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Is Yimbyism the Answer to America’s Housing Crisis?

A new book explores whether rampant development can ease California’s housing shortage.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

America is in the midst of a housing crisis. Home-price appreciation has outstripped wage growth in metro areas across the country, squeezing millions of middle- and low-income families. Nowhere is this crisis more acute than in California, where a flood of tech money has helped cause a spike in home prices and a subsequent shortage in the affordable housing market. The most extreme and visible consequence of this obscene mix of opulence and precarity—California is home to both some of the country’s highest wages and its highest poverty rate, when the cost of housing is figured in—is rampant homelessness. In 2019, the state tallied over 150,000 unhoused people on its streets, a 17 percent increase from the previous year.

GOLDEN GATES by Conor Dougherty
Penguin Press, 288 pp., $28.00

Numerous proposals have been floated to address this multifaceted, nationwide problem. They range from those tailored to individual cities to broad policies that would require federal intervention. But the conventional wisdom is that the best way to address the housing shortage is to build more housing. With no end in sight to the rising cost of housing, California, in particular, is in dire need of more places for all its residents to live, both new and old, rich and poor.

What kind of housing, though? California’s logjam has partly been caused by zoning regulations. In response, a pro-growth housing movement—Yimby (Yes in My Back Yard)—has taken shape in California, calling for uninhibited development. Yimby activists argue that an increase in supply of all kinds of housing, including market-rate housing, brings overall costs down. Without enough new housing, the movement says, old housing also becomes more expensive. Only with more can affordability take root.

Yimbyism is the centerpiece of New York Times economics reporter Conor Dougherty’s new book about the California housing crisis, Golden Gates. Dougherty traces the history of California’s development in the twentieth century, which led to a backlash movement called Nimby (Not in My Back Yard) that has been generally associated in the public imagination with affluent homeowners rejecting development projects in their own residential areas. What Golden Gates shows is that Nimbyism is a little more complicated than that, and that for all Yimbyism’s egalitarian aspirations, it has trouble answering questions about how development might dovetail with gentrification, among other forces, to further marginalize struggling homeowners in California.

Behind the arcane policies that dominate the housing debate lie deeper issues of representation and belonging. In his book of road notes across America, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard ventured that “California is the land of non-history,” promising that the future will never be compromised for the sake of the past. The housing crisis asks us to look at California’s future in a different way, with a better sense of all who are there and who have come before.

The Nimby movement has its historical roots in the postwar years, when families began migrating en masse from the cities to the suburbs. Single-family housing and redlining guidelines made it difficult to impossible for families of color to obtain mortgages; instead, they crowded together in low-quality housing units in the cities. To combat this, Pat Brown, then the district attorney for San Francisco, began advocating in 1947 for a bill that would make it easier to acquire public funding to build housing. Ten years later, as a newly elected governor who campaigned on the promise of endless growth, he pledged to invest heavily in redevelopment and in huge infrastructure projects. “What are we to do?” Brown wrote in 1960, after voters approved a publicly funded water project that, in today’s dollars, cost $15 billion. “Build barriers around California and say nobody else can come in because we don’t have enough water to go around?”

By the 1960s, people were tiring of Brown’s growth doctrine. Raymond Dasmann, a conservationist and wildlife biologist, published The Destruction of California in 1965, arguing that newcomers and new developments should be actively discouraged for environmental reasons. “Will we really be better off when we have paved over all of the orange groves of Los Angeles, and developed new ones in the desert?” he asked. Economics also played a factor: As housing became more ingrained with personal wealth, homeowners began vehemently opposing new development that could reduce their property values. When Pat Brown’s son Jerry was elected governor in 1974, he distinguished his California from his father’s by declaring, “We are entering an era of limits.”

These limits manifested themselves in Proposition 13, passed in 1978, which gave older homeowners a cushy kind of rent control by heavily stabilizing property taxes until the properties were sold. The cost of housing in California was to be borne by newcomers to the state—those for whom the Yimby movement, decades later, would advocate.

The changes in California were reflected across the country, as the government at the local and federal levels tilted the field in favor of existing homeowners. America spends about $70 billion subsidizing homeownership with tax breaks, encouraging people to buy ever larger, more expensive homes, and leading to what Dougherty calls “a vast upper-middle-class welfare program.”

The Nimby opposition to new development, often couched in the language of environmentalism and social justice, in practice has often served the interests of the affluent. The Yimby movement, in contrast, is based on the premise that California will always be a place where people will want to live, and that these people need to be accommodated. Sonja Trauss, an activist at the heart of Dougherty’s book, formed Yimby PAC in 2016 to help get Scott Weiner, a divisive city supervisor dedicated to increasing housing, elected to the state Senate. When Weiner arrived in Sacramento in 2017, he helped introduce a bill that paved the way to build more private, market-rate housing, as long as developers set aside some of their units to rent out as affordable housing.

Yimbys hold that private developers are the key to creating more affordable housing, because only they have the resources to build the amount required. “Since there would never be enough affordable housing for everyone—publicly subsidized apartments were only a tiny fraction of the market and most people would by definition never qualify for them,” Dougherty writes, “[Trauss] was also for for-profit builders erecting as many duplexes, condo towers, and backyard cottages as they could build.”

Indeed, actual publicly built housing is rare. More often, “public” projects rely on middlemen in the private sector. For instance, Dougherty shows us that Rick Holliday, who founded a company that builds affordable prefabricated homes, stays in business because of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, a convoluted system that essentially gives tax credits to banks and corporations to fund affordable housing. Since 1986, it’s functioned as the national public housing program.

Under the Yimby theory of affordable housing, the best way to make such housing profitable (and therefore possible) is to allow developers to build on new land in exchange for constructing affordable units. But affordable housing only accounts for about 20 percent of these new private developments; in order to make housing truly affordable for more people, according to the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, this number has to be closer to 60 percent. Worse still, this system only continues to increase the value of the land (even if it supports some affordable units), which eventually accelerates evictions and displacement anyway.

But Yimbys, with support from the tech sector, remain undaunted. Jeremy Stoppelman, CEO of Yelp, has donated heavily to Trauss, on the theory that building more housing for his future employees will save him the cost of raising their salaries to keep up with rising rents. Stoppelman is one of dozens of executives who have come out in support of the movement, ostensibly in the name of solving the housing crisis. Stoppelman, Dougherty observes, came from a Silicon Valley culture that believes that “if you give the right people money to start something new, chances are they will figure it out along the way … and if they didn’t, well, hey, it was worth a shot.”

Yimby is a largely white movement. As Dougherty documents, its adherents say things like, “The only thing we can do to stem the actual tide of gentrification is to build places for rich people to live,” or, “Gentrification is what we call the revaluation of black land to its correct price.” Trauss gained notoriety for comparing incoming tech workers to immigrants, arguing that limiting housing for future residents was like backing Donald Trump’s border wall.

The backlash to Yimbyism has come not only from traditional Nimbys—suburbanites who want to preserve property values and the tree shade on their streets—but also from tenant unions and activists of color who are concerned about what the Yimby prioritization of upmarket housing and wealthy tenants will mean for their communities. Dougherty, though, writes off this criticism as an “easy, lazy story” that frames the housing crisis in an overly simplistic way.

In January, Scott Weiner faced protests during a press conference for SB 50, a controversial bill that aimed to make construction easier at mass transit stations and in single-family neighborhoods by lifting density restrictions. The bill is an effective way of increasing densification and combating Nimbyism, but activists said it could become a gateway to more luxury housing. The protest was led by a group of black mothers who call themselves Moms 4 Housing. They caused an uproar this past December when they and their children were violently evicted from a vacant house in Oakland. There are about four vacant homes to every homeless person in the Bay Area, and Moms 4 Housing have called attention to the need not just for new housing but for repurposing existing housing. Many properties, like the one they were squatting in, are left vacant while developers hope to flip them.

SB 50 failed because of the opposition from both wealthy Nimbys and groups like Moms 4 Housing, revealing the strange alliances that have cropped up in response to the Yimby movement. Yimbys tend to flatten the distinction between these two groups; as Dougherty summarizes, “Scarcity helped no one.” But the point is that there is more to housing justice and housing affordability than simply increasing market supply and waiting for decades for the spoils to trickle down, especially when companies treat empty properties as no different from assets in a stock portfolio.

One weakness of Dougherty’s book is that he speaks about a shortage of housing as though it affects everyone equally. But the shortage is causing very specific groups of people to face a life on the streets. Erin McElroy, co-founder of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, refers to Yimbyism as an “all housing matters” movement. Dougherty seems frustrated with proposed alternatives that focus more heavily on affordable housing, referring to such positions as “milquetoast” because they don’t have the sweep of Yimby’s proposals.  

What is to be done? Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (who dropped out of the presidential race earlier this week) have both released plans to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in building millions of new housing units to correct the severe shortage. Sanders’s plan also includes high vacancy taxes for empty homes in order to bring more existing units onto the market, as well as an extremely high home-flipping tax that would make it very expensive to speculate. Warren’s proposal leaves a budget in the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide cash assistance to first-time home buyers looking to make downpayments in communities that were subject to redlining.

But there’s little exposition in Golden Gates on such alternatives to a largely privately funded affordable housing program.

Dougherty documents a 2016 protest by Latin American families outside a community center in North Fair Oaks, most of whom were displaced when their affordable units were bought for redevelopment. Sister Christina Heltsley, a nun running the community center across the street, had long been a witness to these types of evictions. In 2018, she bought the building back, operating what she calls a “moral mortgage.” Since the 1990s, she had quietly amassed, through loans and donations, a portfolio of properties whose market values run well into the millions. Using deed restrictions, she marked all her units as affordable housing forever—they can’t ever be flipped. “She had, in a sense,” writes Dougherty, “removed them from capitalism.”

Dougherty seems to think Heltsley’s project is more a quaint absurdity than a radical possibility. This is a shame—as his own book documents, there is much more to the issue of housing than economic pragmatism.