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The YIMBY Agenda We Aren’t Talking About

No one disputes that we need more housing. But the YIMBY movement has a broader set of goals that would threaten the tradition of local land use decisions in America.

The skyline of downtown San Francisco.
San Francisco was an early target of the YIMBY movement with its interest in building more densely in the city’s single-family neighborhoods.
Housing prices soared across this country during the pandemic. But in many places, they were a big problem long before that. While it would be facile to reduce this to a single cause, zoning restrictions and other forms of red tape have clearly made it hard for developers to build new housing in cities with hot demand.

Cities need to facilitate the conversion of downtown office buildings to residences; to approve more intense development in neighborhood commercial districts; and to do something about the excessive amount of land limited exclusively to single-family homes in city centers.

In short, we need to make it easier to build in America.

This might sound like the agenda of the YIMBY, or “Yes in My Backyard” movement, an activist counterpoint to the NIMBY neighbors (“Not in My Backyard”) who regularly stymie new development. And in the past, I was sympathetic to the YIMBYs on the assumption that they were primarily interested in building more densely in popular areas like San Francisco and the north side of Chicago, in other cities along commercial corridors, near commuter rail stops, and in suburban town centers.

But this common view of the YIMBY movement is wrong. The YIMBYs have much bigger aims. They seek to fundamentally alter zoning in the entire United States, not just in cities, near commuter rail stops or in suburban downtowns, as commonly believed.

While theirs is not a monolithic movement with uniform views, by and large YIMBYs want to totally eliminate any zoning for exclusively single-family districts — everywhere. Not even outer exurbs would be allowed to have subdivisions that were zoned exclusively for single-family homes.

This is what YIMBYs actually achieved in Oregon, where a state law has eliminated single-family zoning in the areas where 70 percent of the state’s population lives. Municipalities with more than 10,000 people (1,000 in metro Portland) must allow duplexes or fourplexes in current single-family neighborhoods. In other words, YIMBY is not so much “Yes in My Backyard” as it is “Yes in Your Backyard.”

The use of state pre-emption of local zoning rules, as in Oregon, has also been a YIMBY tactic. Leading YIMBY advocate Matthew Yglesias says he believes that “multifamily housing should be allowed everywhere.” When I queried him about this, he said that “If your question is ‘Which level of government should set land use rules?’ my answer is that state legislatures should do it.” I wouldn’t interpret this as meaning local control should be completely eliminated, but it’s clearly consistent with the YIMBY view that states should call the shots on big land use questions. This shift from local to state control by itself would completely upend this country’s traditional approach to land use. YIMBYs intend to use state power to enact pervasive and wide-ranging changes to zoning.

In sum, YIMBYs want states to take local land use power away from local governments, transfer it to the state, and then use state legislation to ban single-family zoning everywhere. This is a much more far-reaching and expansive agenda than most people realize. It is not just about densifying high-demand areas, or exercising targeted and legitimate state intervention where local governments have refused to build or engaged in exclusionary zoning. It’s about a wholesale rewriting of land use rules everywhere in the United States.

When called on this, YIMBYs try to change the argument by saying that they don’t want to make single-family homes illegal. No one says they do. But they very much want to make it impossible to zone for single-family homes only. YIMBYs have a target on the back of every subdivision in America.

YIMBYs also dispute that rezoning will lead to wholesale demolition and drastic neighborhood change because there’s no market demand for it in many places. Yet they are hostile to just about any limits on potential redevelopment. If the houses on either side of a single-family home in the suburbs were torn down and replaced with fourplexes, most YIMBY activists would undoubtedly celebrate.

The YIMBY claim to be concerned about high housing prices is undermined by the fact that many YIMBYs support urban growth boundaries and other forms of urban containment that raise housing prices. They mostly do not want to repeal Portland’s urban growth boundary, for example, just densify the existing developed area, including residential neighborhoods. Many YIMBYs appear to have simply repackaged an age-old opposition to sprawl and a desire to encourage more people to live a denser urban lifestyle with a new libertarian marketing program ostensibly aimed at prices.

YIMBYs have a right to propose that land use should be regulated at the state level, or that exclusive single-family zoning should be prohibited. But we need to have a debate about these ideas. So far, the YIMBY movement has been able to conceal its very expansive agenda so effectively that most people are not even aware of the scope of what they want to do.

Zoning reform is badly needed, but we should treat it as a tool pragmatically applied to address specific problems, not as an ideology. While increased density and land use reform are important in many places, the YIMBY vision of imperialistic rezoning from state capitals should be rejected.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.

An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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