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Reflections on YIMBYTown: Beyond the Zero-Sum Game?

Last week, I attended the third annual YIMBYTown conference, held in Boston. “YIMBY,” for those who may be new to the term, stands for “Yes in My Backyard” – a counterpoint to the “NIMBY” (Not in My Backyard) sentiment, often enshrined in local regulations, that restricts construction of new housing, particularly in cities.

I do not consider myself a full-on YIMBY. You could call me YIMBY-curious, YIMBY-inclined, or MIMBY (Mostly in My Backyard?). My reasons for attending the conference were different, I suspect, than those of most attendees – I am a climate and transportation guy mainly, not a housing guy. I am also a Bostonian who is watching the changes taking place on the ground in my city, and see things through that lens as well.

All of which is to say that I came to YIMBYTown as something of a babe in the woods, there more to listen, learn and connect than to opine.

One thing I wanted to learn was what, precisely, is YIMBYism? Is it a platform, a movement, or what? The auditorium at Roxbury Community College, where the event was held, was one of the most ideologically diverse spaces I’ve ever been in, spanning the range from extreme left to extreme libertarian to tote bag liberals from the Boston suburbs who are just fed up with their neighbors shooting down affordable housing projects all the time.

What brings these people together? As near as I could gather – again, based on what I heard and saw at the conference – the ideas most attendees seemed to share were as follows:

  • People deserve to be decently housed.
  • Scarcity of housing is not an inevitable condition but is largely the result of policy choices (e.g., restrictive zoning).
  • Whether as a matter of philosophical inclination or pragmatism, the private sector has an important role in addressing housing scarcity.
  • The future outlook of cities is bullish.

Those shared ideas, however, are not enough to sustain a movement. Movements share goals; “YIMBY” itself is not a goal – yes in my backyard, but to what end? Making housing more affordable, certainly, but YIMBY is just one of many strategies that can help achieve that goal. Alleviating development pressure on communities experiencing gentrification? Alleviating the demand for exurban sprawl that contributes to climate change and environmental destruction? Creating a welcoming space in cities for all who want to live there?

Little of this – much less the notion that some of these goals might be in tension with one another – was discussed explicitly in the sessions I attended at YIMBYTown. The lack of clarity about goals was on display on day two of the conference, which was interrupted by a protest by City Life/Vida Urbana, a venerable Boston-area low-income and working class tenants’ rights organization, currently fighting market-rate development that they see as contributing to gentrification and displacement. Roughly a third of the YIMBYTown attendees, maybe more, applauded the protest and appeared willing to jump right in. Others seemed profoundly skeptical. There were good reasons why people reacted that way, and I am in no position to second guess it, but it was not the kind of reaction one expects from a movement with a coherent analysis and confidence in its aims.

The protest, though, spoke to a deeper reality about life in the city of Boston, and I suspect other cities as well – something that indicates why the emergence of YIMBYism is so important.

If you live in this city, as I have for nearly two decades, you know that life is often a competition for scarce resources. This is especially true if you raise kids here. Spots in summer camp, summer jobs, good schools, good classes within those schools – all of them are in limited supply, available primarily to the clever, the connected and the swift.

Day-to-day lived experience in the city often presents itself as a zero-sum game – more for someone else, it seems, is always less for me. If you want to keep what you have – whether it’s a parking space after a snowstorm or an apartment – you had better be prepared to hold onto it for dear life.

The promise of YIMBY, at least as I see it, is that it suggests that city life does not have to be a constant war for scarce resources. By embracing the potential for real and present abundance, by being open to the gifts brought by new neighbors, and by accepting the 21st century role of cities as agents of opportunity and sustainable living, YIMBY suggests that we might have the chance to unlock new resources and possibilities for the benefit of all.

Taking advantage of that promise, however, requires people to loosen their grip a bit on what they already have. To take a chance. I don’t think this is something that can be opted out of – not elegantly or easily, at any rate, and not without re-invoking the same “war of all against all” competition from which YIMBYs seem to be trying to escape.

Loosening your grip on what you already have, however, is easier said than done. Especially for people in low-income neighborhoods of Boston desperately trying to maintain a foothold in the city. Especially given the historical won-loss record of those neighborhoods in competitions for resources. And the hollow promises of past reformers. And the fact that the stakes are so very high. The very idea that loosening the reins might lead to something better stands in direct opposition to lived experience. It sounds like fantasyland.

My lived experience, and that of some YIMBYs I’ve met in Boston, tells a different story – or, perhaps, a different side of the same story. It’s the experience of having talked for the last 20-odd years to young people about where they want to live and having them consistently tell me the same five to seven cities, with Boston being one of them. It’s the experience of watching the one-time exodus of young families from my part of Dorchester to the exurbs slow down and, in some cases even reverse, keeping people in the city who might once have left. It’s the personal experience of having left an economically declining area to settle in this city and bouncing through several neighborhoods before finding one where I could afford to buy a home. It’s the story of watching city after city around the country – and around the globe – go through a similar process, for entirely rational reasons, albeit on different timelines.

What that experience tells me is that people are going to keep coming to cities like Boston. If we accept the zero-sum game as unbending reality, that inevitably means more claimants for the same scarce pool of resources. It means more intense daily battles in the war of all against all. And, to the extent that those new claimants possess advantages in income, education or what have you, it means an ever-more-difficult prospect for those who have historically struggled.

I am not sure that a magical policy solution to this challenge exists, although, if one does, the passionate and intelligent housing advocates I met at YIMBYTown seem to be the likely people to find it. But while the hunt for near-term solutions and the need to build broad and inclusive coalitions behind those solutions are important, it is just as important to understand and name the underlying tension that exists just beneath the surface.

This tension is common to a wide variety of societal issues – from climate change to safety on our streets – in which we urgently need to take bold leaps of faith to achieve a better future, but find those leaps so very difficult to make.

YIMBYism may not yet be a coherent movement or a policy platform. But as an orientation to the world, YIMBYism represents an invitation to consider solutions beyond the zero-sum game. That, in and of itself, is important – and may be why the YIMBY idea so effectively taps into people’s passions and gets them arguing.   

 

Photo: Building under construction in South Boston; Credit: Tony Dutzik