Build, Baby, Build: A New Housing Movement’s Unofficial Motto

It's a counter to the "not in my backyard" mentality that has led to housing shortages in some cities.
March 2017
California state Sen. Wiener is a self-described YIMBY. (Scott Wiener)
By Scott Beyer  |  Columnist

Local control, as I wrote in my last column, can sometimes backfire. America’s affordable housing crisis is a prime example. The sensible response to rapid population growth and inflated prices in our cities is to build more housing. But thanks to a “not in my backyard” mentality that is supported by a hyper-local planning model, existing residents are able to resist new construction that promotes density.

To get around this obstacle, land use control has in some cases shifted from localities to states. But a top-down approach isn’t very democratic and, as a result, has helped spur a counter, grassroots movement of YIMBYs, or “yes in my backyard” supporters.

As I’ve discovered while traveling from city to city this last year, YIMBY groups are surfacing in urban areas with high prices and antigrowth political climates. The movement was brought about in part by New York YIMBY, a blog calling for more construction and density in Gotham, and the SF YIMBY Party, a collection of groups that host happy hours, testify at public hearings and pursue other grassroots organizing. Inspired by this momentum, pro-housing ecosystems have also emerged in Austin, Los Angeles, Seattle and elsewhere.

Granted, the YIMBY movement is still largely in its infancy -- a scattershot collection of blogs, nonprofits, individual activists and civic events (YIMBY groups held their first conference last June in Boulder, Colo.). And its prescriptions vary thanks to the different groups that inevitably come together under its banner, such as construction industry people seeking deregulation aligning with social justice advocates who want tenant protections and affordability set-asides.

Despite their different backgrounds, YIMBYs, who tend to be young and lean liberal, unify around the broad idea of adding more housing. “It’s a progressive movement,” says Scott Wiener, a California state senator and self-described YIMBY, consisting of “pro-housing activism by the young people who are most impacted by the failure to create enough housing.”

This is indeed a movement, and it’s slowly gaining political influence. I’ve come across YIMBY groups who have sponsored political action committees, sued cities for stalling developments and stacked local advocacy groups with their own people, such as when San Francisco YIMBYs tried overhauling the notoriously NIMBYist local Sierra Club.

I’ve also met YIMBYs that have occupied staff positions in city hall or on their neighborhood councils -- people like Wiener. He began in 2010 as the most reliably pro-housing voice on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Since getting elected senator last November, Wiener has introduced a by-right housing bill that would allow developers throughout California to build homes without worrying about environmental review, local approval and NIMBYs. He’s even brought an SF YIMBY Party member onto his staff.

Wiener is the kind of official who may soon appear in other cities with strong YIMBY activism. But the movement itself remains local and decentralized, suggesting that this might be one solution to the housing crisis that keeps local control in local hands.