I organize with a tenant union and I’m a YIMBY. Both sides can do better.

I’ve been watching YIMBYs and tenant union folks brawl in newspaper articles and on twitter for months now. In this piece, I present some ideas on how both groups can do better.

Each side has valid critiques of the other. As an organizer in a tenant union and a YIMBY, I have a stake in seeing both movements succeed and become healthier.

I live in Bellingham, WA, a city of ~85,000 about 30 minutes south of Vancouver, BC at the top of the I-5 corridor. One in five of my neighbors are ‘severely cost burdened’ here, spending over 50% of their income on housing. Many of my neighbors are without shelter. For these reasons and more, I began organizing with the Bellingham Tenants Union last winter. (We’re close to our first victory on banning source of income discrimination. Woot.)

What happens nationally with the YIMBY/left/tenant union beef, impacts my community. When the infamous Truthout article came out, it was shared on many local civic Facebook pages. My brother just emailed me the latest ‘Dear YIMBYs’ piece from the San Francisco Examiner.

It is frustrating to see the movements clash — both are necessary to overcome the housing challenge and make sure people have access to safe, secure, healthy homes in mixed-income neighborhoods.

Before getting to suggestions for improvement, we need to understand the nuances of the YIMBY movement. Here are my observations as a relative newcomer (~6 months) from following YIMBY/housing twitter avidly and attending YIMBYtown this year.

  1. YIMBYs are not a monolithic group. At YIMBYtown, a socialist delivered the second keynote. I met a self-described market urbanist and a developer. I also went to a well-attended session on left coalition building facilitated by a communist. Some YIMBY organizations support rent control in their platform. The majority of YIMBYs are lefties from my experiences.
  2. YIMBYs are a big-tent coalition between two main tendencies, market-urbanists and social justice urbanists (any descriptive word in front of urbanist sounds silly, I know). They both share the belief that housing shortages are bad, building more homes in shortages are necessary, and exclusionary zoning is unjust. Market urbanism believes, “When left to market forces, as opposed to intervention, land use patterns and transportation systems better reflect the diverse needs and desires of individuals in society.” Social justice urbanists generally believe social (public) housing and anti-displacement policies should supplant new market rate construction. “New construction can’t be built fast enough to meet the needs of people facing immediate displacement, and rents in new buildings are often unaffordable to workers and families making below the median income.”
  3. Some YIMBYs fund their organizing through developer and philanthropy funding. This is not bad (Facebook money paid for my scholarship to YIMBYtown, along with a 1/4 of attendees), but may influence their politics.
  4. YIMBYs are decentralized. Each local group has autonomy over their platform and objectives. SFyimby, which is the most well known, is viewed as representative of the rest of the YIMBY movement. Without being definitive, they are moderate with a lean towards market urbanism. I’m more familiar with the YIMBYs in Seattle, who have a much stronger social justice bent.

YIMBYs and tenant unions clash over displacement. YIMBYs support new market rate projects in low-income areas because they believe this will reduce displacement. They often cite a California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office study that concluded that building market rate housing in low-income census tracts reduces displacement. A UC Berkeley study found the relationship to be ambiguous: some neighborhoods with new building lost low-income residents, others gained. The Berkeley study acknowledged there are other factors influencing displacement such as employment factors, induced demand, and neighborhood amenities. They concluded more thorough research is needed.

Even with more research, displacement is very difficult to track. Urbanists should acknowledge the limitations of studies and weigh people’s first-hand experiences in communities experiencing displacement. There are a huge number of factors involving displacement.

A pro-housing advocate, Michael Maddux in Seattle put it well recently:

Or discussions around displacement and gentrification, when free-market urbanists try to hammer it in that if we just build more, everything will work itself out. But this ignores that relying solely on a market rife with institutional racism means that while more affordable housing in historically black communities may be built, the commercial affordability for black owned small businesses is eliminated, or new white residents prefer a $5 cupcake to patronizing the black-owned pastry shop, simply continuing the sucking dry of wealth and income in black communities, in turn pushing more and more families out of our city.

Suggestions for YIMBYs and Tenant Unions

My advice to YIMBYs (much of which is already being done, varies significantly by city/group):

  1. Renounce free-market urbanism from the YIMBY tent. The “free-market” and absence of government policy will create unjust housing outcomes.**
  2. Fight harder for new homes/upzoning in wealthier, whiter single family areas (or depending on the size your city, low-rise areas). Make these locations the primary focus of campaigns.
  3. If a low-income community or community of color doesn’t want a new market-rate housing project in their neighborhood — respect that. These communities (unlike wealthy, exclusionary ones) should have the final say in what gets built in their neighborhood.
  4. Support rent stabilization, housing assistance and tenant rights. This doesn’t have to be a primary focus, but YIMBYs should show up in solidarity when needed.
  5. Organize for city growth policies that combat inequality. (See: All-In Cities Policy Toolkit). For example, when New Orleans is building a big project with public dollars, they support and contract with local small business owners from underserved communities. Or this community-owned development in Seattle that serves as an anchor against displacement.
  6. Campaign hard for tax justice. New revenue from the wealthy and speculators (such as a land value tax and vacancy tax) can fund social housing and drive new development. Over time, this might get us to a more healthy mix of social housing / private housing. (In the world’s best run housing system, Vienna, the mix is 60 / 40.)
  7. Employ fundraising methods that ensure some level of financial independence from developers.

My advice to other tenant unions (some of this may be happening, I don’t know):

  1. Accept that more market rate housing and social housing are part of the solution to stabilize rising rents and reduce economic displacement.
  2. Support and show up for efforts to upzone wealthier, whiter single family areas (or depending on the size your city, low-rise areas). Similarly, show up for efforts to build market rate housing and social housing in areas of the city with low risk of economic displacement. Development in these areas can take the displacement pressure off low-income folks and communities of color.
  3. Acknowledge the need for enough housing if there are new people moving to your city — you can’t shut people out (even if they are highly paid).
  4. Stop suggesting that taxing developers through high (generally >10%, without corresponding incentives/subsidy) inclusionary zoning and impact fees will lead to a healthier housing system. If we are trying to promote the building of new homes in a shortage, then taxing that process is counter intuitive. To subsidize housing, look at other sources of revenue.
  5. Fight for tax justice for the same reasons mentioned above in YIMBY section.
  6. Develop and campaign for policies that can rapidly scale up community land trusts and co-ops. These ideas get thrown out frequently by tenant unions, but lack scalability to contend with the housing challenge.

I hope these suggestions are of some use. It’d be rad if YIMBYs showed up for tenant rights and rent stabilization and if tenant unions showed up for ending luxury zoning, and more market rate/social housing. And think of all that time that could be spent organizing for housing justice instead of twitter brawling.


** edit: There’s been a lot of confusion about this point. I am not opposed to market urbanists, and I appreciate people who understand wonky economic stuff. I support market rate housing and the market forces that drive it. This point refers to free market fundamentalists who believe the market will solve all housing problems, and want to defund government subsidies & housing equity programs.

❤ YIMBY crew in Oakland. I’m the doof with the backpack on.