The Atlantic: Why YIMBY Righteousness Backfires

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This article originally appeared in the Atlantic.

By: Reihan Salam

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.

That is the central challenge facing the YIMBY (“Yes in My Backyard”) movement, an ideologically diverse collection of scholars, policy makers, and grassroots activists committed to the disarmingly simple idea that building new homes in the nation’s most prosperous cities and towns would be a really good thing to do. 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. There is even tentative evidence to suggest that curbing local land-use regulation could help reverse the collapse of marriage among working-class families, which is no small thing. Among economists and legal scholars who work on local land use, the debate over zoning reform is essentially over.

Yet 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.

Consider California, where YIMBY lawmakers have made their greatest strides. Since 2016, the California state legislature has passed a series of measures preempting some of the most egregious local land-use regulations, prompting a boomlet in accessory dwelling units. But 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, so much so that there is a real danger that voters will pass a ballot measure in 2024 rolling back the reforms.

To understand why California voters have proved so hard to win over, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, one of the leading philanthropic champions of YIMBYism, commissioned a series of focus groups and surveys, culminating in a report published last year. According to the authors, “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 skepticism is not unique to the Golden State. In January of this year, Governor Kathy Hochul unveiled the “New York Housing Compact,” an ambitious set of reforms aimed at boosting housing production in New York City and its notoriously expensive suburbs. By May, the Housing Compact was dead. Statewide zoning-reform proposals in Colorado, Arizona, and Texas also went down to defeat.

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.

Convinced of their righteousness, some of the most ardent YIMBYs have adopted a moralistic posture, denouncing recalcitrant homeowners as snobs or bigots, and calling for sweeping legislative measures that would strip local governments of their land-use authority and further circumscribe the ability of landlords to choose their tenants. Richard Kahlenberg’s new book, Excluded, is a perfect distillation of this sensibility.

Best known for his contrarian critique of racial preferences at selective colleges, Kahlenberg has dedicated his public life to making the case for racial and economic integration. Not content to make a prudential case against exclusionary zoning that might appeal to the self-interest of homeowners, Excluded argues that the practice is a moral outrage—classist, and implicitly racist as well—and that we need a moral campaign to eradicate it backed with the full force of the federal government, one modeled on the fight against Jim Crow in the previous century. To that end, Kahlenberg calls for an Economic Fair Housing Act that would allow lawsuits to challenge zoning policies for discriminating against the poor or having an unnecessary disparate impact by class, with judges deciding what counts as necessary. This would amount to a de facto federal ban on single-family zoning, would threaten countless other zoning policies as well, and would work, in large part, by cowing local governments with the threat of expensive lawsuits based on vague, subjective legal standards.

While this line of argument is sure to resonate with some number of social-justice progressives, it is unlikely to persuade anxious homeowners and renters who dread the prospect of neighborhood change. Chris Elmendorf, a professor of land-use law at UC Davis, has warned that framing zoning reform as a matter of economic justice is likely to backfire. Today’s affluent suburbanites might resent the suggestion that they’re guilty of racial animus, but they’re entirely comfortable with being accused of colorblind class prejudice.

Opponents of new housing in their backyard might not be especially enlightened, but they aren’t delusional either. Exclusionary zoning is, as the name suggests, a strategy for improving the local tax base by deploying local land-use regulation to attract rich residents and deter poor ones. Local public services in the U.S. are largely financed by local property taxes and other municipal revenues, such as sales taxes and parking and sewerage fees. One needn’t be a hateful snob to recognize that while some newcomers will generate more in local revenues than they receive in services, others will not.

Indeed, these local fiscal pressures are arguably the central force shaping America’s fragmented metropolitan geography. As the Princeton economist Leah Boustan argues in Competition in the Promised Land, the “white flight” of the postwar era was driven in no small part by these fiscal concerns. As poor Black migrants made their way to urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest, and West, large numbers of more affluent white families moved to suburban jurisdictions with higher average incomes than the cities they left behind. Some of this outmigration was undoubtedly driven by white reluctance to live alongside Black neighbors, but because U.S. cities were so intensely segregated in this period, most of the flight was from neighborhoods that remained exclusively white. Urban departures from these white neighborhoods were motivated less by fear of social intermingling with Black neighbors than by fear of fiscal intermingling with lower-income neighbors who had different needs and priorities. “Moving to the suburbs,” Boustan writes, “allowed white households to isolate themselves from the changing bundle of local public goods and fiscal obligations offered in the central city.”

Given these powerful fiscal incentives, NIMBYism in small suburban jurisdictions is almost inevitable. Rather than expect moral suasion to change the politics of zoning in these communities, YIMBYs would do well to embrace a more humble and realistic approach, one that endeavors to meet suburban NIMBYs halfway.

One straightforward way to win over suburban homeowners is to advance housing reforms that help them build wealth, as Elmendorf has recommended. Legalizing accessory dwelling units, for example, enriches ordinary homeowners, who enjoy more public sympathy than large-scale developers, fairly or otherwise, and who can be mobilized against cost-increasing municipal-impact fees and discretionary review procedures. As an added bonus, this brand of reform allows YIMBYs to make a more optimistic appeal grounded in respect for property rights and personal freedom, a pitch that’s helped pass zoning-reform laws in Oregon, Utah, and Montana.

When faced with determined suburban resistance, as in downstate New York, where Hochul’s Housing Compact proved an immense political liability, YIMBYs ought to focus their efforts on dialing back land-use regulation in large cities. Opposition to housing production tends to be less intense in more populous jurisdictions, in part because their ratio of rich to poor residents is by definition harder to change. Urban neighborhoods are also more dynamic than suburban neighborhoods: They’re disproportionately populated by renters, young adults, low-income families, and other populations that experience above-average levels of housing churn. Neighborhood change is a fact of life in these communities. If zoning reform in urban cores proves successful, the case for housing growth in smaller communities will be that much more compelling.

At the risk of rankling anti-business progressives, YIMBYs should also do more to cultivate large employers as political allies. Lower housing costs are a powerful tool to attract and retain workers, and large employers can exert significant influence in state legislatures. That employers in California’s technology sector have played an important role in the fight against tight zoning is no coincidence—they’re keenly aware that as housing costs in the Golden State rise, they can either pay higher wages or watch as their workers decamp for cities in Idaho or Nevada.

And finally, YIMBYs should work to soften the local fiscal incentives that drive exclusionary zoning in the first place. Zachary Liscow of Yale Law School found that when states take on a larger share of school funding, rich people become more willing to move into poorer jurisdictions, likely because doing so would no longer saddle them with the special burden of supporting services for large numbers of neighbors who pay little in taxes. Consistent with this pattern, he found that centralized school funding led to lower taxes in lower-income municipalities.

A similar logic would apply to state funding for policing and public-safety efforts. If NIMBYs worry that an influx of lower-income migrants will lead to a surge of crime and disorder, as the Chan Zuckerberg Institute’s findings strongly suggest, increased state aid to local law-enforcement agencies might allay their concerns. Some arch social-media leftists have disapprovingly dubbed this blend of support for zoning reform and “broken windows” policing “carceral urbanism,” but of course social-media leftists are not the target audience.

Granted, changing local fiscal incentives would be a significant undertaking, one that would meet with resistance from voters who’d fear losing out under the new fiscal dispensation. But 30 percent of local-government revenue already comes in the form of transfers from state governments. Increasing state-government responsibility for funding local policing or public education would represent a relatively modest and potentially very welcome change, especially when compared with, say, fair-share requirements that mandate the production of deed-restricted affordable-housing units and other priorities of the YIMBY left.

Tinkering around with local fiscal incentives, forging alliances with regional business elites, and helping some property-rich homeowners get richer won’t usher in an egalitarian new millennium of integrated neighborhoods from coast to coast, but it will help YIMBYs build a more persuasive case that housing growth is in the enlightened self-interest of suburbanites who might otherwise be concerned about rising tax burdens and sinking home values. That’s not a bad start.

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