By David M. Greenwald
In a thought provoking piece this weekend in the Atlantic, Reihan Salam writes: “Why YIMBY Righteousness Backfires: Treating suburbanites as hateful snobs will not make them more welcoming of newcomers.”
Salam argues that the central challenge facing the YIMBY movement is: “If it’s wrong to want to live in a bucolic neighborhood largely populated by people who can comfortably afford exorbitantly high housing prices, most Americans don’t want to be right.”
Salam argues that as “an intellectual project” YIMBYism “has been wildly successful, and for good reason. The evidence that boosting housing supply to meet housing demand can foster economic growth and spur upward mobility is overwhelming.”
But at the same time, “the YIMBY movement has failed to overcome deep-seated skepticism among voters, who intuit that new homes mean new neighbors, and that new neighbors can mean new headaches.”
It is a great piece and worth reading.
I have a somewhat different take as someone who has been fighting this battle on the ground for years locally now.
As I see it—as a convert myself—I was won over into the camp that housing is social justice. For years I saw the battle as one of greedy developers or “capitalists” who built over open space and farmland at the expense of the environment.
Where I started to shift is that the more I got to know how the system impacted people, the more I recognized that housing insecurity was at the heart of their day-to-day struggle, and the only people benefiting from growth restrictions were people who were already wealthy enough to own homes in the first place.
And while progressives convinced themselves that growth restrictions helped the environment, they failed to recognize the huge environmental impact of commuting due to the failure to put housing near jobs and reliable transit.
As the piece in the Atlantic notes, “despite incontrovertible evidence of a housing-affordability crisis, one that is still driving hundreds of thousands of low- and middle-income families out of the state, many Californians are bitterly opposed to the recent housing push…”
Much of his piece attempts to explain why “California voters have proved so hard to win over.”
From my perspective there are two primary problems. There are a group of people who simply don’t care. They have theirs—they have their job or are at the end of their working career, if not retired. They have their house. Many purchased their homes 30 to 40 years ago, when the cost of housing was far lower and thus they have benefited from the housing crisis.
For those people they not only benefit from housing scarcity, since they already have theirs, they are harmed or at least think they are harmed by additional growth which in their mind leads to more traffic, more crime (which is at the heart a big hidden driver here), or it will devalue their homes.
While I would and have argued that the traffic argument is far more complex, yes, adding housing will add people—but it could also subtract traffic by bringing more people in close proximity to their jobs.
Can you win this group over? Sometimes. The traffic issue is one that a lot of people don’t understand well, and to the extent that things like climate change matters, you might get some converts. But I think at the end of the day, there are some people you just can’t reach.
There are two other groups that are more ripe for conversion.
There is the group of people who support housing in general, but believe it needs to be affordable housing.
And then there is another group that is largely apolitical or at least disengaged.
I meet a lot of people who are basically soccer parents—they have school age kids, they both work, many of them commute to work, they are nominally liberal, but not really engaged, especially on the local level.
Many of them moved to a place like Davis because it had good schools, was reasonably close to places like Sacramento or the Bay Area, and it is nice and safe place to live.
At the core, they don’t want the community to change much—that’s why they moved here. But they can also be moved on issues like general housing affordability and schools. On the other hand, they are concerned with things like traffic, visual blight and, of course, crime.
This group could fall into a group of people as described by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative who commissioned a series of focus groups and surveys, culminating in a report published last year which found, “Most renters and owners we heard from expressed that they are wary of affordable housing solutions in their neighborhood, citing worries that it will result in crime, noise, litter, illegal dumping, and a general lack of property upkeep.”
Moreover, although a large majority of respondents “broadly embraced diversity as a current or aspirational feature of their neighborhood,” they expressed deep discomfort with the idea of having neighbors significantly poorer than them.
This is a group that can be engaged. But it will take work and education.
Then you have the affordable housing group. They tend to be more engaged. They are heavily social justice oriented. But many are deeply skeptical of market rate solutions.
On the one hand, I hear things like: “We don’t need more unaffordable housing” and on the other hand, I often hear skepticism about the intentions of developers.
I think there are primarily two problems with that approach. First, I don’t think we have enough housing, period. I see relatively modest homes selling for $900K to more than $1 million—that should tell you that we actually don’t have enough housing, period.
Second, I am skeptical that we can build the housing we need without the higher end housing to make it profitable and thus feasible for investors (i.e. developers). That’s not to say I oppose efforts to build more affordable housing, I just see the need as broader and see subsidized housing as one piece of a broader puzzle.
Bottom line though, I think people need to re-orient themselves—neighborhood preservation is largely a fool’s errand. Change is omnipresent. You cannot stop change. And by trying, you create change—just unplanned and in a different direction.
I think, though, we need to have broad discussions and education to inform the public of the consequences and benefits of various different approaches.
That said, I do agree with a key point raised by the Atlantic piece: “None of this is to suggest that YIMBYism is doomed. But if YIMBYs want to nudge more Americans in their direction, they’d do well to hector less and listen more.”
I agree that you are generally not going to shame people into changing their views. However, you can present them with different ideas that challenge their thinking and bring about slow incremental change over time.