Five years ago everything in California felt like a giant (land use policy) dumpster fire. Fast forward to today we live in a completely different world. Yimby activists have pushed policy, swayed elections, and dramatically shifted the overton window on California housing policy. And through this process of pushing change, Yimbyism itself has evolved as well.
Learning by Listening
Yimbys started out with a straightforward diagnosis of the housing crisis in California. They said, “…housing prices are high because there’s not enough housing and if we want lower prices, we need more housing”. And they were, of course, completely right…at least with regards to the specific problem-space defined by supply, demand, and the long run.
As Yimby’s started coalition building, though, they began recognizing related, but fundamentally different concerns. For anti-displacement activists, the problem was not defined by long-run aggregate prices. It was instead all about the immediate plight of economically vulnerable communities. Increasing supply was not an attractive proposal because of the long time horizons (years, decades) and ambiguous benefit for their specific constituencies.
Yimbyism as Practical Politics
Leaders in the Yimby movement could have thrown up their hands and walked away. But they didn’t. Instead they listened and developed a yes and approach. The Yimby platform still embraces the idea that, long run, we need to build more housing, but it now also supports measures to protect those who’ll fall off the housing ladder tomorrow without a helping hand today.
Scott Weiner’s SB50 is a great example of this attitude in action. If passed, the bill will reduce restrictions on housing construction across the state. It targets transit and job rich areas and builds in eviction protections to guard against displacement. At a high level, it sets up the playing field so that renters in a four story apartment next to BART don’t get evicted to make way for twelve stories of condos. But it still incentivizes homeowners next to the station (or, awesomely, just in Cupertino) to cash out by selling to a developer who’ll put in a triplex.
The strategic direction California Yimbys have taken, as exemplified by SB 50, makes all the sense in the world. Even if you take issue with the policy specifics, you have to admit it makes for great politics. This is politically viable legislation that opens the door to building more housing where we need it most.
Making a Big Tent Bigger
My co-contributor Nolan Gray has written about the growing bi-partisan nature of Yimbyism. And, in noting the tension between left and right oriented activists within the movement, has called out the challenge this represents for future coalition building.
If I’m reading him correctly, Nolan is noting that there’ll be work here, not necessarily making a prediction about future failure or success. I’ll stick my neck out, though, and say that the Yimbys will overcome the challenges posed by ideological tension. My general read is that the real action is still at the state level and that there’s limited need for inter-state coordination. There are still things to be gained from sharing best practices and lessons learned, but Yimby’s separated by state lines are operationally independent. Also, Yimby leaders have historically valued cooperation on practical politics over fights on questions of ideological purity. It’s been a healthy impulse in the past and I believe it will continue to serve Yimby activists well in the future.
I see the last five years of Yimby activism as one of the great policy success stories of our lifetime. I have every expectation that we’ll see the unwinding of a century’s worth of terrible policy in California and elsewhere across the country. And even the initial progress to date should give us hope that institutional inertia is not absolute and that positive change is everywhere still a possibility.