There is a battle raging in U.S. cities around land and who controls it. It is fought with zoning laws and red lines. Its battlefields are neighborhood associations and local elections. Across the country, racist reactionaries square off against capitalist developers in a struggle to determine the future of the housing market. In these types of battles, whoever wins, tenants lose, according to housing organizers working to halt the damage wrought by both developers and racist politicians.
The U.S.’s housing crisis began long before COVID eviction moratoria brought the problem into the spotlight. Median rent in the United States has increased 70 percent since 1995, even as real wages remained static. This lack of affordable housing kept millions of people one crisis away from losing their homes. Before the pandemic began, almost half of all tenants in the United States were cost-burdened, meaning they paid over 30 percent of their income towards rent. One in four Americans paid over 50 percent.
“There’s basically no city in America where you make minimum wage and work 40 hours a week and afford the median rent on an apartment,” says Max Besbris, a sociology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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The solution is clear, academics and activists say: more housing for low-income tenants. However, for decades, the reactionary “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) movement stymied such construction in the name of keeping their neighborhoods white and property values high. Meanwhile, in recent years, the far more charismatic “Yes In My Backyard” (YIMBY) movement has pushed back against regressive NIMBYs through aggressive advocacy for loosening of zoning restrictions and the construction of dense urban housing developments.
Ultimately, though, grassroots activists reject this binary and argue that neither movement has the ability to solve the housing crisis.
The term NIMBY first appeared as a pejorative for opponents of the planned construction of a nuclear power plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire, in the 1970s. The truth is that nobody wants to live next to a nuclear power plant. The trouble is that as long as these power plants continue to be built, they will end up in someone’s “backyard.” The question of whose backyard is a question of political power.
NIMBYs existed long before the term came to prominence and it was never just about waste disposal. At its core, NIMBYism is an understandable desire for local autonomy. However, in the U.S. context, local autonomy also allows for the reification of racial and class segregation. In 1917, the Supreme Court outlawed policies that zoned separate residential areas for different races. In response to this, NIMBYs exploited a loophole that still allowed for class-based discrimination to indirectly ensure racial discrimination. Zoning board meetings, dominated by wealthy, white homeowners, put new zoning laws into effect around the country, which decreed that only single-family housing could be built in a residential area. This kept many neighborhoods racially segregated, and the lack of apartment buildings effectively kept poor whites from entering these communities as well.
“NIMBYism stems from the idea that segregation in some ways is good, in an economic sense,” Besbris says. “People don’t want developments, especially dense developments. Certainly not public housing.”
The ideological successors of the early NIMBY movement continue to stymie efforts to construct affordable housing where it is most needed. San Francisco has one of the worst housing crises in the country. The median cost of housing is 257 percent higher than the national average. This crisis in housing affordability has fueled a precipitous growth in the city’s unhoused population. Between 2017 and 2020, San Francisco was responsible for driving up the national houseless population by over 25 percent.
Despite the clear need for low-income housing, attempts to construct an affordable housing complex in San Francisco this summer met with extreme hostility from surrounding residents. Anonymous fliers circulated that described the project as a “7-story, 100-unit high-rise slum” which would “become the best place in San Francisco to buy heroin.” Hundreds of homeowners descended on a meeting with their district supervisor to warn about the dangers of toxins at the building site from the dry cleaners that had occupied part of the space. When the supervisor attempted to address the crowd, he was drowned out by chants calling for his recall.
Despite this uniform hostility, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the construction. This stunning defeat for the NIMBYs reflects broader trends in housing policy. As the housing crisis grows more acute, the cries for more housing have begun to drown out the NIMBYs.
If You Build It, They Will Come
After decades of dominance in town hall meetings across the country, NIMBY reactionaries find themselves challenged by the relatively new YIMBY movement. The newer movement’s approach to housing is simple: If the problem is a housing shortage, the solution is to build more housing. If zoning regulations historically limit housing developments, YIMBYs say, cities ought to relax or eliminate zoning requirements. If NIMBY logic leads to racial segregation, reversing NIMBYism will mend racial divides, according to YIMBYs.
YIMBYs, a cohort of young affluent reformers, are currently having a striking influence on public policy. In a few short years, their ideas have gone from fringe to mainstream. The coverage from the national press has largely been glowing, painting YIMBYs’ market-based approach as the salvation of the housing market. YIMBY influence can be seen in President Biden’s sprawling infrastructure bill, which eliminates exclusionary zoning.
At first glance, the YIMBY agenda seems to align with progressive goals. If you look more closely, however, the plan begins to look like a market-based, public-private Frankenstein. YIMBYs believe “we need to simply build more housing [in accordance with] the principles of market economics,” says Tracy Rosenthal, organizer and co-founder of the LA Tenants Union. The new housing would be built with tax credits and changes to zoning laws would be incentivized through a competitive grant program. But reliance on competitive grants for zoning reform, as a White House official put it, seeks to influence developers with “purely carrot, no stick.” The zoning laws are not an accident; they are the result of a century-old political project that is not going to disappear in exchange for extra federal funding.
Minneapolis offers an example of a YIMBY program in action. In 2018, as part of its cutting-edge 2040 plan, the city abolished exclusive single-family zoning. The idea was that this would allow for the construction of new duplexes and triplexes, as well as the conversion of existing single-family homes.
In 2020, however, developers filed only three permit requests for new triplexes, all for renovations of existing buildings. Rather than rethink the efficacy of YIMBY solutions, the Minneapolis City Council doubled down on attempts to persuade developers to create denser housing by getting rid of all parking requirements for new developments.
Even if doubling down on market-based incentives results in denser housing the second time around, increased development will not reduce costs for low-income tenants; it will price them out of the neighborhood, according to Besbris.
The YIMBY movement holds that the market will solve the housing crisis and generally rejects public housing as a solution. As a result, YIMBYs often work with large developers, who know they can make more money with luxury accommodations than affordable apartments. “There is money to be made as a developer, but only when you’re developing a certain kind of housing,” Besbris says. “No matter how much you let people build, it’s not necessarily going to equate to more affordable housing.”
For YIMBYs, spurring high-end development isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. As wealthy tenants move into luxury housing, the slightly less wealthy will take their place in a game of “musical chairs” that will eventually trickle down to the poorest tenants, YIMBYs argue. This process of filtering, they say, will eventually result in more available low-income housing. The parallels with Reaganomics are hard to ignore.
YIMBY logic might hold up if the United States had a single housing market that encompassed low-, middle- and high-income housing. A study of the Minneapolis housing market suggests, however, that low-income and high-income housing do not compete with each other. While filtration might occur decades down the road, high-end developments do not address the immediate issue, which is very specifically a crisis of affordable housing. For every 100 low-income tenants in the United States, only 37 units of affordable rental housing exist.
Far from alleviating the shortage of affordable housing, studies suggest that luxury developments actually increase rent for low-income tenants. “At the bottom end of the market, a landowner or a landlord is likely to see a new luxury building that is built nearby as a market signal that this is an up-and-coming neighborhood,” Edward Goetz, director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) at the University of Minnesota, explains. “And they’re just as likely to raise rents as do anything else.”
This kind of gentrification does not increase affordable housing, as YIMBYs claim, but can dramatically reduce it, according to a 2016 study comparing gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods within New York City. The study found that this gentrification increases housing stock, just as predicted by the YIMBYs. However, gentrifying neighborhoods also saw affordable housing availability decline by over 27 percent. Gentrifying neighborhoods also saw a disproportionately high decrease in Black population, which directly contradicts the YIMBY claim that so-called “up-zoning” acts to reverse racial segregation.
When gentrification drives low-income residents out of their homes, competition for the remaining affordable housing drives rent up even further. A study by the Institute of Children, Poverty & Homelessness (ICPH) compared two adjacent New York City neighborhoods: gentrifying Bed-Stuy and non-gentrifying Brownsville. As higher-income tenants moved into Bed-Stuy, displaced low-income tenants migrated to the now-more-affordable Brownsville, which increased competition for Brownsville housing and led to rent increases in that neighborhood as well. “The poorest of the city’s residents now face competition not only from wealthier households but also from other families living in poverty,” the study concluded.
Rosenthal compared the impact of the acronym “YIMBY” to that of the phrase “pro-life” in the abortion debate. “I am impressed,” Rosenthal said, “and I find it devastating.”
Reimagining the System
Like many intractable American problems, the answer to the housing crisis is both simple and widely adopted elsewhere, progressive activists say: The United States needs more public housing.
Currently, less than 1 percent of the U.S. population lives in public housing, and even the mention of building more is taboo in some circles in the U.S. The phrase “conjure[s] images of failing housing projects from the middle and later part of the 20th century,” Bresbis says, “but that really doesn’t have to be the case.”
“Red Vienna” provides a model for large-scale social housing, a blanket term for public housing that emphasizes affordability, equity and tenant control. Vienna, Austria, has a long history of investing in publicly owned housing for low- and middle-income residents, an effort spearheaded by socialists in the 1920s. Today, 62 percent of Vienna’s population lives in social housing with rent control and strong protections for tenants. The decommodification of the housing market has had remarkable effects on the lives of the residents. The low cost of housing has kept Vienna as one of the most affordable cities in the world. For 10 years in a row, Vienna has ranked first in the Mercer’s Quality of Living city rankings.
In addition to the lack of public housing, another major problem with the U.S. housing market is the perception of housing as an investment vehicle. “For homeowners, housing is basically your retirement,” Bresbis says. “It’s the major source of wealth for the vast majority of American households,” he said. This view of real estate as a financial vehicle creates a perverse incentive to maintain a housing shortage in order to drive up costs and reap a profit. “If we actually provided people with a generous, sustaining and honorable retirement at the national level, like other developed countries do, you wouldn’t necessarily have the same kind of interest in making sure that housing prices are always going up,” Besbris said.
Rosenthal agrees, noting, “We have a housing market in which prices only go up. And, therefore, housing has become an investment asset for corporations, hedge funds, real estate investment trusts and pension funds. Housing has become an investment for global financial actors, and has more in common with the stock market than it does with shoes.”
Ultimately, however, Rosenthal doubts that reform will do the trick.
“This system can’t be fixed,” Rosenthal said. “It can only be overthrown, transformed and replaced.”