A Housing Abundance Movement Can Help Save America's Wild Spaces
I am, as you know, terribly frustrated with (some) (online) YIMBY people. I think the guys who make up a prominent slice of the YIMBY public face need to decide if they want to be a rude hippie-punching online irony cult or part of a political movement that will necessarily include people they don’t like. But I don’t want to constantly react to YIMBY content negatively, as this country desperately needs regulatory and zoning reform that makes building easier and less expensive, along with robust public investment in housing as we inch closer towards a world where housing is fully decommodified. So to be more positive here’s a pro-housing abundance messages that I wish was a little more prominent: higher housing density can actually protect the undeveloped spaces that make the country more verdant and beautiful. Increased density in higher-density places reduces building in America’s beautiful low-density places. This is good substantively and politically. We just have to be strategic and value housing affordability itself rather than engage in the maximalist pro-construction rhetoric that’s too common.
If it isn’t obvious, here’s the point. The country has a certain amount of space and a certain amount of people. Realistically, we can’t really expand the space without invading somewhere, and anyway we don’t need to - this is a really, really big country. Space isn’t an issue; space where people want to live is an issue. We could try to increase or decrease our (anemic) population growth artificially, but I’m generally opposed to that kind of thing. [Edit: I inexplicably forgot to talk about immigration here, but for the record I'm an open borders kind of guy.] Degrowth is dumb and contrary to socialist first principles, while aggressive pro-natalism outside of passing generally pro-social redistributive policies is creepy. Unless something changes, I think we should try to create a society that’s friendly to families and let the population rate sort itself out. What we’re always doing, though, is making some places more or less attractive as destinations for people looking to move. Policy has a great influence on the distribution of where people live. If you’re invested in people not living in the tree-laden mountains or wind-swept plains of this beautiful country, you need to make it easier for them to live elsewhere.
As you’ve heard, policy across the country makes building new housing in desirable places difficult and cost-prohibitive. This pushes people out of already-desirable, already-dense spaces and into cheaper less-developed spaces, leading to the worst of both worlds - high construction, low density. A high-rise that doesn’t get built in Palo Alto because of NIMBY bullshit means that, somewhere, beautiful low-density places get developed in a less-efficient way. We have to convince people that it’s zero sum - build in America’s dense places, which are not very dense in an international sense and can house many more people, or build some godawful development in a lower-density space, replacing woods and fields with vinyl siding and plastic cladding without the benefits of walkability, mass transit, and other elements of urban efficiency. Urbanism is not the opposite of open space, urbanism is the core tool that preserves open space.
The housing abundance agenda is among other things the enemy of exurban sprawl, which is a horrorshow for the environment, for sustainable municipal finances, and yes, for aesthetics. Vast tracts of single-family housing far from urban cores chew up land (like forests, fields, and rural spaces) while housing few. They make extreme car dependency necessary and produce far more carbon per square-mile and and per-person than in a dense urban center. They make it harder for government to provide key services to the poor. I suspect that, to some degree, in the United States there’s always going to be a premium on single-family dwellings. (I do think there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit to be picked in terms of broadening people’s idea of desirable housing.) But we can create incentives that make higher density more attractive, in whatever housing type. Sensible zoning and regulatory reform, along with public investment in social housing and mass transit, can divert people into urban cores. And nothing’s more attractive than affordability, yes achieved through more privately-funded supply but also through large public investment into low- and no-cost housing. Every family you entice into living in high-density housing is a family that’s not going to be contributing to the financial case for bulldozing a beautiful glade in some low-density place.
Look, there’s always going to be suburbs, and they’re not inherently bad; I’m about to move into one, after all. But we should use public policy to make denser, more developed, more accessible suburbs attractive. My new house is in the greater New York metro area, smack dab in a megalopolis and highly dense by suburban standards. I’m on a major commuter train line and the area is built up sufficiently that a lot of our basic needs can be met without driving. This is a lot better, environmentally, than the conditions in some of America’s huge exurban spaces, which are often hours of driving from where people work and where it’s not at all unusual for the nearest supermarket to be inaccessible by foot. The point is not to eliminate all single-family housing but rather make urban cores more affordable and accessible to more kinds of people, reducing the economic logic of throwing up a new development of McMansions in a formerly-undeveloped space. The point of the urbanist drive isn’t merely to get people to move to Brooklyn, the point is to get them to move to the Hudson River Valley rather than the Catskills, to New Haven instead of Litchfield County. Not because it's bad to want to live in less developed spaces, but precisely to preserve what people like about them. We want to pull people towards existing density and make those spaces denser, whether it’s in the densest urban core or the less-dense-but-still-dense-by-American-standards nearby suburbs.
I genuinely think a winning pro-housing message is “we don’t want to turn Vermont into New Jersey, we don’t want Wyoming to look like the Phoenix suburbs, we do want vibrant and affordable cities as well as open rural spaces, so let’s make our dense places much denser.” Part of what makes the housing conversation so frustrating to me is the dismissal of aesthetic values like the value of open land or the dreaded “neighborhood character.” These values very much matter to the normies that any political movement must persuade to have success, but are treated as inherently ridiculous by pro-housing people. If you tell the average person “ugly buildings are good,” as some YIMBYs explicitly do, they’re not going to be persuaded that ugly buildings are good; they’re going to think that your movement is a bunch of clowns who hate good things like pretty buildings and neighborhoods. (Generally, one of the great YIMBY mysteries is that the movement tends to be made up of scolding center-left types who want the commies to be realistic and have message discipline and care about politics, but who also seem to place zero value on appealing to ordinary people when it comes to housing and the built environment.) Rather than saying that aesthetics don’t matter, it would be a lot more constructive and realistic to change the conversation about how they matter.
It’s kind of like crime. I tell other lefties all the time, “voters really care about crime, so we have to have a good take on crime, one way or another.” And so often they say, “that’s stupid, they shouldn’t care about crime.” But regardless of whether they should, they do care about crime. And it’s the same thing with green space and neighborhood character and saving the trees - online YIMBY values might prompt you to sneer at these things, but you have no choice but to care about them the way so many voters care about them. YIMBYs constantly lament the degree to which NIMBYs have prioritized aesthetics over affordability. But NIMBYs have been really damn effective at enshrining those priorities into law! The choice ahead of us is either to continue to complain about those values or to accept that aesthetics are important to a lot of voters and come up with a type of appeal to aesthetics that beats the NIMBY rhetoric. Just exactly like the conversation with crime, it’s a matter of framing your attitudes towards a public concern rather than whining that the public is stupid for holding that concern.
High-population cities and low-population countryside is vastly preferable (socially, economically, environmentally) to single-family housing sprawl, which eats vast swaths of undeveloped land. The only reason we couldn’t make this a key argument for a housing abundance movement is if we’re stuck in the weird juvenile online-addled maximalism that afflicts some prominent housing discourse communities. I’m frequently told that such maximalism doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t fit with my experience. I have a couple of questions that I frequently ask about YIMBYism. Here’s one, for example. Another is pretty basic: is Park Slope dense enough? I’ve gotten some conflicting answers. I of course understand that it’s a moving target, that there's no one right level of density, but Park Slope is pretty fucking dense. And yet I find it’s sometimes used as an example of a place that just has to change, where a bunch of high-rises have to go up. Why? I think precisely because people like Park Slope so much - because it does, indeed, have so much neighborhood character. Its enviable population density seems less relevant to the conversation than the fact that its lovely brownstones are the kind of thing YIMBYs deride as a social culture. Some people won’t be happy until Park Slope looks like Hudson Yards, just like some people won’t be happy until everyone lives in a Japanese capsule hotel, because nothing short of that pisses off the right people. The irony of this warped perspective is that it’s fundamentally an aesthetic stance, not a political one.
That, to me, is where the housing abundance movement we have has gone wrong; it’s stopped defining itself in terms of the simple virtues of actual housing access and affordability and instead developed a cargo-cult attachment to limitless building and intentional provocation, the better to tweak the yuppies and the hippies. I think it’s time to get past this rabid attachment to tweaking NIMBYs and to reorient back towards a positive vision of achieving change - in part through accepting that some of the bougie values that YIMBYs love to hate are here to stay. Like caring about how the lived environment looks and feels. Personally, I’m someone who both wants a lot more housing and who loves undeveloped stretches of the American countryside. Luckily, I’m also someone who thinks that those values aren’t conflicting but complementary, and that this can be a valuable message for getting to housing affordability. Build more to spare other places from building. Let’s get that done.