How to Be a Housing Ally (Or, Why I’m Not a YIMBY)

There’s a new battle around housing gaining attention in the media: the YIMBYs vs. the so-called NIMBYs. The YIMBYs, or the “Yes in My Backyard” folks, declare themselves to be “pro-housing” — that is, pro-development of any and every type of housing. And the NIMBYs are, apparently, everyone else — including affordable housing activists, tenant rights advocates, and everyday people struggling with gentrification and displacement in their neighborhoods.

The term “NIMBY,” or “Not in My Backyard,” is commonly heard these days, used as a pejorative for people who are presumably resistant to change in their neighborhood (particularly in the form of development) in favor of their own self-interest. Recently, NIMBY has become shorthand for anyone who is set in their ways, who is old and outdated. And since the arrival of the YIMBYs, it’s become a simple one-word way to dismiss any disagreement about development, no matter the basis.

What media outlets from San Francisco Magazine to Forbes to The New York Times are responding to as new and sexy and exciting in this story is the term “YIMBY.” This creative turn of phrase seems to be a taking back, a positive declaration of acceptance and welcoming. To top it off, the YIMBY movement is being led by young people, by millennials, who are saying something new to our brains that are tired of the same old negative messaging around San Francisco’s affordable housing crisis. According to YIMBYs, we can say yes to new market-rate housing AND fight displacement, all at the same time and all by the same simple philosophy — by welcoming any and every new housing development with open arms. The YIMBY solution to the housing crisis is simple: stop fighting market-rate development wherever it’s happening and just build, baby, build.

Let me be real for a second. I am a millennial. My aesthetic is hipster simplicity and my personal brand is positivity. I love sans serif fonts. Every time Google makes one more effort to streamline its homepage, I think, “Well done, Google, we really didn’t need that extra line around that box.” I stand with Amy Poehler in loudly saying, “Yes, please!” every chance I get. And I am a part of the generation that is excited by innovation, that has been raised to believe that we can make any change we can imagine — supposedly by ourselves, with just our own intelligence and creativity and determination, and probably through technology.

But while I am a millennial and I am an affordable housing activist who supports dense housing development, I am not a YIMBY. Their simple messaging misses the point: that solidarity with vulnerable communities is about actions, not words, and that working to address the affordable housing crisis must start from the place of affordability.

In some ways, this is a battle over how economics works: will building more market-rate (i.e., very high-end) housing in San Francisco actually help or hurt? Can we simplify housing economics in a hot market to basic principles of supply and demand? Does an unregulated real estate market actually benefit everyone? I have data and figures to battle theirs, like the recent report by the UC Berkeley Urban Displacement Project that shows that market-rate housing can take DECADES to become affordable to middle- and low-income residents — a timeline that is far too long for the people and communities that are being displaced right in this moment.

But though data is useful, this is ultimately an ideological battle, and at its heart, a psychological one. What does it mean to be a progressive today in the Bay Area? How can I be a true housing ally, standing with impacted communities against displacement and gentrification — and still get mine, too?

Without assuming too much or making ad hominem attacks, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that YIMBYism is appealing to young folks who are relatively new to San Francisco, who maybe aren’t rich but who don’t appear to be poor either. Or, if they happen to be tech workers or part of the financial sector, maybe are rich by many people’s standards, but still see themselves as progressive and very much want to be a part of this city.

I understand the appeal of YIMBYism, because I feel it, too. I am a young, well-educated, white woman who was raised by comfortably middle-class parents, and I currently earn a living wage. I identify as liberal and progressive. I moved to the Bay Area five years ago and feel like I have a stake here — and yet at the same time, I am a relative newcomer with privilege who wants access to a city that is telling me that it is hurting, and that I, and my partner (a tech worker), and my friends (many of whom are tech workers), are contributing to this hurt. Isn’t saying yes to all housing development also saying yes to change, to newcomers — to me?

So YIMBYism appeals. YIMBYs claim to have the solution for making room for everyone — to sidestepping that impossible calculus of figuring out who really deserves to be in San Francisco, in this wildly popular, and therefore highly contested, city. (This while they fight efforts to demand more affordability from market-rate developers that would help more low-income folks stay in this city ASAP — the utopian vision doesn’t always meet the reality). And, as importantly, their assessment of the cause of the housing affordability crisis and the solution means that I don’t have to question whether I am playing an active role in displacing folks, and in bringing gentrification. It’s not my fault that these changes are happening in this city — it’s the fault of old NIMBYs and bad planners and progressives from previous generations who thought they could keep San Francisco in stasis. I don’t have to question what I want, or who suffers when I get it. And instead of taking part in the long, tiring, sometimes fruitless fight against the money and power that steamrolls communities, I can just open my arms, and say “Yes, please!,” and embrace the changes that are happening in this city, the changes that feel inevitable and that in some ways I am bringing and that frankly, benefit me and the folks that I know. Maybe it would still be a hard fight against NIMBYs, but it wouldn’t be such a hard fight against myself, and my own privilege.

Some days that sounds nice.

Unfortunately, as is always the case, things aren’t that easy. But just because they aren’t that easy doesn’t mean that I — and you, potential YIMBYer out there — can’t be good housing allies, fighting for affordability for others and ourselves at the same time. It just looks different than the current version of YIMBYism.

Here is what I think true housing allyship looks like, and why I am neither a NIMBY nor a YIMBY:

1. Listen to and stand with vulnerable communities:

More and more people are feeling the impact of the affordable housing crisis these days, including, increasingly, people like me and other middle-class folks. Every single person deserves housing they can afford. And at the same time, this crisis is impacting some people and some communities in more devastating ways than others, namely low-income people and people of color. These are the same communities that have historically been displaced or excluded time and time again and who now are experiencing the housing crisis as threatening their very survival. Being a housing ally, particularly as someone with race or class privilege, means listening to the experiences of people from these communities and the ways they see their communities being impacted by development, and standing with them. This doesn’t mean that your own struggle to find housing isn’t important, or that every community pushback against development should ultimately win out. But it does mean prioritizing the voices and experiences of the folks who are most vulnerable, and following their lead. And residents from these communities, like the Mission District in San Francisco, are saying that luxury market-rate housing development isn’t meeting their needs, and is in fact making the situation in their immediate neighborhoods worse (and studies like that report from UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project back them up).

2. To that end, always come back to one question: Who are we really building for?

And, as a follow-up: Who stands to get hurt, and who stands to benefit? The YIMBY desire to support any and all housing development sounds great, and I’d support all market-rate development, too, if it really resulted in housing for everyone, at every income level (or even at most income levels). In reality, though, the housing market in San Francisco only builds for the highest income earner. And in our global economy, the highest income earner doesn’t even have to be someone looking for a real place to live in San Francisco, but could easily be an investor who sees that home as a good place to park some capital (like the billionaire investor from China who just purchased the multi-unit building next to mine). I don’t think it meets my needs, or the needs of anyone who is impacted by the affordable housing crisis, to simply build an endless amount of luxury units and call that an affordable housing “solution.” In fact, as it currently stands, only about 1/5 of apartments on the market are affordable for someone making San Francisco’s median income (which is still a whopping $71,000 for a single person). So, it’s important to always ask the question: whose needs does this development project serve? And if it doesn’t seem to meet the needs of everyday people who work and live in San Francisco, then it’s important to join community organizing efforts to push for more affordable housing and community benefits from that project.

An important note: Just like trickle down doesn’t work for taxes, it doesn’t work for housing in San Francisco — giving developers and investors more opportunities for profit doesn’t necessarily result in cheaper housing. As affordable housing allies, we need to work for housing and regulations that directly benefit everyday people and communities — not just fall back on an approach that gives more profit to development with the hope that it will trickle down to residents. Again, the simple question, “For whom?” seems to do the trick here.

3. Be pro-housing.

I am most definitely pro-housing! Just because I don’t support all market-rate development equally doesn’t mean I don’t support new development. I am pro-housing that meets the needs of real San Franciscans now (not after 30 years) — poor people’s needs, low-income people’s needs, middle-income people’s needs, and heck — even units needed for wealthy folks.

As for the recent trend to call YIMBYs “pro-growth” and others “no-growth” or “slow-growth” — the “no-growth” finger-pointing is straight-up wrong as far as I (and most housing activists I know) go. And for “slow-growth” — this seems to be another term that’s used to discredit any community expectations of development. I’m not about doing things slowly, but I am for inclusive growth that allows us to ask “Who does this serve?,” that is based on intelligent and community-based planning, that makes sure vulnerable groups aren’t left out of the conversation, and that ensures amenities and infrastructure like transit and pedestrian improvements keep up with development. “Slow-growth” is even more of an ill-fitting misnomer when you consider that unfettered market-rate development is always fast — until the market turns. When profits drop (as they do when housing prices go down), then market-rate development slows down, sometimes even to a halt — making it the real slow growth. Ironically, the type of building that continues chugging along through the inevitable swings in real estate development is one-hundred percent affordable projects built by nonprofits.

4. Don’t write everyone off as NIMBYs:

Increasingly, the word “NIMBY” is being used to discount and delegitimize anyone who questions development — no matter the reason. This is a deceptive oversimplification, and we can challenge it by asking two simple questions before writing people off: 1) who is opposed to a particular development? and 2) why? (remember Housing Ally Rule #1). The problem of exclusive suburbs and NIMBY communities definitely impedes housing development in some parts of the Bay Area and needs to be addressed. But someone who thinks homeless folks are child-molesters and so is opposed to low-income housing in their neighborhood is very different from someone who is opposed to a new development because million-dollar condos don’t meet the needs of their working-class community. Part and parcel of this is the recent YIMBY attempt to discredit housing activists who challenge market-rate development by portraying them as old, white, paternalistic homeowners who are in it for their own egos and financial interest. This description certainly doesn’t fit me, and doesn’t fit the majority of the housing activists I know.

5. Learn the history of the housing movement:

The first step to becoming a housing ally? Learn about the work that is already being done and find out how you can best support that existing work. Too often, when we see a problem, we assume that nothing is being done and start from scratch (instead of assuming that there may be a more complex story behind the issue or that power, money, and political resistance are to blame). This is at best inefficient and ineffective, and at worst divisive and filled with hubris. There is a long, active, and accomplished housing movement in the Bay Area — particularly in San Francisco. That’s not to say that there aren’t gaps or places where innovation is needed and could create new organizing opportunities — just that often the best way to fill those gaps is to start from a place of learning from and talking with those who are already doing the work. (And trust me, they’ll be glad for the help!). If you’re looking for something to read, a few resources to start with are “From Urban Renewal and Displacement to Economic Inclusion: San Francisco Affordable Housing Policy 1978–2012” by Marcia Rosen and Wendy Sullivan, Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco by Richard Edward DeLeon, and Building Community, Chinatown Style by Gordon Chin.

YIMBYism might feel fresh and new, but it’s following the favorite old line of free-market capitalism: don’t hamper the market too much, because ultimately it will solve our social problems. Well frankly, left to its own devices, the real estate market won’t solve San Francisco’s affordable housing crisis, and neither will YIMBYism in its current form. Instead, we need to operate from the framework of true housing allyship – though it’s not always comfortable or easy, it’s the real way to fight for the inclusive, equitable city that we all want. ≠

Erin Reeves is Communications Director at the Council of Community Housing Organizations.