Ten years of YIMBYism have accomplished a lot
A look back and a peek ahead at a movement's second decade
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I wrote a little e-book in 2012 called “The Rent Is Too Damn High: What To Do About It, And Why It Matters More Than You Think.” Now, 10 years later, California wrapped up an epic legislative session that should lead to transformative change in housing policy across the state. Laura Friedman’s AB 2097, signed into law by Gavin Newsom, ends parking mandates on parcels within a half mile of a transit stop throughout the state. Buffy Wicks’ AB 2011 is going to allow midrise residential construction on commercial corridors throughout the state leading to potentially over two million new units. They also passed a bill from longtime housing champion Scott Wiener preempting local authority to block California’s public colleges and universities from building student and faculty housing.
In some ways, the least interesting but most telling housing bill passed this session was legislation from Sharon Quirk-Silva that aims to make it easier to build ADUs and casitas.
The Quirk-Silva bill is significant because California has already passed several pro-ADU measures over the past decade. The fact that repeat bills keep passing on this topic reflects the existence of a durable pro-housing political coalition in Sacramento that is willing and able to take multiple bites of the apple if localities defy the legislature’s desire to see more housing approved. And that’s critically important because it’s hard to know ex ante what loopholes will or won’t be identified or exploited. The Wicks and Friedman bills are the most transformative in their intent, but it’s possible that recalcitrant town councils and county planning departments will try to undermine them. The message of the repeat ADU legislation is that the housing coalition won’t let them.
Meanwhile, continuing a trend that’s been in place for a couple of years now, the state government is stepping up enforcement of existing pro-housing laws.
I haven’t written much about these developments because the wins in California seem to show that the conventional wisdom has finally started to shift on housing. But since I do think I can claim a little credit for having been influential in popularizing YIMBY ideas, I want to take a bit of a victory lap and talk about the lessons we can learn for housing reform in other states and for politics more generally.
Since its inception, this blog has preached pragmatism and moderation, both of which the California YIMBYs have shown in spades. But I also think it’s important to call attention to the part of Max Weber’s slow boring metaphor where he says that “all historical experience confirms the truth that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.” I point this out because people newer to the discourse probably don’t realize the extent to which this cause was considered hopeless just 10-15 years ago.
Before there was YIMBY
The people from whom I first learned the substance of the land use issue were basically defeatists. Their view was that exclusionary zoning was bad, and that it contributed to an affordability crisis and to segregation, but that it also had a deep and fundamental logic to it. Homeowners benefit from scarcity and strong local veto, homeowners care a lot about land use issues, and elected officials are highly responsive to homeowners — they saw exclusionary zoning as an essentially unavoidable fact about the world.
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To the extent that pro-housing politics existed at all, it was a contrarian “sprawl is good” politics that argued against the imposition of growth controls on the fringes of expanding sunbelt cities. Personally, I would characterize myself as anti-anti-sprawl: I don’t like greenbelts or growth controls, but it’s also weird and bad to restrict development to the lowest-value land. And it’s a sign of how broken the housing politics of the recent past were that the only real argument going on was over these regulations. The Harberger Triangles of economic inefficiency are largest where the land is most expensive, which in the vast majority of cases is in favored quarter neighborhoods extending from downtown out into the most convenient set of suburbs.
But the people working in the public choice tradition offered a counsel of despair and futility on this topic.
Even the libertarians at the Cato Institute had zero interest in deregulating urban and suburban land, even though housing is by far the largest item in the household budget, and thus the single market where a deregulatory agenda would do the most good. Folks like Ryan Avent, David Alpert, and I started writing about these issues before the “YIMBY” label or concept existed, and I would say we lacked a theory of political change altogether. I was radicalized personally by all the regulatory hoops Jeff and Alice Speck had to go through to build this cool triangle house in my neighborhood, and I participated in a tiny way to help them on the level of emailing the relevant local elected officials to say they should get what they want. But beyond posting and local engagement, we couldn’t really tell a story about why the counselors of futility were wrong; I just thought it was wrong to give up on such an important topic.
Seeds of change
I did take inspiration during this period from two works of political science that have generally influenced my thinking:
One is Hans Noel’s “Political Ideologies and Political Parties in America,” which characterizes the influence of opinion writers on political change as stemming from their ability to help organize the issue space and convince people which issues should “go with” each other in ideological bundles.
The other is Frank Baumgartner and Marie Hojnacki’s “Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why.” They argue that contrary to popular belief, it’s not the case that the better-funded side wins policy fights. Instead, it’s almost always the status quo that wins. But when the pro-change side does win, the amount of financial resources available has very little predictive power. You need to get over some threshold to get on the agenda, but what happens after that isn’t about lobbying clout.
From Noel, I took the idea that — since the relevant actors here are left-of-center jurisdictions — it’s important that housing reform be seen as an issue that “goes with” other left-of-center priorities like ecological sustainability, economic equality, and racial justice. Pro-housing politics was stuck in the pro-sprawl dead-end because as a right-wing deregulatory movement, it was infused with the anti-urban cultural politics of the conservative milieu. But a person in my line of work could usefully frame the issue for progressive audiences as something that the kinds of people who live in New York and San Francisco and Boston and Seattle should care about.
What I took from Baumgartner and Hojnacki was an actual analytical defense of the anti-futility attitude.
Achieving policy change on Topic X is hard not because the politics of Topic X are uniquely difficult, but because policy change is inherently difficult. And because advocacy spending has diminishing marginal returns, the case for spending a bit less money on the best-funded existing causes and more than zero money on obscure weird causes that nobody is spending on is very strong. When “The Rent is Too Damn High” came out a decade ago, I didn’t have a specific theory of change beyond those ideas. But whether I played any causal role, pretty soon a small number of progressive people started doing housing advocacy and some folks started giving them money, and that got the topic on the agenda.
Conor Dougherty wrote a great book called “Golden Gates” a couple of years ago about the early history of the YIMBY movement.
But as a brief overview, Kim-Mai Cutler wrote a very influential TechCrunch piece bearing down specifically on California housing regulation and bringing housing economics analysis to the Silicon Valley world. At around this time, Sonja Trauss started the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SFBARF). Despite the comical name, Trauss’s organizing and Cutler’s coverage helped establish a template for local YIMBY organizing and get the issue on tech people’s radar, bringing in money for more organizing. These localized fights didn’t generate huge policy change, but they did get some housing built and started to identify some local elected officials who would be the YIMBY legislative champions in years to come.
What really led to bigger change, though, was a point that Yale Law School professor David Schleicher pressed on me and others during these early days — it matters where you do the politics. And in this case, it made more sense to take the fight to state legislatures rather than city councils.
The counsels of futility missed the fact that bad land use regulations aren’t a strict transfer from renters to homeowners. They also destroy an incredible amount of economic value by inhibiting capital formation, limiting agglomeration, and forcing all kinds of inefficiencies throughout the system. The gains to incumbent homeowners simply aren’t large enough for it to make sense for them to be able to block change.
The real issue is that the upsides to housing growth accrue across a city, a metro area, or even a state, while the nuisances of new construction (parking scarcity, traffic, aesthetic change) are incredibly local. So if you ask a very small area “do you want more housing or less?” a lot of people will say that they think the local harms exceed the local benefits, and the division will basically come down to aesthetic preference for more or less density. But if you ask a large area “do you want more housing or less?” the very same people with all the same values and ideas may come up with a different answer because they internalize a much larger share of the benefits.
That’s the strategy that Brian Hanlon and his group California YIMBY took to Sacramento, where in partnership with some key elected officials, they put housing squarely on the agenda in the state legislature. Over the years Hanlon won some fights and they lost some fights, but CA YIMBY achieved the key Baumgartner and Hojnacki result of being consistently present as a topic under discussion with enough donor money (from tech industry people, I think) to be a force. There was some learning-by-doing, but as I understand, the key to this year’s breakthroughs was forging deals with organized labor, which as CA YIMBY policy analyst Darrell Owens illustrates here, yielded a powerful political coalition.
I don’t think the particular terms of the legislative deals struck in Sacramento are necessarily optimal or represent the ideal strategy for other states. But the key point is that this is not a zero-sum process. If you roll back bad anti-housing legislation, you generate a lot of economic surplus. At that point, smart, practical political dealmakers can make deals. A better world is possible through a combination of clear vision and ruthless pragmatism.
What comes next
What’s exciting to me is that there are so many additional directions for the reform movement to go.
On the one hand, from an urbanist perspective, there’s a much wider suite of non-housing urban reform issues that are crying out for work.
But from a housing perspective, the logical next step is to take the successful model pioneered in California and bring it to other high-cost states. The other most important targets — Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Colorado, Maryland — are all blue states, but except for the Bay State, none of them are as blue as California. In terms of Biden’s vote share, Oregon is equidistant between California and North Carolina. So you probably need different political approaches in some of these places, and one thing I’m hoping funders will invest in is some rigorous message testing to try to understand which arguments work best with which audiences.
That’s especially true with remote work shifting demand patterns around. There are now acute housing supply problems in unexpected places like Boise, and at this point Austin has actually become more expensive than D.C. What does a pro-infill political coalition look like in a conservative state?
But there’s also a lot that can be done on housing that isn’t “urbanism” at all per se. Decidedly suburban jurisdictions come with a great variety of minimum lot size rules. My personal view is that multifamily housing should be allowed everywhere. In practice, though, there are tons of places where very little multifamily housing would get built no matter what the zoning rules were. And simply letting people practice small-lot suburbanism rather than rich-people-only snob zoning could unleash a lot of housing supply. HUD Code restrictions on manufactured housing continue to be a big deal in places where land is cheap (i.e., most places).
Last but by no means least, for most of my career I’ve been emphasizing that we are talking about land use regulations, not building codes that are supposed to promote safety. But there’s recently been more attention paid to the question of whether the American tendency to require two staircases in nearly all multifamily buildings is a mistake. This is a fire safety rule, and fire safety is important. But as the Mercatus Center’s Emily Hamilton argues, we should let builders address fire safety in multiple ways. If you want to use flammable building materials, then yes, you should need to have multiple staircases. But if you have a parcel or market conditions where it’s much more profitable to build a single-stair building, you should be able to do that by using more fire-safe materials, installing sprinklers, etc.
These kinds of discussions, however, are necessarily more technical than the basic economics of land use regulation. As a community, we’re going to need to develop a more robust understanding of building codes and what’s really needed for safety vs. what’s sheerly rent-seeking. We also probably need more technical analysis of which kinds of land use reforms actually generate large amounts of new housing. The California approach so far has, I think, been driven largely by a sense of what they can get the votes for, which is great for a pioneering group. But my understanding is that the popularity of these reforms varies quite a bit from idea to idea, so it’s worth understanding which risks are worth running and which aren’t.
Overall, though, I think the future is bright. Ten years ago, housing reform was considered a bizarre niche issue that nobody in the audience cared about and where change was politically impossible. Now, it’s a mainstream topic of discussion with real political champions, local activist groups around the country, and a blueprint for state-level change. More and more people also acknowledge these days that housing is just so central to the economy that you can’t treat it as a tiny quirky obsession of urbanists — anyone who cares about sustainable growth needs to care about housing supply.
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I’m traveling in The Netherlands right now, and it’s given me an appreciation of how silly some of the discourse is. Urbanism isn’t a new theoretical construct; it has been and is being executed well at scale around the world. Hundreds of people older than my parents are really out there riding the bicycles, strollers are effortlessly boarding the trams, and everyday families are living in 4-6 story apartment buildings on walkable streets. It’s happening! Go see it! We don’t have to invent these things from whole cloth or speculate about how they will play out. If we wanted to, we could just copy.
I also knew going in that the transit was going to better in terms of coverage and frequency. I didn’t realize how much it was going to be NICER. The tram has level boarding, it’s modern and clean, it moves with a sense of urgency and efficiency but isn’t actively trying to knock over the standing passengers. Even the bus is built like a luxury car - everything fits together tightly, vibrations and shimmies are well controlled. On a just off the line New Flyer in SF, you go over a slight bump and it’s literally a deafening rattle as every seat and panel down the length of the thing reacts. I understand why Americans refuse to use transit that communicates to its riders that they are poor. I wonder what is going to take us to get transit that makes you feel rich.
Moved to SF in 2015, got involved in YIMBY the next year. Over the past 6 years, it has been remarkable to see the progress. Thank you Matt for giving this issue so much visibility.
Here locally, the NIMBY forces seem despondent. They know they are loathed as the selfish “got mime, eff u” crowd, which is why their only argument is a hand wavy thing about gentrification of neighborhoods like Sunset SF where housing has been 1M+ for over a decade.
They’re losing, they know it, and the bitter tears make for great cocktails.