It's Time for YIMBYs to Stop Picking Low-Hanging Fruit
NIMBYism is a multiracial phenomenon
Another new NYC development is dead after local opposition. Those dastardly rich white NIMBYs strike again.
Except… no. The proposed development was in Harlem. The leaders of the opposition were majority Black. The groups that rose up against it were majority Black. The local politicians who supported those groups are majority Black. The neighborhood is quintessentially Black. Whatever the merits of opposition to this development you cannot pin this on wealthy white incumbents. That was even more true in the fight against the Industry City expansion, where the fight was led by Hispanic and Asian activists, and in the fight against “The Monster,” which was spearheaded by Black activists. (When I first attended meetings with MTOPP, the group that was most responsible for early resistance, it was literally 100% made up of Black women.) I’ve been involved in New York City housing activism for five and a half years. Some developments I support, some I don’t; I stayed out of the Industry City actions where some of my peers got involved because I thought that opposition was misguided. I personally devote my efforts to informing people about tenant law and working to strengthen those laws, such as with the 2019 Housing Safety and Tenant Protection Act. But having attended hundreds of meetings and protests in the broad world of NYC housing activism I can tell you that the notion that resistance to development is driven by rich white people is absurd on its face. It’s a joke, a farce. It’s just not true.
This Jerusalem Demsas YIMBY essay received widespread praise on publication, but it’s very guilty of the phenomenon I’m talking about, practically writing NIMBYs of color out of existence.
In Manhattan, community members recently delayed a rezoning effort intended to create more than 3,000 new housing units in the wealthy SoHo neighborhood. One resident succinctly described the opposition: “A group of housing millionaires who are mostly old and white are blocking access to an extraordinarily valuable neighborhood [for anyone] who didn’t buy an apartment here in the seventies.”
She also cites some extremely dubious statistics, from a YIMBY book, about who appears at community board meetings, which of course is not remotely representative of the activists who actually lead anti-development pushes. What’s so frustrating about Demsas’s piece is that there’s no “to be sure” at all, not even the barest indication that there is a lot of opposition to building that arises from working-class neighborhoods of color. (Who does she think is fighting to keep new development out of Crown Heights, exactly?) But Demsas’s self-flattering definition of the enemy is par for the course among YIMBYs, as I demonstrated in my piece on the general YIMBY phenomenon. The reasons are obvious: if you’re actually in the trenches fighting out these issues in the day-to-day scrum of local NYC politics, you cannot afford the luxury of pretending that your opponents are all rich white people. But if you write for The Atlantic or Vox or whatever and your audience is the extremely-online then you can just cast your opponents as a disfavored class for political convenience.
It really is a classic example of progressives “respecting” people of color by insisting that they have no agency, by erasing them from the conversation.
You’d expect some to say, well, whether or not the opposition to new development is sound doesn’t depend on the race of who’s doing the opposing! To which I say, precisely. Precisely. YIMBYs have a great deal of strong arguments on the merits, so argue on the merits, rather than flattering the biases of the (also rich and white) subscriber base of tony magazines. You have to actually go into these communities and convince people that you have the superior vision for their neighborhoods. You have to break bread. You have to compromise. You have to abandon your sneer for a little while. You have to accept that there is such a thing as a legitimate reason to oppose some new construction. And you have to - you have to - stop trying to play politics on easy mode by pretending that, say, the only people in the South Bronx who don’t want vast forests of new luxury towers are white. Go to the meetings! You’ll learn a lot of things, one of them being that there’s no racial monopoly on not wanting change.
Oh, and by the way: the YIMBYs aren’t exactly a fucking rainbow coalition themselves. It’s a dominantly white male movement, which I suspect is why they fixate so relentlessly on this way to dodge difficult conversations.
All of this points to the broader dynamic I keep highlighing: YIMBYs have to decide if they want to be an authentic political force, which means accepting complexity and the inevitability of moderation and compromise, or if they’d rather just keep flinging shit on the internet. The latter is certainly more fun. But we desperately need a mature, goal-oriented YIMBY movement. We’re in a housing crisis, and while “just build!” has always been an inadequate philosophy, we must build and build a lot to get out of this housing hell. To do that YIMBYs have to be willing to look working-class Black and brown NIMBYs in the eye and, when appropriate, say “your objection to this project is misguided and wrong.” That’s less fun than dunking on Twitter. But it’s a necessary next stage of their project, if it’s to succeed. The YIMBYs have some real momentum, and I’m grateful. Now it’s time for them to grow up.