The YIMBYs push unaffordable housing

July 20, 2017

Casie Stone analyzes the platform put forward by a range of "Yes In My Backyard" organizations--whose arguments fit nicely with the interests of real estate developers.

AS RENTS and real estate prices skyrocket in cities across the country, organizations advocating for more developer-built housing are coming together as a centralized pro-development voice under the banner of "Yes In My Backyard"--or "YIMBY."

Taking their name as the supposed opposing of "NIMBY"--standing for "Not In My Backyard," a label to describe selfish homeowner groups popularized in the 1980s--YIMBYs argue that the homelessness and housing crises displacing mostly Black and Brown working-class families in cities from San Francisco to New York is mainly due to a shortage of housing stock.

The YIMBYs claim that cities suffer from a systematic underproduction of housing--and, at least in the Bay Area, place the blame for this on community activists who have been organizing to maintain the neighborhoods they know and love.

The YIMBY explanation of gentrification focuses almost exclusively on consumer trends, such as an influx of wealthy millennials who grew up in the suburbs, but now want to live in cities and are driving longtime residents from their homes.

Members of the YIMBY Party discuss their development plans in San Francisco
Members of the YIMBY Party discuss their development plans in San Francisco

Their solution is simple: Just build more--more dense, multifamily housing at each rung of our wealth-gapped society. More for the rich and more for the poor alike.

"Adding supply at all levels helps protect existing non-wealthy residents from being priced out of their homes," reads the platform of the San Francisco YIMBY Party, because "in a growing economy, higher-income newcomers compete for older housing stock and outbid lower-income residents."

YIMBYs suggest changing existing zoning regulations, reducing restrictions on building heights and expediting the municipal planning process to allow an increase in supply to catch up with demand.

This consumption-side theory explains gentrification in terms of cultural preference and who has greater buying power, focusing on individual "gentrifiers" as the catalyst, while never questioning the roles of landlords, developers, real estate agents and banks.

This view fails to explain how the supposedly individual consumer preferences of millions of people seem to all be moving in the same direction; the role of real estate speculation; and the fact that new high-end housing often sits unoccupied as investment property or a seldom-used, second, third or fourth home.

It also sidesteps a critical issue: Not only rents are rising, but so are prices for every parcel, good and service sold in cities. People can't live in a neighborhood where they can't afford the groceries.

But most fundamentally, the YIMBY argument gets the causes of gentrification backward. Like every other capitalist industry, real estate decisions are based not on meeting consumer demand, but on increasing profits. For that reason, we need a production-side theory of gentrification.

GENTRIFICATION IS the process by which poor city neighborhoods are made viable for a wealthier subset of society. With the influx of the more affluent comes the displacement of longtime residents who are priced--or, in some cases, illegally evicted--out of their neighborhoods.

Every building must be located on a site, which ties it to property values. Construction acts as an investment not just in the building itself, but in a neighborhood, with higher building densities leading to escalating property values.

The late cultural geographer Neil Smith traced the history of gentrification in the U.S. as a cycle of capital fleeing from cities and then returning with a vengeance.

Two periods of declining financial investment in cities--first, the push after the Second World War to encourage suburban home ownership; and second, the "white flight" of the 1960s--led to declines in the property values of large sections of cities, especially outside of the central business districts.

Because of diminished property values, rents eventually become significantly cheaper, which created what Smith called a "rent gap" between the current rent and the potential rent that could be generated with capital investment in the form of restoration or new construction.

It's this lure of potential profitability in the "rent gap" that has fueled capital's return to cities--and pushed many longtime residents out.

Gentrification itself is not new. The term was coined in 1964 by British sociologist Ruth Glass. But the scale of today's gentrification has dramatically escalated over the past 50 years.

In a 2000 paper called "The Changing State of Gentrification," Smith and Jack Hackworth explained that prior to the economic recession of 1973-75 and the onslaught of neoliberal privatization, gentrification in American cities was mostly limited to the rehabilitation of isolated, historic inner-city neighborhoods in Northeastern cities--often aided by public funds.

After 1973, gentrification surged, and "[n]eighborhoods were converted into real estate 'frontiers'" as many more cities implemented strategies to attract new private investment, even as neighborhood resistance increased.

After a lull in the early 1990s, Smith and Hackworth wrote, there was another resurgence. This time:

larger [corporate]...developers [who] used to be common in the process only after the neighborhood had been 'tamed'...are now increasingly the first to orchestrate reinvestment. [And the] effective resistance to gentrification has declined as the working class is continually displaced from the inner city, and as most of the militant anti-gentrification groups of the 1980s morph into housing service providers.

TODAY'S RENTAL housing construction boom--following on the 2008 housing mortgage collapse--is being perpetuated the same way as prior waves--by a return of capital investment to previously disinvested city neighborhoods. The large, developer-built, multi-family housing projects that are rapidly gentrifying cities today fit this pattern.

As a result, city block-sized, multifamily buildings are being erected on seemingly every surface lot. In Chicago, lofts are being built where Mayor Rahm Emanuel sold off neighborhood schools.

Projects of this scale are only possible because both the construction and the urban planning are being decided by developers who have the ear of city officials and the backing of finance capital.

These projects are rapidly changing the wealth demographics of whole neighborhoods, to the point where longtime residents are now seen as outsiders and somehow potential dangers on the very city streets where they were raised, leading to such horrors as the San Francisco police murder of Alex Nieto.

There are two significant YIMBY organizations in the Bay Area: the San Francisco YIMBY Party and East Bay Forward in Oakland. Despite the differences between the cities' housing markets, the two YIMBYs share an identical platform.

"We are unapologetic urbanists who believe in the virtues of cities," says the YIMBY platform.

But what kind of urbanists? And cities for whom?

The preamble to the YIMBY platform declares, "The Bay Area is definitely not full. Ours is an inclusive vision of welcoming all new and potential residents."

But this language of inclusion seemingly ignores the reality of mass displacement for those already here. You can't walk a single street in San Francisco without being confronted with the crisis of homelessness--71 percent of the city's homeless was previously housed within the city. Meanwhile, African Americans have gone from 13 percent of the city's population in the 1970s to under 5 percent today.

AS FOR the YIMBY theory of urbanism, the platform says, "Once a citywide or neighborhood plan is made, the process for building should be streamlined, well-defined and predictable. It should not impose significant delays on or add significant costs to a project, nor should individual property owners or neighborhood associations have the power to hijack it."

This paternalistic, don't-question-our-plan attitude is a revival of the orthodox urbanism ethos that activists and residents have had to fight against time and again--most famously, against the freeway-crazed planners of "Urban Renewal" who had little regard for the neighborhoods they were demolishing.

This theory of urbanism was thoroughly discredited by Jane Jacob's 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which insisted that "there is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans."

Cities are more than just where we lay our heads at night. Dense, vertical housing can be just as isolating as suburban sprawl. The vitality of a city, as a space capable of fostering the human spirit, relies on a diversity of people and the rhythms of human interaction.

The rigid YIMBY platform, by contrast, claims that the only solution is to build our way out of the crisis of gentrification. This mantra trumps all other considerations.

This single-minded focus, of course, makes the YIMBY platform congenial to capitalist real estate interests. Lubricating the path toward "density" takes the place of confronting any of the devastating consequences of gentrification, much less combating its roots. YIMBY weds a supposed solution to the housing crisis to the success of the ongoing neoliberal privatization of public city space for profit.

Unsurprisingly, YIMBY organizations also display an ignorance of the problems of the neoliberal city beyond housing.

For example, the YIMBY platform statement that "high density housing goes with high-quality public transit and walkability" might be theoretically true. But the following sentence--"However, housing can be built before or in anticipation of the construction of future transit improvements"--reveals that the authors haven't been paying attention to actual cities for the past 40 years.

Current city residents are constantly being told that there is no viable way to finance the maintenance or repair of existing infrastructure, much less build new systems. The result has been the scandalous decay of urban infrastructure, from the crumbling transit system in New York City to the toxic water system of Flint, Michigan.

THE YIMBY platform insists: "We should build more housing in every neighborhood-- especially high-income neighborhoods."

It's true that the displacement effects of building new market-rate housing in existing wealthy areas would be far less devastating, because those forced to seek affordable housing are already unable to live in such locations.

And nobody concerned with social justice will have much sympathy for wealthy homeowners who wish to preserve their views or neighborhood "character" by preventing the construction of somewhat more affordable multistory buildings nearby.

But the proposal to focus on rich neighborhoods is unfortunately antithetical to the source of developer profits. Because property values are already high, the "rent gap" is much lower, and hence the potential return on investment for the developer is also lower.

If we really want to do better than "solutions" that, at best, pit the interests of residents of rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods against those of precarious renters elsewhere, we need to challenge the construction and allocation of housing according to profit.

People require shelter, which means that housing should be a basic human right. Nobody should be outbid for the roof over their head. We desperately need to put forward the idea that homes are not commodities, and neither is our ability to move about and live healthy lives in our cities. One doesn't work without the other--they need to be cultivated in tandem.

The YIMBY platform doesn't help us to get further down this path.

There is a crisis of--to be specific--affordable housing, which the vast majority of us are pushed into competition for. We need to unite and force city and state governments to grant something to the ordinary workers who vote for them--and decommodify housing for the millions of families living at or below the poverty line, with no hope of being able to compete for housing at the ridiculous "market rate."

David Judd contributed to this article.

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