Aesthetics and Messaging of YIMBY: Moving Beyond “Anti-Anti”

Just got back from YIMBYTown 2018 in Boston so I wanted to write up an article here while the experience was still fresh in my mind. I was semi-representing the Abundant Housing LA group from Los Angeles since only a few of us were able to attend this year.

There was some wacky stuff that happened during the conference — including a protest group crashing one of the lectures — but I think I’ll let others report on that since they probably have more interesting things to say about the incident than I do. I wanted to focus more on my area of interest here, which is art, aesthetics and messaging, which are all closely related to each other, especially in the context of a growing movement like YIMBY. At YIMBYTown I observed some shifts in attitude in regards to messaging which were both exciting and encouraging to hear.

Most of the YIMBYs present at the conference were already somewhat self-aware that they tend to be perceived as being very “wonky” group. Data — or the “Truth” (with a capital T), if you want to call it that — is YIMBY’s strength and is largely the reason why they’ve been politically effective up until this point. Many, however, complained that bringing charts and graphs to meetings often weren’t effective in changing people’s minds. Facts not changing people’s minds? Kind of the theme of the last few years, ain’t it.

Painting by Alfred Twu, a YIMBY Arts collaborator. Running for city council in Berkeley this November! https://www.alfred2018.com/

This was the basis of which the YIMBY Arts project was founded on — the idea of creating positive visions for YIMBYs to stand for and champion as a better vision for America’s future. I think I was the only one there willing to identify myself as an artist so it was a little awkward at first but I think that there was at least some reception to some of the ideas that I presented there.

YIMBY as an Acronym — The “Anti-Anti” Movement

The “YIMBY” brand can often be problematic because the name alone makes it obvious that it’s a reactionary stance against the word NIMBY itself. NIMBYs often say ridiculous things which is really easy to make fun of (like that lady who literally didn’t know that renters could vote), but the positions YIMBYs take, if looked at honestly, are often “anti-anti”. When a NIMBY is “anti-shadows”, for example, YIMBYs become “anti-anti-shadow” activists. When a neighborhood council blocks an apartment building near the train station, YIMBYs take the stance of being “anti-anti-housing-near-transit”. In a lot of ways, YIMBY can be said to be simply an “anti-anti-development” group right now, which is preventing them from going fully mainstream.

While it’s possible to win political battles with this type of approach, this has the disadvantage of allowing your opponent to be in control of the overarching narrative because they have set the tone for the rest of the conversation. The best you can hope for is a zero-sum victory, which is always bitter-sweet and extremely tiring over the long term — not to mention, dull and boring in its promise of infinite repetition of the same themes over and over. Despite what the saying says, the enemy of my enemy is not really my friend — it’s an alliance of convenience, which can and will dissolve at any given point. The model we have right now can’t be said to be sustainable, either way…I know first hand what it’s like to get burnt out of a good idea, and I see signs that the YIMBY movement may end up in a similar situation if they’re not careful, too.

Also, it’s catchy to say “Yes In My Back Yard”, sure, but most of us don’t actually have back yards because we’re mostly comprised of renters. Are we defending homeowners in a weird, convoluted way? Do we secretly want to become part of the NIMBY class of our own, if only we could afford it? Are we just confused millennials who don’t know what we really want? The word YIMBY itself doesn’t even make a lot of sense when you start thinking about it in greater detail.

Luckily, the world itself doesn’t make sense and names of movements don’t really need to for it to be a thing, either. Artists almost always hate the word that gets labeled on their work as part of a style/movement so stressing out over what individual words mean probably isn’t worth anyone’s time. But YIMBYs do need to start thinking about what they really stand for, aside from being anti-NIMBY, because at this point we are letting our opponents define who we are in a roundabout kind of way. At some point, we need to be able to clearly articulate what we actually want to see being built in our cities and in our neighborhoods.

This is basically the “what do you want to do with your life?” question for YIMBYs everywhere because they have to start thinking about what they really stand for, rather than just being “anti-anti”. I do hear YIMBY values floating around in bits and pieces here and there (the vision of a mixed-income society probably being the most interesting) but it needs to be collected, articulated, and organized into a coherent message for the public to see and hear. This will not be easy because the US is a huge, diverse place and there are lots of divisions even within the YIMBY movement itself that isn’t easy to reconcile. There were, however, talks about the formation of a national level YIMBY organization (which I might be involved with on some level? TBD) which could help a lot towards advancing this cause.

If we remain open and respectful of each other during the process, a messaging strategy — even if imperfect — could turn into something quite powerful. Why work so hard to get the word out when you can craft a message that will spread itself on its own? For the finance-concerned folks out there, that’s some great ROI, no?

YIMBY Aesthetics in Practice

Current home studio setup — ROLI Seaboard represents the future, the Wurlitzer 200A, the past. As a keyboard player, these two instruments are my favorites.

I provided some music for one of East Bay for Everyone’s events as well as one of Sonja Trauss’s fundraisers this year which was a lot of fun, and we’re looking to expand the scope of the YIMBY Arts project over the course of the next year or so. We’re trying to actively expand the definition of what “art” means so you might see some unusual stuff come out of the process as time goes on. (e.g. academic articles, gaming, architecture, software platforms, basket-weaving, advanced nose-picking, etc.)

YIMBYs could potentially commission a few songs where the lyrics are something like “build more housing/cause, it’s a good idea/otherwise we will have bad times/like………..Crimea~~~!” or something something which is always fun but I know a lot of folks want to hear about how this will affect policy so I’m dedicating a section here to address those concerns. Might be a little boring but nonetheless important stuff to think about.

Here’s a small slice of what an “aesthetic strategy” for YIMBY might look like (all hypothetical, of course):

On the local level, community input is *absolutely crucial* for determining the aesthetics of how each development should look, especially for public and community-owned buildings and developments. The work of YIMBYs here would be to simply listen to what the community wants and stay out of its way, even — or especially if — they don’t like the way it looks. I’m as big of an art snob as you can get, but even I know that for these types of things it’s not really my place to determine what people want.

This means occasionally letting the “neighborhood character” folks — I know that’s a dirty word among YIMBYs — have what they want. If you can use this as a leverage to get more units built, it would be worth it because if you can get people moved into the community physically, aesthetic changes will naturally follow. The best course of action for YIMBYs in regards to local aesthetics, in my opinion, would be to stay out of its way as much as possible. (i.e. resist the urge to be “anti-anti” for this particular issue)

On state and national levels more deliberate aesthetic decisions have to be made in this area but the gist of it is that you’ll need styles that are somewhat detached but nonetheless universalist in nature. This stuff has to be thought of more on a historical/zeitgeist level but not really something that should be figured out after the org itself comes into being, in my opinion. (I would like to keep the lid closed on this can of worms right now, though.)

In homeowner neighborhoods we should be advocating for homeowners to have the freedom to use their house as a vehicle of expression of their lifestyle and ideas — as long as it’s not hurting nobody, of course. If we can help homeowners become more aesthetically tolerant, maybe they’ll be more open to the idea of having an apartment complex built next to their single family home. I know I just said that we should stay out of local aesthetic battles as much as possible, but this is basically encouraging the homeowners themselves to do the same in cases of private ownership.

Stravinsky’s home is now on the market for a measly $4.3 million! Would like to know what it looked like while he was living there, though. (via https://www.kusc.org/culture/staff-blog/stravinskys-la-home-for-sale/)

When Igor Stravinsky moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s he voiced his annoyance at his neighbors complaining about his backyard, which was “overgrown” and didn’t “conform” to the neighborhood’s “aesthetic standards”. Unfortunately people who claim to love his works are often the same ones doing the very things he hated about living in in LA — so much so that after moving around a bunch of times around town he made the decision to leave LA for New York in 1969, where he ultimately was laid to rest.

Is that what you want? Have those stuck-up New Yorkers (no offence to the NY YIMBY folks here) taking away our best talents and making us look like fools in the process? This is 2018 and we should be enlightened enough not make the same mistake again!!! — that line of reasoning may work in some cases and could potentially be an opportunity to make allies within neighborhoods that have historically leaned NIMBY.

In negotiations with historical preservation and conservation groups (who’re often at odds with YIMBY politics), I suggested that YIMBYs make conscious and deliberate efforts to pick and choose which historical units to preserve and discard — in collaboration with local community groups, of course. There’s no pleasing everyone with these issues but if you can clearly articulate the reasons why something should or should not be preserved, it’ll show that some thought and effort was put into it — which is a thousand times better than having no stance at all.

After talking to some of the organizers in the Bay Area YIMBY groups they said that this could become a central talking point in a year or 2 because as the political climate starts to to turn against them NIMBY groups are likely to use (and abuse) historical preservation laws as a final line of defense. When this happens, YIMBY groups will be in a much better position if they have the right arguments and the buy-in of local preservation and conservation groups ahead of time. Being proactive here could pay off big in the long run and I do think we could do a better job of outreach in regards to these types of issues. And who knows, maybe you might even learn a thing or two about what makes the city you live in special and unique.

These outcomes are all idealized versions of reality of course but it’s something that we could be striving for in order to move towards YIMBY’s goals of building a saner, more equitable society. YIMBYs have their hearts and minds in the right place so it’s just a matter of taking a few extra steps to bridge the gaps between them and the other interest groups around town.

YIMBYTown was also great because it gave me a better understanding and focus of what my music was actually about — as an artist I’ve been broke many times but I’ve been lucky enough to come from a stable family with a good educational background so I don’t want to pretend like I understand the crippling cycles of poverty that a lot of low-income tenants are going through right now. Myself, I am very fortunate and the stories I tell will be limited to only what I know. (I was making rent with cryptocurrency earnings up in the Bay Area before moving to LA but that’s another story altogether.)

But I do know that most homeowners out there simply weren’t aware of the the darkness that exists in the background of housing policies that have shaped their lives up until this point — many of them can (and should) be encouraged to do the right thing if given the chance. But you do have to give them the space to do so without attacking them *too much* because for many of them it will be a day of reckoning that will take them on an intense emotional ride. If you give them some space, many of them will come around eventually, but it will take some time.

Again, regardless if you agree with this approach or not this involves taking control of the tone and narrative of how these issues are talked about pro-actively so it ties into some of the points mentioned earlier before. Messaging needs to be proactive, not reactive, for it to be effective.

Every movement needs its carrots and sticks and the YIMBY Arts project was created in part in order to add more carrots to the bin of the movement itself, which I’ve felt has always been in short supply. Lots of people are hurting and I understand the temptation to attack people politically but we need to do our best to keep our eyes on the prize and not let difficult situations make us turn on each other. I don’t see the housing crisis as a YIMBY/NIMBY issue but a battle between people and a future that now has become uncertain due to the collapse of institutional norms. The more positive visions of society we can create, the better of we will all be in the long run — the biggest enemy we face is uncertainty, not NIMBYs.

Agree or disagree, in a nutshell this is my opinion and perspective I have of the YIMBY movement in general.

I’ve probably listed 4–5 projects here that would take a lifetime for anyone to complete, given the complexity of the problem and the massive scale at which it exists. But after going to YIMBYTown this year it gave me confidence that most of us here were in it for the long-haul — this is our mission, this is our work that will define us for the rest of our lives. Some people I met at the conference had pictures of apartments tattooed on their arms — they ain’t messing around here, to say the least.

All movements start as a reaction to something so the criticism that YIMBYs are “reactionary” — even if true — doesn’t really matter all that much. The more important thing is that we continue to learn from our mistakes, listen to both our supporters and detractors for feedback, and be willing to accept that change is going to take longer than most of us would like. If we’re all climbing the mountain together, the journey itself won’t seem as long, or as bad — if we just chip at it a little bit each day, something will eventually give way. Because most of the YIMBYs I’ve met this weekend seem to be on the same page about the difficulties that lie ahead of us, I’m now very hopeful at the prospects of where the movement could go.