During the Trump Administration, liberals sometimes criticized conservatives for being anti-anti-Trump: that is, not directly championing Trump’s more obnoxious behaviour, but devoting their energies to criticizing people who criticized him.
Similarly, I’ve seen some articles recently that were anti-anti-NIMBY*: they acknowledge the need for new housing, but they try to split the difference by focusing their fire on YIMBYs.**
A recent article in Governing, by Aaron Renn, is an example of this genre. Renn agrees with “building more densely in popular areas like San Francisco and the north side of Chicago, in other cities along commercial corridors, near commuter rail stops, and in suburban town centers.” Since I am all for these things, I suspect I agree with Renn far more than I disagree.
But then he complains that YIMBYs “have much bigger aims” because they “want to totally eliminate any housing for exclusively single-family districts- everywhere.” What’s wrong with that?
First, he says (correctly) that this would require state preemption of local zoning. And this is bad, he says, because it “would completely upend this country’s traditional approach to land use.” Here, Renn is overlooking most of American history: zoning didn’t exist for roughly the first century and a half of American history, and in some places has become far more restrictive over the last few decades. Thus, YIMBY policies are not a upending of tradition, but a return to a tradition that was destroyed in the middle and late 20th century. To the extent state preemption gives Americans more rights to build more type of housing, it would actually recreate the earlier tradition that was wiped out. Moreover, even if the status quo was a “tradition”, that doesn’t make it the best policy for the 21st century. For most of the 20th century, housing was far cheaper than it is today, so local control of zoning was far less costly than it is today.
Second, he seems to think changing single-family subdivisions is somehow bad, but he doesn’t say why. Instead, he uses emotionally loaded sentences like “YIMBYs have a target on the back of every subdivision in America.” Clearly he wants readers to believe that allowing a fourplex next to a single-family house is bad, but he doesn’t want to tell them why it is bad.
Third, he raises an ad hominem argument, claiming that “The YIMBY claim to be concerned about high housing prices is undermined by the fact that many YIMBYs support urban growth boundaries and other forms of urban containment that raise housing prices…Many YIMBYs appear to have simply repackaged the age-old opposition to sprawl and a desire to encourage more people to live a denser urban lifestyle into a new libertarian marketing program ostensibly aimed at prices.”
Yet in the preceding paragraph he says: “If the houses on either side of a single-family home in the suburbs were torn away and replaced with four-plexes, most YIMBY activists would undoubtedly celebrate.” So on the one hand, YIMBYs are bad because they want fewer people to live in suburbia, and on the other hand they are bad because they want fourplexes in suburbia, which means that MORE people would live in suburbia. These points of view seem inconsistent.
Perhaps Renn is trying to say that suburbs should grow, but only through sprawl rather than infill: that is, through development in areas that have no neighbors to object. But if that’s what he wants, he should say so more clearly.***
*For those of you unfamiliar with this piece of zoning jargon, NIMBY is an acronym for “Not In My Back Yard” and, read literally, refers to people who are willing to support new housing or public works as long as it is not near them, that is, in their “back yards”. However, it is somewhat of a misnomer, since some people don’t really see the need for new housing anywhere, or at least not anywhere in their city.
**YIMBY is an acronym for “Yes In My Back Yard”. Despite the reference to back yards, YIMBYs are not just people who want housing next to them; rather, the term usually is used to refer to people who want lots of new housing in all kinds of places.
***I think this policy has a variety of disadvantages: First, it increases transportation costs for everyone, because more people will need cars and will have to drive them farther. Second, it leads to more pollution of all types, because more cars lead to more pollution. Third, it freezes nondrivers out of jobs and other opportunities, as development spreads to places without public transit. On the other hand, any increase in housing supply does hold down prices, so from an affordability statement outer-suburb housing is better than no housing at all. However, allowing new housing everywhere would increase housing supply even more.