Inside Story

Building nothing is not an option

An urban sociologist probes the strengths and weaknesses of the “yes in my backyard” movement

Peter Mares Books 28 November 2022 2076 words

Where it all began: a briefing for YIMBY volunteers in San Francisco. Yes In My Back Yard

It was sometime in the late 1980s and the public forum had turned rowdy. At issue was a plan to shift the Aboriginal Health Service from a Victorian-era building in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy to a purpose-built facility a few blocks away. Some residents opposed the move to their neighbourhood, citing parking problems, congestion and noise, but most of us — convinced that the objections were little more than racist dog-whistling — were there to voice boisterous support for the plan. The new health centre was duly built and still operates today.

While we wouldn’t have used the term, we were acting as YIMBYs — saying “yes” to a development “in my backyard.” But many progressive, middle-class residents of Fitzroy and other well-located suburbs have switched sides since then and are now firmly in the NIMBY camp, particularly when it comes to housing.

NIMBYs have come to oppose not just “social housing” — subsidised homes for people on low incomes — but new construction of any kind. Apartment buildings attract special ire, resisted as “inappropriate” for being too tall, for overshadowing or overlooking, for being out of keeping with “neighbourhood character,” for undermining heritage values, or because they generate those familiar evils: inadequate parking, congestion and noise.

YIMBYs see it differently. They believe that objecting residents are primarily worried about their property values. Places like Fitzroy and its equivalents in other Australian capitals may or may not be home to nineteenth-century terrace houses adorned with ornate cast-iron fretwork, but they are certainly “bucolic hamlets of wealth within the hearts of cities,” as Melbourne-based American sociologist Max Holleran writes in his new book, Yes to the City. And residents generally want to keep them that way by resisting “new housing that would bring more people and, potentially, greater socioeconomic diversity.”

Conflicts over housing are often portrayed as a simple generational divide between “boomers” and “millennials” — “you spend too much on avocado on toast” versus “you got all the breaks.” Holleran brings other fault lines to the fore, including the different interests of homeowners and renters, and the conflict between established residents in desirable suburbs and those who also want to live in places with good access to transport, jobs, schools, coffee and a lively local culture but can’t afford it. Underlying all these tensions are questions of class and wealth.

The story of the YIMBY movement begins in San Francisco with the foundation of BARF — the Bay Area Renters’ Federation. The acronym was chosen not just to inject humour into dour housing debates but also to emphasise that tenants faced a situation so dire that it made them want to throw up.

From 2010 to 2019, as the tech boom helped boost San Francisco’s population by 80,000 people, only 29,000 new homes were built. The city compounded the problem by ruling in 2018 that only one unit of housing could be built for every new 3.45 jobs created. Real estate values skyrocketed, pushing prices six times higher than the US average.

The 1960s radicals who gave us flower power found themselves occupying homes worth millions while well-heeled tech workers forked out monthly rents of US$4000 or more. Those pushed to the margins were the service workers who clean, make coffee, teach, nurse, fight fires and police streets. They were forced either to become “super commuters,” travelling up to three hours from outlying districts to get to their jobs, or to live in ever more expensive and insecure housing.

As real estate values rose, so did homelessness. Holleran describes the spaces beneath San Francisco’s elevated trains as “encampments reminiscent of Latin America’s informal settlements.” Around the headquarters of firms like Uber and Pinterest “the unhoused roam the streets in huge numbers as tech workers skitter to the other side of sidewalks to avoid them.”

BARF activists began showing up at planning meetings “dominated by homeowners saying ‘no, no, no’” and calling out “yes” instead, hoping that at least some new housing projects would get approved. They wanted to shift the debate from “real estate ruins the city” to “controlled growth moderates prices and allows for new residents to contribute to existing communities.”

Aware that in more affordable parts of the city “urban consolidation” is code for redevelopment that forces out low-income residents, BARF committed to pushing for densification only in well-off suburbs, where house prices were already high.

But the coalition that BARF sought to build was unstable and fractious. On the one hand this group of mostly young, educated, white urban professionals sought to make allies of long-term activists dedicated to getting subsidised housing built for those in most need, and so align themselves with poor African-American and Latino residents attempting to defend their neighbourhoods against gentrification. On the other, BARF courted real estate agents and property developers. It is easy to see how these interests might collide.

This tension has riven YIMBY movements everywhere, especially when they have accepted funding from companies, rendering themselves vulnerable to accusations of astroturfing. They also want to reassure existing wealthy homeowners that new development won’t destroy the character or quality of their cherished built environment (or, as a subtext, lower their property values), while at the same time — as Holleran writes — wanting to convince low-income residents that “new housing will not further intensify gentrification and displacement.”

This doesn’t mean the YIMBY argument carries no weight. While housing justice activists see YIMBYism as a poor substitute for increased public investment in social housing, the reasonable YIMBY response is that decades of campaigning have failed to produce tangible results in economies where most housing is, and always will be, created by the private sector. Enabling new apartments to be built in established suburbs increases housing choices for current and future residents and should help to hold prices down overall, and even reduce them in the long term.

Most of Yes to the City focuses on the United States. Holleran recounts the unsettling story of Boulder, Colorado, an affluent “eco-utopia at the foot of the Rocky Mountains” where lifestyles and property values are protected by an environmental greenbelt and limits on density, height and “non-familial co-habitation.” In the land of the free, liberty does not necessarily extend to living in a share house.

He documents the parallel trajectory of Austin, Texas, a university city celebrated for its lively music scene and “cowboy hippie spirit,” summed up in the motto “Keep Austin weird.” These days Austin is only affordable for people who are “economically productive but culturally boring” (namely, “doctors, bankers, and brokers, not poets, painters, and performance artists”).

Despite an acute housing shortage, downtown Austin still has open-air car parks that lend “a sprawling vacant feeling to some parts of the central business district that should be bustling.” Yet higher-density projects face stiff opposition for threatening the city’s acclaimed “weirdness.” As in San Francisco and Boulder, residential development has been pushed to the sprawling edges, condemning service workers to housing insecurity or car dependency and long commutes.

Australia’s planning constraints are generally less extreme than in the North American cities Holleran profiles. Postcode 3000 has transformed Melbourne’s CBD into a forest of residential towers, and urban consolidation is obvious in inner suburbs like Brunswick and Footscray. Over the past ten years, almost twice as many apartments as freestanding homes have been added to the housing stock of Greater Sydney. Yet Hobart, which has the most acute shortage of affordable rental housing of any Australian city, still has downtown areas, like in Austin, devoted to low-value uses like open car parks.

Whether planning rules are solely to blame for this lack of residential construction, or the causes are more multifaceted, is another question though. In Melbourne, for example, realtors are spruiking the CBD site of the Witches in Britches theatre restaurant as “a significant landbank opportunity.” Sometimes it’s not NIMBYs who delay development, but speculators looking to cash in on rising property values.

Yes to the City concludes by looking at how the concept of Yes in My Backyard has gone global. Holleran brings an acute outsider’s eye to observations about Melbourne and Brisbane, and invites Australian readers to consider how emerging YIMBY activism here might inject new life and fresh ideas into debates about housing and urban policy.

While some of our cities may be going up in the centre, they also continue to push outwards at the edges, giving us our own version of Holleran’s “missing middle” — a reference to underdevelopment in ageing middle-ring suburbs (or greyfields) and to the relative paucity of European-style medium-density housing that sits between freestanding homes and high-rise apartments. Stoushes over planning and densification are alive and well.

Holleran provides a useful contribution to Australia’s bitterly contested and often arid discussion about how to improve housing affordability. Opinion has hardened into two rival camps. For one side, the problem is entirely a question of supply — and the answer is to liberalise planning and zoning rules and let development rip. For the other, the problem comes down to demand: lax credit rules, tax concessions and other generous subsidies have turned housing into a speculative asset and driven up prices. On the latter view, the solution lies in tax reforms, more financial regulation and much greater public investment in social housing.

YIMBY movements generally fall into the former supply-side camp, arguing that all development is good development, even at the luxury end of the real estate market, because it adds to the overall stock of housing and eventually “filters” down to benefit all. Active YIMBY groups in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney can be contrasted with NIMBY organisations like Save Our Suburbs that oppose “inappropriate development” and “forced rezoning.”

Interestingly, both sides invoke arguments about lifestyle and environment. YIMBYs argue that higher densities bring the benefits of more walking and cycling, a “buzzy city” with outdoor dining and spaces for arts and culture, and rain gardens and trees in place of car parks. Save Our Suburbs wants to protect residents from “overcrowding, traffic congestion, pollution and loss of bushland and heritage resulting from ill-considered planning impositions.”

Avoiding such unhelpful dichotomies, Holleran reveals rifts within each camp. Not all YIMBYs take the build-more-of-everything approach; they are also concerned with price and quality, resilience in the face of a changing climate, and how new developments enhance or diminish the urban fabric by enabling walkability and neighbourliness. At the same time, he recognises that NIMBYs’ objections can be well founded: “Concern about one’s backyard is often a deeply deliberative form of community engagement that addresses the carrying capacity of land with on-the-ground knowledge that is attuned to environmental quality and social cohesion.”

Overall, though, Holleran is sympathetic to the YIMBY view that “building nothing is not an option.” He points out that hyperlocalism can provide cover for “latent racism and an unwillingness to share space and resources with others.” In San Francisco and Austin, planning controls and rising real estate prices have coincided with a rapid decline in the cities’ African-American population. Rather than “devolved decision-making” he would back the YIMBY call for city-, region- or even nationwide planning that de-emphasises the interests of individual homeowners and enables rational infrastructure and a fairer sharing of the costs and benefits of urban growth.

But Holleran also argues that the YIMBY agenda is far from enough to improve housing affordability, contain suburban sprawl, redress socioeconomic and racial segregation, and better prepare cities for climatic events. Greater state action will be needed to override local sensibilities and interests.

Just how contested this territory can become is evident right now in Britain. As part of its “levelling up” policy to “spread opportunity more equally,” Boris Johnson’s government committed to setting mandatory housing targets for every local council. In the competition for the leadership of the Tory party, Liz Truss promised to put an end to such “Whitehall-inspired Stalinist housing targets.” Her successor, Rishi Sunak, was none too keen either, and in any case the proposal has been white-anted by a group of conservative backbenchers concerned about the impact on their leafy constituencies.

This is not a simple left–right divide. In the Times, the director of the centre-right Centre for Policy Studies called their actions “selfish and wicked,” saying they would “enshrine nimbyism as the governing principle of British society… and leave every proposed development at the mercy of the propertied and privileged.” •

Yes to the City: Millennials and the Fight for Affordable Housing
By Max Holleran | Princeton University Press | US$27.95 | 216 pages