YIMBY in action: How pro-housing policies became a political rallying cry

Birthed by the housing crisis, can a push to build more homes
become the centerpiece of a political coalition?

YIMBYism—Yes In My Backyard, an exhortation to build—began
as a rejection of a
. But what started as refutal of Not in My Backyard
sentiments has become an ideology in itself: a locally based,
decentralized, pro-housing political movement.

Just a few years old, the YIMBY push to add more homes to cities
comes at a time when slow development, the power of single-family
homeowners, and the status quo of restrictions and regulations that
shaped housing policy
are facing backlash in major American
cities. As advocates and backers see it, it also may form the

centerpiece of a progressive coalition
that could have a large
impact on an increasingly urbanizing country.

“This is one of the fastest-growing, organic, grassroots
movements I’ve ever seen,” says Matthew Lewis, a longtime
journalist and organizer who now directs communications for
California YIMBY, one
of the nation’s larger pro-housing groups. “And I mean organic.
People, complaining about the rent being too high, go to one city
hall meeting, find out the process is insane, and start a group.
It’s incredible how much attention it’s getting and how salient
the policy issues have become.”

Active in cities from LA and Portland to Boston and Minneapolis,
YIMBYism lives in the center of a Venn diagram of urban ills: the
intertwined issues of rising rent, scarce opportunity, and
increasingly long commutes
. Both are accelerated by a
lack of affordable, accessible housing
and an apparent
standstill in
new construction
amid skyrocketing demand. Not surprisingly, it
first took root in 2013 and 2014 in the
increasingly wealthy Bay Area
among activists like
Sonja Trauss
and her Bay Area Renters Foundation (BARF). Early
YIMBYs pushed back against unnecessary and sometimes comical
barriers to building, like the Berkeley homeowner complaining a new
building would
block the sun from the zucchinis in her vegetable garden.

YIMBY political groups still have no blanket national
organization. But YIMBYtown, an annual three-day
national convention that took place in the Boston area last fall,
draws crowds in the hundreds
(it’s been called “Woodstock
for housing activists

“It’s clear that this is a housing shortage—and the answer
is to build housing,” Laura Foote-Clark, head of San
Francisco-based YIMBY Action, told
The Guardian
. “You generate policy by yelling about

Opponents paint YIMBYs as being in the pocket of real estate
interests: naively helping rich developers at best, or outright
shills at worst, with
funding from tech millionaires
. But for every recent policy
victory, such as
upzoning approval in Minneapolis
Austin’s new affordable housing bond
, or
statewide rent control in Oregon,
there have been many more
defeats, most notably,
the ambitious slate of housing bills in California
, perceived
as a huge blow in the home state of the originators of YIMBY
. YIMBY candidates for local Bay Area offices

suffered defeat at the ballot box last November


— antievictionmap (@antievictionmap)
July 16, 2017

But YIMBY groups and the progressive politicians who support
their ideas say those losses obscure the changing nature of the
debate, which is rapidly moving in their favor.
California State Senator Scott Weiner
, a San Francisco
legislator famous for repeatedly introducing a bill allowing for
more dense development near transit lines, has twice seen his
ambitious vision thwarted (the
latest version, SB50, has been delayed to 2020

But he says there’s victory in defeat, namely the “broad
and diverse
” coalition that he’s assembled, including

lobbying heavyweights like the AARP
. At the state level,
Governor Gavin Newsom has called for a “Marshall
Plan” for housing production

“This is a coalition that understands we have a massive
shortage of housing, and need to build millions of new homes at
every income level,” says Weiner. “That’s absolutely
fundamental; it’s basic.”

Weiner believes this coalition is the future of housing policy,
and is linking up at the moment housing has become a true national
issue. When leading Democratic contenders offer
detailed, multi-tiered housing plans
, and the New York Times
two major stories
single-family zoning
within the space of a week, it’s clear
the debate has shifted. When the links between
dense development
climate change
, and transportation policy, as well as social
equity and opportunity, come together, YIMBYism seems like less a
fringe, niche issue than an animating core of progressive

“There’s been more focus on the housing crisis in this
Democratic primary so far than in the history of the Democratic
party,” says Randy Shaw, a San Francisco housing activist and
author of
Generation Priced Out
. “It also helps that we have the
California primary in March next year. When the media is here,
saturating the town halls, they’ll hear a lot about the housing

Getty Images Apartment construction in the Mission ay neighborhood
of San Francisco. California dreaming—and Minneapolis

In the last year, the two political battles that have shaped
national perception of YIMBYism, and its challenges and hurdles,
have played out across California and in Minneapolis. While the
Golden State has arguably the nation’s worst housing crisis, with
rising home prices and a shortage of new construction leading to
dwindling affordable options, a spike in homelessness, skyrocketing
transportation emissions, and a
middle-class migration elsewhere
, YIMBYism has run into a
series of political roadblocks. Conversely, Minneapolis, a city
that those who aren’t familiar might overlook as a site of
cutting-edge housing policy, has effectively
banned single family-only zoning citywide

The experiences of activists and advocates in both states have
shaped two different visions on YIMBYism.

In California, not surprisingly, YIMBYs have gone on the
offensive, pressuring lawmakers, pushing for statewide legislation
as localities quash development reform, and getting engaged in the
political arena. One of the best examples is the
YIMBY Dems in San Diego
, a political group that has, in a few
short years, become a force in local politics. According to Maya
Rosas, an urban planner and group cofounder, the group has already
become influential in local elections, hosting candidates to court
their votes and issuing voting guides and recommendations. San
Diego’s Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer—the only GOP leader of
a U.S. city of a million or more residents—tweeted in January
that he wanted the city to go “From
a city of NIMBYs to a city of #YIMBYs!

Politicians “understand YIMBY politics are good politics,”
says Rosas. City council president Georgette Gómez sought their
endorsement, and they’ve endorsed on every level, including mayor
and even candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Dike Anyiwo Maya Rosas (in green, center) speaking at a YIMBY Dems
meeting in San Diego. “San Diego faces the same issues Los
Angeles and San Francisco are going through, though the dollar
figures may not be as high. It’s definitely a crisis that
everybody is dealing with.”

One of their dues-paying members, Scott Peters, represents San Diego’s
52nd Congressional district
and has proposed his own housing
legislation. Rosas views the group’s rapid rise as indicative of
the hunger for housing solutions on all levels of government.

“I’d pair that appetite for answers with the growth of the

Justice Democrats
, and the movement to contest congressional
races and support progressives over long-time incumbents,” she

Rosas points to the upcoming election for California’s 53rd
district, which has long been represented by incumbent Susan Davis.
For 2020, however, Davis is facing two challengers pushing more
progressive platforms. It’s meant more policy debates among
candidates and their supporters, and has led all three candidates
to seek YIMBY Dem support.

“The proliferation of more contested congressional races has
created a space to house the conversation on housing, which
hasn’t been part of a campaign re-election before,” says Rosas.
“Now, it’s going to be a contested endorsement, and Rep. Davis
is trying to find time to attend one of our meetings herself.
It’s absolutely shifting the conversation and making sure more
people are addressing housing.”

Also proud to be a tote-carrying supporter
of @MoreNeighbors
since 2017! (I genuinely love this bag more than most other things
I own) pic.twitter.com/0QAA8j1LEQ

— Housing policy is climate policy (@MadelineKovacs)
May 22, 2019

Contested primaries and intra-party challenges haven’t been
part of the roadmap for the Neighbors for More Neighbors
organization in Minneapolis. A community group that spearheaded the
passage of the city’s progressive
Minneapolis 2040 zoning plan
, the organization prefers the
title pro-housing to YIMBY, but shares many of the same goals,
according to member Lauren Richards.

“The reality is, housing has always been an issue at the city
and county level,” says Richards. “But with the way that cities
are exploding in population now and really trying to grow,
there’s an understanding this isn’t just a local issue; it’s
a regional, state, and national issue. The fact that people can’t
afford homes in Minneapolis affects the entire region just like
people not being able to afford homes in New York City has
implications across the country.”

The campaign waged by Neighbors for More Neighbors, as well as
allied community groups and pro-housing politicians, has been held
up as a model for the country. During its extensive outreach work,
the organization made the intertwined issues of equity, the
environment, racial justice, and transportation a huge part of the

“I feel like we’re able to be a leader in this space,”
says Richards. “Other cities are looking at us to say, hey, this
is something we can do after all.”

But at the same time, Neighbors for More Neighbors doesn’t
have plans to become more of a political organization, like the
YIMBY Dems in San Diego; it would rather stay focused on advocacy.
Currently, the group is working with
groups in neighboring St. Paul
to pass an upzoning plan similar
to Minneapolis 2040. As Richards sees it, while the forces that
have catalyzed local pro-housing advocacy are similar, each place
has its own unique problems. A decentralized, local approach offers
the best chance for success.

“The housing challenges in Minneapolis aren’t the same in
San Francisco, Seattle, or New Orleans,” says Richards. “Each
one of these cities has their own understanding of what they need.
We’re all about exchanging ideas, but we feel like it’s
important that this was a local effort.”

“It’s a combination of popular attention⁠—there’s
more of that now than there’s ever been⁠—and having model
legislation to point to. If Oregon can pass statewide upzoning, why
not New York state?”

Already, the activism in Minneapolis, California, and elsewhere
have inspired more YIMBY groups to take shape. Casey Berkovitz, one
of the leaders of
Open New York
, the city’s young YIMBY group that formed in
2017, says the fights over SB50 and Minneapolis 2040 helped inspire
the group to get active.

“It’s a combination of popular attention⁠—there’s more
of that now than there’s ever been⁠—and having model
legislation to point to,” he says. “If Oregon can pass
statewide upzoning, why not New York state?”

Many YIMBY groups outside of large coastal cities find that
those outside of their cities or regions may not understand just
how much of an issue affordability has become. For New York City
YIMBYS, it’s a different problem: many think that a city with
such a large, active real estate industry doesn’t have a shortage
of new housing.

“The gut reaction is that New York City has tall buildings and
skyscrapers, so how can we have a problem with, say, single-family
zoning?” says Berkovitz. “But we have a growth problem and a
rent problem. Here, it’s about historic districts, or areas zoned
for two-story buildings that should have four-story

With that in mind, Open New York has focused on neighborhood
advocacy, working to push for greater density in areas such as

Manhattan’s SoHo
or Gowanus in Brooklyn. Even with new
building in New York, affordability is still a key issue.

Challenges to growing the YIMBY movement

While the YIMBY groups have momentum, and a central crisis,
housing affordability, that is only going to get worse in coming
years, the group also faces hurdles to continued growth and

According to Rosas, the age of the movement, and the age of its
members, presents resource challenges. Grassroots YIMBY groups have
passion, but overall, younger Americans, often renters, vote less
frequently, and don’t have the political connections of somebody
who has lived in the same house for 40 years. While the YIMBY
movement can be a “tight-knit network of advocates,” she says,
as evidenced by publications such as Market Urbanism and Greater Greater Washington, online
organizing, and social media groups such as the NUMTOT Facebook
page, YIMBYs simply don’t have the kind of capacity, funds, and
political capital of their opponents.

“Our biggest barrier is not being able to organize as quickly
as we want because we’re all volunteers,” says Rosas. “I
daydream about how many members we could have if I or any of our
board members had the time to go to meetings across the county and
talk about what we stand for, or have booths at community events,
or just the time to go speak at hearings.”

According to Shaw, these groups also get characterized unfairly
as “libertarian developer shills.”

“Look at YIMBYs in San Francisco, who were
on the front lines fighting for shelter for the homeless
,” he
says. “The pro-housing movement is on the rise everywhere.”

Shaw also points to way local elections often play out. In
citywide elections, where the entire, diverse electorate has a
voice, pro-housing candidates, who focus on issues with rent and
affordability, often win. In smaller, council or district election,
homeowners tend to elect representatives who support their property
rights and may push back against development. That leads to many
cases where pro-housing mayors spar against anti-development city
councils and citizen advocates, or as Lewis says, “you have to
listen to the loudest, whitest, richest, neighborhood

“We’re challenging long-held orthodoxies, right?” says
Sen. Weiner. “It’s a status quo that’s been with us for many
many years, and we’re saying we should do things differently,
that we should zone for housing and protect density and protect
housing availability. I wish we could solve these problems
legislatively in a few years.”

But even today’s biggest challenges, especially the depth of
the affordable housing shortage, have upside in the future. Rising
rents only makes YIMBYs grow stronger, and inspire more members to
join the movement. Rosas points to the fact that the AARP,
America’s pre-eminent lobbying group for seniors, backed
Weiner’s SB50 bill. They, too, see how a future of rising housing
prices will eventually
threaten low-income seniors

“As the housing crisis gets worse, our room for getting more
people involved sadly increases as people realize that something
has to happen,” says Rosas. “I think that leaders within the
Democratic party, seeing the importance of our clubs, will shift
with time. I think it’s a matter of time before the Democratic
party wholeheartedly embraces YIMBYism. Sooner or later, the
housing crisis will impact people of every generation as bad as its
hitting the millennials and Gen Xers”.

Can YIMBYs help shape the 2020 agenda?

Perhaps one of the big questions is how much YIMBYism plays into
the 2020 election. While many candidates, including Elizabeth
Warren, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris have introduced extensive
housing plans,
the issue didn’t come up once during the first round of candidate

“The fact that we have three candidates with three housing
policies that are more comprehensive then we’ve seen in years is
exciting,” says Richards. “And it’s great that the
presidential candidates aren’t just looking at it from the lens
of homeowners. In Minneapolis, half the population is renters, and
these plans address rental and tenant issues in ways that haven’t
been addressed in previous political campaigns.”

And the campaign and election have just begun. Jenny Schuetz, a
housing policy fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan
Policy Program, believes housing and development have the potential
to be much bigger issues, especially as candidates roll out
environmental plans and infrastructure investments, and begin
tackling intertwined issues of land planning and integrating
housing, transit, and jobs. For instance, the Green New Deal
doesn’t say anything about land use, while Biden’s plan talks
about land-use planning as a way to reduce sprawl. But bringing all
these issues together could truly tie together a lot of progressive
goals into a single package.

“There’s room for someone to tie this all together,” she

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YIMBY in action: How pro-housing policies became a political rallying cry