From coast to coast, America is in desperate need of more housing. Decades ago the United States gave up on federal housing solutions, so the crisis has become a local issue pitting neighborhoods and neighbors against one another. If the only way to solve the problem is to build more housing, then the only people capable of delivering the product are the developers willing to construct new units. Long seen as greedy capitalists, developers are becoming the good guys, finding new political allies among local grassroots housing campaigns.
The unlikely alliance between progressive causes and for-profit housing developers is flipping long-held political narratives on their heads. While the culture war has calcified positions at the highest level of politics, on the local level, lines are more blurred. Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) is as common a refrain among the right as it is on the left but for different reasons. The right typically becomes NIMBY to preserve the ‘character’ of an area while the left wields the phrase to fight gentrification and the profits of private developers. Both sides of the same coin limit housing options for all.
Decades of NIMBY nitpicking housing plans that have only exacerbated the housing crisis have created a counter wave. Instead of searching for reasons to say no, many locals are starting to look for reasons to say Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY). Political firebrand and progressive leader Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made waves yet again when her PAC, Courage to Change, came out as YIMBY. One of the PAC’s stated goals is to get more YIMBY into political office. Once in office, the hope is that YIMBYs will help clear some of the zoning and code hurdles that prevent affordable and mixed-income housing. Reducing minimum lot size, ending parking minimums, ending single-family zoning, and incentivizing affordable housing are common pro-housing YIMBY goals being pushed in almost every major city.
For housing developers, the rise of YIMBY politics is a blessing. Decades spent hiring lawyers, designers, and architects to present detailed plans for every single local ordinance change request in front of planning commissions are coming to an end in some jurisdictions. Grassroots movements are putting politicians in place to change policies, clearing the way for developers. Steering clear of the national spotlight, housing developers are quietly backing local YIMBY groups with dollars and expertise. Exact numbers are hard to track because so much of the activism happens at a hyperlocal level, but developers and tech millionaires have been exposed as financial benefactors for several housing groups. More than money, developers offer pro-housing groups years of experience, targeting the ire of activists to the exact obstacles they’ve faced for decades. The relationship is so pronounced that critics accuse YIMBY groups of being ‘stooges for luxury developers’
Backed in large part by local developers, The California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund has established itself as a notorious YIMBY group in the Golden State. The organization has been systematically ‘suing the suburbs’ for years now. CaRLA is ready to attack any city in California that votes to disapprove of a housing project. The advocacy group is racking up quite the legal record of wins and settlements. Most recently the group was entangled with Huntington Beach, which lowered the density of an approved housing project. A California Court found Huntington Beach violated the state’s Housing Accountability Act, clearing the way for the city’s higher-density housing project as originally approved. The ruling goes back to another precedent-setting case involving CaRLA. A ruling by the California Court of Appeals found San Mateo’s attempt to block a modest 10-unit multifamily building unconstitutional, reaffirming the constitutional authority of the Housing Accountability Act, aimed at preventing arbitrary housing project disapproval.
“We are here because of pure NIMBYism. We’ve gotten to a point where the NIMBYism is so bad that it takes the entire state government apparatus, legislative, executive, and judicial, to get cities to finally abide by the rules they’ve set for themselves,” Greg Magofña, CaRLA’s Director of Outreach said. “The people making decisions for these cities forget that they have kids who also want to live where they grew up but basically can’t afford to live anywhere in the state because of the compounding effects of saying no to new neighbors.”
“The people making decisions for these cities forget that they have kids who also want to live where they grew up but basically can’t afford to live anywhere in the state because of the compounding effects of saying no to new neighbors.”
Greg Magofña, Director of Outreach, CaRLA (California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund)
After years of NIMBY supremacy, YIMBYs are striking back. The frontline of the housing fight is in California, where YIMBYs recently won statewide victories with SB 8, SB 9, and SB 10. Outside of California, YIMBYs have won victories in the state of Oregon and the city of Minneapolis, where each has banned single-family zoning. New York City council voted to upzone Lower Manhattan. More cities are approving Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) that fill critical gaps in the ‘missing middle’ sector of housing. As important as these victories are, they are just a start, as former Bloomberg columnist (and prominent YIMBY) turned economics blogger Noah Smith wrote:
“There are not going to be any new Manhattans from these laws or even any new New Jerseys. Instead, we’re looking at suburbs and suburb-like urban areas that can fit a few more people than before. And the process will take time—there’s no mandated new construction, so densification will have to wait for homeowners and landlords to decide to subdivide their properties. If these new laws, or even this kind of new law, is as far as the YIMBY movement ever gets, it’ll be disappointing.”
Socialists and landlords working together may make some feel uneasy but for-profit housing developers, renters, and housing advocates all want the same thing. These new local political alliances are creating coalitions that are changing the fortunes of developers and landlords as they create a new paradigm of urban development. What realtors, housing advocates, developers, tenant associations, and other groups realize is that if you want cheaper housing, you need more housing of all kinds, and to get more housing, you need fewer restrictive laws. The law of supply and demand can be augmented but never escaped from.
YIMBY groups are starting to win because they have funding to fight back. For-profit developers are playing a major role in that, but exactly how much is hard to say due to filing laws. YIMBY groups are raking in millions. All of that cash can’t be coming solely from renters. To fight the tyranny of single-family landlords, YIMBYs are allying with multifamily landlords to great effect. HOAs and city councils looking to block housing are finding their opponents with costly, expert legal counsel. Commercial interests aligning with social housing interests are set to be a powerful force in American politics over the next decade. Like so many issues in the United States, the line between profit and progress is blurry.