Issues & Insights

YIMBY, Please

Eager for solutions to high housing costs, pro-development advocates are making their presence felt in American cities. 

By Michael Hendrix

San Diego and Minneapolis are passing some of the most ambitiously pro-housing measures in the country. “From a city of NIMBYs to a city of YIMBYs!” exulted San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer. The path from “not in my backyard” to “yes in my backyard” has been fraught, but a national grassroots movement for more housing is taking hold in America’s pricey metros.

San Diego residents are keen for solutions to high housing costs: median home prices have reached $600,000, and rents now run north of $1,600 a month. More than 70 percent of San Diegans can’t afford to buy a home, according to one estimate. The problem, YIMBY activists and their supporters say, is a chronic housing shortage bedeviling the city and much of urban California.

In his annual State of the City address in January, Faulconer called for removing the city’s parking minimums and height limits within a half-mile of transit stops, among other reforms. Mandated parking spaces add upward of $90,000 to the cost of each new housing unit, and the city’s height limits put a ceiling on how many units developers can build. Faulconer, a Republican, has secured the support of city council Democrats, turning housing policy into a bipartisan issue. The council passed the parking reforms by an 8–1 vote, and Faulconer’s Housing SD agenda is expected to dominate city politics for the rest of his term.

Nearly 2,000 miles inland, Minneapolis’s city council endorsed sweeping reforms to the zoning code. Its Minneapolis 2040 plan calls for allowing duplexes and triplexes across the city, even in previously single-family-zoned neighborhoods. “We don’t have enough homes for people who want to live here,” city council president Lisa Bender told the New York Times. “Increasing our housing supply is part of the solution.”

Since 2010, Minneapolis has welcomed 83,000 new households, while building just 64,000 new homes. The city’s housing is not as expensive as on the coasts, but nearly half of Minneapolis’s renters struggle to meet the costs, and the housing market remains tight.

Approved nearly unanimously in the city council, Minneapolis 2040 contains 100 policies meant to satisfy the plan’s core goals, most relating to development and housing. Now begins a roughly three-year process of implementing the policies—especially updating the city’s zoning law, which will involve further public review. Minneapolis could become the first American city to rid itself of single-family zoning.

Reform opponents, the NIMBYs, won’t go down without a fight. Irate residents filed thousands of comments against Minneapolis 2040 and protested at public meetings. In the lead-up to the city council’s vote, “Don’t bulldoze our neighborhoods” signs dotted city yards. In San Diego, real-estate agent James LaMattery suggested recently that “there’s going to be a huge battle.” His Raise the Balloon group has fought “upzonings”—that is, changing zoning restrictions in an area to allow for more development—in the past by floating a 60-foot-tall red balloon to protest potentially blocked views. Yard signs in San Diego call for raising the balloon again.

Upzoning critics charge that reforms have come too fast or with too little public input; that increasing allowable density will change the character of neighborhoods or act as a handout to developers; and that building new housing is someone else’s concern, whether the government’s, through subsidy, or their neighbors’, in their own backyard.

None of these charges is new. What’s different now is that pro-development voices are pushing back. Neighbors for More Neighbors, a Minneapolis-based pro-housing advocacy group, has conducted walking tours of every ward in the city, handing out thousands of yard signs, visiting markets and meetups, and attending council meetings and plan hearings. Their strategy was to “pay attention and show up,” Neighbors member Lauren Richards told Curbed. For many progressive YIMBYs, housing reform carries moral force, too. Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey declared that the city’s plan is “going to push back on intentional segregation and redlining of the past and embrace a holistic vision for our entire city.”

YIMBYs are also notching victories elsewhere. Portland, Oregon, might soon allow fourplexes across the city’s single-family neighborhoods. This March, Seattle passed legislation upzoning 27 neighborhoods across the city, along with requirements for affordable housing. California state senator Scott Weiner is continuing his drive to circumvent local zoning limits, and he has a key ally in Governor Gavin Newsom, who recently sued Huntington Beach for failing to follow state laws permitting more housing.

Perhaps the most notable development in America’s local politics is that housing skeptics have been caught increasingly flat-footed by their better-organized and more youthful YIMBY opponents. San Diego’s James LaMattery believes that amid their recent setbacks, he and his fellow “smart and sustainable growth” advocates are being unfairly maligned as NIMBYs, which he believes has become a derogatory term.

He may be right. Officeholders are starting to disassociate themselves from NIMBYs and are rethinking housing policies—as they need to, if cities are to grow. “Obstructionists must never again be able to halt the housing that San Diego needs!” Mayor Faulconer proclaims. If he prevails, more mayors may soon say the same. 

Reprinted, with permission, from the City Journal.

Michael Hendrix is director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute. 

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Guest Contributor

1 comment

  • YIMBYs are in the enviable position of being supported by those with deep pockets who profit from growth. NIMBYs rarely have a profit incentive that would induce them to remain organized long enough to win these zoning and development wars. It will be interesting to see if NIMBYs can organize on a large scale – as opposed to their typical opposition to a specific development or zoning change – for the long haul. It may not be the standard David-and-Goliath scenario, but the odds are stacked against the NIMBYs.

    One thing is certain, these major zoning changes add a new wrinkle to the meaning of caveat emptor. Who in their right mind would be willing to risk their life savings in a home where the zoning foundation is so shaky? You’d think the realtors might be getting a little nervous, but the desire for increased inventory and profit opportunity is hard to walk away from.

    In the meantime, many homeowners in my little city north of Seattle are getting very nervous. Nervous enough to organize for a multi-year zoning war? That remains to be seen. Perhaps all the Seattle ex-pats moving here will motivate locals to fight what they’re fleeing from.

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