Amid growing concern over the lack of affordable housing in major U.S. metropolitan areas, a movement of college-educated young professionals has arisen to challenge local resistance to liberalizing zoning laws that prevent the construction of more housing.
The movement calls itself the yes-in-my-backyard, or YIMBY, movement ― a direct response to the anti-development, not-in-my-backyard, or NIMBY, movement it seeks to defeat.
But even as these YIMBY activists, or YIMBYs, take on recalcitrant homeowners, community boards, and elected officials, they have often butted up against another ascendant faction in big-city politics: left-wing tenants rights’ advocates.
These leftists, and the working-class renters with whom they align, are generally skeptical of YIMBYs’ market-driven approach to addressing the housing crisis. Some YIMBYs have, in turn, treated leftists as starry-eyed idealists who ignore supply and demand dynamics.
As a result, the two sides have sometimes had to fight a multi-front war, struggling against their rival housing reformers, as well as the entrenched special interests opposed to reform of any kind.
Recently though, there have been signs of a tentative détente between YIMBYs and leftists.
Open New York, the biggest YIMBY group in the Empire State, made a point of endorsing “good cause” eviction legislation in early January. The state-level bill that has become a top priority for New York’s activist left would, among other things, limit the size of rent increases in unregulated apartments.
“It’s brittle and potentially explosive, but there’s something there.”
“We don’t want to subscribe to a scarcity mindset,” Annemarie Gray, executive director of Open New York, the state’s leading YIMBY group, told HuffPost in a recent interview. “We think that we should be able to pass tenant protections and policies to increase supply. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.”
At the same time, many leftists, who often oppose zoning deregulations championed by YIMBYs, have begun softening toward the YIMBY movement.
Some activists and lawmakers ― among them self-described democratic socialists ― agree with YIMBYs that the housing supply must increase, and that lifting restrictive zoning is part of the solution, especially in affluent communities. In other cases, leftists have suspended their opposition to private real estate development projects that they do not consider ideal because the alternative would simply be worse.
Dampening the two sides’ opposition to one another could at least narrow the number of adversaries each camp faces in trying to achieve their respective goals. But figures in both camps acknowledge that peace would be tenuous.
“From a political science perspective, they might have one less enemy to worry about,” said Samuel Stein, a housing policy specialist at the Community Service Society of New York and author of “Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State.” “On the other hand, they also have to feel like, ‘Are we going to alienate our own side by making common cause?’”
“There’s something there,” he added. “It’s brittle and potentially explosive, but there’s something there.”
The Great Supply Debate
There is little debate that the United States is facing a housing affordability crisis.
Experts consider a renter “rent-burdened” if they spend 30% of their income or more on rent. In an unfortunate milestone, that descriptor now fits the median American earner for the first time since Moody’s Analytics began tracking the metric in 1999.
The situation is much worse in many of the United States’ most economically prosperous cities, effectively creating a devil’s bargain for people who have moved to thriving coastal metropolises for higher-paying work. For example, more than 28% of households in New York City spend more than half of their incomes on rent.
The effects of the crisis range in severity from forcing borrowers to defer homeownership to plunging families into homelessness. And the particular acuteness of the situation in cities and states with progressive governments is a source of curiosity ― and anger ― to many who are paying close attention.
“Why is it that our most ostensibly liberal metropolitan areas are unaffordable for most Americans to live in?” asked Jacob Anbinder, a historian who is completing a doctoral thesis at Harvard University that seeks to answer that very question.
Relying on a growing body of research, YIMBYs have diagnosed the problem as a mismatch between supply and demand.
The very same liberal metropolitan areas that are magnets for job seekers have some of the most restrictive zoning rules, which either severely limit or outright prohibit the construction of new housing.
It’s no coincidence, these experts and advocates note, that San Francisco and New York City, which have some of the highest rents in the country, are also the first and second most restrictive places to build new housing, respectively.
With fewer apartments to choose from ― and the suburbs frequently off-limits to renters entirely ― tenants are at the mercy of landlords who lease to the highest bidders.
Open New York sees its goal as balancing the scales between renters and landlords by giving renters more options.
“We really believe landlords should always be worried that you can get another apartment.”
“We really believe landlords should always be worried that you can get another apartment,” Annemarie Gray told HuffPost.
The traditional left ― and the scholars with whom they align ― generally tell a different story about the current rental crisis. They note that the federal government stopped seriously investing in public housing decades ago, allowing it to both deteriorate in quality and stagnate in number relative to growing need. In New York, they blame policymakers for prioritizing market-rate development ― and piecemeal set-asides for lower earners ― over expanding mid-20th century programs that subsidized rentals and co-ops for middle-class families.
These left-wing groups note that market-rate housing has virtually never met the needs of major cities’ poorest and most vulnerable residents.
“Zoning is a barrier, but I don’t think about it as the barrier ― the first-among-equals barrier ― and I think the YIMBYs do,” said Shanti Singh, communications and legislative director for Tenants Together, a state-level renters rights group in California.
Many leftists also doubt the applicability of supply and demand to a housing sector where catering to high earners is more profitable, and owners often innovate new ways to constrain supply or otherwise keep prices high.
The idea of solving the housing crisis solely through an increase in supply “assumes that landlords won’t collude with one another,” argued Stein, a leftist skeptical of the YIMBY movement.
For their part, many YIMBYs insist that they acknowledge the importance of state-subsidized or regulated housing for lower earners not served by the market.
YIMBYs advocate an “all of the above approach to housing,” said Matthew Lewis, a spokesperson for the statewide group California YIMBY.
What does that mean?
“We need a lot more market-rate housing,” Lewis said. “We need a lot more subsidies. We need a lot more low-income housing. We need it all.”
The Development Faultline
In theory, one could imagine the YIMBY movement, which is ideologically diverse, and the more socialist left agreeing to disagree and going about their separate agendas peacefully.
They even agree, in principle, that suburbs and affluent neighborhoods zoned to house single-family homes alone are a source of racial segregation and an obstacle to greater affordability.
“There is agreement that some communities are exclusionary,” Singh said.
But the two camps are often on warring sides of campaigns to loosen zoning laws, particularly in cases where leftists perceive development as a stalking horse for the gentrification of poor neighborhoods.
Nowhere is this truer than in San Francisco, where the hostility between Dean Preston, a democratic socialist tenants’ attorney and member of the city’s board of supervisors, and the YIMBY movement is bitter and ever-present.
“Anyone who is a progressive running for something in San Francisco will be attacked by the coalition of YIMBYs, landlords, and developers,” Preston told HuffPost, associating the movement with the city’s influx of wealthy tech professionals. “It’s an anti-progressive political project more than a housing effort.”
YIMBYs largely did not join Preston in mounting a successful ballot referendum to impose a tax on vacant San Francisco rental properties, he lamented. And California YIMBY does not take a stance on repealing Costa-Hawkins, the state’s 1995 law barring localities from imposing stricter regulations on the cost of rents.
“My priority is housing for working-class and low-income people.”
“My priority is housing for working-class and low-income people,” Preston said. “It has not been my priority in office to promote or stop market-rate development.”
California YIMBY counters that it has advocated for a host of traditional tenants rights measures at the state level, including the Golden State’s version of a “good cause” eviction bill, which became law in 2019.
These supply-side advocates also argue that Preston, and like-minded leftists in the Bay Area, have taken a social housing-or-bust approach to address affordability at the expense of meaningful incremental improvements.
For example, YIMBYs ― and allied California lawmakers like state Sens. Scott Weiner and Nancy Skinner (D) ― strengthened legislation that is effectively forcing affluent cities like Santa Monica to fast-track new housing, provided the projects set aside 20% of units for low-income families.
“If he could moderate his view on market-rate housing just a little bit and recognize that we need an all-of-the-above approach ... I think Dean Preston would find that not only would he be more effective, but he would be more powerful and moving up,” Lewis said.
New York YIMBYs have their own favorite example of what they regard as counterproductive behavior by a progressive lawmaker.
In May, New York City Councilwoman Kristin Richardson Jordan, a democratic socialist, helped kill a new housing development on a vacant lot in Harlem, even though the developer agreed, under pressure, to build a nearly equal number of market-rate units and discounted units for renters earning less than the median income. Richardson Jordan cited, among other things, her concern that the supposedly “affordable” units would still be out of reach for too many Harlemites and the prospect of worse congestion in the local subway stop and streets.
But the developer who owned the lot warned the city government that he might turn the property into a truck depot if the project wasn’t approved. And sure enough, in January, he made good on that threat.
Richardson Jordan, who did not respond to an inquiry from HuffPost, has already picked up two challengers ahead of the Democratic primary this June.
A Potential Thaw In New York
Open New York prefers to focus on what it sees as tentative signs of détente with the city’s activist left.
Faced with a choice similar to Richardson Jordan’s in September, Councilwoman Tiffany Cabán (D), a democratic socialist, signed off on a 1,400-unit development in Astoria, Queens. Cabán cited the guarantees that 25% of units would be affordable to people earning less than the median income and the desire to avoid letting the property become a warehouse or truck depot with far worse implications for the community.
Cabán faced her share of blowback from local community activists and socialists for the decision. Dannelly Rodriguez, a tenants rights attorney and leader of the anti-gentrification group “Astoria Not for Sale,” told HuffPost that the new development is “another iteration of the status quo of housing policy ― what I call gentrification projects.”
This time though, voices like Rodriguez’s were joined by labor unions backing the project ― and Open New York, which thanked Cabán for her “leadership” in a celebratory tweet.
“More than ever, we need elected officials who are committed to changing our broken status quo,” Open New York wrote.
YIMBYs are not as wary as leftists of allowing market-rate housing development in low-income neighborhoods. They point to studies showing that constructing a new housing development typically lowers rents in neighboring areas, including lower-income areas, rather than raising them.
In the interest of rebuilding trust with both the left and working-class renters, though, Open New York has focused much of its early activism on pushing to allow denser development in higher-income neighborhoods like SoHo in Manhattan or an enclave of middle-class homeowners in the northeastern Bronx.
The emphasis contrasts with former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s approach to zoning, which often paired loosening construction rules in low-income areas with moves to tighten them in suburban-style neighborhoods in the city’s outer boroughs.
Some in New York’s left-wing housing world have taken notice of Open New York’s efforts to be more conciliatory.
“They’re a supply-side organization, but they have certainly been trying to fashion themselves more as an organization that cares about inclusion and racial justice than a pure YIMBY organization,” said Cea Weaver, a campaign coordinator for Housing Justice for All, a left-wing group pushing for “good cause” eviction and more low-income housing.
It’s all part of Open New York’s deliberate strategy of avoiding the feuding that has characterized relations between YIMBYs and leftists in parts of California.
“One benefit of New York being behind [in supply policies] is we have a bunch of different states to learn from, and we’re having those conversations as quickly as possible,” Gray told HuffPost.
It helps that at least a few prominent New York City socialists see YIMBY advocacy as a positive complement to left-wing tools like rent regulation and social housing construction. Even as lower zoning barriers encourage new market-rate development, these socialists tend to see laws protecting working-class and low-income residents from big rent hikes as essential for preventing displacement.
“Insofar as we’re pushing for reforms and policy within this capitalist system, we can’t just assume that you all of a sudden take huge sectors of the economy and subject them to non-capitalist or socialist logic,” said Émilia Decaudin, an active member of both Open New York and the Queens chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.
In addition, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D), who first got elected with help from the Democratic Socialists of America, has made support for liberalizing zoning laws one of the criteria for her political action committee’s endorsement. The PAC’s candidate questionnaire asks contenders not only whether they support additional tenant protections and changes enabling more public housing but also whether they support “efforts to end exclusionary zoning.”
However, there are still major barriers to active cooperation between Open New York and the state’s left-wing housing activism world.
For one thing, endorsing a policy like “good cause” eviction is not the same as putting political capital behind its passage. Weaver said she appreciates the group’s support for the “good cause” eviction bill, and noted that Open New York is one of many organizations supporting the law. But only a handful of groups are working actively to help the bill become law.
The two camps also have divergent views of New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s proposal to create 800,000 new housing units through, among other things, making a fast-track approval process for new housing in communities that don’t meet housing growth targets.
Open New York praised the proposal while insisting that it would continue to push Hochul, a Democrat, to “realize the state’s full power” to encourage new housing construction.
Weaver, by contrast, maintains that without additional tenant protections, social housing, and other policies that Housing Justice for All calls for, Hochul’s proposals risk displacing low-income renters.
“If it passes with our stuff, it’s awesome,” Weaver said. “If it passes without our stuff, it’s dangerous.”
Moving Away From Localism?
It’s telling, though, that Weaver and other left-leaning housing advocates train so much of their firepower on the state government.
In New York, prioritizing legislation in Albany is necessary because so many of the parameters for rent regulation and other policies affect localities.
But there are also practical benefits to setting housing policy through higher levels of government. One reason for the success of NIMBY, or not-in-my-backyard, activists in the decades following World War II is the multitude of opportunities to veto both subsidized and market-rate housing construction at the hyper-local level, according to Anbinder, the housing policy historian.
For example, in New York City, housing and commercial developments are subject to a site-by-site approval process, and efforts to change zoning rules are adjudicated on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis. That leaves room for an individual neighborhood to question why they are subject to a change when a perhaps more affluent or politically important neighborhood is not.
“NIMBYism and localism are so intertwined that if you are going to run for a citywide or a regional office, it lends itself to thinking more practically about how to do housing policy on a regional level.”
What’s more, the 51-member city council has a practice of deferring to individual members in whose district a housing or commercial development would break ground when deciding whether to allow it to proceed. These local or hyper-local elected officials are accountable to a smaller group of constituents, making it harder for them to weigh the costs and benefits of a given policy for an entire city, region, or state.
It may not be coincidental then that Cabán, who nearly won a 2019 bid for district attorney of Queens and may have future ambitions for higher office, has taken a more pragmatic approach than other leftists, according to Anbinder. Anbinder detected a similar pattern in California Assemblymember Matt Haney’s greater openness to YIMBYism as he prepared to leave his post as a member of San Francisco’s board of supervisors in 2022.
“NIMBYism and localism are so intertwined that if you are going to run for a citywide or a regional office, it lends itself to thinking more practically about how to do housing policy on a regional level,” Anbinder said.
Replacing New York City’s patchwork and highly localized development process with a citywide strategy could be cause for common ground between YIMBYs and leftists, but, given their differing priorities, the devil is in the details.
“There could be some alignment around comprehensive planning rather than site by site or neighborhood by neighborhood rezoning,” Stein said. “It calls to question, however, who’s in charge? Who’s the mayor under which this would happen?”