What Is a YIMBY? (Hint: It’s Not Good)
Maybe you’ve read an article about YIMBYs or heard a friend mention the term. Or maybe you saw something on Twitter, but still don’t understand what YIMBYs are. No problem. Here’s the lowdown.
To start off, Housing Is A Human Right has been battling YIMBYs for years, so you’ve come to the right place for more information. In fact, we published a special report about them last year: “Inside Game: California YIMBY, Scott Wiener, and Big Tech’s Troubling Housing Push.” That’s a must-read. In the meantime, here are seven key takeaways, with lots of links for more reading.
Takeaway #1: YIMBY stands for “Yes In My Back Yard.” It’s a clever twist on NIMBY or “Not In My Back Yard.” NIMBYs have a controversial reputation for fighting new development in their communities. YIMBYs try to capitalize on that by using a moniker that sounds inclusive and appealing. Don’t be fooled.
Takeaway #2: In California, in 2017, YIMBYs started getting tons of press coverage. The Guardian described them as “angry millennials” who were fed up with the housing affordability crisis. But, they were solely concerned about themselves and their predicament — not lower-income people. Always remember that.
“Housing policy in California has been a disaster for young people for decades,” California YIMBY CEO Brian Hanlon told the Orange County Register in 2017. “It’s gotten so bad that middle-class young people say there’s no future for me in California if we don’t get these housing costs under control. In order to do that, we need to build much more housing.”
In a 2017 article in the Mercury News, Laura Clark, executive director of YIMBY Action, said: “Where is my generation going to live? Where are my kids going to live?”
Takeaway #3: The problem, YIMBYs believed, was that a housing shortage was driving up rent prices. They rarely, if ever, talked about corporate landlords charging outrageous rents or that developers were demolishing rent-controlled apartments to build market-rate, luxury housing or that local and state governments needed to build more affordable housing and preserve already existing affordable-housing stock, such as rent-controlled apartments.
Instead, YIMBYs simplistically concluded that the housing market needed to be flooded with more apartments, and that would ultimately drive down rents. They knew developers built almost exclusively luxury housing, and that was okay with them. YIMBYs insisted that more luxury housing would solve California’s housing affordability crisis. From the get-go, YIMBYs embraced trickle-down economics or what’s now called “trickle-down housing” policy. As middle- and working-class people have long known, trickle-down anything doesn’t work — except to make the rich richer.
Takeaway #4: YIMBYs in the Bay Area and Southern California then started to push for the deregulation of land-use protections so developers could build, build, build — no matter who got hurt. Developers, in return, loved YIMBYs because killing land-use protections would allow them to construct luxury housing anywhere — especially in working-class neighborhoods and communities of color, where land is often cheaper to buy — and make massive profits.
Housing justice activists fought back, knowing that deregulation and more luxury housing in working-class communities would lead to gentrification — and less affluent residents would be forced out of their longtime homes. As a result, YIMBYs, who are known to bully people on Twitter and use aggressive tactics, continually clashed with housing justice and tenants rights activists. It wasn’t pretty.
In 2018, for example, Maria Zamudio, a Bay Area activist, told In These Times, “They’re like, ‘Just build housing, you stupid brown people! I moved here last week, and I need a place to live!’”
Shanti Singh, another Bay Area activist, told Shelterforce, in 2019, that interactions with YIMBYs had been “absolutely ugly. A really nasty three years.”
And Fernando Marti, co-director of the San Francisco-based Council of Community Housing Organizations, wrote in a 2019 Shelterforce column: “According to the YIMBY leaders, now we equity advocates are the problem, too, little different from the NIMBYs, rabid progressives who are too naïve or ideological to understand how the market really works. In this story line, in the name of fighting evictions and displacement, we progressives, we communities of color, we poor people and immigrants, we working-class queers stupidly don’t realize that luxury development now will eventually become the affordable housing of the future! It’s simple supply-and-demand, they say, Econ 101, and we obviously didn’t go to college if we don’t understand that simple truth.”
Takeaway #5: As one can guess, YIMBYs are not housing justice activists. That’s super important, and must be repeated. YIMBYs are NOT housing justice activists. But for political reasons, YIMBYs are desperate to own housing justice credentials.
What happened was that California YIMBY CEO Brian Hanlon helped draft a statewide land-use deregulation bill called SB 827. It was carried by State Senator Scott Wiener, who’s considered the King YIMBY in Sacramento, and SB 827 was championed by Big Real Estate and Big Tech. The housing justice movement, including Housing Is A Human Right, strongly opposed the bill.
(Read more about Big Tech’s trickle-down housing agenda and its financial support of California YIMBY.)
For housing justice activists, SB 827 was another trickle-down solution that would unleash luxury-housing developers in working-class communities, trigger higher rents, fuel gentrification, and push hard-working people out of their homes. In the end, the politicians listened, and the housing justice movement stopped the harmful bill.
In 2020, housing justice activists defeated the follow up to SB 827, called SB 50, which California YIMBY, the well-funded, statewide leader of the YIMBY movement in California, tried to pass with Wiener’s help. Once again, activists’ concerns about gentrification, developer giveaways, and shoving lower-income residents out of their neighborhoods helped kill the bill. It was another big defeat, and YIMBYs realized they had a major political problem: housing justice issues kept getting in their way.
YIMBYs needed to switch things up, and they needed to come across more like housing justice activists. In a flash, YIMBYs started to co-opt messaging from the housing justice movement and tried to join housing justice coalitions. It’s a strategy that continues to this day.
Yet when the housing justice movement tried to repeal statewide restrictions on rent control through a ballot measure called Proposition 10 in 2018, California YIMBY refused to endorse and effectively stood with the real estate industry. Big Real Estate won that battle by spending more than $77 million in campaign cash to stop the initiative.
The same thing happened in 2020. The housing justice movement tried to reform, rather than repeal, statewide restrictions on rent control through another ballot measure, Proposition 21. Big Real Estate would spend nearly $100 million to successfully defeat the initiative, but California YIMBY still sat on the sidelines — it wouldn’t endorse and refused to help the housing justice movement.
In two of the most important housing justice battles in recent history, California YIMBY tacitly backed Big Real Estate.
Takeaway #6: YIMBYs are not going away. Despite their pro-gentrification agenda and clashes with housing justice activists, which includes shocking intimidation tactics at a 2018 protest in San Francisco that sent an elderly Asian woman to the hospital, many Democratic politicians champion YIMBYism and the mainstream media too often touts the YIMBY cause.
Why? Politicians take huge amounts of campaign cash from the real estate industry, and YIMBYism gives them political cover to deregulate land-use protections and allow developers to build more luxury housing — and to generate huge profits — under the guise of solving the housing affordability crisis. As for the mainstream media, it appears that many reporters have bought into the harmful trickle-down housing agenda. And if working-class residents have to suffer, so be it.
Takeaway #7: YIMBYs routinely fail to consider the economic, social, cultural, and political impacts of their land-use policies on working-class neighborhoods and communities of color. It’s a clear, years-long pattern shown by the bills YIMBYs have supported, including SB 827 in 2018, SB 50 in 2020, and SB 9 and SB 10 in 2021.
“The YIMBY movement has a white privilege problem,” Anya Lawler, a policy advocate with the Western Center on Law & Poverty, told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t think they recognize it. They don’t understand poverty. They don’t understand what that’s like, who our clients really are and what their lived experience is.”
To sum it up, YIMBYs started with a self-serving agenda: to force the production of more luxury housing that they could live in — no matter the consequences to working-class communities. To further their agenda, YIMBYs co-op housing justice messaging, but they’re not housing justice activists. In fact, they have a long, disturbing history of clashing with the housing justice movement. YIMBYs push pro-gentrification, trickle-down housing policies that generate obscene profits for Big Real Estate — and they’ve continually ignored the negative impacts of their policies on working-class residents. YIMBYs are not going away if politicians continue to support them. YIMBYs, put simply, are bad news.
Patrick Range McDonald is the award-winning advocacy journalist for Housing Is A Human Right.