Response to "Beyond YIMBY-NIMBY Binary" Article(s)
I’ve been asked by so many leftists to respond to this article and I have nothing else to talk about so let's do it: “Why Socialists Must Reject the YIMBY - NIMBY binary.” These types of articles used to come out a dime-a-dozen back in the day and reading this one felt like a blast from the past. We haven’t seen many articles this simple in recent years because the debate has advanced past many of the issues it raises.
Since then YIMBYism has grown remarkably popular, including among left-wingers and progressive politicians. In response, a developing set of gatekeepers on the Left have tried to tamp down on its allure within Left spaces by calling it evil and right-wing. This isn’t unique to housing—leftists calling each other’s ideas fascists, right-wing, Capitalist etc is a long tradition.
So let’s just dive straight into it. I’m going to both address the author’s arguments, but also the rhetoric and facts because there are a lot of citations of incidents that are designed to lubricate the author’s arguments.
Rhetoric 1: Eric Adams — the Cop Mayor of NYC — is a YIMBY because he said so in a speech.
What has Eric Adams done that’s actually YIMBY beyond a speech? He and many others call themselves YIMBYs because it’s popular. Reporters at the event noted how Adams not only had no specific YIMBY policies to propose, but was actually doing NIMBY stuff like rolling back rezonings and saying he wouldn’t do zoning reform without council-member prerogative. Simply saying you like development does not make one a YIMBY. A YIMBY is someone who encourages more housing even in their own neighborhood.
If the author wanted to cite a NYC YIMBY, there is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who not only requires supporting the abolition of exclusionary zoning to get her endorsement, but has actually authored legislation that would penalize jurisdictions for imposing zoning that restrict the supply of housing. This is actual YIMBYism. Now either the author didn’t know this or chose not to include it because it wasn’t convenient.
Argument 1: The Media/Ruling class frames YIMBYism as the Left-Wing approved solution to ward-off solutions which abolish or avoid the housing market.
This is a conspiratorial characterization to an otherwise obvious phenomenon. The media class consists of college-educated, very online urban-dwelling liberals who simply think YIMBYs are correct, abide heavily by conventional economics and live in places where these discussions are the loudest. The notion it’s an attempt by the rich class to gum up genuine left-wing solutions is sophomoric and something I’d expect of the right.
Argument 2: Housing does not operate by supply-and-demand, rather it’s a matter of submarkets. More luxury housing doesn’t help low-income households.
It’s been said a million times and anyone who actually works in building low-income housing (not simply saying they want it) knows this to be true: YIMBYs supports building market and subsidized housing and think both are necessary. The author’s contention with YIMBYs is their support of the market component, and the typical tactic is to pretend YIMBYs consistent support of low income housing does not exist.
Obviously submarkets based on income exist, but they simply reflect a broader differentiation in types of housing. An 18 year old’s housing needs are not the same as a couple, or a family of four, nor the same as a senior’s so submarkets reflect this. There’s many other housing submarkets like location, amenities and housing density to name a few. Housing costs are also heavily influenced by construction costs like mid-rise wood frame apartments between 1 - 8 stories will be much cheaper than steel-frame high rises at greater heights. It’s also not unique to housing compared to other goods as is often implied (“housing isn’t as simple as S & D like food is”), for example foods have submarkets like store-brand vs. name-brand, organic vs. not etc.
The author is right, and we all know including YIMBYs, that simply building exclusively private housing (what the author terms ‘luxury housing’, a developer marketing term to describe a new home) won’t meet the housing needs of the lowest-income households in a time-efficient manner. But pointlessly obstructing private housing, and inflating the costs of private housing to impose a supply-shortage on middle-income people simply results in upper-income households acquiring homes in lower-income submarkets out of necessity. This is known as gentrification, and this is demonstrated by incredibly long lines of (likely) middle and lower middle-income earners waiting for a substandard, old, cheap apartments in New York City that formerly housed a low income family.
Simply refusing to build housing does not mean that the submarket's demand goes away. It mostly means that a low rent apartment simply becomes a high rent luxury unit in the event of a housing shortage.
Argument 3: The most expensive neighborhoods are the neighborhoods that built the most housing.
The author bases this claim off of an opinion article from a NIMBY blog which claims that the areas that built the most housing are the most unaffordable. This can be the case because new highrise units are often in industrial areas where there’s no older housing to drag the median down. I know little about NYC but I do know that SoHo doesn’t build any housing which was the whole point of the rezoning. So why is SoHo runner up in that NextShark rent ranking?
At a national level I’m far more comfortable saying that as far as diversity and population growth goes, the metro areas building the most housing are attracting the most people and minorities: Seattle, Houston, Las Vegas, Atlanta and so on. NYC has submarkets by neighborhoods but the city itself is one giant interconnected market, so it's hard to extrapolate these differences to subjective neighborhood boundaries.
Argument 4: New York City built a lot of high-end housing and rents failed to fall.
Simply ain’t true. New York City’s housing growth is some of the lowest in the United States, especially its vacancy rate. By no metric has NYC built a lot of housing. Wasn’t true these last ten years and it hasn’t been true since the 1960s after the mass downzoning of NYC that prohibited new, cheaper apartments in most neighborhoods. Slight upticks in transforming industrial lands to high rise towers is not a building boom.
The author cites as evidence of a building boom a Planning Commissioner reflecting on unaffordability in the Bloomberg-era. Mayor Bloomberg mostly downzoned much of New York’s mid-rise, cheaper to build density in whiter neighborhoods explicitly for protecting neighborhood character, and then upzoned fewer areas for luxury steel frame high-rises to compensate.
In 2010, N.Y.U.’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy found that, of the 188,000 lots that had been rezoned between 2003 and 2007, 14 percent had been upzoned, 23 percent downzoned, and 63 percent had not had their development capacity changed by more than 10 percent—only the type of building allowed on the lot changed . . . the net effect, the Furman Center found, was to increase capacity by just 1.7 percent.
This is literal NIMBY-ism and business-as-usual land use. But it also explains why the city’s low income communities are understandably hawkish towards re-zonings and luxury condos.
Anyways Seattle built a lot and Seattle's rents fell. Predictable counter #1: “But it didn't drop significantly enough, it just stopped rising.” Be prepared to make that argument against rent control. Predictable counter #2: “Developers expressed interest in not building after too much supply.” Yeah, that’s a better problem to have than what NYC has.
Rhetoric 2: There’s more vacant units than homeless people in NYC.
The author goes back and forth between dismissing the idea there’s a housing shortage based on the classic vacant units / homelessness equation and arguing more housing should be built but for the lowest incomes. TL;DR: most vacancies are simply short term vacancies between tenants, they’re by and large effectively occupied. Yes some minority of vacancies are wasteful pied-à-terre that should be taxed but it’s not enough to solve homelessness. Later on the author says:
Let’s be clear: socialists want to build more housing! But we also must understand that YIMBYism ensures that the market will build for the rich and the gentrifiers. We want something else — we want to build beautiful, safe, sustainable housing for the working masses.
The author bases his understanding of the impacts of housing supply and elasticity on anecdotal observations of a city that builds the fewest homes per-capita in the United States of America. Okay. But if there are more unused units than homeless people why bother building at all? Just acquire and allocate those excess homes to the homeless.
The answer is that New York City’s rental vacancy rate is 3-4% which is shockingly low, among the lowest of all major cities in the U.S. More people than just the homeless need housing, including New Yorkers living in crowded conditions, substandard housing, population growth and natural housing needs in life. Places with higher vacancy rates have lower rates of homelessness.
This regression analysis from the new book “Homelessness is a Housing Problem” explains, with empirical evidence, why NYC has so much more homelessness and high housing costs than other cities. It debunks reactionary right-wing dogma that grows popular in the absence of understanding housing market failures and I recommend well-intentioned YIMBY-critics from the left to read it.
Argument 5: YIMBY is “trickle-down” economics because it rewards rich people with housing much like Reagan rewarded the rich with tax breaks under the premise it helps poor people.
There’s a lot wrong here but I think that the number 1 problem when arguing with some leftists on this issue — as well surmised by my favorite online leftist economist Unlearning Economics — is a failure to understand markets when critiquing them. Firstly, I think the author is referring to all private housing as luxury housing. We don’t have a robust social housing producer in the U.S. therefore “luxury housing” accounts for well over 90% of housing in the United States. Someone adding a backyard granny unit is “luxury housing”. That’s clearly nonsensical.
But the vast majority of housing research substantiates YIMBY’s claims on the impacts of market housing supply on rents, homelessness and gentrification while research near unanimously refutes trickle-down economics because they have nothing to do with each other. It’s just a nonsensical comparison. This economic principle exists both within a command or market economy: the more available a good or service is, the less valuable it is. Yes that applies to rents and supply, again, as shown from Homelessness Is a Housing Problem.
Rhetoric 3: YIMBY is supported by Capitalist interests like Big Tech to push state upzoning laws in California.
Yes, I know the author appears to be referring to SB 827 and SB 50 as “SB 727” and gets a lot of dates mixed up but to the point: it was also supported by labor unions, low income housing nonprofit builders and environmental organizations. Silicon Valley companies donated to YIMBY groups because a lot of their blue-collar staff couldn’t find housing in the most expensive real estate markets in the U.S.
Yes, tenant organizations at the state level opposed the law on the basis it lacked sufficient inclusionary zoning (which the author rails against notably) but it was killed by suburban NIMBY homeowners who mobilized against it. The same SB 50 (what the author mistakenly calls SB 727) coalition sponsored creating a public housing developer (written by a Socialist YIMBY legislator) and got the repeal of the ban on public housing on the 2024 ballot (written by Scott Wiener, who the author derides). We also successfully passed a major state upzoning with the support of various unions representing middle and low income workers throughout the state.
Even during the antiquated 2018-era politics the author speaks of, YIMBY policies were supported by low income housing groups at the federal level like the National Low Income Housing Coalition. All of this is absent from the article.
Rhetoric 4: YIMBYs made up the pejorative NIMBY.
Then there are the NIMBYs (a pejorative term crafted by YIMBY activists)
NIMBY’s earliest use dates back to 1979 to refer to opposing nuclear waste dumps and by the 1980s was pretty well associated with opposing new development, poor people, housing or otherwise. YIMBY had infrequent use by low income housing groups in the 1990s but didn’t become popular until the mid-late 2010s pro-housing movement. I’m not trying to be mean but this is basic Google stuff.
Argument 6: Inclusionary Zoning is Bad Because it Depends on Private Developers to “intentionally” undercut the prospects of Social Housing.
Inclusionary zoning is largely pushed by tenant organizations and left-wing groups for the purposes of cutting in on developer’s profits and returning value to the community. Its origins was largely by left-wing activists who wanted to use developers as value capture and integrate new housing with low income families. I think it’s pretty neoliberal to heavily depend on it, but progressives justify its use by noting the material improvements it brings outweigh ideological reservations. (Kind of like this topic as a whole). Conservative interests have long preferred vouchers which actually undercut public housing under Reagan or the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, not inclusionary zoning.
Also, quantities are more important than ratios especially if you ultimately agree with the problem being a lack of low income housing. A 100% or an 80% affordable project of maybe, 90 units is not as useful as 20% or 30% of 1,000 units. Wise inclusionary zoning, which is not a substitute for a public developer, should focus on maximizing the total number of low income homes produced, not a ratio.
Argument 7: YIMBYs don’t allow us to consider a Socialist-alternative for public housing, for that “cannot be allowed to enter the discussion.”
Nobody’s preventing the author from discussing anything. The problem is that spending all your time blocking housing under a misguided understanding of markets and then not doing anything to materialize a public housing regime is effectively NIMBY-ism. If you don’t have a serious plan to make public housing en-masse happen you’re only fueling homelessness and displacement by blocking privately-funded housing because that’s what people live in and not discussions.
Nascent movements like PHIMBY (Public Housing in My Backyard) have emerged to challenge the free market determinism of YIMBYism from the left.
It seems like “PHIMBY”, the supposed bane of YIMBYs, only exists in the context of articles to refute YIMBYs with hypotheticals but doesn’t actually exist as a group. In the real world AB2053 — a public housing bill for California based on Vienna and Singapore successes — was sponsored by YIMBY groups in coalition with labor unions, environmentalists and left-wing organizations. Same with the “Aloha Homes” Social Housing program in Hawaii written by a YIMBY and Seattle’s social housing ballot initiative with the support of tenant organizations and YIMBYs. YIMBYs battling some hypothetical PHIMBY movement simply doesn’t exist.
Building coalitions for public housing does not require one to deny the impacts of supply on the housing market. No Socialist housing regime materialized anywhere on earth from Red Vienna to the Soviet Union by denying the existence of housing shortages. Pre-World War I social democrats in Germany and Austria often fought efforts by property owners associations to keep housing development monopolized and limited. If anything leftist housing programs were predicated on understanding the market failed to produce enough housing and didn’t focus on blocking housing.
I genuinely responded to this in good faith. These kinds of ideological exercises are always good fun in a bubble but the substance was empty. There are good criticisms of YIMBYism from the left — usually by left-wing YIMBYs themselves — such as how there’s material costs beyond NIMBYism which inflate market rents; that the private-sector isn’t efficient enough anywhere to house low income households or prevent rent burdens; that the Recession has decimated too many smaller builders in the private sector to meet demand; that the jury isn’t fully out on the impacts of market-rate housing on gentrifying communities and so on.
However, this article was not great. So I hope this clears up my reply to this kind of argument. My advice to the author is to depend less on opinion articles and more on empirical evidence for future claims. Building mass public housing, as someone actually working on that with a coalition of YIMBYs and non-YIMBYs, is not in any way inhibited by removing land-use rules designed to enrich property owners and select few developers at the expense of tenants and home seekers. Indeed that was the false dichotomy all along.
I appreciate your stepping once more into the breach on this. But it's tough to know what to do in the face of these extremely tired and facile arguments that fly in the face of a metric ton of evidence that we have now, much of which you cite here. A good rule of thumb for me is that if anyone using the phrase "trickle down" in a housing conversation they have no idea what they are talking about. Do their opinions still matter politically? Maybe. But they are mainly just pawns of the NIMBYs in the unholy alliance between the landed classes and the so-called Left.
Thank you, good analysis. The bar chart of 2010-2019 approvals per capita got me curious about how the smaller East Bay cities compare, so I looked them up and they look bad. Oakland is 37, Berkeley 18, and Alameda 16. Ugh.