No more NIMBYs: Inside the revolutionary battle to bring down home prices
Inside the fight to build more housing and bring down home prices
There's a new movement sweeping America. It isn't selling out stadiums or inspiring riots, but it does contain a simple idea that has the potential to radically reshape our economy: The US needs more places for people to live.
The adherents of the "Yes In My Backyard," or YIMBY, movement believe that America's housing crisis comes down to the fundamental tension between supply and demand. The country simply doesn't have enough homes, they argue, so people are forced to fight, scrape, and pay exorbitant prices to secure the housing that is available. Building more homes, or "housing abundance" in YIMBY parlance, is the key to improving access and ensuring an affordable cost of living.
"It's the belief that we can and should solve our housing crisis by building a lot more housing, especially in high opportunity, transit-rich neighborhoods," Nolan Gray, a city planner and research director for California YIMBY, told Insider.
YIMBYism isn't a new idea, but over the past couple of years it has started to notch small but crucial victories that appear to signal that the movement is becoming more broadly accepted. From coast to coast, cities and states are defying the dominant "Not In My Backyard," or NIMBY, ideas that have for decades dominated most housing discussions. YIMBYism has gained traction as the affordability crisis has gotten worse. Two-thirds of Americans say it's hard to find an affordable home where they live. Homelessness is on the riseand a growing share of Americans are rent-burdened or can't afford to buy a home.
The idea also has appeal across the political spectrum: Progressives support housing abundance as a way to boost affordability. Conservatives and libertarians see it as a way to get rid of government regulation and empower property owners. If the movement continues to attract followers and win over local, state, and federal leaders, it could make American cities and suburbs more affordable and diverse. Sonja Trauss, the executive director of the group YIMBY Law, said the movement has a lot left to accomplish and the anti-building NIMBYs still have a lot of political power, but the future appears brighter than ever.
"We're at the other team's touchdown line," Trauss said. "I feel like they have shot all of their loads."
If you build it …
The crux of the YIMBY plan is to build more housing by reducing the number of choke points in the development process. Restrictive building codes, local opposition, and many other stumbling blocks can downsize or outright prevent new housing. Perhaps the biggest of them all is single-family zoning. And while California still has some of the highest home prices in the nation, it was a fight against single-family zoning there that gave birth to the modern YIMBY movement.
In the early 2010s, the San Francisco Bay Area faced a rapidly worsening housing-affordability crisis sparked in part by the tech boom, and local NIMBYs were stymieing much-needed construction. Trauss was a high-school math teacher in San Francisco when she began noticing that a lot of people she knew had started to come around to the idea that "housing is good."
"There were a lot of people who all agreed with each other, but everybody thought they were the only one," she said. So Trauss began advocating for more housing at local planning meetings and helped start the YIMBY movement.
One of the main targets for reform was zoning laws — local regulations that determine what kind of buildings can go where. Some areas are zoned for commercial buildings or skyscrapers, others for apartment buildings or agricultural use. Today, nearly 75% of residentially-zoned land in the US is restricted to single-family housing — detached homes designed for one family. Single-family zoning became entrenched in the US in the mid-20th century as white localities used zoning laws to box out manufacturing areas and prevent Black families from moving into their neighborhoods. Today, neighborhoods that are exclusively zoned for single-family homes still reinforce racial and socioeconomic segregation, the Urban Institute found, as they tend to be occupied by whiter and wealthier people than denser, multifamily housing. And it locks lower-income people of color out of the opportunities for upward social mobility — from well-funded schools to cleaner air — that are found in wealthier neighborhoods.
We can and should solve our housing crisis by building a lot more housing
After years of being outnumbered in local meetings, YIMBYs began using the same local organizing tactics that NIMBYs pioneered, Trauss said. Pro-building advocates have become famous for their impassioned feuds with opponents on Twitter and in community meetings. They're electing pro-housing lawmakers at every level and pushing them to pass YIMBY policies.
"You go to these public hearings that maybe were once exclusively dominated by people who are opposing anything and everything," Gray said, "and now you have a few people show up saying, 'Hey, actually, I'm a young professional who wants to be able to stay in the city where I'm from,' or 'I'm a retiree who wants to be able to downsize,' or 'I'm somebody who's experienced homelessness,' and it totally changes the tenor of those conversations and it provides planning conditions and city councils cover to do the right things."
This local passion eventually extended to the state level. The California legislature has passed a series of laws in recent years that allowed homeowners to build more housing on their property. In 2021, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 9 — which effectively banned single-family zoning — a "symbolic" push to show what kind of radical efforts were needed to quell the housing crisis. The moves have had a substantial effect on local policy: Two-thirds of zoned land in California was previously restricted to single-family homes, but now homeowners can build up to four more units on most single lots across the state.
Subsequent bills have also allowed for alternative types of housing that could help ease soaring costs. For instance, Senate Bill 35 laid out the rules for building accessory-dwelling units — smaller, detached homes like backyard "granny flats." In 2022, California approved more than 23,000 ADU permits, up from fewer than 5,000 in 2017. A total of about 60,000 new accessory-dwelling units have been built in the state since 2016 — with the rate of construction growing each year. In Los Angeles County alone — where the housing crisis is particularly severe — the Departments of Regional Planning and Public Works approved a total of 2,005 new ADUs in 2022, a spokesperson told Insider. They've made up nearly a quarter of all new housing construction in the area.
A nationwide movement
As San Francisco-style housing crises have become more common all over the country, new-wave YIMBYism has also spread from coast to coast.
"Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I had to justify this as an issue in places like Florida or Utah," Gray said. "But now the script has completely flipped. Folks are like, 'Oh, we're in a housing crisis for the very first time. What are you all doing in California?'"
As more people face soaring rents and eye-watering home prices, cities and states across the country have begun to get serious about bringing down the cost of housing. And that's where YIMBYs have stepped up.
In 2018, Minneapolis became the first city to ban single-family zoning. The state of Oregon followed soon after. In Austin, the city council recently passed a set of upzoning measures that include reducing the city's minimum lot size — which would allow at least three homes on a single lot — and policymakers in Dallas are pushing for a similar policy. Seattle homeowners built 1,000 ADUs last year, more than the total single-family homes constructed. After Portland, Oregon, passed reforms that allowed for more ADUs, construction of the units increased by 34%, according to the Cato Institute. Some cities where ADUs are growing in popularity, like Denver, have recently eased restrictions, too.
New York and Texas have proposed far-reaching pro-housing legislation that failed to pass their state legislatures this year. But housing advocates say the efforts in both states shifted the discourse in the direction of YIMBYism and cleared the path for more narrow reforms to pass. But similar legislation passed in other cities has fallen short. In the four years since Minneapolis passed laws that allow ADUs, only 167 have been built, the online newspaper MinnPost reported. The problem is that, unlike California laws, Minneapolis' policy "never got into the how," said Muhammad Alameldin, a policy associate at the University of California-Berkeley Terner Center for Housing Innovation. It didn't consider things like how big the units could be, the permitting fees, and where they could go on the property. The city didn't allow new multiunit buildings to be taller or wider than the single-family homes they replaced, making construction less financially attractive to developers.
In an age of extreme political polarization, housing policy breaks the trend. There's broad, albeit nuanced, support for housing abundance across the political spectrum.
"It's really, really beneficial to the cause of housing abundance that it's a place where strange bedfellows can sometimes come together to make reforms possible," Emily Hamilton, a housing researcher at the libertarian-leaning Mercatus Center at George Mason University, told Insider.
Progressive YIMBYs tend to be more supportive of subsidized housing, rent stabilization, and other government measures to support affordable housing. They also tend to be more environmentally minded and want to see denser cities limit the amount that people drive. Conservative or libertarian YIMBYs tend to be more in favor of getting the government out of the housing market and building sprawl in addition to infill housing in cities.
We're unwinding nearly a century of bad policy, of policies specifically designed to limit housing supply and segregate our cities and drive sprawl
Recent polling in California found that Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to support requiring local governments to build their "fair share" of affordable housing. At the same time, Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to support easing current land-use and environmental restrictions to increase the housing supply. While there are some shades of disagreement, the primary goal remains the same: more housing.
"Flexibility in messaging is one of the real strengths of the pro-housing movement," Jenny Schuetz, an expert in urban economics and housing policy at the Brookings Institute, told Insider.
In a sign of just how flexible YIMBY ideas can be, Montana's far-right Republican governor, Greg Gianforte, signed a slew of bipartisan pro-housing policies into law earlier this year. The sales pitch? Anti-California sentiment. The broad coalition of organizations behind the policies — which will loosen zoning laws and increase urban density — warned that soaring prices in major cities like Bozeman meant the state was headed toward a California-style housing crisis. Gray, of California YIMBY, testified at a legislative hearing on behalf of one of Montana's upzoning bills and used his home state's housing crisis as a cautionary tale to get his point across.
"My testimony was, literally, if you want to avoid becoming California, now's the time to adopt reforms," he said.
The sales pitch was a winner: Bipartisan majorities in the state legislature passed seven pro-housing bills and the governor has asked his housing task force to identify even more opportunities for reform. Supporters call it the "Montana Miracle."
Other red states like Texas and Florida have long sold themselves as affordable refuges from unaffordable coastal blue states like California and New York. But as once-relatively affordable cities like Austin and Miami have transformed into some of the most expensive places in the country, red states have adopted YIMBY policies to retain a main source of their appeal for newcomers and longtime residents alike. The broad political appeal even extends to the federal level. Republican Sen. Todd Young of Indiana and Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii have spearheaded the Yes In My Backyard Act, which would boost transparency and urge affordable-housing construction.
A sea change
As jazzed as they are by the surge in cross-spectrum support for housing abundance, YIMBY activists warn that changing laws and implementing reforms is slow.
"We're unwinding nearly a century of bad policy, of policies specifically designed to limit housing supply and segregate our cities and drive sprawl," Gray said. "And it takes time to unpack that."
If YIMBYism prevails and more local and state governments embrace housing abundance, it could have profound impacts on the average American and the economy more broadly. Denser new housing, particularly near mass transit, could help fight the climate crisis by creating more walkable, less car-dependent cities. More affordable housing could help alleviate homelessness. Families and young people could move to opportunity, rather than being locked out of the most resource-rich neighborhoods.
The movement, said Trauss, is "really still at the beginning." For all the potential in the future, as long as the housing crisis persists, YIMBYism will have to battle against long-entrenched NIMBYism in communities and governments across the country.
Eliza Relman is a policy correspondent focused on housing, transportation, and infrastructure on Insider's economy team.
Kelsey Neubauer is a real estate reporter for Insider focused on housing affordability, where people are moving, prefab & modular construction, and tiny homes.
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