Recently the Washington Post published an article entitled “In expensive cities, rents fall for the rich - but rise for the poor.” With a headline like that, it’s easy for opponents of YIMBYism (which broadly calls upon expensive cities to build more homes) to declare victory and claim the movement has failed.
Post author Jeff Stein writes,
U.S. cities struggling with soaring housing costs have found some success in lowering rents this year, but that relief has not reached the renters most at risk of losing their housing…
City officials have said a boom in luxury housing construction would cause rents to fall for everyone else, arguing that creating new units for those at the top would ease competition for cheaper properties.
In part based on that theory, cities have approved thousands of new luxury units over the past several years, hoping to check high rents that have led more than 20 million American renters to be classified as “cost burdened,” defined as spending more than 30 percent of one’s income on housing.
But YIMBYism, standing for “Yes In My Back Yard,” isn’t wrong. This article actually validates its best-known argument, which is that expensive cities need to build more homes to bring prices down. (If you want a deeper dive into the problems with the Post's analysis — for example, they forgot to analyze apartment rents — see this City Observatory article).
More importantly, the article highlights a greater problem for YIMBYism that we need to talk about: we’re letting the margins dominate this debate.
There is a small faction of the YIMBY camp who thinks that simply letting the market build more homes, whatever kinds of homes, is THE solution to affordable housing. On the other side, there is a small faction of affordable housing advocates who think that building any market rate home is unhelpful, and in fact hurts the cause of housing affordability.
However, there are a bunch of us in the middle who accept the fact that we need to build more homes and are trying to discuss the details of how to balance that strategy with the hundreds of other strategies we need to aggressively pursue at the same time to make cities affordable for people of all incomes.
Coverage like the Post’s presents the “we need to build more homes” thesis as something that we’re not yet sure helps. That's what the margins are debating, and it’s frustrating that we keep coming back to this unhelpful framing. The more we spend our energy on this, the less we can work on the other critical issues facing expensive cities today.
YIMBYs say “build more homes.” They also say other things.
As we’ve written about before, YIMBYism is a broad tent and includes people who disagree on key housing policy questions. However, a unifying critique YIMBYs bring to the table is this: Cities don’t have enough homes, and we need to build more of them.
There are a lot of layers to why this shortage exists, but broadly speaking, YIMBYs point the finger at current and historic exclusionary land use practices and activism. This might look like subsidizing thousands of middle income homes for whites only in the 1900s, or zoning rules like minimum lot sizes (which force new homes in certain neighborhoods to be above a certain size) that effectively exclude new neighbors who can’t afford large homes.
YIMBYs have centered their arguments around this housing shortage critique, and centered their activism around undoing the current components of this system that strangle new homes — or more accurately push them away to someone else’s neighborhood.
While this is probably the central argument behind YIMBYism, to say it’s the only YIMBY argument is not true. As contributor Canaan Merchant said in a recent contributors conversation on the topic: “The subset of YIMBYs who are also against any government interference in the market (like inclusionary zoning, forms of rent control, Section 8 vouchers, etc.) is exceedingly small.”
Being YIMBY doesn’t have to mean you believe “build baby build” is THE solution, but being YIMBY does acknowledge that building more of all types of housing — yes, including “luxury” homes — is a necessary part of the full solution.
Contributor Alex Baca writes, “Building places for people to live anywhere in DC, period, is a radical act. NIMBYism is still a hugely significant problem. Everyone wants the equal right to exclude. No one wants anything near where they are, especially subsidized housing.”
If we have a housing shortage, those who are going to lose in the cruel game of musical chairs that is competing for scarce homes will always be those with the least resources. There are very active and well-resourced people and systems who don’t want those new homes built because they want to keep home values and profits high, especially in wealthier neighborhoods.
— Cheryl Cort (@cherylcort) July 17, 2017
Filtering: it’s real, but it's not THE solution
Too often we get drawn into debates about a few key YIMBY ideas, to exclusion of other discussions.
For example, those using the Washington Post’s headline as evidence that YIMBYism doesn’t work are really talking about filtering. That's the process by which yesterday’s luxury homes eventually age, become less hip and attractive, et cetera and become today’s more affordable homes. Filtering posits that a healthy housing market is constantly filtering down more affordable units at all price points, even as new units are built at the top of the market.
I think it’s important for YIMBYs to be honest about filtering. The fact is, our marquee solution (build housing) does exactly what the Post headline asserts: makes housing cheaper for the wealthy first, and the rest later. It's often a terrible position to be in politically, and it's why some low-income advocates don't like YIMBYs, don't trust them, or think they're misguided.
Contributor Ben Lockshin added to this point: “It's a misconception that YIMBYs only want shiny modern buildings with rooftop pools. However, we're often in the unenviable position of defending huge corporate developers as one part of a much broader suite of solutions, but that's the part that gets the most attention.”
The benefits of filtering in the short term really do go to the wealthiest and almost-wealthiest. After many years, those benefits reach middle income folks, and to be honest, I'm not sure filtering ever helps those with the lowest incomes directly. In expensive areas like ours, there's enormous pressure to redevelop lower-quality housing and bring it back to the top of the market before it becomes cheap enough for those with the lowest income.
Perhaps more importantly, if you’re only for filtering and nothing else, you are essentially for a housing policy that says that those with the lowest incomes will just have to outbid each other for the most degraded homes in the most disinvested neighborhoods. That's pretty reprehensible.
That’s why I and many other affordable housing advocates believe there needs to be a simultaneous, immense, and immediate investment in safe, affordable homes. Cities also have to act decisively to preserve the affordable homes they currently have. The reality is that filtering is a longterm process, so we need affordable housing solutions for the near term as well.
“The [filtering] approach is nice in normal times but not now. We're in a crisis that requires a solution in one generation, not several,” contributor Gordon Chaffin wrote. “We won't convince anyone — not even ourselves — by saying “wait 25 years.”“
Editorial Board member Carole Gallaher echoes this: “If you are barely hanging onto an unaffordable unit (but still below market), you don't have much sympathy or patience for the long filtering process to do its magic.”
Hey YIMBYs, don’t get tricked into talking about supply all the time
YIMBYs end up constantly defending one portion of the agenda to those who, as Ben Lockshin puts it, “simply tune it out or choose to willfully misrepresent it.” This has consequences, and maybe we need to do a better job not letting defenses of supply and filtering dominate our narrative.
As Baca reflected:
Any time that we try to qualify one of these things as somehow less moral or less inclusive puts us further into the corner that we're already in: fighting for scraps and losing the battle to systems and structures that continue to perpetuate categorical inequities in the way they've always worked.
We need to build more housing, including specifically designated affordable housing. But, frankly, I'm a bit tired of having to qualify that. You cannot do anything to improve housing affordability in constrained cities like D.C. without, in part, building more, and it is often very difficult to build new housing. I think it is critical to step back and grant that YIMBYism, or whatever you'd like to call it, is extremely correct on this merit.
I have found it less and less useful to counter anti-YIMBY arguments by saying, “But we do advocate for affordability.” Of course we do—we're not free-market monsters, and the work of groups across the country bears this out. I understand the central tension between measures that help people afford housing right now and measures that will create affordable places to live in the future.
But absolutely none of those things contradict each other. I believe in rent control as much as I believe in inclusionary zoning as much as I believe in building more places for people to live near where they need to be, which is perhaps what I believe in most of all.
So filtering is part of this. Just because it doesn't work overnight doesn't mean it should be written off, or somehow made out to be an inferior option. Rent control is part of this. Vouchers are part of this. More supply is part of this. Jobs and homes near transit is part of this. Taller buildings are part of this. Procedures that streamline permitting for affordable housing are part of this. Paying people more is part of this. Workforce training is a part of this. Police reform and decriminalization is a part of this. Inclusionary zoning is a part of this. A bunch of stuff I didn't mention is a part of this, because, as I have to tell people repeatedly, this—urbanism, or YIMBYism, or smart growth, or whatever alternative we are putting forth to the way we do things now—is the unifying theory of everything.
If we stop talking about supply all the time, there are innumerable other YIMBY arguments we can give ample airtime to as well. From Stephen Hudson:
We spend a lot on promoting home ownership in ways that benefit middle and upper class nuclear families, but much less on alleviating the rent burden of lower income earners.
From Ben Lockshin:
Our broken housing structures funnel nearly all new construction into a handful of neighborhoods, as GGWash has covered extensively: “Over the last decade, DC has built 13% less housing than its Comprehensive Plan calls for. Of the new housing that is going up, most of it is confined to the central city even though the plan recommends only 30% go there. Meanwhile, most parts of the District are building little or no new housing.”
From Bryan Barnett-Woods:
For me, my biggest critique of YIMBY is that “build more housing in all forms” too often just takes the form of more apartments. YIMBY doesn't go far enough to:
- Advocate for expansion of single property incremental densification in the form of accessory dwelling units, single-family to duplexes/triplexes, and pure residential to live-work
- Push for the reduction of zoning rules that make homes more expensive, like reducing sideyard set-backs, bedroom/bathroom/kitchen requirements, elevators, parking standards, etc.
If YIMBYism just equals “we need to build more homes,” I think YIMBYism won't survive. We need to stop getting drawn into these single-issue debates and expand the scope of what we're talking about.
Most people, I think, agree with the basic idea that we need to build more homes. Some don’t, and maybe they never will. Let’s make sure to focus what else needs to happen to make sure our cities are places everyone can live in.
A final thought from Gallaher: “Why is this important? If DC becomes an exclusive city, only for the rich, then why would most of us want to be urbanists?”