The YIMBY Movement Wants More Development, Not Less. But What, Exactly, Does That Mean?


Andrew Keatts | June 16, 2016Advocates view increased development as a way of creating more affordable housing in cities.

Construction site

Advocates view increased development as a way of creating more affordable housing in cities.

Image via flickr/Benny B Photography Image via flickr/Benny B Photography

Small groups across the country are begging city leaders to do something that resident groups often don't like. They want cities to let developers build way more stuff in their backyards -- and fast.

As housing prices have shot up in cities from Texas to the California coast, these groups have formed around the simple premise that the best way to combat housing affordability is to build more housing. Arguing that part of affordability crisis is due to entrenched homeowners who seek to preserve the status-quo, they hope their movement -- encouraging the development of more housing -- will balance the scales.

It’s the upstart YIMBY movement – "yes in my backyard" – versus the more familiar NIMBY "not in my backyard" crowd.

Now the YIMBY movement is even having its own conference. Bike activists, affordable housing advocates, city planners and anyone else determined to make their city build more homes to combat housing affordability are converging on Boulder this weekend to integrate their efforts, learn from what’s working elsewhere and generally strengthen the cause.

“The policy issues that we’re dealing with tend to seem hyperlocal,” said Zane Selvans, who helped organize the event with Better Boulder, a coalition that formed last year to stop two ballot initiatives its members viewed as anti-development. “But then you look around and you see the same tropes, the same arguments, and it stops feeling all that local. It’s hard feeling embattled and isolated, so we thought it would be good to share notes, and show solidarity among people working on the same issues.”

They’ll have sessions on effective messaging, housing policy and recent wins and losses at the ballot box.

"There’s a lot of anticipation that this can be a defining moment for the YIMBY movement,” said Sara Maxana, a Seattle activist on the steering committee for the nonprofit Seattle for Everyone. "I hope what comes out of this is, a better understanding among elected officials who are keeping an eye on this movement."

Yes-on-housing activists say they face an inherent disadvantage when they go up against local resident groups opposing a certain project. Residents can point to a specific, tangible thing they're against -- the particular development in question. Housing advocates, meanwhile, need to organize around a more abstract concept -- the general, citywide need for more housing.

Still, some have questioned whether the term "YIMBY" is really the best way to frame what these activists are trying to accomplish. That includes some of the attendees themselves.

Susan Somers, a board member for Austinites for Urban Rail Action, is attending the event but calls herself an urbanist, not a YIMBY.

She highlights her city, where there’s plenty of housing being built in the suburbs but a shortage of affordable properties in the city core.

“We’re permitting lots of housing, but it’s on the bleeding edge of suburbia,” she said. “So, does YIMBY mean we say yes to sprawl? I don’t have an answer, but it’s an interesting question that I want to talk about.”

As she sees it, the goal shouldn't be to always say "yes in my backyard." It should be to think carefully about what the city or a community is saying "yes" to. But, more broadly, she sees value in the conference's attempt to improve messaging.

In the early 1990s, Somers said, Austin had a series of environmentalists-versus-developer fights – chronicled in the documentary The Unforeseen – that led to preservationist policies like sprawl control. But many of the politically active Austinites involved in those fights have carried it with them, and they still see developers, fundamentally, as the enemy, Somers said.

“Traditional activists in Austin say ‘developers are bad. Developers build housing. Housing is bad,’” she said. Her group is trying to engage the younger generation of the city’s political class not to see the situation in those terms. She’s sharing that approach in her session at the conference.

Others said they're also trying to figure out the best way to frame their own local debates. A fundamental problem she’s seen in her city, said Maya Rosas, a San Diego land-use consultant, is the way city planners and developers address apprehensive community members. In the neighborhood where she lives, which has a strong anti-development reputation, the city crafted a new set of community development regulations over a period of seven years. “Over all those years, and all those meetings, each resident thinks they were promised something, and no one is happy with what they’re getting,” Rosas said. “It’s about building trust by improving the process.”

One lesson local groups need to learn, said Maxana, of Seattle, is that personal stories persuade people -- not charts. “One thing that trips up urbanists and YIMBYs is they try to get academic,” she said. “They spout off data."

"Talk about how it’s wrong that I can buy a house in a wonderful neighborhood to put my kids in a good school," she said, "but if I turn around and fight for other kids to have the right to do the same, I’m the villain."

Still, the fact that the conference exists is something of a testament to just how quickly the the country's urban renaissance is occurring.

A decade ago, activists were trying to convince people of the merits of living in dense, urban communities rather than the suburbs, said Selvans, the conference organizer. Now, people like their city neighborhoods so much they insist that they can never change.

"No one I knew thought that we would win that argument -- that living in a city neighborhood could be good," he said. "It’s only now that we have to deal with it, because people are finally trying to re-occupy city centers.

Andrew Keatts
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