Image by Felipe Lozano licensed under Creative Commons.

A growing movement called YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) wants to build more housing in our high-cost cities. But as I’ve learned more about YIMBYism, I’m realizing that not everyone agrees on how we can make housing more affordable.

There are well over 100 identified YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) organizations and efforts (and counting) across the world on the YIMBYWiki website; you’ll see Greater Greater Washington is listed as one of them.

The past two summers, I’ve gone to the two inaugural YIMBY conferences, gatherings where dozens of thinkers, writers, twitterati, industry leaders, and organizers came together to swap stories and resources around YIMBYism. The fact that these events exist is proof of the growing network of what used to be a series of fairly isolated and independent efforts and organizations.

YIMBYTown 2017 Image by Sarah Guidi used with permission.

The media is starting to talk more about YIMBYism too. Probably the biggest YIMBY splashes come from San Francisco, arguably the most expensive place to live in America. Going to the second annual YIMBY conference this year in Oakland revealed to me the broad ecosystem of YIMBY groups in the Bay Area. Some are hyper-local grassroots efforts that organize project by project. Others act as think-tanks and publish ideas, research and information. A few are starting to organize politically.

Attending these conferences, I got fuller scope of what the YIMBY movement is starting to look like. To be honest, it’s a little hard to pin down; there are libertarian, free-market deregulating YIMBYs, and there are social-housing, marxist-leaning YIMBYs. As you can imagine, those folks don’t always agree on every housing policy point. It’s clear to me YIMBYism is a wide tent and its advocates diverge on a lot of housing policy, but center themselves on a couple of key ideas.

We need to build more homes

The basic understanding that many high-cost areas of the country are experiencing a housing shortage is a fundamental underpinning for most YIMBYs I’ve met. If there aren’t enough homes for everyone, those with the most money are going to outbid everyone else, raising prices and leaving those with less without affordable options, or simply without a home.

YIMBYs take different approaches on how to solve this imbalance. Some want to make it easier for private market developers to build more homes. Some want the government to create policies that create more homes. Some want the government to just get in the game and build more homes.

Whatever the preferred solution, YIMBYs tend to unite around this key understanding of the problem.

We need to be able to afford our homes

Again, YIMBYs differ in how this should happen. A few want to take subsidy programs out of the equation, and just build our way out. Some are against government intervention altogether, and don’t want rent control or other policies that intervene to make an apartment or home cheaper.

And others advocate for massive amounts of publicly subsidized housing to be built, are pro-rent control and support other programs that subsidize rents and prices. YIMBYs can differ on tools like inclusionary zoning or on different anti-displacement measures, but the central purpose of all this is pretty straightforward - people need a place to live, and need to be able to afford it.

Zoning is part of the problem

YIMBYs talk a lot about zoning. For most, they identify restrictive zoning (or more malicious exclusionary zoning) as a core contributing factor to the shortage of homes. Nearly all YIMBYs seem to advocate for denser zoning in cities. Many (though not all) are supportive of inclusionary zoning efforts that mandate additional subsidized homes as part of new private developments.

But there is core frustration with the fact that zoning keeps being used to limit the number of homes in a city, and is particularly weaponized by more affluent communities. Not all YIMBYs push for really large buildings all the time (though they definitely aren’t afraid of them). Many are strong proponents of legalizing “missing middle” housing types through reformed or scaled back zoning rules.

What kind YIMBY is GGWash?

While the term YIMBY sets itself up as a natural counterweight and opponent to NIMBYism (Not In My BackYard), fundamentally YIMBYs are for something, specifically dense, widely affordable cities. They care about those cities and want to make them better and make it so more people can live there and thrive there.

Sounds a lot like us. Of course, we also focus on lots of urbanist issues in the region. Enough homes that are affordable to people of all incomes is a central concern for us, but we understand that access to transit, healthy food, services, and jobs, is equally important.

One practical example of GGWash's YIMBYism has been our work on DC's Comprehensive Plan. YIMBYs across the country are working building relationships and coalitions with affordable housing advocates and the for-profit development community, with the understanding that the goals of these groups aren't necessarily opposed, and in fact can be complimentary.

That at least was our thesis when we began working with the diverse group of stakeholders on the Comp Plan last year, which together produced over 40 pages of detailed policy amendments to the Comp Plan that promote three basic agreements: DC needs to build more homes, to build and preserve more affordable homes, and to protect residents from displacement. This work, in some sense, has embodied fundamental YIMBY philosophy.

But of course the details of how to do all that matters, and if you read our many posts about housing, peruse through the comments and social media, you’ll find YIMBYs of many stripes among the GGWash community who, to varying degrees, agree or disagree with parts of our consensus amendment package. Just like YIMBYs nationally, we all don’t agree on every housing policy point. I guess that’s pretty YIMBY of us.

David Whitehead was the Housing Program Organizer at Greater Greater Washington from 2016 to 2019.  A former high school math teacher and a community organizer, David worked to broaden and deepen Greater Greater Washington’s efforts to make the region more livable and inclusive through education, advocacy, and organizing. He lives in Eckington.