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USA Real Estate Blog

What Should YIMBYs Learn From 2018?

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Believe it or not, the YIMBY movement won a lot in 2018. It kicked off with January’s high of California State Senator Scott Wiener’s introduction of SB 827, which would have permitted multifamily development near transit across the state, but fell to a low after its eventual defeat in committee, invariably followed by a flurry of think pieces about how the pro-development movement had “failed.” At the time, I made the case for optimism over on Citylab, but that didn’t stop the summer lull from becoming a period of soul searching within the movement.

And then, a strange thing happened: YIMBYs started winning, and winning big. In August, presidential-hopeful Senator Cory Booker released a plan to preempt exclusionary zoning using Community Development Block Grant funds, quickly followed by a similar plan from Senator Elizabeth Warren in September. Also in August, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson unexpectedly outed himself as a YIMBY. Then, in December, things really got crazy: two major North American cities, Minneapolis and Edmonton, completely eliminated single-family zoning. States like Oregon soon started talking about doing the same.

In the same month, California kicked into overdrive: San Francisco—ground zero for the YIMBY movement—scrapped minimum parking requirements altogether. State Senator Wiener introduced a newer, sharper version of SB 827. And rolling into 2019, elected officials at every level of California government—from the state’s new Democratic governor to San Diego’s Republican mayor—are singing from the YIMBY hymn sheet.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad year for a movement that’s only five years old. But what really made 2018 such an unexpected success for YIMBYs?

Focus on Citywide Reform Over Individual Rezonings

Showing up and saying “Yes!” to individual projects that are requesting a rezoning, variance, or special permit is bread-and-butter YIMBY activism. And while YIMBYs should still show up in support of especially good local projects like homeless shelters or fully-affordable buildings, the real battle is at the city-wide level. YIMBYs in 2018 were so successful, in part, because they focused on two types of policy reforms: text amendments and comprehensive plan updates.

Unlike a rezoning or special permit, which only facilitates a single project, a good text amendment permanently changes the zoning for an entire class of developments, potentially making thousands of new developments possible. This is what happened when San Francisco eliminated parking requirements. Without minimum parking requirements, an unknowable number of new projects may now pencil out.

The same is true of comprehensive plan updates, which, in many states, will force changes in the zoning ordinance through a mechanism called a “consistency requirement.” That means that if a comprehensive plan calls for a policy—for example, that all residential districts must allow at least triplexes—then the zoning ordinance must change to accommodate this. This is essentially what happened in Minneapolis, thanks to the activism of the the YIMBY groups.

Why focus on text amendments and comprehensive plans over individual applications? First, because in most cities, the former can mostly fly under the radar. Since everyone is bearing some of the burden, nobody has a special incentive to show up and NIMBY. Second, citywide reforms will simply facilitate far, far more new development than any individual application, for roughly the same amount of activist resources. If YIMBYs are going to solve the housing affordability crisis and end exclusionary zoning, cities are going to need to build a lot of units everywhere, and doing that requires citywide reforms.

State Legislatures Are Your Friend

In 2019, YIMBYs should continue to encourage state legislative efforts that will ease up on burdensome land-use regulations and phase out exclusionary zoning. As with citywide reforms, successful statewide reforms could open up hundreds of thousands of new development opportunities.

An effective state preemption can create a lot of new units. New Jersey, for instance, has required that exclusionary municipalities build their fair share of new units since the Mt. Laurel decisions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In March, a court ordered that at least 155,000 new units be permitted in the next decade alone. More recently, California legislators enacted sweeping ADU reform, effectively eliminating single-family zoning and sparking the development of thousands of new units in unused garages and attics.

State preemption makes sense for many of the same reason that citywide reform makes sense: It eliminates the need for a costly, city-by-city reform campaign, and it could open up many hundreds of thousands of development opportunities. But state preemption goes even further in opening up NIMBY suburbs that will never build more housing without outside intervention. This is key, because the YIMBY cause is also about desegregating our metropolitan areas and helping working people afford to live in the areas with quality schools and plenty of job opportunities.

YIMBY Is Bipartisan, Whether You Like It Or Not

The YIMBY movement is overwhelmingly composed of Democrats. That makes sense: most people who live—or want to live—in cities are Democrats. But an unexpected lesson of 2018 is that there’s a surprising appetite for YIMBY ideas among Republicans as well. The politics of leveraging this interest may be one of the trickiest political challenges the YIMBY movement will face going forward.

Consider three 2018 developments: First, in the committee vote on whether or not to advance SB 827, two of the committee’s three present Republicans voted in favor of the bill, while all but two Democrats—including Senator Wiener—voted against. Second, one of the only big-city mayors to come out forcefully as a YIMBY thus far has been San Diego Republican Kevin Faulconer. Third, HUD Secretary Carson—arguably the person with the most power over U.S. housing policy—has lately come out as a YIMBY.

For Republicans, the underlying motivation may be more property rights and deregulation than racial justice and environmentalism. But whatever their motivations, it’s clear that more and more Republicans are open to saying “Yes!” to new housing development.

There are two ways YIMBYs could react to this new GOP interest. To avoid alienating leftist YIMBYs, they could safeguard their left flank and eschew any cooperation with this budding Republican YIMBY offshoot. Or they could leverage this political capital to expand into high-cost red states like Utah and Idaho, build stronger coalitions in high-cost swing states like Colorado, and advance YIMBY policy in an indefinitely divided Congress.

The right mix in 2019 will likely often be a bit of both, depending the level of government and politics in play. Threading this needle won’t be easy, but it’s an essential next step in the maturation of the YIMBY movement.


For future content and discussion, follow me on Twitter at @mnolangray.

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