY groups have done a very good job convincing the public that the housing crisis was caused by “greedy developers and landlords” rather than political incompetencies and poor urban planning, which are the real culprits to the problems we face today. Developers will basically do what they do — which is to build things according to what they’re allowed to do — but they’ve become the punching bag for politicians out there looking to deflect their shortcomings and poor policy ideas on easy political targets.

The deflection is the most intense in Los Angeles, where the city council — especially my representative, José Huizar — is being investigated by the FBI for, ironically, “developer kickbacks”. The bizarre behavior exhibited by LA representatives both at the local and state levels regarding SB50 has a lot to do with these investigations because many politicians in the area are paranoid that they might become the next target for the FBI. In a city like LA where you have to go through so many bureaucratic hoops to build anything at all it’s not unreasonable to assume that there might have been a few “exchanges” that helped a few of them get bumped up to the top of the list. (Even accidentally, since the laws are extremely complex in these areas.)

The results of the investigation will take a while before it reaches its conclusion but it’s in the representative’s own interest to be seen in public opposing measures like SB50 because NIMBY groups have managed to make the “developer shill” narrative stick and they’re doing everything they can to be seen as being opposed to the boogeyman that everyone hates. Remember that getting elected to a seat is not an easy task so when they say nonsensical stuff about housing bills it’s not because of stupidity — it’s fear, yet again.

What also doesn’t help is the job of our current president — Donald Trump — who happens to work in real-estate. Personally I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he rose to power as the housing crisis worsened all over the country; he is the perfect exemplification of everything that has gone wrong with our country in recent years, after all. NIMBY groups in California (who lean overwhelmingly Democratic) project their shortcomings onto Trump the same way he does to others — the fear of people finding out that maybe, just maybe, he doesn’t really deserve to be where he is right now, since he “won” by being born into wealth and gaming the system rather than by ingenuity or hard work. When the mayor of Cupertino joked about “building a wall” around their city earlier this year, this basically solidified the fact that NIMBY-ism and Trump-ism are two-sides of the same coin, politically speaking.

Most people can’t tell the difference between real-estate (finance) and development (construction, design), much in the same way that they can’t tell the difference between the financial and development wings of tech companies out there. Most of the corruption issues in both industries happen in finance, which has a tendency to attract a lot of unsavory people only interested in the $$$. When things go wrong, they look at the people doing the real work — the developers —and point their fingers at them as being the “cause” of the problem rather than taking responsibility for their actions. This is a classic scapegoating tactic, but unfortunately it seems to have worked.

I think that it’s important for the YIMBY movement to talk about the dynamics of these types of issues because I have noticed that some of the members in the movement may have internalized some of the negative rhetoric coming from the other side. Most YIMBYs know that developers building things is not inherently a sin, and neither is working for the tech industry in it of itself. (Working for tech prevented me from going into massive debt so I’m not going to apologize for that, FYI.) But even internally, talking about it feels weird because some of that stuff *has* gotten under our skin to some degree.

Moreover, and probably more importantly — it has been affecting our ability to fundraise and build coalitions with groups that would allow us to take the YIMBY movement to the next level. In order to prevent disasters like SB50 from happening again, we need to ensure that we get all the help we can get — including ones previously unconsidered.

As the #metoo movement has shown, toxic work environments aren’t exclusive to the tech industry — they are basically everywhere. Again, the more traditional industries have basically been projecting their problems onto other groups this whole time instead of dealing with their own, leading to a decline in civility everywhere. This is not to excuse the tech industry’s wrong-doings in any way, but it’s important to keep things in perspective if we want to do more than just pay another round of lip service to the issues at hand.

But the blanket demonization of entire industries of people (developers, tech workers) which is happening right now — especially when they’re working on essential goods that we use every day — isn’t helpful to anyone. As with any other industry, there are good companies and bad companies out there, good and bad investors/VCs, good and bad developers, good and bad real estate agents, good and bad landlords. The public doesn’t have the time nor expertise to figure out which is which, so it’s largely up to us to let them know who can be trusted.

Remember that despite all the negative rhetoric out there, the public still has a favorable impression of the tech industry over all — outside of the YIMBY/NIMBY battles we engage in, most people are just looking for someone to say something that makes sense to them. There’s not as much research on this for real-estate developers but I suspect that it probably has a similar shape.

I only say this because I’ve seen multiple instances where YIMBY leaders (all over the US) reject help or talks with developers/techies because they don’t want to be seen together with them in the same room, largely for political reasons. But this is another example of allowing the NIMBY narrative to control the conversation yet again — YIMBYs did a very good job turning the shame of “Avocado Toast” into a positive symbol and rallying cry, and I feel like this is needed again for the whole “Developer Shill” thing going on right now. If we own the label, there’s nothing they can do when they throw it out as a distraction — developers will build according to the law and we should be talking about the law, not about them.

NIMBYs are going to accuse us of being shills whether or not it’s true anyway (already happened many times before, I have to remind people all the time that I’m still a volunteer), so we might as well get something out of it. And again, the fact is that the public at large doesn’t really have a strong opinion either way so there really is no political downside to it if we have the bigger picture in mind. We just have to flush out some of the negative rhetoric that we might have internalized from battling NIMBY groups over the years.

The 2017 demographics survey shows that women comprise almost 2/3rds of real estate workers overall. (Source: National Association of Realtors)

Because our current president is so loud and visible to everyone out there right now, we have strongly correlated the real-estate industry with Trump’s image as the rich, white male oppressor as its representative. But you might be surprised to learn that the majority of people in real-estate are actually women — and that in recent years, especially in areas like Los Angeles, have seen a huge uptick in young Hispanic and Latino membership as well.

Yes, there are agents/developers out there that fit the stereotype exactly (you could make a case that those are the ones that make it to the top of the crony-capitalist system) but we shouldn’t let that image prevent us from seeing the housing industry for what it really is and accept their help where we can. Some of these developers do an insane amount of community outreach only to be shot down by NIMBY groups at the very end and would very much appreciate our support at the planning meetings where the decisions are made. And we would be 10 times more effective we did it in a more coordinated way, which includes receiving financial support. A few people doing YIMBY work full-time, even on a modest salary, could be the difference between eternal struggle and perpetual victory.

I’m worried that the YIMBY movement has allowed itself to get caught-up in the derangements of the NIMBY mindset or are being too idealistic about their mission to see the practical benefits of aligning ourselves with the development community, both in housing and in tech. NIMBYs have no appreciation for the people who create the things they love, and I’m afraid that we may have inherited some of that attitude from them unknowingly. We are better than this — better than them — and I think that it’s time to change the way we view the people who’re doing the real work in the space right now.

The other reason why these alliances will work is that both developers and tech workers are sick of being the scapegoat for problems that they haven’t caused — which YIMBYs have also had to deal with since the very beginning. The shared experience of such could be very powerful, but we do need to be more honest with ourselves with what we really stand for. Why aren’t we working closer to the people who are actually building the things that we always say we want? It’s kind of a bizarre cognitive dissonance and I do think that the public sees that in us, too.

If nothing else, YIMBYs are earnest and honest (too honest if anything, lol) so I don’t think they’ll have any trouble vetting the good apples from the bad. We just need to do it, to help both the movement and public overall. If we can become the gatekeepers for good developers everywhere, the public will come to trust us beyond our “correctness” on housing policy.

The other part of making this work is activating our current members who are already working in those fields right now. If you look around at our current member base, a lot of them are already halfway there to becoming fundraisers for the cause — but only if they’re allowed to do so. For the movement to reach its next stages, I think that this is where things need to go — if we really want to win, we can’t always be the underdog, after all.

[Ryan is the Online Director at Abundant Housing LA. Views here are mine, not the organization’s. He’s also the founder of the YIMBY Arts Project.]