YIMBY Nation

6 min read

(Originally published in Forbes Magazine)

The rise of America’s pro-housing coalition

Los Angeles, CA—America’s burgeoning pro-housing movement has many layers, and I recently witnessed one of them firsthand on a rare rainy night in Los Angeles. The activist group Abundant Housing LA was hosting its monthly meeting in a south-side Latino food mart, serving what seems to be the mandatory SoCal culinary combo for social settings, tacos and beer. The event featured a four-person panel of local land-use experts, and another 50 attendees, who were united around a common cause: loosening land-use regulations to build more housing. Thus the meeting was, without even using the word, part of a growing “Yimby” movement that is spreading through the message boards and political ranks of urban America.

I first covered this movement for Forbes in June, after attending the first-ever YIMBY conference in Boulder, CO. I defined the movement then as a counter-punch to an urban American housing policy status quo that has become unsustainable. This status quo features the severe mismatch between population growth and housing supply in the nation’s most desirable cities, which has led to shortages, price inflation, overcrowding and displacement. The status quo is upheld by political barriers that make the solution (obvious as it may be) feel unreachable. That is, a tight regulatory framework—from zoning laws to urban growth boundaries to slow approval processes—has metastasized over a century to discourage construction. A “Nimby”—or “not in my back yard”—mentality among existing residents has only strengthened this regulatory state. All the while, major metros, like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, increase their populations by six figures annually, exacerbating the housing shortage.

The Yimby movement—or “yes in my backyard”—is the first coalition, outside of established business interests, like the Chamber of Commerce or the National Association of Realtors, to challenge this anti-housing climate. In my half-year of westward U.S. travel since the conference, I’ve witnessed some of its ground-level workings.

Although fragmented, the movement’s growth seems to have risen from two polarities. The intellectual half is largely along the East Coast: in 2011, Fordham University graduate Nikolai Fedak founded what is believed to be the first Yimby website, New York YIMBY. The pro-growth real estate blog makes the moral and economic case for more housing, accompanying like-minded blogs, such as Market Urbanism and Greater Greater Washington.

The grassroots activist side sits more on the West Coast, germinating among a colorful hodgepodge of non-profits, informal civic groups, beer hall meetups, blogging and social media platforms and firebrand individuals from beachtown gadflies to downtown flâneurs. The most formal body so far would be the SF YIMBY Party, which is an organized coalition of Bay Area groups with names like GrowSF and Palo Alto Forward. San Francisco’s Yimby figurehead is Sonja Trauss, a self-described anarchist who runs the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SFBarf). Trauss has been covered by numerous national media outlets and spends her days distributing literature, speaking at public hearings and pulling hard-nosed political stunts, like trying to stack the anti-growth local Sierra Club chapter with her allies.

Yimbyism is less developed in other major cities, but there is a similar ecosystem nonetheless in San Diego, Los Angeles,Boston, Minneapolis, Denver, Austin and elsewhere. The concept has blown up on Twitter in particular: there are handles for a “Tech Yimby,” a “Garden State Yimby,” a “London Yimby,” a “Bilbao Yimby,” and on and on, with one Yimby handle even surfacing, unbeknownst to me, in my tiny hometown of Charlottesville, VA.

Abundant Housing LA, where I visited in December, might symbolize the upward potential of the Yimby movement, which leans young and progressive anyway. The group was opened up to grassroots membership just five months ago by several entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s. Nonetheless, says director and local housing developer Brent Gaisford, “We’ve grown to more than 400 members who actively support affordable and market rate housing developments, as well as advocate for upzoning.” The group hopes to soon form a think tank that publishes policy papers targeting particularly odious Los Angeles regulations, such as the city’s insistence on maintaining vast swaths of industrial zoning despite its largely post-industrial economy.

Attendees that night also represented a crosshatch of the various interests who embrace Yimbyism. Ideologically speaking, it ranged on the right from developers who would benefit from deregulation, to social justice advocates on the left who see housing restrictions as a leading cause of inequality. Occupying the ideological space in between were architects, journalists, environmentalists, planners, public transit officials and general fans of urban density. This was reflected on the panel: Gaisford, the moderator, runs a small development start-up focusing on co-living housing styles. Another two developers on the panel were Stephen Gregorchuk of Manasseh Building Group and Sam Garrison of Caruso Affiliated, while the activist portion included Erika Villablanca of Mercy Housing California and Alan Greenlee of the Southern California Association of Non Profit Housing.

The question is: just how effectively can the movement evolve from Tweets and happy hours to real political influence? Here, too, Yimbys are making strides. SFBarf, with funding from the tech and development industries, has already sued the San Francisco suburb of Lafayette for violating state housing laws by arbitrarily shooting down a project. Other Yimbys I’ve met are infiltrating their neighborhood planning groups, which often have a heavy say in land-use decisions and are dominated by Nimby homeowners. And there is even a prominent public official who identifies as a Yimby—Scott Wiener. He spent years as the most consistently pro-development voice on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and was just elected to the California state senate, where he introduced a bill to increase statewide housing supply.

These examples make a clear statement that Yimbyism, while in its infancy, is not going away. The ideological diversity between coalition members has led to differing opinions about how housing can get built and how it will become affordable. Some want a fully market-oriented process, while others want to expand the supply alongside tenant protections and affordability set-asides. But if there’s one unifying conviction of the Yimby movement, it is recognizing the need for more housing.