Standing athwart urban history, yelling Stop
You just made one of my side projects so much easier! I’m putting together a simple resource on why those on the left -should- be YIMBY. I hang out with wayyyyy too many urban planning PhDs who are Left-NIMBY 🥴.
Likely something like this: https://grist.org/series/skeptics/
While I think most of this analysis is spot on, I would like to point out one situation where left-NIMBYs have a point, at least in the short term. Most of this analysis seems to be thought of in the context of undeveloped land where building anything, even luxury housing, adds to overall supply and thus has the beneficial effects. But in Los Angeles specifically, a fair bit of the new development is happening by tearing down old, lower cost housing, often rent-controlled and replacing it with 'luxury' units. Sometimes the new construction does result in more total units as the new construction is denser. But at least at the local level, what happens is that low cost housing is removed entirely from the market and replaced with high cost housing. There may be a small increase in total unit numbers, but that is not going to affect the overall housing picture in that neighborhood directly.
At least some of the more thoughtful left-NIMBYs are talking about this particular kind of development when they criticize the "econ 101" approach of just letting developers build whatever they want. It is hard to sell broad scale, aggregate benefits to someone who is looking at direct, local bad effects in a particular area. It might not mean that the no growth approach will work well overall, but I think it's important to understand the details of what is being argued.
I think the motivations for Left-NIMBYism are actually about aesthetics! Left-NIMBYs believe living in a city should be a privilege afforded to those who are sufficiently cool (notably: not high-paid office workers in finance or tech). I guess that's a form of 'preservationism' in that it preserves the late-20th-century model of urbanism where for white Americans, choosing to stay in the city instead of moving to the suburbs was a marker of anti-conformism and anti-racism, so maybe it's a distinction without a difference from the "standing athwart history shouting stop" theory, but I think the aesthetic aspect shouldn't be missed. Left-NIMBYs are still NIMBYs in that they think the city should be for the favored few, not for everyone; they're leftists in that they just think who gets to be part of the favored few shouldn't be determined by household wealth.
I lived in SF in the late 70s, just off Union, when my wife finished law school and went there to clerk at the 9th. It was a wonderful place, and it was changing even as we lived there. New bars and restaurants drove away the deli where the little old lady baked her own hams and roasts, and those restaurants and bars came and went more often than the weather changed. My barber went the way of a stylist. Even our bank disappeared. I was back in SF for the first time in decades a few years ago; the bldgs were the same but the city was completely different. There's no way to keep a dynamic city from changing, but there are ways to keep it dynamic and affordable. Build housing, there and here, in DC.
You may appreciate a particular worked example. tl;dr, "left-NIMBY in the streets, right-NIMBY in the sheets", which I wrote up here: https://old.reddit.com/r/TheMotte/comments/i2r8qo/culture_war_roundup_for_the_week_of_august_03_2020/g0eu6dh/
Robert Reich is a former Secretary of Labor, Berkeley professor, and prominent presence on left Twitter (1.2M followers!). There was a proposal to landmark a dilapidated triplex in his very fancy Berkeley neighborhood at 1915 Berryman, in order to prevent it from being redeveloped into a ten-unit complex, with one subsidized. The usual Neighborhood Defender types pushed for the landmarking, including Reich, who's one of the neighbors. His letter cited "This has gotten extra interest because one of the signatories, who also wrote correspondence citing "the character of the neighborhood" which recalls "the charm of an older era of Berkeley".
When asked about this in an interview the following month with W. Kamau Bell, he said he supported affordable housing "in every community I've been involved in," and pivoted to a critique of the development for containing "condos selling for one and a half million dollars each." (These are, of course, cheaper than his own home.) He executed a smooth transition from right-NIMBYism to left-NIMBYism, while keeping the bottom line intact.
An appeal is before the city council on the twenty-first; Reich has not signed it, but a woman who lives with him who signed the landmarking application did. I suspect that he's decided to quietly bow out after receiving heat for it, but without changing his mind or being in any way accountable. (Entirely possible he helped fund the appeal, for example.) https://twitter.com/mateosfo/status/1350125749357821954
Given that I know Laura (I'm a member of Peninsula For Everyone and I was on the host committee for last fall's national YIMBY fundraiser), I feel confident that your last quoted tweet has some more context.
And here we go. It's in a thread that begins here:
Things San Francisco NIMBYs can't decide if they love or hate, depending on which means they get to stall whatever's the current proposal:
Subsidized Middle Income Housing...
...is what we need because working people are being priced out of the city.
...is outrageous because low income people are suffering.
Subsidized Low Income Affordable Housing...
...is what we need, not more LUXURY housing.
...is perpetuating the nonprofit industrial complex and we need TRULY PUBLIC housing.
On-site Below Market Rate housing...
...is what we need to integrate neighborhood.
...is without real services and isn't real Affordable Housing.
The tweet you quoted sounds like a Left NIMBY, because she is adopting the voice of a Left NIMBY in order to point out the contradictions inherent in their views.
Hey great piece, thank you for writing this and rebutting the old leftist refrain with research. One minor nit, I think Laura is pointing out the many conflicting views of SF leftists in her tweet on public housing and not actually espousing that view. It is a fact that providing more funding for subsidized housing is a core plank of YIMBY Action however: https://yimbyaction.org/core-four/
I find the Nathan Robinsons of the American left so embarrassingly dishonest and intellectually lazy, I really think they do more harm than good when it comes to mobilizing for social justice. Noah, do you know of any thinkers who are significantly to the left of socdems like yourself but who actually try to offer valid points on policy and econ? Like, is there a Jacobin for empirically-minded people out there somewhere that I don't know about? I would love to read such a thing but find that Americans who stake out a position to the left of socdems tend to be more invested in building cliquish ingroups than actually building a better world.
As often happens in the urban planning world, you don’t distinguish between self-titled “leftists”, whose most radical policy proposals result only in “reduced rents” or government-owned housing, and communists, anarchists, or other anti-capitalists working to abolish generalized commodity production as a whole. While you at least distinguish between liberals and “leftists”, you’re not actually engaging with anti-capitalist critique.
Your “Left-Nimby Canon” is, to be fair, a reasonable summary of the predominant perspectives of many DSA members, Jacobin authors, or recently radicalized Bernie supporters. However, you don’t acknowledge a perspective that sets the total abolition of states, capital, and commodity production as the end goal rather than rent reduction.
In the same way that many leftists oppose police reform in preference of total abolition, they also oppose market-based development, recognizing that although housing pressures may be temporarily relieved, the internal contradictions of capitalism will lead to the same crisis down the line. When you are opposed to the idea of “rent” as a concept, “reducing rents” takes on much less importance and the resistance that is mounted to development and gentrification as broad processes is thus all too often mischaracterized as resistance to “basic economics” or “science”.
I don’t want to be too rude here, but if your final conclusion includes the statement, “the disagreement between YIMBYs and Left-NIMBYs isn’t really about free markets vs. socialism — they’re all a bunch of lefties”, you probably don’t have the strongest understanding of “leftist” critique outside the most narrow of social-democrat or “democratic socialist” hot takes.
If you want to argue that the term “leftists” now includes capitalists, that’s fine (I wouldn’t disagree, unfortunately), but please make it clear that you are addressing that realm of ideologies, rather than genuine anti-capitalism in the Marxist, anarchist, or other historically “leftist” sense, and leave that for a different post.
Thank you for writing this, it's one of the best comparisons of left-NIMBY and YIMBY thinking.
One thing I want to note though: for low income groups in rent controlled cities, fighting market-rate housing is rational and beneficial to them. For example, the Mission activists did such a good job fighting all market-rate construction in their neighborhood that they effectively drove out all market-rate developers, lowering land prices and thus allowing more subsidized Affordable housing to be built. And there's no way that The Mission (where apartments are legal to build) could build enough housing to alleviate the shortage for the entire bay area (where apartments are mostly illegal to build), so supporting market-rate housing in their neighborhood in the hopes of eventually making housing affordable for low-income people doesn't make sense.
Why am I mentioning this? It's because these low-income activists (who are acting rationally in their own best interest) give ideological cover to left-NIMBYs (who are wrong), and fight on the same side against development using the same arguments. But be careful not to lump these two groups together!
My problem is not really 'supply and demand', it's somewhat infantilising to suggest the left doesn't even know middle school level economics. My problem is that, while i acknowledge rent will decrease, someone has to buy the property first. This someone is not going to be someone who actually needs a house, but more likely someone who already owns one and wants to charge rent (I'd be happy to see a study that says otherwise). It's far easier to be a YIMBY when you own multiple houses and can move away from the problems. The working class has a much harder time doing this.
Now, you might argue it would still be worth building more housing. Yes, I agree. I just don't like the assertion that NIMBY = bad for x reason, now solve for x. It's a very sneaky tactic that you can use to call someone that might have some very good reasons for being against building property a bad person. (not all property is equal btw, I wouldn't support the construction of a factory considering the poor state of climate change policy). If being a NIMBY is always bad no matter what, then people have to fight with your x reasoning built on a potentially false premise.
They might not even be actual NIMBY's, but because it's an ideological statement, any concerns they have regarding the construction of property, the ownership of property, etc. Are just dismissed as a poor understanding of socio-economics.
Isn't there a correlation between city population/density and housing prices? More housing = more dense city, so in the long run higher home prices?
Great piece! I think COVID has basically proved this argument in a lot of cities. Here in Toronto we've seen average rental rates in the city core contract, while the supply of units has increased significantly (via former Airbnbs, people moving to the suburbs etc.).
Do the studies you cite above include any discussion about unit type/mix? As in, does general supply just push down all rents, or do you need more bachelor units to push down bachelor unit rents etc. A criticism that I have seen levied at developers in Toronto is that they tend to focus on 400-500 SF bachelor and 1BR units because that is (generally speaking) the most profitable model on a PSF basis. One of the big pushes from planners in Toronto (and beyond) is for missing middle projects, which add more gentle density and also, in my experience, seem to have greater diversity when it comes to unit mix. I would definitely consider myself to be a YIMBY, but I would also like to see smart density that takes into consideration what makes a neighbourhood vibrant and enjoyable to live in.
I noticed so many left leaning people say we shouldn't build because investors will buy everything, then they go and support untold amounts of mass immigration. Do these people think supply and demand is fake?
I think people in urbanist circles tend to overstate induced demand for highways. It certainly plays a role and can make the benefits of highway expansion much smaller than they'd seem, but increased capacity leading to more traffic on that roadway isn't terribly common. What's more common is that planners anticipate future increases in traffic and build capacity. This doesn't mean that highways don't have diminishing returns, don't create pollution and sprawl, aren't complements to driving in other places, or aren't generally a bad investment in most American metro areas compared to improved transit. It's just that for the 2nd order induced demand effect to outweigh the 1st order capacity effect, some weird things need to happen.