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The Left-NIMBY meltdown
It's getting harder to pretend that blocking new housing helps poor people.
In the past couple of weeks, the Left-NIMBYs had a bit of a meltdown. And it’s illustrative of what a dead-end Left-NIMBYism is, and how more people are moving to the side of the YIMBYs. Which in turn tells us something about the emerging political economy of the United States.
I’ll get to the meltdown, but first a little background. “NIMBY”, an acronym for “Not In My Back Yard”, refers to people who don’t want to allow new development — solar plants, trains, etc., but especially housing — in their own neighborhood or city. NIMBYs come in all political flavors. Many are on the Right — this is why Tucker Carlson tries to scare his audience by telling them that Biden wants to “destroy the suburbs”. Many others are centrist, or politically disengaged.
But there are NIMBYs on the political Left, and they have an outsized importance because of where they’re located. In the U.S., urban areas tend to lean to the left. So in deep blue cities like San Francisco that struggle the most with high rent, the people who oppose new housing tend to also lean to the left (as do the YIMBYs, the advocates of more housing/transit and greater density.) YIMBYs and Left-NIMBYs tend to be neighbors, and so they tend to come into direct conflict very frequently.
The truth, as the urbanist writer Jerusalem Demsas writes in a recent Atlantic article, is that NIMBYism has segregationist roots, and a lack of housing tends to fall hardest on low-income people of color. So it takes a bit of mental gymnastics for people who oppose new housing to tell themselves that they’re really on the side of the Left. One way the Left-NIMBYs have tried to square this circle is to develop a canon of beliefs about why building new housing is actually bad for poor people. I described this canon in an earlier post:
Really, the key belief in the canon is this:
Allowing private developers to build market-rate housing results in the construction of “luxury” housing instead of “affordable” housing…In addition to lining the pockets of developers, this “luxury” housing raises rents in an area, leading to gentrification and displacement.
Left-NIMBYs take this idea as catechism. But there’s very little empirical support for this idea. My earlier post quotes several papers showing that new market-rate housing development puts downward pressure on rents, even in the very near vicinity of the new buildings. There’s very little if any evidence in the opposite direction. But this has not dissuaded the Left-NIMBYs from their canon.
A second Left-NIMBY strategy is to insist on restrictions for new housing that are so stringent that in practice they would preclude new housing from being built at all. At first this came in the form of insisting on ever-stricter inclusionary zoning requirements for new SF homes, but this tactic kept failing when housing advocates were undeterred — for example, YIMBYs enthusiastically proposed a measure to build 100% affordable housing, and the Left-NIMBYs on the SF Board of Supervisors killed that measure.
Later, some Left-NIMBYs briefly tried to rebrand themselves as “PHIMBYs” — standing for Public Housing in My Back Yard — in order to declare that they supported new housing as long as evil developers didn’t make any profits (and nonprofit developers didn’t make any…anything, I suppose). But it soon became clear that the “PHIMBYs” had no intent of actually pushing for any public housing. Meanwhile, California State Senator Scott Wiener, perhaps the most prominent YIMBY politician in the state, co-authored a sweeping bill to create a California Housing Authority to build large amounts of public housing throughout the state. (Hopefully that bill will pass; it just got out of one committee.)
So the standard Left-NIMBY playbook is looking a bit tired out. This is why they’re increasingly falling back on their third mental strategy to maintain their image (and their self-image) as defenders of the poor — namely, to attack and vilify those who call for more housing and greater density. This is where the meltdown comes in.
When a prominent YIMBY tweeter (@sam_d_1995) called comedy writer Kate Willett a “gentrifier” on June 8th, Willett went on a near-continuous Twitter tirade against YIMBYs that, two weeks later, has slowed down but still hasn’t stopped. I won’t quote the whole blow-by-blow, but Willett calls YIMBYs fascists, genocidaires, incels, Reaganites, cultists, racists, and every other nasty name she can think of (when I jumped in to defend the YIMBYs, she called me a “neckbeard”, an insult that I can assure you cut me to the bone). Here are a couple of the more hilariously unhinged tweets:
Willette also repeatedly accused YIMBYs of being a White male movement, which demonstrates her lack of familiarity with YIMBYs:
Much fun was had by all.
Anyway, this type of Twitter contretemps is, sadly, not that remarkable on its own. What’s notable is that some reasonably prominent folks on the Left jumped in to help Willett. These include, for example, Nathan J. Robinson, editor of the leftist magazine Current Affairs. But Willett’s most interesting ally in the Twitter kerfuffle was Dean Preston, the supervisor for District 5 in San Francisco and a prominent leader of the “progressive” faction in SF politics.
The SF supervisor even went so far as to cite a fabricated quote in his rhetorical attempt to discredit YIMBYs:
Preston is basically the archetypical Left-NIMBY. Though his progressive credentials in SF politics are second to none, he has consistently fought to restrict new housing in his district of the city. David Broockman, a political science professor at UC Berkeley, has created a website called “Dean Preston’s Housing Graveyard”, detailing a number of statistics and examples on just how much housing Preston has blocked. Some excerpts:
Preston has said he opposes new housing because of how it "looks" and in order to "preserve the character" of his "intimate, historic neighborhood" from "plain ugly...buildings."…Preston opposed laws that built subsidized homes for 4,037 San Franciscans…Preston blocked plans to allow building subsidized homes for over a thousand people after a local landlord asked him to…
After a years-long process with substantial community input, the SF Planning Commission proposed to rezone the area around Market and Van Ness for thousands of additional homes. The Planning Commission passed the proposal. But a local landlord who was trying to rent out an apartment nearby asked Preston to block the housing, which Preston then did--publicly thanking this local landlord for advising him to do so…
New housing at 400 Divisadero will replace a gas station with homes for 321 people. Preston opposed the housing, and asked that requirements be added that the City found would make all the homes impossible to build at all…
HOME-SF is a City program that allows for additional housing to be built if this additional housing contains additional subsidized homes. So far, this law has allowed for 270 additional homes to be built, including 230 BMR homes. Preston not only opposed the law, he organized to stop it based on concerns about its impact on "neighborhood character."
If you want detailed citations and explanations of each of these cases, the site has them all, so go check it out. But by now everyone should get the picture. Preston values the preservation of existing “neighborhood character” in his (predominantly White) district, and comes up with excuses to block housing that he feels would disrupt that character — which, in practice, is just about any housing at all.
The meltdown is a way of distracting from this record, and from the substance of the disagreement between those who want more housing and those who want to preserve neighborhood character. If the Left-NIMBYs can turn it all into a Twitter food-fight, people might ignore the fact that their housing record is dismal and their intellectual arguments don’t hold water.
But even this tactic is not working.
Why the YIMBYs are winning some victories
Despite the increasingly frequent and increasingly unhinged rhetorical attacks, YIMBYs have been capturing the hearts and minds of young people. One apparent convert is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has started to espouse rhetoric very similar to that used by YIMBYs. The Biden administration is on board as well. The movement has also been winning some modest but significant legislative victories at the state level, as I wrote earlier this year:
Even in San Francisco, there are some signs of a shift. Matt Haney, a progressive with a strong pro-labor record, won a decisive victory over David Campos in a supervisor race in April, after embracing a YIMBY policy platform.
It’s slow going, of course. Environmental organizations recently got a court order blocking Minneapolis’ plan to ban single-family zoning (an appeal is in the works). But it seems like the policy tide might finally be turning.
Why are the YIMBYs succeeding? One reason is simply the urgency of their cause. The urban housing shortage is just getting ridiculous:
I wouldn’t go so far as to fully endorse the “Housing Theory of Everything”, but it’s increasingly clear that a deliberately engineered housing shortage is behind a large fraction of America’s urban and economic dysfunction.
And the NIMBY cause is getting ever more transparently ridiculous. On New York’s Upper East Side, residents recently staged a protest not against a new subway station, but against a new subway elevator.
But there’s another important reason the YIMBYs are starting to gain traction: They focus on goals, not methods.
Most political ideology in America is about methods — about the kinds of solutions people want to apply to the problems of the day. Small-government conservatives and libertarians are mainly concerned with preventing the government from getting involved. Progressives tend to despise anything that generates corporate profit. This obsession with doing things the “right” way leads politicians and activists to block a lot of effective solutions to social problems.
In contrast, YIMBYs are focused on a particular goal — that of building more housing. They are eclectic on the question of method. Here is the 2022 policy framework of CA YIMBY:
Legalize multi-family housing, and make it legal to build affordable, multi-family homes in wealthy neighborhoods, and in areas with abundant resources like schools, transit, jobs, and health care services.
Protect vulnerable tenants from displacement by ensuring new housing includes robust protections for existing residents, and that the economic benefits of new housing are also captured by disadvantaged and vulnerable communities.
Make it faster, cheaper, and easier to build homes by eliminating excessive fees, arbitrary regulatory hurdles, and other roadblocks local governments establish to delay or deny housing.
Provide more public funding for subsidized and social/public housing to ensure low-, very-low, and unemployed Californians have safe, secure housing without rent burden.
Ensure all Californians have secure housing during and after COVID-19 by protecting renters from being evicted for nonpayment and providing debt relief for tenants, small landlords, and affordable housing providers.
YIMBYs support public housing, as with Scott Wiener’s California Social Housing Act. They support strong tenant protections. And they support a mix of deregulation and state mandates to produce more housing — both subsidized “affordable” housing, and market-rate housing.
In other words, while most movements in America are focusing on doing things the exact right way — and feuding with rivals who want to use different methods — the YIMBYs have focused on doing things, period. And in an era where America seems increasingly incapable of doing anything at all to address its many looming problems, the yearning for action is growing.
A focus on goals over methods also allows activists to avoid ideological purity tests. Though most YIMBYs are progressives — the ones I follow were generally quite upset over the recall of San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin — there are some who supported the recall and are even pro-police. YIMBYism can be a flexible and broad coalition precisely because its focus is narrow.
When deciding to move China away from Mao-era statist policies, Deng Xiaoping declared that “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” In fat times, Americans had the luxury of ignoring that sort of pragmatic thinking and concentrating on feuds over whether developers make profit or whether new housing is pleasing to the eye. In crunch time, however, we have no choice but to get things done, however we can. We have to build. And the YIMBYs are the ones who want to build. Yelling insults at them simply won’t change that basic fact.