What No One Wants to Admit About Housing Politics

Garin Chadwick/Brooklyn, New York

The majority of people now live in urban areas. Current projections expect that figure to increase to 68% by 2050. This is an enormous and rapid shift for a species that has spent the last 10,000 years as primarily rural and agricultural. By comparison, Roman civilization, known for its many magnificent cities, never achieved urbanization rates above 40%.

The link between urbanization and civilizational development is inescapable. If we have a civilization at all, it is because of migration into cities.

What is the secret to the city’s draw and power? As cities continue to function as the center of activity in both the developing world and advanced economies, they will continue to draw in billions of people seeking jobs, capital, higher culture, education, and refuge from the stasis and dullness of the hinterlands. The case for the city is straightforward: it concentrates talent, demand, resources, and activity. This concentration creates economies of scale in power, organization, production, trade, and transportation. Economies of scale make new and great things possible, feeding the romantic dream and brightness of city life, and the economic, political, and cultural centrality of the city.

But it’s a double-edged sword. In the city, there’s a lot more that you can achieve, but a lot more you have to get right, and a lot more that can go wrong if you don’t. The most important issue holding back city life is the housing crisis. And more generally, a failure to provide a secure and livable social environment—especially for young families.

This housing crisis, manifested as prohibitively high rents caused largely by supply-constrained housing, is behind an array of urban pathologies: urban sprawl, longer commute times, increased homelessness, surplus economic growth snarfed up by landlords, difficulty attracting new talent, class resentment, fewer independent artists and creatives, less leisure time, inability to put down roots, lower rates of entrepreneurship, and bad governance. Onerous parking requirements to accommodate commuter traffic even cycle back to raise rents further.

High housing costs offset gains made in education and job opportunities by young professionals, which in turn become an obstacle for marriage and family life. Tropes about millennials abandoning the goals of marriage and children can, at least in part, be read as the cost of living cannibalizing the resources needed to achieve them. The negative consequences of housing-related obstacles to starting families hit working people at every stage of life, but especially hard for those in their 20s.

Urban living, at its fullest potential, has become an almost unreachable luxury good.

There is always going to be a fixed amount of lineal beachfront, upland areas with excellent views, and park-facing streets. This inescapable scarcity and competition in urban areas is why the terrain of urban politics revolves around the right to exclude.

But individual property rights don’t answer community-wide questions. Do the people currently living in a neighborhood have moral grounds to restrict or control new construction intended to alleviate urban pathologies? If so, how should those moral grounds translate into public policy? Does the right to exclude apply on a group level, as well as an individual level? If so, what are the optimal methods used to enforce that exclusion while maintaining the dynamism of the city?

As a concrete example of community-level concerns, in 2014, film director Spike Lee gave an impassioned speech discussing the demise of one culture and its replacement with another in the process of gentrification in New York City. He criticized newcomers for lacking a sense of respect for established communal norms and quickly imposing new ones—easily done, since they were better off financially and more confident in gaining the support of the city’s institutions:

Then comes the motherf***in’ Christopher Columbus Syndrome. You can’t discover this! We been here. You just can’t come and bogart. There were brothers playing motherf***in’ African drums in Mount Morris Park for 40 years and now they can’t do it anymore because the new inhabitants said the drums are loud. My father’s a great jazz musician. He bought a house in nineteen-motherf***in’-sixty-eight, and the motherf***in’ people moved in last year and called the cops on my father. He’s not — he doesn’t even play electric bass! It’s acoustic! We bought the motherf***in’ house in nineteen-sixty-motherf***in’-eight and now you call the cops? In 2013? Get the f*** outta here… I mean, they just move in the neighborhood. You just can’t come in the neighborhood. I’m for democracy and letting everybody live but you gotta have some respect.

Gentrification is one side of the issue—wealthier people moving in, bringing with them institutional power and a lack of respect for existing community, to its detriment. The other side is when development or migration brings poorer or different people into a neighborhood, disrupting its character and social fabric, perhaps bringing drugs and crime.

This is the unspoken elephant in the room in the contentious politics of housing that has gridlocked development and created the housing crisis: people are territorial and social, and want control of who can come into their community, or at least positive compensation for having the status quo dissolved. Lacking that control or any guarantee of upside, they will do whatever they can to prevent any change at all, creating bitter conflict and leading to the urban pathologies that pervade every corner of life in the city.


Zoning laws originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to manage the rapid expansion of cities enabled by industrialization, electrification, and improvements in public sanitation. The city of London grew from approximately 1 million inhabitants in 1800 to 7 million in 1900, and the story of urbanization was much the same across industrial cities in the U.S. The previous method of regulating property usage, namely dragging your neighbor to court for a nuisance suit, couldn’t possibly scale with the rate of expansion. It also suffered problems of standardization, and an inability to think of the city as a whole unit.

Early urban zoning reformers aimed to create a logic of the city by separating the industrial, commercial, and residential. But the increasing diversity of people and land use in urban spaces led the dominant WASP urban planning elite to also push for segregation along racial, economic, and religious lines in more residential spaces.

The much-celebrated, bustling ethnic neighborhoods of which Jane Jacobs wrote so glowingly were, in fact, fruits of these segregationist zoning policies.

These policies resulted in the new immigrant communities experiencing lower levels of class segregation and higher levels of ethnic solidarity. If the wealthy Pole, Jew, Lithuanian, or black American couldn’t live outside their enclave, their primary community became determined by ethnicity, rather than class. On the streets, and in many cases, even in the same building, there were larger homes for doctors and other professionals at the top floor—and a variety of homes for working-class families and businesses at the mid and ground floors. It was not uncommon for a doctor, a boilermaker, and a butcher to all live in the same building.

The eventual civil rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s struck down as unconstitutional many of the explicitly segregationist zoning policies of the American urban planning establishment. But unconstitutionality and even a change in norms did not obliterate the fundamental—often subconscious—drive for identity-based segregation, which simply mutated to using various economic proxies to accomplish the same end. City planners created maximum occupancy limits, minimum lot sizes, downzoning, floor-area ratio caps, rental-apartment bans, parking-ratio minimums, height maximums, and a myriad of other policies to restrict new home building in certain neighborhoods, and increase land values, to prevent unwanted neighbors from moving in.

It is no exaggeration to conclude that modern zoning laws are the clearest and most direct legacy of racial segregation.

The political success of supply-restricting zoning policies has created housing shortages in precisely those desirable neighborhoods and cities in which demand for new housing is highest. The soaring economic inequality documented in Piketty’s seminal book Inequality in the 21st Century is largely driven by these capital gains in the housing sector, much of it further driven by zoning policy–induced housing scarcity.

California is a prime example. From 2000 to 2018, the desirable community of Malibu grew at less than 2%, while California as a whole grew nearly 17%. Residents of Malibu and similar communities are effectively getting richer off the policies that constrain the growth of America’s best cities.

Into this scene has stepped Scott Wiener, a California Democratic state senator whose marquee legislation is an attempt to weaken the ability of local communities to restrict new home building. But legislation on its own doesn’t go anywhere. And so with political craft, Wiener has assembled a broad coalition consisting of traditionally antagonistic groups. He has support from both business groups and labor unions, poverty activists and real estate developers. Yet his agenda has consistently stalled. NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) forces retain enough political clout to keep pro-housing policies confined to committee rooms—for now.

Political Theory: High–Low vs. Middle

Politics was formerly the domain of elite factions locked in struggle with one another, and occasionally against foreign counterparts. Rarely did elite squabbles spill over into the ordinary life of farmers and artisans.

But the advent of mass electoral politics meant that local opinions had to be accounted for and integrated into elite claims of legitimacy. The democratic principles that current elites endeavor to respect require them to build at least some popular support for their agendas. The means through which elite classes manufacture this consent have been extensively catalogued.

Modern liberal democracies are functionally elite-led democracies—not truly democratic “mass” democracies, since elected bodies set top-down agendas and are themselves influenced largely by other elites and also comprise only a fraction of real power structures in society. An iron law of oligarchy appears to operate: the larger and more complex a society is, the more democracy becomes impossible on both the practical and the theoretical level. Complex societies depend on institutional stability and continuity, which means that they necessarily become less responsive to popular outburst. Moreover, the rise of complex managerial bureaucracies requires that real power be redistributed away from elected democratic bodies and placed in the hands of the permanent administrative state.

What often emerges in elite-led democracies is a coalition between some elite faction and a much wider social base, against some troublesome but non-elite set of powers that resists or stands in the way. Such “High–Low” coalitions, against the “Middle”—hypothesized by Marx, de Jouvenel, and Orwell—come to form a stable regime configuration.

The structural logic of democratic politics orients itself around this pattern. The High element supplies financing, media, and organizing power, while the Low element supplies votes. Given enough time, all broad electoral coalitions tend towards a High–Low alliance against some Middle, either because the Middle is an obstacle for something desired by the elites, or because it is big enough to attack as a unifying target.

But one of the attributes of High–Low vs. Middle dynamics is that the teams aren’t fixed. Given the right circumstances, players can move or be split off from one category and begin to act in another. California is undergoing a category shake-up as a result of the housing crisis and city growth more generally, and particularly as the tech sector and state population have exploded.

Wiener’s policy to focus on expanding housing in a way that accommodates and appeals to low-income groups would split off an important element in the NIMBY coalition. While these groups have often opposed development for fear of skyrocketing rents and gentrification, Wiener has been far more open to offering them legal bargains and protections while emphasizing a growing supply of housing. As a result, a group that previously served the interests of the NIMBY Middle could become a loud and active Low player. It would then act alongside young professionals and workers, and in concert with the High of tech companies, urban real estate developers, and much of the Democratic party machine.

Building The YIMBY Coalition

The emerging movement for housing and other urban development has called itself the YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) movement as a jab at the NIMBYs, whose name came from the common trope of homeowners who are theoretically all for development, except when it impacts their own communities.

One of the most powerful factions in Wiener’s coalition, and the YIMBY movement in housing politics in general, are the real estate development interests. They have significant lobbying power and organized interest in urban development. This is important because it signals that the city has become an increasingly important battleground for real estate, as opposed to its long decades consigned to development in suburbia. Since the city acts as a nexus of power, real estate has an opportunity to do more than increase profit margins. By mobilizing urban classes on its behalf, it is increasing its bargaining position as a political actor. Rather than being constrained by the leashes of machine politics, it has a chance to reassert itself as a full member of the High element.

The policies under the purview of municipal governments relate primarily to zoning and development ordinances. A simple change of zoning designation can easily multiply a parcel’s value 5–10 fold, transforming empty lots into precious new commercial space. Various other municipal ordinances and policies, as well as civic infrastructure, can add or subtract millions of dollars worth of value for landowners and developers. It makes sense that the industry most affected by city policy would be the most involved in lobbying and campaign donations. A review of recent elections data for municipal campaigns in California provides a window into how the operation works. Urban real estate development has been an engine for the generation of huge fortunes and the platform from which political power can be achieved.

In fact, the current U.S. president started his entire property empire with the successful renovation of the decrepit old Commodore Hotel into the Grand Hyatt in 1978. This was Trump’s first successful real estate project in Manhattan, which provided the credibility and profits he needed to fund his subsequent empire. The entire project’s viability rested on a 40-year, $400 million property tax abatement that he received by greasing the wheels of the local Democratic Party machine.

The value and scale of New York’s tax concession to Trump is even more impressive when stacked against the relatively paltry $100 million he spent refurbishing the entire Commodore Hotel. A few thousand dollars spent on working the political levers at city hall bought Trump a $400 million tax giveaway on a $100 million dollar renovation project, which seeded his current $3 billion property empire. No stock or bond portfolio can match these kinds of returns.

The case outlined here is not an isolated phenomenon. It is merely one of the most high-profile and well-documented instances of the huge profits available to shrewd navigators of the urban political landscape. Despite all the headlines about the stock market highs and fanciful tales of fortunes made in tech, land should not be underestimated as a source of long-term enduring wealth and a key driver of economic inequality. Urban politics is full of shrewd players like this. Joined by politicians like Wiener, and the many powerful activist organizations signed onto his new effort, they constitute stakeholding interests with the power to potentially push through new development.

While many members of the YIMBY movement were powerless to act on their own, Wiener has now mobilized them as the political infantry of a new High–Low alliance against NIMBYs, whose strength as a voter bloc and effective Middle element political institutions have succeeded in restricting development for decades. The YIMBYs are an attempt to intellectually articulate the interests of a broad class of people: largely non-rooted renters, urban millennials, relatively poor workers and migrants, and other people who are hardest hit by the housing crisis. The movement has recently gained steam, primarily powered by activists drawn from upwardly mobile young tech workers (many of them national or international migrants).

These people want homes. They want jobs. They want transit. Their interest is for development—so long as it actually improves housing affordability and availability. Community feel, good views, heritage, and architectural aesthetics are things that don’t matter as much when they’re struggling to make rent from month to month.

The YIMBY movement overall represents those classes with concrete interests in development. For the most part, it articulates these people’s concerns not as a particularist group, but in the language of a responsible urban planning elite.

They articulate the need for development of the urban core, which functions as the engine of production, infrastructure, and innovation. They talk about economics, urbanism, and how a city should work, and what’s wrong with the current model. In other words, the concerns that an urban ruling class should be tracking, and in that language.

This is a significant cause of their success, despite being powerless on their own. They can articulate a better way to think about city development that would benefit many people (voters), and allows a large elite and near-elite coalition to be assembled by politicians like Wiener.

A lot of the increased housing demand driving the price increases come from the small urban renaissance that has occurred, with a back to the city movement blossoming in many major American cities. As corporate America moves back to the city, so do workers.

This is a multi-causal phenomenon, but the fact is that the workforce of these major corporations also prefers the city. Suburbia is also less attractive for millennials.

This naturally leads to demand for urban powers, especially real estate developers, to develop the city again. Development capital is chasing the new market, shifting from building suburban tracts to urban, transit-oriented housing buoyed by stronger urban economies. Tech is the leading employment magnet. The bulk of new tech jobs are concentrated in a handful of major cities.

The result is a potentially powerful movement towards development, in an alliance with real estate developers and other near-elite powers, against incumbent homeowners.

The NIMBY–PHIMBY Middle Coalition

The opposition to the YIMBY coalition currently consists of resident homeowners and long-time community members, who have formed the Middle element. But the non-homeowner community members are quite different from the resident homeowners, who are often middle to upper-middle class. Depending on the desirability of their neighborhoods, many of the homeowners are paper millionaires, despite often having much more modest incomes. They live in single-family homes or other ground-oriented, low-density housing developments.

To draw real distinctions, the typically lower-class, long-time community members—comprised of low-income tenants, and whose interests are often invoked by radical housing activists—have started calling themselves PHIMBYs (Public Housing In My Back Yard). They’re not necessarily opposed to development as such. They’re opposed to the YIMBY’s market-oriented conception of development, and so they’ve found themselves in a strange coalition with the middle to upper-middle classes of homeowners who also oppose YIMBY density measures.

The interests of the loose NIMBY–PHIMBY coalition are largely static. If they can’t have development on their terms, and to their benefit—most pointedly, in terms of who is going to be moving into their neighborhood, or what kind of development it will be—then they wish to have no significant change undertaken in their neighborhoods at all.

This makes them a particularly effective target for High–Low dynamics. Since a stagnant or corrupt Middle element can both suppress the interests of their Low rivals while creating troubles for the High, a High–Low alliance to disrupt the Middle’s power becomes attractive to both. The Low element is often in a position to create noise and action on the streets, as well as a groundswell of popular support, while the High provides funding, logistical organization, and access to the channels of power.

PHIMBYs fear that change may gentrify them out; NIMBYs fear that any significant urban development may bring unwanted new neighbors of a lower socioeconomic class, who they would not be able to socialize with, along with drugs, crime, and public disorder, dampening the livability and exclusivity of their current communities.

The NIMBYs, having higher-level political power and access, marshal a diverse list of concerns that they may genuinely, or at many times quite cynically, deploy to frustrate new development efforts. The concerns they use to block or limit development usually revolve around relatively trivial fears about a change in aesthetics, a diminishment of “community heritage,” shortage of parking, an influx of drugs (which they associate with lower-class renters), and even a duplex’s shadows.

One only needs to look at the proceedings of any city hall deliberation to get a sense of the relentless torrent of arguments NIMBYs put forward against any and all new development in established residential neighborhoods. Their worries and preferences have successfully been translated into a myriad of anti-development policies, as well. For the last 40 years, city staff and elected representatives have largely worked within the ideological framework imposed on them by these middle-stratum voters and residents. Urban planning processes are deliberately slowed down, property tax increases are capped, environmental regulations choke new supply, and new public housing projects can be approved only by referendum.

PHIMBYs have a different kind of political power and access, and often or even primarily oppose other types of development besides housing. For example, the coalition against Amazon HQ2 proposal for NYC, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was not about homeowners worried about the character of their community; it was made up of poorer people worried about gentrification, and about not getting what they thought was their fair cut of the development to compensate them for the disruption. In particular, the new jobs weren’t going to go to people who live in the community, but to outsiders of that community. The tax break proposed to incentivize Amazon came directly out of the city budget, which pays for community programs and other improvements that the PHIMBYs might otherwise benefit from.

It’s also hard for PHIMBYs to assess the outcome of development proposals. YIMBYs tell them that more development will lower rents and increase affordability. But the PHIMBYs don’t always believe them. There’s a fundamental distrust and sometimes even hatred between the two coalitions, who ostensibly share many of the same goals—at least as far as the YIMBYs are concerned. But citing the latest academic papers and arguments on the relationship between decreasing rents and increasing housing supply doesn’t overcome that distrust.

PHIMBYs fear that they’ll be pushed out of their own neighborhoods. They fear that the new housing built will be luxury housing, or simply too upscale for them to afford, and don’t understand or believe the claims about demand diversion for the rich lowering competition and prices for the poor. They fear that the new culture YIMBYs bring will mean an end to old community ways.

On many points, they’re probably right. It’s easy to say that a particular geographic space can be home to more than one culture. But what happens, as Spike Lee noted, when new residents call the police on the neighborhood drum circle for making too much noise? What happens in cases of induced demand? A recent paper on the topic indicates that increased supply vastly outpaces any effects of induced demand. But again, even if that’s true and residents can afford the reduced rent from new development, do the raw economics matter if their community is gone? What won’t YIMBYs say out loud?—that a new influx of culturally alien residents to a neighborhood in many cases results in erasure.

The Political Struggle For Space

There’s no real, singular moral answer to these questions. Each coalition has its interests, and they both marshal plausible—but not decisive—moral arguments. It’s not fundamentally a matter of decisive moral arguments, but one of power and struggle and compromise.

Both the High and Middle elements have generally eschewed an openly adversarial approach to the housing question. They frame their arguments in terms of general principles: “affordable homes,” “safe communities”, and the like. It is left to the Low elements—PHIMBYs, young workers, low-income families, etc.—to embrace a nakedly political battle for the future of their neighborhoods. Well-meaning policy advocates propose something that does, in fact, harm someone else’s interests, possibly significantly. Wiener’s bill is no exception.

The harm to political enemies is often even an implicit motivation for the more spite-oriented supporters of any given policy. The victims predictably offer some resistance, but that resistance is often written off as false consciousness or fear of change, to avoid admitting an essentially zero-sum political move.

It’s understandable, in trying to persuade stakeholders to adopt your favored policy, to rhetorically downplay the negative impact. But the taboo against talking about and admitting power politics is deeper than that, and is one of the general problems with modern liberal discourse. The accepted frame is that such things—using your own superior power coalition to crush someone else’s dreams and promote your own interests—are illegitimate and distasteful. You would never admit to such a thing in public, and often not even to yourself.

But this is in fact how most politics works. This taboo, and the obfuscation of the central role of organized adversarial power in politics, is one of the central features of liberalism. This obfuscation maintains the illusion of an open society, of free debate, relatively fair politics, and so on, but also allows power to operate in the shadows with relative impunity, and without much public visibility or reflection to provide positive guidance.

Obfuscation happens on both sides of the housing issue: NIMBYs systematically obscure their true intentions and interests, and YIMBYs obscure the fact that much of what NIMBYs and PHIMBYs defend amounts to the human desire and material need for healthy community—something which newly redeveloped cities will themselves have to address.

This particular issue is doubly obscured by the non-liberal nature of the NIMBY interests: the NIMBY impulse is based ultimately on the desire to preserve and enhance social community-level interests. For the NIMBY, the wrong person moving into your neighborhood uninvited can be the same kind of trespass as the wrong person moving into your house uninvited—different in degree, but not in kind. But liberalism enforces a public–private distinction that mostly cuts off the legitimate political interests of the individual at the boundary of their own property. Liberalism in its current form formally assumes that despite what you might feel, you and your neighbors do not have the right to directly control who else moves into your neighborhood.

As such, much of the YIMBY vs. NIMBY dialogue is fake. Hushed, backroom conversations with NIMBYs turn up very different concerns about housing development than the trivial, almost embarrassing concerns that surface in public debate—like the death grip a neighborhood has on a laundromat no one even goes to anymore, or parking shortages, or duplex shadows.

In reality, NIMBYs believe in entrenching existing community character and keeping out new residents who threaten to disrupt that character in one way or another—perhaps through different culture, religion, sense of aesthetics, property caretaking, drugs, crime, or a myriad of other differences. The struggle in the city is a battle to preserve identity masquerading as a dispute about economics. But liberalism, having emerged victorious through a century of civil rights battles, doesn’t know how to grapple with that fundamental desire for two reasons.

First, many straightforward ways of preserving community character are legally questionable, and the drive itself is quite taboo. Second, no one wants a return to the tragedies of the 20th century.

And so the subterranean NIMBY drive, which has no way of expressing itself directly in policy or debate, turns the entire city upside-down through circuitous, arcane policies, in order to achieve its goals. In the choice between having their own interests harmed, and imposing large negative externalities on everyone else to preserve their interests and identity, the NIMBYs choose the latter.

In their desire for a sense of belonging and materially useful social fabric, the NIMBY class isn’t terribly different from the black neighborhoods in New York or Hispanic ones in Los Angeles facing gentrification, as colorfully illustrated by the Spike Lee quote. The difference is that the NIMBY class has economic wealth and political power, whereas their counterparts do not. As a result, trends from the earlier eras of redlining persist. Whether a neighborhood exists as the walled domain of paper-rich landowners or as a de facto land reserve for development depends on whether residents have the means and ability to become an organized and powerful political class, and either sway the city or directly govern it.

The result is that for the last 40 years, this middle stratum of incumbent homeowners and community activists has successfully blocked new development in many of the major cities in California, causing a housing shortage of nearly 3 million units and rapidly escalating rents and prices.

The Coming High–Low In California

It is in the context of the stalemated urban struggle between the NIMBY–PHIMBY and YIMBY coalitions, and the resultant housing crisis, that Scott Wiener’s new housing bill (SB-50) can best be understood. Wiener’s bill amounts to the creation of a new High–Low dynamic to beat the NIMBY Middle. The bill will “spur housing development near transit, and job centers,” but does not directly require any agency or corporation to build any housing anywhere. It merely prevents cities and towns from banning apartment construction in certain specified areas. Towns would be required to allow apartment buildings in any place that is either:

  • within a half-mile of a rail transit station;
  • within a quarter-mile of a high-frequency bus stop;
  • or within a “job-rich” neighborhood.

In the new special zones, regulatory restrictions on development would be drastically reduced. The demand for density is highest in wealthy and exclusive neighborhoods where the price of land is highest. The market demand for more housing is essentially infinite in those neighborhoods, so over time this policy would cause whole swathes of single-family dwellings in desirable areas like Silicon Valley, Westside Los Angeles, Western San Francisco, etc., to be converted into apartments.

SB-50 also has certain provisions protecting low-income renters—an effort to break the NIMBY–PHIMBY coalition and onboard the PHIMBYs, who sank a previous iteration of the bill. Low-income neighborhoods wouldn’t see any change at all in the short term. And even over the longer term, today’s California renters wouldn’t need to fear their landlords selling to developers. Instead, new apartments would be built on land that is currently used for single-family, low-density, owner-occupied housing. For the first five years, that would happen only in richer neighborhoods.

The intention is clearly to target highly desirable but exclusionary suburban jurisdictions that offer a wide variety of public amenities and high-level employment. The seas of single-family homes in desirable areas like Cupertino are perfect places to host greater residential density. In effect, SB-50 aims to remove the right to exclude from residents of these desirable communities. No longer will these wealthier communities and their residents be able to keep out poorer tenants and families by virtue of NIMBY style anti-housing development restrictionism.

SB-50 represents a direct attack on the continued existence of single-family-oriented neighborhoods—desirable, exclusionary, but now a source of stagnation—and the social class which has fought to preserve them, in order to increase housing supply for newcomers, the poor, and workers. Supporters of SB-50 see it as a strategy to ensure that the productive classes of city life can afford to live and have families there.

What Becomes Of The NIMBY? 

The ongoing acceleration of the housing crisis, intellectual discourse around the topic zeroing in on the true causes, and political moves like Scott Wiener’s coalition and the YIMBY movement in general, are all bringing the issue to a head. It’s shaping up to be a direct confrontation between an organized High–Low coalition, and a powerful but a relatively disorganized incumbent NIMBY homeowner class that can’t really articulate its true interests under liberalism.

The current default trajectory is that the reactionary NIMBYs will probably lose, especially if the PHIMBYs can be flipped, as the latest bill seems to attempt. The unified progressive forces allied against them are too strong. Capital, migrants, ecological interests, tech companies, and business groups, when unified, are a formidable force.

However, a loss doesn’t mean that cities cannot incorporate legitimate, good-faith concerns of NIMBYs into the new order. It is the role of a competent governing class to compensate the losers and in good faith ameliorate their fears about the new socioeconomic regime. This will help with the generational divide, as well. The children of NIMBY parents often find themselves currently solidifying into the YIMBY coalition, and that trajectory would presumably increase if the prospects of that class improved significantly.

There is also the risk that SB-50 will create too much density, resulting in more transient and atomized communities in the wake of mass upzoning. The old, single-family urban landscape was more family-friendly. It had higher homeownership rates, which fostered rootedness and social capital. The current status quo is for cities to look like a sea of low-density, car-dependent zones abutting ribbons of high rises.

But there is no reason urban space has to look like that. Dispersed, decentralized, moderate, human-scale density is more sustainable and more flexible. Housing typologies such as walk-ups, townhomes, and low rises may present an opportunity to increase density and improve affordability without sacrificing too many of the benefits of low-density residential living. The slogan employed by some YIMBY activists of “4 floors and corner stores” is an effective frame for both rhetoric and policy. It offers an alternative that could calm some of the NIMBY backlash to the introduction of additional density in their neighborhoods. If Wiener’s moves to integrate the PHIMBYs into his High–Low alliance are successful, this could give him the momentum to make these kinds of moves as well.

Cities need to grow, but community identity and community-level social concerns are important. The importance, if not the legitimacy, can be illustrated by how much time and effort people put into NIMBY causes, and into related things like their choice of neighborhood and social circles.

So what about the legitimacy?

Many of the restrictive anti-development and anti-growth sentiments blocking the rejuvenation of American cities are best understood as community identity concerns presenting themselves as economic concerns. Income and other policy trivialities are currently the only dimensions liberalism allows community exclusion to be based on, which has the effect of dissolving all other forms of community identity through the acid bath of market logic, and making a secure stable community accessible only to those at the top of the market hierarchy.

But humans are social animals. We need social circles with people who have similar or complementary interests, values, needs, and resources. When it is able to, this need for social fabric finds a home in physical community: who you see on the street, who introduces themselves when you move in, who you meet at the park and library and schools, who you interact with in your daily errands. This stuff is especially important for families, whose children bring them into much more immediate contact with the physical social environment than singles, who can more easily travel for wanted interactions and avoid unwanted interactions. This is what NIMBYs are usually trying to preserve. They oppose the construction of new apartments because they fear new neighbors may bring crime and other anti-social behavior, or even just change the social dynamics of the neighborhood, destroying this social fabric. Poor renters in inner cities fear new development, jobs, and retail revitalization may bring in wealthier neighbors that will outbid them and eventually displace them and their social fabric.

When the NIMBY fears come true, there’s often nothing to replace the previous community once it’s gone. In its place is a new way of being, usually more socially atomized, alien to the old. And the new way of being is almost never organized around a new, vibrant community that old residents can embrace. The old tight-knit community unravels, and it doesn’t come back. In some cases, those of a high socioeconomic status can leave and re-establish a moat in high-cost areas. The value of money, in other words, has increased. But for low-income or PHIMBY neighborhoods, picking up and moving and erecting income barriers to community entry isn’t an option. In most cases, the only option is to watch the old social fabric and its ways disintegrate.

The worry is that any structure that explicitly empowers the current NIMBYs to ensure development that actually benefits them would be used for unacceptable forms of discrimination—racial, sexual, religious, etc. Without a solution to that moral stalemate, there may be no solution that can satisfy both parties. The YIMBYs, buoyed by the overwhelming need to respond to the housing crisis, may just defeat the NIMBYs.

The pro-development coalition might well overcome all reactionary NIMBY outbursts during the development process. But it will still have to deal with the question of community.

The success of civilization is contingent on the innovative capacity of cities. This means they must continue to grow. The new urban planning elite that is angling to manage this growth will eventually need to ensure that new development is as inclusive as possible of the legitimate social and identity concerns of NIMBYs and PHIMBYs—and address them through much more direct social, policing, family, and community policies, instead of focusing only on economic factors.

A failure to grapple with this problem and discuss it honestly and openly will lead to more of the status quo: high costs, a worsening of the affordability crisis, bitter conflicts over urban space, inefficient land use patterns, and more struggles in the city.

Siavash Tahan is a real estate and urban development market analyst. You can follow him on Twitter @SiavashTahan.