The Rise of the YIMBYs: A National Pro-Housing Movement

April 02, 2021
The Painted Sisters victorians in San Francisco

How are YIMBY groups changing the political dynamic in cities across the US? A new paper from Jonathan Levine at the University of Michigan examines “ideas common to the pro-housing coalition, together with internal controversies and their implications for vital municipal alliances.”

Key takeaways:

  1. What animates pro-housing activists? The movement represents a new interest group in municipal politics entering the arena with the traditional pro-growth, anti-growth, and social-justice coalitions. It generally aims to undo exclusionary land-use patterns and increase housing supply, but is also rife with internal tension and opportunities for new alliances.
  2. There have been a variety of policy toolkits under the pro-housing umbrella, with different coalitions and outcomes across the US from Minneapolis to Portland, Cambridge, and Austin.
  3. A paradigm shift in transportation planning can be ingrained in the pro-housing agenda to reduce transportation emissions and fight climate change.

Levine (2021) lays out an extensive literature tracing the history and ongoing efforts of YIMBY political groups across the United States. Levine argues that it is a distinctly new interest group entering the fray of municipal politics generally divided among three camps, which he dubs pro-growth, anti-growth, and social justice.

YIMBYs may have overlaps, but are distinct from the pro-growth urban machine itself, or “firms and institutions that stand to profit monetarily from growth: developers, landowners, building-industry interests, downtown and suburban businesses, and chambers of commerce.”

By contrast, social justice coalitions of progressive activists and minority groups focus on more equitable and just distributions of resources and power. YIMBYs have emerged as a fourth group — overlapping, to some extent, in coalitions with the latter two camps: “a loose and shifting pro-housing alliance who hold that exclusionary land-use policies in urban and suburban areas exacerbate housing unaffordability and racial segregation, and increase long-distance commuting and greenhouse-gas emissions.”

With its origins in redlining and segregation, single-family zoning had imprinted perverse incentives on the body politic: “While explicit arguments for single-family zoning may have shifted from promotion of race and class segregation to those based in neighborhood character and infrastructure capacity, the difference was of little consequence, since such exclusion was woven into the United States’s fabric of institutional racism.”

In environmental advocacy, perverse incentives also lead to opposition to new housing supply in central cities to preserve the local status quo, rather than advancing regional and global policy imperatives. “Opposing housing development in high-accessibility areas may have reduced environmental impacts in these specific areas, or more broadly, environmental impacts per hectare,” Levine explains—”But this opposition, paradoxically, increased environmental impacts per capita.”

Uniting to support housing production results in uneasy tension with some who only support intervening in the market to upzone, to the exclusion of other private market interventions. Many progressives support increasing housing supply and reforming restrictive zoning codes, while also advocating strongly for tenant protections and affordability mandates. Yet Levine thinks there’s opportunities for both camps.

As Levine puts it: “Coalition building toward one side tends to limit opportunities on the other, however. Where development interests tend to welcome regulatory liberalization and the opportunity it affords to expand housing supplies, they are frequently hostile to requirements pertaining to subsidized housing and tenant protection, core tenets of the social-justice coalition. The pro-housing coalition can serve important roles when it seeks to inform potential coalition partners about both the necessity and the insufficiency of market-driven housing supply expansions in solving what has emerged as dire housing shortages in many U.S. metropolitan areas.”

Levine also notes that expanding the progressive coalition has borne more legislative fruit through the coalition behind the 3 Ps Housing Plan (Production, Protection, and Preservation) in California. “Eschewing the tenets of the libertarian wing of the YIMBY movement, the coalition endorsed legislation in both regulatory liberalization and tenant protection, including bills regulating rent gouging, allowing accessory dwelling units, streamline affordable-housing approval, mandating eviction notification, expanding density-based affordability bonuses, reducing parking requirements, identifying up-zoning opportunities, and facilitating broadly based, small-scale densification…”

Levine also reviews a variety of YIMBY policies and case studies of municipalities moving forward on them: eliminating single-family zoning (Minneapolis and Portland), zoning reforms conditioned on affordability (Cambridge and Austin), eliminating parking requirements, and reducing minimum lot sizes. Critically, these strategies are also generally intended as strategies to reduce per capita transportation emissions and enable smaller carbon footprints for growing urban populations.

Can density reduce traffic congestion rather than exacerbating deficits in already-strained transportation infrastructure? When it comes to transportation, Levine offers a guiding principle: “U.S. land-use planning practices grounded in highway level of service, such as traffic-impact analysis, can limit these accessibility gains by excluding or constraining development that threatens to exacerbate congestion beyond targeted limits.”

The literature review surveys the landscape and evaluates opportunities and challenges ahead—but Levine concludes on an optimistic note urging momentum. Levine observes “the ideological transcendence of the view that exclusionary regulations harmed the affordability, equity, and sustainability of U.S. metropolitan areas suggests the viability of directions of reforms.”