By Elijah Gullett
In response to the post-2008 housing crisis, a pro-building, pro-development movement, often referred to as “Yes-In-My-Backyard” (YIMBYs), has grown significantly over the last few years. Self-titled YIMBY organizations (some more formal than others) have popped up across US cities to advocate for the abolition of “exclusionary” (single family) zoning, as well as other state and local regulations that slow the development process.[i] The regulations they oppose vary, but typically include parking minimum requirements, building height restrictions, community input requirements, and historical preservation review boards. YIMBYs argue that exclusionary zoning increases the price of housing and furthers class and racial segregation.
On the other hand, there are more “traditional” housing justice activists who focus their energies on affordable housing programs, anti-displacement, anti-gentrification, and tenant organizing.[ii] Housing justice advocates and YIMBYs have often found themselves at odds, with YIMBYs supporting the construction of “luxury” developments as a way to increase overall housing supply. Housing justice advocates often find themselves at the other end, protesting the construction of luxury housing, arguing that these developments propel gentrification forward and do not contribute at all to housing affordability.
In this piece, I argue that housing justice advocates and YIMBY activists need one another, and that each other’s positions are strengthened by the inclusion of the other. Previous attempts to create affordable housing and prevent displacement have often floundered, so it only makes sense that a new approach would be presented. Synthesizing these two approaches can help create a pragmatic and effective movement for affordable housing.
Where do they differ?
Housing justice activists often deride YIMBYs for their “neoliberal” approach to affordable housing, suggesting that YIMBYs believe increasing the supply of market-rate housing will be sufficient to solve the affordable housing crisis.[iii] YIMBYs criticize traditional housing activists for halting housing development and being “NIMBYs” (Not-In-My-Backyard) activists. Eric Adams, the New York City Democratic mayoral candidate, recently derided anti-gentrification activists for protesting new housing developments, arguing that this seeming hypocrisy is part of the problem of affordable housing in NYC.[iv]
Where do they converge?
The goals of housing affordability, sustainable urban development, safe streets, and transit diversity cannot be achieved without broad coalitions; despite their different ideologies, both sides fundamentally need each other for the subsequent reasons.
Firstly, and most importantly, affluent NIMBY homeowners who oppose all new housing construction (affordable or market-rate/“luxury”) are central to stalling new housing. Affluent, older individuals who have the finances and stability to attend town hall meetings regularly have far more sway over local decision-making. This pattern isn’t just anecdotal: research[v] indicates that the individuals who are more likely to attend local political meetings are not representative of their own communities. They are typically white, wealthier people who are disproportionately homeowners.
This reality poses a stark problem for affordable housing advocates, regardless of their more specific positions. Renters, who have the most to gain from increased housing supply and affordable housing production, are highly underrepresented in local democratic proceedings.[vi] They are less likely to live in the same place for long periods of time, they do not pay property taxes directly, and they are excluded from homeowners’ associations that give local community members so much leverage in political decision-making.
The underrepresentation of renters -the people most directly impacted by affordable housing policies – makes it all the more necessary for YIMBYs and housing justice advocates to work in tandem. On their own both sides are doomed to fail in the face of this entrenched power dynamic, but together they can create a sustainable movement for housing affordability. Furthermore, building this local political power provides the capacity for future tenant organizing to prevent evictions and displacement, and give tenants more leverage over landlords.
Also, the two sides’ policies often depend on each other. For example, local housing justice advocates across the country fight in favor of new affordable housing construction, but these projects are often shut down by local NIMBYs. Affordable housing faces other problems too: local governments may try to shut down housing along racist and classist lines through targeted rezoning,[vii] and the often arduous process of affordable housing permitting and construction disincentivizes building new affordable units.[viii] In these cases, the YIMBY policy toolkit is vital. Reducing permitting and land-use regulations and easing the process of residential development can make all the difference.
That being said, YIMBY advocates should engage more deeply with housing justice advocates’ criticisms. While data is beginning to show that new housing construction lowers nearby housing prices,[ix] this relationship is not fully solidified. A case study from Chicago found the opposite to be true, suggesting local context matters. Furthermore, the YIMBY argument about housing market “filtering” – where housing units that begin as market-rate become increasingly affordable as they age – does not appear to always hold.[x] Some housing markets, such as Los Angeles and Washington, DC, appear to filter “upwards,” and older units become more expensive. In these locations, market-based approaches are likely insufficient and should be supplemented with additional interventions.
America’s housing problems are huge and varied, ranging from a looming eviction crisis to broad housing unaffordability for renters, and will require a broad coalition of advocates to confront them.[xi] Under these circumstances, infighting amongst factions who both believe that more housing, whether affordable or market-rate, is necessary to address these issues is unwise. Instead, the two movements should work together to protect low-income renters and build towards a future with abundant housing for all.[xii]
[iii] Imbroscio, David. (January 2021). “Say It Ain’t So, Joe: Biden’s Ill-Advised Plan to Eliminate Exclusionary Zoning.” Shelter Force.
[iv] Klein, Ezra & Adams, Eric. (October 2021). “‘We’ve Become too Complicated’: Where Eric Adams Thinks Democrats Went Wrong.” The New York Times.
[v] Einstein, Katherine L., Glick, David M., & Palmer, Maxwell. (2019). “Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America’s Housing Crisis.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108769495
[vii] Mississippi Center for Justice. (February 2016). “Mississippi Center for Justice and Venable LLP Sue City of Ridgeland, MS for Race-Based Fair Housing Violations.”
[viii] Reid, Carolina. (March 2020). “The Costs of Affordable Housing Production: Insights from California’s 9% Low-Income Housing Tax Credit Program.” Terner Center for Housing Innovation.
[x] PD&R Edge. (June 2020). “Impacts of Filtering and Rent Control on Housing Supply.”
[xi] Quigley, Fran. (September 2021). “America’s Housing Crisis Is About to Get Much, Much Worse.” Jacobin Magazine.
[xii] Dumont, Andrew. (September 2019). “Housing Affordability in the U.S.: Trends by Geography, Tenure, and Household Income.” The Federal Reserve.
Elijah Gullett is a fourth-year undergraduate student majoring in Public Policy with minors in Urban Studies and Environmental Justice. His academic interests include fair and affordable housing, sustainable development, and LGBTQ+ urban life.
Edited by James Hamilton
Featured image: YIMBY & tenant activists rally for and against SB827 in California. Courtesy of Joseph Smooke