The Rise of the YIMBY Movement
By Jennifer WarburgJanuary 11, 2017
A grassroots, pro-housing movement emerged in the Bay Area.
What It Means:
In a region where people largely agree with each other about national issues, our most heated political debates revolve around local land use. The emergence of a Yes In My Back Yard movement has the potential to change long-unchallenged political dynamics. The big question is whether the YIMBYs will be able to broaden their base enough to move the needle on housing.
2016 was a big year for the “Yes In My Backyard” (YIMBY) movement, champions of building more housing of all types. Cities all around the Bay Area and across the country saw volunteer groups of residents get organized and begin to weigh in on local land use decisions. The first YIMBY conference held in Boulder brought together over 150 people from dozens of cities. Even the White House advocated for YIMBYism in 2016, releasing a landmark report calling on urban areas to amend their zoning policies to make it easier to permit and build housing .
In San Francisco, the coalition of pro-housing advocates began the year with just a handful of passionate volunteer activists but enter 2017 with professional staffs. Organizations like BARF (Bay Area Renters Federation) and GrowSF formed nonprofits, sponsored a political action committee and launched a news platform. The new YIMBY Party weighed in on more than 50 local ballot measures and campaigned for candidates. Outside San Francisco, groups like Peninsula Forward and Livable Berkeley drew in supporters, built up infrastructure and made their presence felt in local land use hearings and elections.
The YIMBY movement has elevated the idea of inclusion. The idea that we can best achieve our progressive values by doing what we need to to welcome all kinds of people by making it possible for them to share in the riches of our region. YIMBYs have raised a social change agenda – making sustainable, high-opportunity cities accessible to more people has resonance with many urbanists’ values including those championed by SPUR.
That vision is not just about homes but also about good planning and zoning, transportation and infrastructure investments, and policies that support job diversity and protect low-income residents. These ideas about inclusion are relevant to families, social justice advocates, environmentalists and integrationists. This kind of a movement has the potential to put the Bay Area onto a different track of housing affordability.
There are many, many reforms that would help overcome the shortage of housing. At the state level, there is a lot of talk about reforming the local land use process to create a more straightforward way for projects that would create more housing to be reviewed and approved, along with putting in place means to hold cities accountable to produce their fair share of regional housing need. These policies would ideally go along with a big increase in funding for subsidized affordable housing.
But in 2017, we believe the housing agenda will continue to be fought out primarily at the local level. YIMBYs and the NIMBYs will battle each other through General Plan revisions, neighborhood plans, re-zoning and project-by-project approvals. In the bigger cities of the Bay Area, the most important and potentially divisive fights will be over inclusionary housing requirements and other exactions – valid, even essential, tools for funding public needs, but also tools that can be used to make creation of new housing financially infeasible.
The long-term efficacy of the YIMBY movement will depend on how successful organizers are at building their capacity: nurturing volunteers; putting together new coalitions; finding short term gains to keep their stamina up for a long marathon; learning how to communicate their ideas and solutions in a way that welcomes a broader base of support; and of course, fundraising.
The 2016 presidential election underscored the stakes of the growing urban—suburban/rural divide. The long-term project of the nascent YIMBY movement is to ensure there is opportunity for everyone who wants to, to be able to choose to live in places that are urban, compact and walkable and provide access to jobs, education, healthcare, and participation in civic life. As 2017 begins, YIMBYs are more resolved than ever that their work isn’t just about making our cities more affordable; it’s a project to repair the fabric of democracy.
 White House, Housing Development Toolkit. White House. September 2016.