Housing For All: The Case for Progressive YIMBYism

Sam Deutsch
16 min readApr 15, 2021

Note: YIMBYism (short for Yes In My Backyard) has emerged as a movement to counter NIMBY anti-housing politics that have been the status quo in many areas for decades. This essay presents the case for pro-housing, YIMBY policies from a progressive lens.

The Housing Shortage is Real

There is a real, significant, housing shortage in many parts of the country. While major coastal cities like New York, Boston, DC, SF, and LA are typically the face of the housing shortage, the reality is that those cities are exporting their housing shortage across the country to places like Fresno, Montana, and Texas. It shouldn’t be a surprise that when high-demand cities become too expensive for the working (and even middle) class, many of those people find other, more affordable places to live. Even worse, many people who cannot afford rent end up becoming homeless, whether that means couch-surfing, living in a car/RV, or living in a tent on the street. It’s unacceptable that a country with so much wealth allows this to happen, and we should attack the housing shortage at the root cause.

New York City built more housing in the 1920s than in the last 50 years combined

Want to read this story later? Save it in Journal.

Why is there a housing shortage? Well, the answer isn’t particularly complicated: there aren’t enough homes. Existing homeowners, seeking to preserve their property values, views, “neighborhood character”, etc., have implemented a wide suite of restrictions codifying anti-housing provisions into law. Some examples include exclusionary zoning, parking minimums, minimum lot size restrictions, discretionary review of multi-family housing, and more. The combined effect has been a wildly successful one (for those favoring exclusion): many coastal cities have seen a sharp decline in homebuilding, particularly multi-family homebuilding over the past 50 years.

In areas with housing shortages, you aren’t paying for your home — you’re paying for the land underneath it.

While many claim that “luxury developments” are driving increased housing prices, the above chart makes it clear that the development isn’t driving up prices — it’s the scarce land. “Luxury” is just a marketing term used to sell homes, and in areas without a housing shortage, you can find a “luxury” 3 bed/3 bath apartment for only $285K. What makes homes in the Bay Area and LA so expensive, rather, is the exorbitant land costs that stem from the housing shortage. Furthermore, the best way to minimize land costs for each new home is to build as many homes as possible on a single plot of land — density!

The Racist History of Exclusion

A map of historical redlining in Berkeley. To this date, the northeast corner of the city remains single-family only.

The laws mentioned in the above section are (like most things in American history) inextricably tied to racism. For the first city in the US to implement exclusionary zoning, Berkeley, the move was explicitly racist, with the developers (correctly) assuming that denser homes would be cheaper, and therefore more accessible to minorities due to the large racial wealth gap. To this date, single family zoning exists in many of these neighborhoods, which have stayed overwhelmingly white, driving residential segregation in Berkeley.

This trend can be found across the country, including close to where I grew up in suburban Maryland. In the early 20th century, Chevy Chase was a sundown town with restrictive covenants preventing Jews and Black people from living there, and it maintains this exclusion via low-density zoning that has kept it 82% white. It’s not a coincidence that infamous Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh currently lives there and his wife serves as a Town Manager.

The western border of Chevy Chase (in red) serves as the dividing line between dense apartments and single-family sprawl in an affluent part of suburban Maryland

Chevy Chase’s real estate salesmen always played to customers who considered themselves apart from the masses. The same 1916 sales pitch that welcomed the middle class advertised restrictions that would “protect property holders against the encroachment of undesirable elements.” And beginning in the 1920s, some deeds included restrictive covenants prohibiting sale or lease to “any person of negro blood” or “any person of the Semetic [sic] race.” — The Washington Post

NOTE: If you want to learn more about the racist history of single-family zoning, I would highly recommend The Color Of Law by Richard Rothstein

Dense, Urban Housing Fights Climate Change

Cars are the #1 source of carbon emissions in California. By a longshot.

Caring about global warming and the climate was actually the primary reason that I became a YIMBY.

Living in Los Angeles, I was stunned at how car ownership was basically the expectation and how the second-largest city in the US had such a low rate of transit ridership. I was in one of the most progressive cities in the country, yet the norm was driving everywhere. It did not make sense to me.

Barcelona and Atlanta have similar lengths of rail transit. Barcelona’s far higher ridership is enabled by the city’s density.

I was surprised to see low-density, single family homes just blocks away from mass transit in places like Pasadena, Culver City, and Santa Monica. The climate case for YIMBYism is a simple one — dense housing enables transit and transit enables dense housing. Transit is only successful when enough people live close to transit to be able to sustain good transit service. If you talk to a YIMBY, odds are they’re also a climate and transit nerd.

Cities have some of the lowest rates of carbon emissions related to transportation. Suburbs have some of the highest. Source: https://coolclimate.org/maps

Switching from a personal car to mass transit is one of the best things people can do to reduce their carbon emissions. Building more housing makes that easier, and it’s a large part of the reason that so many YIMBY policies are also climate policies. The lowest hanging fruit for YIMBY policies are exclusionary suburbs near mass transit (e.g., places like Santa Monica, Palo Alto, Bethesda, and Newton).

Building urban infill housing is the #1 policy local politicians can implement to reduce carbon emissions. Source: https://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/ca-scenarios/index.html

This all makes sense when you consider the geometric reality of urban living: dense, infill housing makes it a lot harder to build enough parking if you expect everyone to own a car. That’s why YIMBYs are fighting against rules like parking minimums that force new housing to have a certain number of parking spots, which has the dual effect of making new housing more expensive and subsidizing car ownership.

Beyond transportation, housing and climate policy is deeply intertwined in ways that many existing climate plans do not address. For example, a recent study found that the switch from single- to multifamily housing reduces energy demand by 27–47% per household due to more efficient HVAC systems and land use.

P.S.: If you live in California, call your state legislators and tell them to support AB1401 which will eliminate parking minimums near transit! And check out UCLA Professor Donald Shoup’s seminal work, The High Cost of Free Parking.

Landlords and Property Owners are Getting Rich

Developer profits are a pittance compared to homeowner equity growth

While YIMBY policies are anti-racist and pro-climate, a common refrain against YIMBYs is that we’re “developer shills”. However, the reality is that many of the most vocal NIMBYs are, quite literally homeowners and landlords. And the people getting rich off our housing crisis aren’t usually developers — it’s those same homeowners and landlords reaping the windfalls of speculation (note: while there are some vertically integrated developers that also rent out units as landlords, this is a very small percentage of the overall market). The above chart from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis is stunning in contrast — property owners are making orders of magnitude more money than developers in a state with a housing shortage. A similar pattern can be seen in Cambridge, MA.

YIMBYs support dense, urban housing. Not developers building this climate (and soul) destroying sprawl.

And yes, YIMBYs and developers are often on the same sides of building more housing, but that doesn’t mean YIMBYs are always supporting developers. For example, YIMBYs in California have supported the Housing Accountability Act which prevents developers from demolishing renter-occupied housing without protecting tenants. Furthermore, many YIMBYs have opposed the Tejon Ranch development ~90 miles from LA due to the high fire risk and climate impacts. YIMBYs frequently oppose major greenfield suburban sprawl developers like Toll Brothers, instead supporting dense, infill housing in transit-rich urban areas.

Furthermore, the arbitrary, discretionary restrictions on homebuilding in many cities essentially shuts out smaller homebuilders, giving large corporate developers a leg up and incentivizing corruption. Progressive LA Councilmember Nithya Raman recently had a great overview of how many NIMBY policies in the city end up favoring the biggest, most unsavory developers. Pro-housing YIMBY policies level the playing field and enable smaller homebuilders to build so-called “missing middle” projects of modest density and reasonable rents.

Building Housing Reduces Displacement

What’s the policy that has been most successfully proven to reduce displacement? You guessed it, building more homes.

Another common anti-YIMBY refrain is that “new homes = gentrification”. In order to rebut this, it’s worth being precise with language — I prefer to use the concrete term “displacement” rather than the more nebulous “gentrification”. Displacement is bad, it’s when people are forced out of their homes due to rising rents. On the other hand, “gentrification” is often used to refer to aesthetic complaints about new housing, and has resulted in some pretty absurd cases of people vilifying affordable senior housing.

When looking at the actual impact of building more homes, a recent paper from UC Berkeley found that building more homes is one of the top strategies to prevent displacement. Furthermore, almost all research finds that new market-rate housing does not increase rents — in fact, it lowers them. (note: there is some nuance about this fact: while there is broad academic consensus that building more homes does lower housing prices at the regional level, there has been much debate over local submarkets — i.e., if a new apartment building will raise rents for lower-rent buildings nearby. Thankfully, there have been six studies on this issue over the past couple years, and five find that market-rate housing makes nearby housing more affordable, and one finds mixed results).

Furthermore, new housing is a lagging indicator of displacement in housing-constrained cities, with home prices skyrocketing in high-demand neighborhoods far before a shiny new apartment building goes up. We can fix that by building more homes, rather than continuing the status-quo anti-housing policies that led us to this point in the first place.

Even though building more homes lowers rents and reduces displacement, it’s important to note that YIMBYism is wholly compatible with other tenant protections. YIMBY groups strongly supported AB1482 in California, a rent cap and just cause eviction law. Most YIMBYs recognize that anti-displacement measures are not going to solve the housing crisis on their own, rather we view tenant protections and building more housing as two key tools in taking power away from landlords and returning it to renters.

That said, YIMBYs are focused on respecting marginalized communities that may be justifiably skeptical of new, market rate development, which is why we focus on the lowest hanging fruit: supporting denser, infill housing in affluent neighborhoods where the risk of displacement is close to zero. Furthermore, thanks to inclusionary zoning provisions and density bonuses, the construction of new market rate housing often creates subsidized, affordable housing and enables economic integration.

The Deck is Stacked Against Renters

Rents and home prices have been rising far faster than incomes over the past 50 years

Unfortunately, American laws are structured around an ideal of homeownership, which has the net effect of empowering NIMBYs and impoverishing renters.

In addition to federal laws like the regressive mortgage interest tax deduction, this is especially bad in California where we have something called Prop 13 that passed in the 1970’s when we had the infamous “tax revolt” (not coincidentally, Ronald Reagan was our Governor for half of the decade). Prop 13 locks property owners’ taxes into the initial property value when bought, and limits any property tax increase to 2% per year. As a result, you end up with situations where a $9M mansion in ritzy Presidio Heights pays the same tax as a $300K starter home in Richmond.

Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens even went as far as to compare property owners in California to feudal lords in a dissent:

“Those who invested in California real estate in the 1970s are among the most fortunate capitalists in the world. Proposition 13 has provided these successful investors with a tremendous windfall and, in doing so, has created severe inequities in California’s property tax scheme. These property owners (hereinafter “the Squires”) are guaranteed that, so long as they retain their property and do not improve it, their taxes will not increase more than 2% in any given year. As a direct result of this windfall for the Squires, later purchasers must pay far more than their fair share of property taxes.” — Justice Stevens

YIMBYs are concerned about this dynamic that sets up tax structures favoring rich property owners, but even worse, incentivizes those property owners to oppose growth and support NIMBY policies that will continue to raise their home values (at a highly reduced tax rate!). That’s why DSA and YIMBY both mobilized to support Prop 15, which would have repealed the part of Prop 13 allowing commercial property owners to qualify for immense tax savings (yes, commercial landlords and property owners have massive tax subsidies, it’s absurd). Unfortunately, Prop 15 failed by a very slim margin, but I’m sure it will be back on the ballot soon. It goes to show that despite California’s progressive reputation, it can be incredibly difficult to get rid of regressive tax deductions targeted towards homeowners.

For a detailed examination of just how absurd and unfair Prop 13 is, check out the amazing data at https://www.taxfairnessproject.org/

Vacancy Rates are a Red Herring

Vacancy rates are lowest in high-demand areas with limited homebuilding

Despite all of this, a common claim used to discredit YIMBYism is that “there are more vacant homes than there are homeless people”. While this can be true in some cases, the implicit conclusion to that argument is usually “so we should focus on reducing vacancies instead of building more housing”. However, this misses the mark for a variety of reasons:

  1. Most vacancies aren’t where people want to live

As seen in the above map, the highest vacancy rates are in low-demand places: primarily rural areas with few good job opportunities. On the other hand, you can see that the lowest vacancy rates are in high-demand areas on the West Coast and Northeast. Telling someone who works in the Bay Area that there’s an abandoned home in Detroit or Lubbock that they can move into isn’t a solution.

2. Vacancies are not all the same

Around half of vacancies in LA are “market vacancies”, which are “the inevitable gaps in tenancy that occur when a lease is ended, a home goes on the market to be resold, or a new building opens and hasn’t yet leased or sold all its units”. Unless you think it’s possible for new housing to be 100% sold the day it is built, and that each tenant that moves out is instantly replaced by one who moves in, these vacancies are to be expected.

For the rest of vacancies (non-market vacancies), there are a wide range of reasons including renovations, foreclosures, and condemned properties. The number of homes that are intentionally left vacant due to market speculation is quite low, and it makes sense — the way that landlords make money is by renting out homes, so keeping them vacant means foregone income.

3. Higher vacancy rates = downwards pressure on rents

Landlords love low vacancy rates because it gives them more market power. This makes sense — landlords have a monopoly on existing housing, and the last thing they want is to face more competition. But don’t take my word for it, here’s Blackstone (a massive private equity firm) admitting in their annual report that high vacancy rates reduce their profit margins.

Like many SF renters, I actually experienced this firsthand during the pandemic: our upstairs neighbors left and our landlord had to lower the rent to find a new tenant. We used the new lower rent for the upstairs unit along with the wide range of cheaper apartments on the market as leverage, and received a 10% rent reduction.

4. A vacancy rate of zero is… not a good thing

Housing is like a sliding puzzle — zero vacancies would prevent people from moving anywhere

Imagine a world with no housing vacancies. Like, actually try to envision it. The only way you could move is by finding someone else to swap houses with. Immigration? Forget about it. Want your kids to move out of the house? Sorry, you’re out of luck.

Our country is growing, and we should try to welcome all of those who want to live here. Furthermore, many marginalized communities view left-leaning cities like SF as a mecca where they can escape persecution. We shouldn’t let a lack of homes shut people out and prevent them from living where they want.

And what’s the worst thing that happens if we end up building too many homes? Landlords will be tripping over each other to lower rent and compete for tenants — sounds pretty good to me!

5. Vacancy taxes can be good, but they’re not a silver bullet

Vancouver actually implemented a vacancy tax in 2017 and it went… okay. The tax was 1% of the property value for each year in which the property was left unoccupied a majority of the time. The next year, the number of vacancies fell from 1,085 to 922. Yes, it was a significant 15% drop, but it was also only 163 homes that were returned to the market.

In Vancouver, a city with 310K homes and a severe housing shortage, 163 homes is great, but pales in comparison to the tens of thousands of homes that are needed. Furthermore, the tax raised ~$20–$35M/year, enough to subsidize ~100 affordable homes.

Ironically, the benefits from a vacancy tax (more homes on the market, including more affordable homes) could be achieved at far greater scale by simply… legalizing more housing.

So yes, there are plenty of left-YIMBYs who support vacancy taxes (I’m one of them), but we can’t let it distract us from the broader housing shortage. Rather, vacancy taxes are, at best, a small-scale, incremental tweak around the edges for an issue that requires big, bold solutions.

The real vacant units are the ones that exclusionary zoning stops from being built (source: Mark Mollineaux)

Note: for more detail on vacancy rates (with a focus on LA), I would recommend this paper by Shane Phillips at UCLA, along with this article

NIMBYs are Not Your Allies

The most prominent defenders of single-family zoning

If you go to a planning meeting about a new housing development in affluent areas, the primary opponents are almost never justice advocates or progressives. No- it’s wealthy, reactionary homeowners.

This came to a head in the 2020 election, when Donald Trump made himself the defender of “The Suburban Lifestyle Dream” and accused Joe Biden of wanting to “Abolish the Suburbs” (I wish, lol). This was a running theme, as the St. Louis Gun Couple gave an RNC speech about protecting exclusionary single family zoning.

This is especially important now, as President Biden has included provisions to encourage denser zoning as part of his infrastructure bill. The number one foe of that provision? You guessed it, white nationalist Tucker Carlson. We need a united left front to support the bill and these pro-housing provisions against racist GOP attacks.

YIMBY Means Yes to Social Housing

Social Housing in Vienna — Imagine the NIMBY complaints if this went up in your neighborhood!

Social housing is becoming increasingly popular among socialists and YIMBYs alike, and it’s easy to see why: dense, mixed-income, municipally owned housing would be an incredibly valuable tool to fight our housing shortage. Furthermore, government-funded social housing would be immune to recessions, and would be able to engage in counter-cyclical homebuilding, preventing the status quo where private funding for homebuilding plummets during recessions even as housing demand continues to grow.

However, you may notice that social housing in Vienna is tall. It’s dense. It’s affordable. It would also be nearly impossible to build in almost all of California due to exclusionary zoning laws that prevent dense housing from being built and give NIMBYs plenty of avenues to file frivolous lawsuits to delay (and therefore drive up construction costs of) new housing. Any successful social housing program will be have to bypass these NIMBY roadblocks and get shovels in the ground to efficiently and cost-effectively build more homes.

Progressive YIMBYism: A Path Forward

Dense housing is a key part of a more sustainable, equitable, and prosperous future (credit: Alfred Twu)

Where do we go from here? The answer can be found in California where a range of left-YIMBY candidates found electoral success by embracing pro-tenant, pro-housing policies. In Berkeley, progressive City Councilmembers Terry Taplin (also a member of DSA!), Rashi Kesarwani, Lori Droste, and Rigel Robinson have been churning out legislation to end exclusionary zoning, embrace social housing, and protect tenants. Same goes for James Coleman, a 21-year old Democratic Socialist who was elected to the South San Francisco City Council with a pro-housing platform. At the state level, Assemblymember Alex Lee was embraced by YIMBY and DSA, and has proceeded to introduce a social housing bill. There has also been coalitions formed in Portland, Oregon and Cambridge, Massachusetts where YIMBY groups are allying with local Sunrise Movement chapters and other progressive organizations to legalize denser housing in affluent, exclusionary, transit-rich neighborhoods.

Local politicians have the greatest power over housing policy, and it’s important to begin mobilizing now to support progressive, pro-housing candidates in local elections in 2021, 2022, and beyond.

Beyond elections, it’s important to show up (it’s a lot easier now that many places are holding these meetings over Zoom) to city council meetings, planning meetings, and tell your elected officials and city planners that they should embrace pro-housing, pro-tenant policies.

Finally, join an organization that fights for pro-housing, pro-tenant policies. YIMBY Action represents a national network of pro-housing organizations, and there are many local groups that are devoted explicitly towards progressive YIMBYism: Peninsula For Everyone, East Bay for Everyone, Abundant Housing Los Angeles, Open New York, Greater Greater Washington, Portland: Neighbors Welcome, and Abundant Housing Massachusetts.

📝 Save this story in Journal.

--

--