The folks behind the “Yes In My Back Yard” movement—henceforth referred to as “YIMBYs”—have recently enjoyed rare success against their enemies who oppose development, the NIMBYS (“Not In My Back Yard”).
For the uninitiated, YIMBYs favor reducing regulations on building new housing in order to increase supply and thus lower costs for renters and buyers. They argue that “affordable housing” is impossible in cities that curtail the amount of housing needed for any of it to be “affordable.”
The Biden administration has called for a dramatic expansion of the nation’s housing stock. California, home to notoriously expensive housing, recently enacted major changes to facilitate new building. In New York, the City Council voted to allow significantly more housing in two impossibly expensive neighborhoods which have been long-protected from development by onerous preservationist rules.
The YIMBYs are starting to win the war of ideas, and it appears the tide is turning towards more building and less regulation. Prominent YIMBY economist Noah Smith put it simply in his newsletter: “The YIMBYs Are Starting to Win a Few.”
To which I say, two cheers! Maybe two and a half.
The YIMBY movement is clearly a positive force, and they’re absolutely correct on the most essential points: that we need cheaper housing; to get cheaper housing we need more housing; and to get more housing we need broad reform to America’s zoning laws, a thicket of arbitrary rules that serve to protect the advantage of the wealthy. Any left-leaning person should acknowledge the absolute necessity of this project.
But there’s a complication: The social culture of online YIMBYism is antagonistic to the movement’s goals, in a way that’s become a common feature of politics in the internet era. A 2017 piece in The Guardian reflected this dynamic, emphasizing YIMBYs’ bouts of anger and refusal to compromise. I have personally found that, too often, the loudest YIMBY voices online are flippant, disrespectful, and far too quick to accuse their NIMBY opponents of bad faith, or of being shills for the wealthy. Several people I know who identify with the YIMBY label privately concede it’s a problem.
This is frustrating on multiple levels. First, these issues are in fact more complex and nuanced than that attitude allows. But also, the YIMBY position is badly needed for sensible housing policy, and this tendency to revert to mockery is unhelpful.
Darrell Owens, a prominent YIMBY voice who writes a newsletter about housing and related issues, likens the dynamic to the “Bernie Bros” phenomenon, the perception during the 2016 campaign that online Bernie Sanders supporters were too loud, angry, and insulting.
In an email, Owens—who has been both a supporter of Bernie Sanders and YIMBYism—told me he’s learned to be less punchy in the discourse. But, he added, “the strong combativeness which gave YIMBYism its reputation stems from the shock at being a person who you thought could say ‘Why don’t we just build housing?’ during public comment, only to be deluged by jeers, boos and relentless slander. So YIMBYs built up a defense against that, by just being rude and combative in return.”
It’s a trenchant comparison, and for me a somewhat painful one—I was called a Bernie Bro myself back in the old days of the mid-2010s.
At the time, I felt the complaint was simply a way to defend the establishment candidate. I still feel that way, ultimately, but have also come to think that my and my fellow travelers’ histrionics during that period were ultimately unhelpful—having more to do with in-group identity than politics.
It’s a profoundly 21st century problem. There’s no central authority that can corral the least respectful members of a given movement, but there’s also a genuine political need for message discipline and strategic action. Beyond the specifics of such behavior, there are questions about how YIMBYs can moderate themselves to make their message more palatable.
Take Matt Yglesias, one of the most prominent YIMBY voices online who has previously expressed resistance to the concept of local control—that is, individual communities having the final say on what gets built in their neighborhoods.
Via email, Yglesias said: “I think local control biases decisions against new construction and tends to be inherently exclusionary. In Canada and Japan, provincial governments play a much larger role in land use policy, and I think that’s a better system.”
On principle? I’m somewhat onboard; community members will always have a legitimate interest in what happens in their neighborhoods. But I also agree that local control has functioned as a drag on actually building badly-needed new housing.
It helps to understand that, often, systems of local control neither protect neighborhoods from changes that longtime residents fear nor permit the kind of building that could drive affordability. (If you’d like to understand a real “worst of both worlds” scenario, I invite you to investigate the New York City community boards system.)
But as a matter of politics? I think the last thing YIMBYs should be doing is explicitly opposing local control. Rather, they should be publicly endorsing the abstract concept of local control while agitating against the specific structures that impede building.
A YIMBY might retort with something like: “Of course I support the principle of local control, but the system in this city is a corrupt bureaucracy that…”
Is that fully honest? Who cares? It’s politics, baby. You frame your values in a way that best enables you to create the change you covet. “I’m against local control” is like saying you’re against national defense or the middle class.
What makes Yglesias’s stance on local control interesting is that he’s well-known as a steady advocate for Democrats moderating their messages and framing their policy preferences in ways that are acceptable to the most voters. (A stance that has earned him a great deal of ire from progressive activists.)
But opposing local control in general strikes me as exactly the kind of extreme view Yglesias criticizes others for holding. If the YIMBYs want to win, they too will have to pay attention to the median voter and their sensitivity to radical change.
And this is the broader point that I’m making here: Concerns about messaging and strategy are a byproduct of success. The more political victories a movement enjoys, the greater the need that movement has to moderate and compromise.
Life in the political wilderness, while frustrating, is also fun! It’s fun because you can cry out for an ideal world, keeping politics firmly in the realm of abstraction. There are no stakes when you always lose. But as you start to win—as the YIMBYs are doing—you have to bend as all winners bend, in politics.
As Owens told me, respectful engagement “takes more work than sending a dunk tweet, but that's what moves the needle on building housing for everyone.”
I have a lot of experience with this conundrum. As a lifelong socialist, I’ve spent most of my political existence far from power. To my great frustration, many of my fellow-travelers seem to prefer life in the margins, where they can joke and be rude and refuse to prioritize.
I promise you, compromised victory is better than fun defeat. This is what success looks like, YIMBYs! And I’m thrilled for you.
You have a very exciting opportunity ahead, but also a choice: Are you a political movement, or are you a group of cool outsiders sneering from the safety of the margins? You get to decide. But the right decision and the fun decision are not the same.