The Rise Of YIMBY

6 min read

Fledgling Pro-Housing Movement Goes From Grassroots Advocacy to Political Operations

How do good ideas go from theory into political reality? This has become a pressing question for America’s YIMBY movement. Statistics show that there is a housing shortage in many major metros, since unit growth doesn’t match population growth. Yet the political momentum needed to overturn anti-housing regulations just isn’t there; “homevoters” control the political decisions in cities, and have no personal interest in allowing more homes. It would take a radical shift in attitudes—and laws—to reverse this status quo. But in just a few years, the YIMBY movement, which is dedicated to building more housing, has made surprisingly fast progress on shifting these politics.

In the winter of 2017, I wrote about the movement in these pages. In previous months, I had attended the first-ever YIMBY conference in Boulder, CO, along with various YIMBY group meetings while living in different California cities. Back then, YIMBY was really more of a communication thread than a political body, and a difficult one to pin down. There were a smattering of blogs and social media profiles under the YIMBY name, and organizations that had a semi-formal look and feel: ones with names like Abundant Housing LA, Seattle For Everyone, San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation (SFBARF) and more. These and other groups were certainly enthusiastic, but it was hard to tell if they would become institutional, much less sway the political landscape.

Less than two years later, these goals are rapidly progressing. The YIMBY movement is getting national press, forming political action committees (PACs), fielding candidates and passing legislation. Below is a breakdown of what has happened, since my previous article, in the sprawling YIMBY vortex.

After that first Boulder get-together, the “YIMBYtown” conference has become an annual event. In 2017, it was held in Oakland, to acknowledge how the Bay Area had become the nexus of the movement. This year, it was in Boston, attracting an all-time high of over 300 people. Both the Oakland and Boston conferences drew counter-protests from anti-gentrification activists, showing the increasing relevance of the YIMBY movement. In Boston, protesters even briefly stormed into the event to disrupt it with a brass band.

Organizations and PACs
There are now dozens of Yimby groups nationwide, according to YIMBYwiki, a website that documents the movement. This includes ones in 17 states, with major cities often having a whole umbrella network. For the most part, they do grassroots marketing and organizing of the sort I observed in California – holding meetups, speaking at public hearings and maintaining active social media accounts. But some groups have become political organizations.

For example, California YIMBY has raised $3 million to advance pro-housing legislation statewide. Prominent donors include Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe, and Jeremy Stoppelman, CEO of Yelp. In the Bay Area, YIMBY Action is a PAC with $260,000 in assets, according to its website. The PAC endorses candidates and files lawsuits against Bay Area cities that reject zoning-compliant housing projects.

A Better Cambridge, which is based in Cambridge, MA and helped organize Boston’s YIMBYtown conference, formed a PAC this June. It’s funding over a half-dozen candidates, said chairman Jesse Kanson-Benanav. Greater Greater Washington, which began as a DC blog, has also expanded to political activities. Abundant Housing LA, which was one of the more informal groups I witnessed while in Los Angeles, now has institutional funding and 2,500 members. According to director Brent Gaisford, during a recent interview on The Market Urbanism Report podcast, this group will soon try forming a PAC.

Another layer of the YIMBY movement is the political candidates. Sonja Trauss, who founded SFBARF, is running for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, District 6 (this article was submitted prior to the November 6 election). She has been profiled by NPR and the New York Times, showing the movement’s increased mainstream coverage. London Breed, who was elected mayor of San Francisco in June, also ran as a YIMBY. Other candidates have surfaced in Berkeley and the Minneapolis suburb of Maplewood. As more YIMBY groups form PACs, these candidates will likely increase in number.

The biggest YIMBY accomplishment, though, has been advancing, and even passing, pro-housing legislation. The highlights have come from Scott Wiener, a California state senator who identifies as a YIMBY. In 2017, he helped pass SB35, which, according to YIMBYwiki, “Will create a streamlined approval process for housing when cities are not meeting the housing creation goals required by the Regional Housing Needs Assessment.” The law has already facilitated approval for redevelopment of an underused Cupertino mall into a dense, mixed-use project. Wiener also proposed SB827, a bill that would’ve loosened restrictive zoning around transit hubs. That died in committee earlier this year, but in October, Wiener announced that he would launch a new version that includes anti-displacement provisions.

While other states have not seen such ambitious housing bills, there’s a general sentiment among YIMBYs that state-level bills are needed to circumnavigate local planning. So, YIMBY groups continue advocating for this in Colorado, Washington and Massachusetts, and in coming years, the idea will likely surface elsewhere.

The ability for the YIMBY movement to expand on this momentum may require centralizing at a national level, through a think tank. “That was a big topic of discussion at the Boston conference,” said Kanson-Benanav, “since it would help people better understand how to get involved, run for office, form YIMBY groups or just learn about basic YIMBY principles.”

Whether or not that happens soon, the movement’s growth has been impressive. In just these few years, the YIMBYs have made tangible political advances, and some infrastructure appears to be in place, at least at a city and a state level. “The movement will remain relevant,” said Kanson-Benanav, “since an idea that seems so intuitive —’build more housing’—remains so controversial.

“I don’t think we’re going to solve the housing crisis,” he said. “But I think we will have produced more housing in a lot of places, but probably still not enough. And so it’s hard to know, but I think there’s always going to be a need for a YIMBY movement.”

Story Contacts:
Brent Gaisford, Director, Abundant Housing L.A

Jesse Kanson-Benanav, Chairman, A Better Cambridge