Who's Who: The Dictionary of '-In My Backyard'
Breaks down who's a YIMBY, NIMBY and everyone in-between.
The monikers NIMBY and YIMBY are only useful insofar as they point you in a general direction about someone’s opinion on the production of housing. Nothing more. Groups within the same categories do not necessarily agree with each other or like each other.
Found largely among the newest young professional class in coastal cities like San Francisco, Neoliberal YIMBYism views the housing crisis as an exclusive problem of an overly regulated market and believes that liberalizing regulatory barriers would induce more supply and lower rents. Like all YIMBYs they take issue with the anti-density zoning practices, but they would argue that the solution to the broader housing crisis is exclusively a matter of removing regulations and codes that inhibit developers from constructing more housing.
Many neoliberal YIMBYs take issue with non-market solutions such as public housing, which they don’t oppose but believe are not solutions to the housing crisis. A recent debate between a Left YIMBY and a Neoliberal YIMBY on the Neoliberal Podcast breaks much of this down. They are hostile to public interventions in the market such as rent control and accuse, in particular anti-development leftists, of not understanding economics when they rely on non-market solutions.
Neoliberal YIMBYs are fundamentally supportive of growth: in jobs or housing under the principles of market fundamentalism. Their answer to rent gouging or evictions are a steady supply of private housing that they argue empowers market consumers rather than landlords. They will cite research contrasting housing availability with eviction rates or rent control’s impact on housing supply.
Size: Large online presence. Prominent in San Francisco and New York City housing spaces. Strong presence in think-tanks and national punditry.
Arch Enemy: Liberal NIMBYs, Left NIMBYs.
Common Ally: YIMBYs, broadly.
Examples: Any Neoliberal Organization.
There are two types of Conservative YIMBY. The first type of Conservative YIMBY is someone who supports more real estate development broadly and has socially center-right or right attitudes. Conservative YIMBYs fundamentally believe that regulations of any kind are draconian — including for housing. They will generally support pro-business candidates, pro-police politics, dismiss public housing and firmly oppose rent control.
Conservative YIMBYism is often a gateway to the center-right party for urban professionals in places where Republicans don’t functionally exist through the popular ambiguity of the brand “YIMBY.” They’re the smallest of all YIMBYs by far, have no real presence outside of San Francisco and are shunned by major YIMBYs there but kick up a lot a dust in the discourse. Their leftists critics have begun to popularize the term “carceral urbanist”, to refer to these types and others who for example want to solve non-housing issues around city life with more policing.
The other type of Conservative YIMBYs are conservative parties which adopt a pro-housing construction frameworks to remedy the housing crisis. The Republican Party in the United States very briefly flirted with this idea, however they opted for Right NIMBYism during the Trump Administration to regain popularity with suburban voters. The idea is still strong in Canada where conservative politicians cite government’s restrictions usually on permitting, not so much zoning, as causes for the crisis.
Size: Very small.
Common Enemies: Leftists, Left YIMBYs.
Common Ally: Occasional Neoliberal YIMBY overlap on ideas.
Example: Grow SF in San Francisco; Manhattan Institute.
Liberal YIMBYs tend to be run-of-the-mill liberals who support building more housing to solve the housing crisis. These are the largest of all YIMBYs. They are often higher-income young professional homeowners with families or lower-income younger renters — generally with higher-education backgrounds.
For Liberal YIMBY parents or homeowners, they are often motivated by altruistic ideas about affordable housing originating from personal struggles. Especially if they’re recent home buyers and became dismayed by how difficult it was to buy find a home and are turned off by traditional NIMBYism from their neighbors. The renter variant of Liberal YIMBYs are agitated they cannot afford homeownership, rent very poorly for their incomes or have experienced homelessness.
Liberal YIMBYs are not very ideological and support urbanism for practical reasons such as environmentalism and economic stability. They tend to refer to economists when being skeptical of rent control — in particular they favor less-strict anti-rent gouging legislation. They are supporters of both low income and market-rate housing and will vote to tax themselves to fund low income housing. Homeowner NIMBYs are their arch enemies as they live in the same kind of neighborhoods, who accuse them of being child-less, shills for developers, generationally bitter, or unappreciative of their neighborhoods. Liberal YIMBYs push back and popularize narratives about why their neighborhoods should grow and be inclusive.
Size: Very large and found in every major city. Renter variant has a heavy online presence; homeowner variant heavy in organizations like League of Women Voters, Sierra Club, non-profit housing groups etc.
Common Enemies: Homeowner NIMBYs.
Common Ally: All YIMBYs; growth politics.
Examples: Average YIMBY organization.
Left YIMBYs are ideological YIMBYs from the left. Their ideology envisions a universal public housing system for all income levels while in the short term they support reforming zoning laws to make developers build denser infill housing, less suburban sprawl, tenant protections and laws to regulate rents. What makes them distinct from other YIMBYs is their support of rent control and distinct from their left-wing NIMBY counterparts is their approval of private housing development and often high-density zoning.
There are two strands of left YIMBYism: Georgists, who advocate for capturing land values away from the private sector through taxation or mass public ownership (Georgists can also fall into other categories as well but a full 100% tax of land’s value is fairly left). The second are Socialists/Social Democrats who focus heavily on public housing and exclusionary zoning prohibiting multifamily housing.
Leftist opponents of Left YIMBYism charge they’re useful idiots for real estate groups by proposing technocratic solutions that don’t further revolutionary causes. The Left YIMBYs respond by arguing that Left NIMBYism is an ideological “dead-end” that cares about theoreticals like abolishing the housing market and ultimately props up the status-quo rather than delivering housing stability. Right NIMBYs charge they’re unrealistic and ideological but Left YIMBYs counter that market-rate housing, while helpful, won’t find it profitable enough to provide sufficient housing abundance.
Size: Mild but growing online presence. Found in academia, progressive think-tanks, and left-wing organizations.
Common Enemies: NIMBYs in the real world; Left NIMBYs online.
Common Ally: Liberal YIMBYs.
Examples: Housing Rights US, Common Ground CA, AOC, Alex Lee (a Left YIMBY Assemblyman in CA).
It’s best to think of Urbanism as a over-arching idea that promotes the eco-system of cities, with YIMBY being a sub-section of that arching idea. Urbanists are usually YIMBYs, but they also concern themselves with transportation and environmentalism from the built city. They fervently hate private automobiles, freeways or parking, and will argue that public transit, cycling, zoning that allows for commercial spaces within residential ones is how every city should be designed.
Many urbanists offline include climate scientists and researchers that believe city design is essential to reducing emissions. Not all urbanists are YIMBYs with anti-YIMBY urbanists opposed to private housing development or contest that mid-rise buildings are superior to highrise for the environment. YIMBYs who are not urbanists usually are simply pro-development such as being supportive of car-oriented suburban sprawl.
Property Owner NIMBY
The Property Owner NIMBY is the most common NIMBY and splits into two camps: property values and neighborhood character. These often overlap but are distinct in that average NIMBYs may react to an apartment going up next door not necessarily in defense of keeping their property values up, but an emotional feeling that their neighborhood is changing negatively. This NIMBY spends a lot of time in neighborhood organizations/HOAs, city planning departments, pushing policies to restrict the height of buildings, mandate backyards and frontyards, mandate parking, or prohibit rental housing.
What is more indicative of this type of NIMBY is not ownership of property but rather age. Renters who are older and are stably housed can behave in this way — however ironic — because they too are concerned with quality of life or neighborhood homogeneity. However this is not reciprocated as homeowners and landlords do not view renters as invested in their neighborhoods.
The property values variant is solely concerned with the stability of their mortgage or their rents if they’re landlords. Landlords in particular oppose apartment construction out of fear that the increased supply will reduce their bargaining power to charge higher rents a.k.a. supply and demand. Many developers are NIMBYs solely because they tend to be very anti-competitive and don’t like other developers increasing housing supply and pressuring their initial rents downwards. Homeowners and realtors oppose dense buildings out of fear that their abilities to sell their homes may be impaired with the reduced quality of life and lower property values.
Size: Extremely large. The most common NIMBY and is pervasive through local government and low density neighborhoods.
Arch Enemy: The homeless, YIMBYs, Developers, Tenants.
Common Ally: Landlords, Property Owners.
Examples: Any Homeowner Association. Livable California. League of California Cities.
Right NIMBYs often overlap with property-owning NIMBYs and are usually far less guarded about their intentions behind blocking housing. Right NIMBYs may live in a big suburban house in a gated subdivision and regularly attend their local Neighborhood Watch or police meetings. Right NIMBYs push laws criminalizing the homeless; are fervently opposed to Section 8 or public housing on the grounds that it’ll bring in crime; oppose bus stops or bike lanes especially near their house. They will oppose YIMBYs on the grounds that they’re forcibly integrating their communities. A good summary of Right NIMBYism is this WSJ op-ed written by Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
Size: Large, mostly in red states or counties.
Arch Enemy: The government and fair housing.
Common Ally: Property Owning NIMBYs.
Liberal NIMBYs are just the Democrat-voting, socially liberal variant of the Right NIMBYs. They are the archetypal NIMBY the phrase NIMBY often conjures up in liberal areas. Oftentimes they have completely opposite politics outside of housing but will vote similarly on housing issues such as zoning, development or parking. From the P.O.V. of the Liberal, their intent is simply about neighborhood character and trying to preserve a suburban, leafy, low density lifestyle even if they live in urban areas. Developers are what this crowd fears the most.
They oppose builders coming into neighborhoods to erect tall buildings that may take away their shade, their parking, and add neighbors. They’re mostly homeowners but can include renters. Politically are not explicitly anti-tenant but will vote down rent control, eviction protections from accessory dwelling units, or support covertly anti-homeless policies. They claim to support affordable housing when challenged by YIMBYs but will consistently undermine low income housing projects whenever possible. When such projects seem likely, they will attempt to downsize them or make them unfeasible with parking requirements or false concerns about affordability levels.
Size: Large, mostly in blue cities and suburbs.
Arch Enemy: Also the government’s fair housing laws. Liberal YIMBYs.
Common Ally: All NIMBYs.
Examples: NextDoor. Obama describing them.
Left NIMBYs believe that no market adjustments will make the housing crisis better and are housing market abolitionists. Left NIMBYs believe that the proliferation of new market housing causes displacement by increasing area rents with its mere presence. 100% affordable housing is better to them than market-rate housing even if the inclusionary units are the same amount due to the absence of market units. The Left NIMBY rejects there’s any housing shortage and thinks of housing as exclusively an allocation issue. If pressed, they will only consent to new social housing although what type of social housing they like is not universal. Left NIMBYs are big vacancy truthers and repeat many of the arguments I’ve addressed here. The other much smaller strand, closer to Left YIMBY, argues Capitalists have no incentive to solve the housing shortage and should be rejected wholly rather than used to their usefulness.
The Left NIMBY will charge that any and all variants of YIMBYs including Left YIMBYs are either right-wing, developer-shills or neoliberals and discourage fellow leftists from adopting the term. The Left NIMBY internally believes that an alliance with Homeowner NIMBYs is more politically fruitful than with YIMBYs due to their significantly larger size and thus anti-YIMBYism is a political olive branch. Homeowners never reciprocate this sentiment.
Left NIMBYs arrive at their positions from two different origins. The first holding standard NIMBY ideas about dense housing and will (subconsciously) rationalize it through anti-Capitalist rhetoric about developers (this is different than Liberal NIMBYs who adopt progressive rhetoric as a front) and the latter that genuinely thinks the housing shortage is just a for-profit developer propaganda.
Size: Mild-to-Large in urban cities.
Arch Enemy: YIMBYs, Developers.
Common Ally: Liberal and Homeowner NIMBYs.
Examples: AIDS Healthcare Foundation. San Francisco political groups. Debate between Left NIMBY vs YIMBY here in the Nation.
The Environmental NIMBY opposes new housing on the grounds that all residential development is ecologically destructive. These are the O.G. NIMBYs. These NIMBYs vary from the more common and simple environmental preservationists to the smaller and more ideological degrowthers.
In the mid-20th century environmentalist movements focused heavily on curbing unnecessary growth, particularly in the erection of freeways, apartment complexes, nuclear power plants, waste dumps and redevelopment projects. Much of it was against the destruction and ruin of local communities, but also popular at the time was the Malthusian belief in the Earth being threatened by overpopulation.
While science has discredited Malthusian ideology, the Environmental NIMBY upholds it into the 21st century. They believe that high density living from new apartment construction threatens habitats, access to open space and resources. Note that consensus from climate and environmental scientists have wholly abandoned these ideas with urban housing being the optimal way to reduce emissions and accommodate population growth.
Environmental NIMBY groups advocate using urban space not for population growth and housing density but instead with gardens, trees and aesthetically pleasing (though not necessarily environmentally useful) programs in urban spaces.
Size: Common in every city.
Arch Enemy: YIMBYs, Developers.
Common Ally: All NIMBYs.
Examples: Local Sierra Clubs.
Vacancy truthers are too large to be considered a group and instead represent a common belief that the number of homes that are vacant are more than enough to house the homeless and any other housing needs. This overlaps with left NIMBYism but is not exclusive to it, as it is a nonpartisan belief that a cache of vacant homes exists to solve the housing crisis.
Vacancy truthers will often divide the number of vacant homes by the number of homeless to prove there’s no housing shortage. Their understanding of what a vacancy is varies, with most erroneously believing that a vacant home in a Census report means it is empty for a prolonged period of time or that vacancies are not a natural function of any housing system — social or for-profit.
Most vacancy truthers simply don’t understand how vacancy rates work, while a minority use the statistic genuinely believing a home should never be vacant. This group has slowly dwindled in the pundit-world as various vacancy taxes have been enacted and nothing has changed significantly.
PHIMBY/ SHIMBY/ AHIMBY
Public Housing In My Backyard (PHIMBY), Social Housing In My Backyard (SHIMBY) or Affordable Housing In My Backyard (AHIMBY) are mostly slogans that Tenant Organizers or anti-YIMBY leftists use against YIMBYs when charged with being a NIMBY. These should not be confused with any specific group or organization as they solely exist to retort against YIMBYs when challenged for supply-based housing solutions. There’s an implicit “-only” at the end of these acronyms, because YIMBYs are not exclusionary to non-market housing, but the user is making the point that they are in favor of these at the exclusion of market housing.
YIMBYs will charge that asserting this is functionally NIMBYism because non-market housing is not being built en-masse and thus retains the status-quo if used against market housing. Users of the acronym counter-argue that YIMBYs are insufficiently ambitious to make non-market housing be built at scale and that it'll take a mass movement to implement.
Tenant activists are usually quite anti-YIMBY and anti-development, although this varies from location and city. In older American cities with strong rent controls such as LA, SF or NYC, tenant groups fervently fight YIMBYs charging that their approach to housing would result in displacement of low-income tenants. They view YIMBY’s ideas as free-market economics — popularizing the phrase “trickle-down housing” — and only support non-market policies. Tenant activists vary, with many being of the Vacancy Truther variety in which the housing crisis is an artificially made constraint from home hogging by corporate landlords. Others believe only non-private housing should be allowed and that high-end units do nothing to solve the crisis.
Their primary means to combat the housing crisis is rent control, ideally as strict as possible and curb real estate speculation with moratoriums on market-rate housing construction. There are many YIMBY-lite tenant activists often found in exclusionary suburbs or at the federal level who believe that more housing is necessary to reduce the monopoly power of landlords or are concerned about mobility issues.
Tenant groups locally will be more diplomatic to homeowner groups for political reasons, recognizing that opposing YIMBYs or new market-rate housing will curry favor with homeowners who are usually NIMBY and whose votes are needed for rent control or tenant protections. This is often not reciprocated by homeowners at the ballot box but in major cities it can curry favor with neighborhood organizations into passing pro-tenant policies. Tenant groups statewide for the most part push for eviction and rent control policies, and assert YIMBYs should focus on those primarily rather than zoning reform.
Size: Moderately large in major American cities.
Arch Enemy: Landlords, Developers, YIMBYs.
Common Ally: Anti-development NIMBY groups.
Examples: Most urban tenant unions, particularly in California.
The Discourse Lounge is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.