YIMBYs keep winning
Other movements should pay attention and learn lessons
The YIMBY movement annoys a lot of people who are highly engaged with politics because we are living in a time of intense political polarization, and YIMBYism is not aligned with either pole.
But the core YIMBY thesis that quantitative restrictions on housing production are costly to the economy and harmful to society is true. The upshot of this is that a lot of smart, highly engaged people want to express negative sentiments about YIMBYism that don’t involve directly contradicting the core YIMBY thesis since they are too smart to deny its veracity. The result is a lot of tone-policing and concern-trolling where people express the idea that YIMBYs are doing this or that wrong, ideas that normally amount to “I wish you’d be less focused on your goal” or “I wish you’d do more to align yourself with my camp in the polarization dynamic.”
The truth, though, is that while YIMBYs have, of course, made mistakes, the YIMBY movement is enjoying a lot of success.
The precise qualities that generate this annoyance — genuinely prioritizing the topic at hand and trying to avoid polarization dynamics — are a big part of that success, and rather than concern-trolling, I think people who happen to be less interested in the topic should try to learn those general lessons. Whether your passion is health care or climate change or whatever else, you would make more progress if you tried to reconfigure yourself to be a bit more annoying in precisely those ways: more single-mindedly focused on your core goal and more deliberate about expanding the tent as much as possible.
A cavalcade of YIMBY successes
I used to keep track of individual YIMBY policy wins, but at a certain point I stopped because there were just too many. I’m not the kind of person to offer “Twitter isn’t real life” lectures because obviously the internet is an important part of how people encounter and spread political ideas. At the same time, if people arguing on the internet is your primary news source, you can easily get the impression that everything is just the same old people arguing in circles. Actual policy change happens in state legislatures and city councils, and in an era of greatly diminished local media, people tend to only find out about it if it gets dragged into big, polarized national conversations.
In terms of Cincinnati, it’s maybe just not that interesting. You’re talking about the central city of the third-largest MSA in Ohio, a state that generally has very cheap housing and where the bulk of the demand is in the Columbus area. The Wisconsin housing reforms, though, are genuinely interesting because people sort of do pay a lot of attention to Wisconsin politics. The state was the Electoral College tipping point in 2016 and 2020, it’s ground zero for an important battle over gerrymandering, and the state legislature frequently leverages its entrenchment-via-gerrymander in an effort to undermine the governor’s basic authorities.
So the fact that Wisconsin is passing bipartisan reforms to encourage housing production actually is pretty interesting from the standpoint of the national narrative and in terms of understanding which movements are and aren’t successful. Wisconsin, of course, is not a huge deal from the standpoint of the national housing situation. But the Madison area really does have an affordability problem, and Wisconsin’s economy has generally been enjoying strong performance and really will benefit from accommodating more people. It’s just not, I think, in the interest of either Evers or his antagonists in the legislature to have out-of-state people know that they’re working together effectively on this problem. But for in-state purposes, almost every politician facing divided government does, in fact, want to be able to tell people, “here’s some stuff I got done.” And YIMBY stuff is a good way to go because YIMBYs have a broad menu of policy ideas that aren’t uniformly aligned with partisan national politics, so progress can co-exist with intense trench warfare on other topics.
I tasked Maya with compiling the most comprehensive list of YIMBY policy wins she could find, and she came up with 122 discrete successes over the past two-and-a-half years.