YIMBY Want to Raise Your Rent

Over the past decade, a new political formation has arisen in the US, the YIMBY which stands for “Yes In My Backyard.” YIMBY posit themselves as the antithesis of the NIMBY, “Not In My Backyard,” a constructed political bogey person, who YIMBY claim are responsible for the high cost of housing in the US. Starting in the Bay Area, the YIMBY movement has rapidly expanded to cities nationwide and attracted more funding.

Hardly a spontaneous phenomenon, YIMBY are the latest in a long line of housing and real estate booster political operations that seek favorable regulatory consideration from local governments that have historically regulated land use. From the media campaigns to encourage families to move from the cities to suburban sprawl after WWII to local real estate funded booster organizations that pushed “Transit Oriented Development” in the 2000s, such operators have continually repped for developers. There has always been some background level of pro-development organizing in play.

YIMBY are different, however. As a product of the post-1999/2000 deregulation of Wall Street era, the marriage of funding liberated by deregulation plus a libertarian capitalist housing supply side dogmatism has produced a message that is appealing if only for its simplicity: upzone the cities, deregulate land use approvals, relieve developers of carrying their freight through impact fees and housing prices will fall.

In practice, regulating land use is a complex undertaking because urban systems, transportation, education, open space, water, must all grow together. Conflicts in diverse land uses should also be anticipated and inhibited by zoning. The mechanics behind this are neither simple nor apparent to the layperson. Thus YIMBY has been prevailing because they are well funded while mostly volunteer residents, supporters of comprehensive planning, are left to try to explain. In politics, if you’re explaining, you’re losing.

YIMBY are single issue zealots. Single issue politics in the neoliberal era entails maximizing a policy domain on one favored variable and demonizing anyone who challenges that. This is guaranteed to ensure distortions in all other variables. The impacts of maximizing the intensity of residential land use will be felt by all other urban systems, which will heave under the load and begin to fail. Single issue political messaging lends itself to oversimplification.

YIMBY’s premise is simple: housing is expensive because supply is artificially constrained by big government regulation. YIMBY hold that NIMBY, also denigrated as “home voters,” have conspired to keep zoning envelopes constrained and that this is the primary cause of high housing prices.

In order to push down housing prices, YIMBY say, heights, building bulks and densities (units per square foot of lot area, higher densities = smaller apartments) should not be regulated, and developers should be free to build as high and dense as they’d please.

YIMBY also claim to support rent control and tenant protections, especially in coastal California cities because to not would be delegitimating political death.

While YIMBY have lived up to their claims and successfully advocated for residential upzonings that their funders’ lobbyists actually made happen, recent developments show that lowering housing prices is the last thing on the YIMBY agenda.

Corey Smith, executive director of the longstanding residential developer booster organization, The Housing Action Coalition, showed YIMBY’s hand at a San Francisco Planning Commission meeting earlier this year:

In truth, in order to spur more development, lenders need to see housing prices increase before taking the risk to commit capital to development. Housing production only occurs when housing prices rise. Housing prices only rise during the second half of the up phase of the business cycle when greed eclipses fear.

This shows that the YIMBY are but developer lobbyists who demand housing at all costs, costs which are to be extracted from tenants through higher rents.

Rent control has been the main factor in stabilizing communities at risk from displacement where it has been implemented. California has a statewide preemption on imposing rent control on new construction buildings. The AIDS Housing Alliance, a Los Angeles-based AIDS service nonprofit-cum-political hedge fund, has qualified a statewide initiative for the November 2024 California ballot that would totally eliminate the statewide preemption on cities and counties imposing rent controls.

While YIMBY claim to support rent control, when it comes time to granting developers profitable building permits, “pro-housing” for Democrats means that we should approve more market rate housing encumbered by rent control to raise rents, and instead, gouge tenants to make market rate pencil out. Corey Smith from San Francisco Housing Action Coalition tweets here supporting San Francisco County Supervisor Matt Dorsey and YIMBY assembly members, who casted a losing vote against San Francisco going on record supporting the ballot measure to repeal the state prohibition on rent control for new buildings:

Since Wall Street was deregulated, finance capital’s political approach towards real estate has gone on steroids. We saw this during the 2008 Wall Street crash. And we’re seeing it as hedge funds buy up housing for the income streams. This bonanza of cash has spawned a well funded propaganda and advocacy operation that’s met with a great deal of success.

The YIMBY claim for abundant and affordable housing is really a play for giving residential developers a license to print even more money as soon as they get their occupancy permit by shifting the infrastructure costs onto existing residents while raising rents for everyone. Promises of housing abundance and lower housing prices are a honey trap, a pleasant sounding ruse that YIMBY know is a lie. There will be no abundance of housing so long as market rate housing production relies on the kindness of the capital markets while interest rates fluctuate. Market rate housing will never sell for less than the cost to construct, which is much higher than 30% of most people’s incomes which is the gold standard for affordability.

The only way that we might stabilize our at risk neighbors is for organizations like Community Land Trusts to acquire units at risk of eviction for conservation as permanently affordable, and for government to spin up the administrative state to use tax exempt mortgage revenue bonds to acquire and construct social housing. In this model, resident rental streams cover most all of the bond payments and government only has to contribute the increment for lower income tenancies to pay down the bonds, effectively paying itself by acquiring permanently affordable housing.

YIMBY are following Steven Bannon’s admonition to “flood the zone with shit,” by repeating the Big Lie over and again, so as to diminish the discourse and pin down critics by drawing attention of critics into bad faith engagements.

There might be good reasons for desirable cities facing torrential demand to entitle some market rate housing. Adding supply to push down price is not one of them. Instead of responding to the flood of shit, YIMBY are best contested by community based grassroots organizing for self determination in comprehensive, not lobbyist directed, land use planning.

The antidote to the shitstorm is “YIMBY want to raise your rents.”

Marc Salomon is a co-founder of the San Francisco Community Land Trust.