Maybe You Could YIMBY a Little Bit Less
they're the "right side," but so what?
My girlfriend and I are likely moving to another neighborhood in Brooklyn in a couple months. For the past five years I’ve been happy with my current apartment, in Prospect Lefferts Gardens on the Crown Heights border, but we need more space, the windows look out over a busy street and she’s a light sleeper, and we’d like to live more cheaply. Now that I don’t have to commute to work anymore, proximity to the subway is less important. (And I’m paying a lot for that proximity.) I’d also like to go through the apartment hunt process now that I know vastly more than when I almost blindly chose this place from afar. Still, despite knowing this is the right decision, I’ll miss the neighborhood and I’m sad to see that my regular supermarket looks likely to close. Local activists are protesting the deal that’s causing this, where a developer is getting rid of the supermarket to build another luxury tower that the vast majority of the neighborhood’s population could never afford to live in. This activist work has, in turn, angered some of Brooklyn’s YIMBYs, which stands for Yes In My Back Yard, the Hatfields to the McCoys of NIMBYs, Not In My Back Yard. YIMBYs are a group of people who are almost always right on the big picture, sometimes wrong in the particular, and very often immensely annoying.
When the news about Associated was announced, I didn’t get involved in the protests, but I did observe some of the reaction on a local Facebook group. There was a lot of angst, as you’d expect, people sharing memories. There were also a few people who never identified themselves as YIMBYs explicitly but who made the standard YIMBY arguments: development is good, more units is good, “luxury” and “affordable” are terms that don’t mean anything in housing, the benefits of more supply will trickle down to the local poor population, community control over zoning and development is bad, any reform that makes it easier for developer to build and harder for ordinary people to oppose them is good…. Sometimes I agree with these claims, sometimes I don’t. But it was classic YIMBYism in that these rational values were expressed in a condescending and dismissive way, which seems to me to be baked into that culture.
It is an unalterable fact about the internet that no group, when described, will ever consent to that description, and will insist that they have been misrepresented. I can only share impressions from my own little slice of the NIMBY-YIMBY conflict.
In the NIMBY-YIMBY wars I’m regularly distressed by specific rationales for resistance to development being dismissed with reference to abstract principles that cannot possibly address those rationales, and that’s the dynamic I saw in that Facebook group. Members of the community are saddened about Associated in the way that attends the closing of any longstanding business. But there are more tangible concerns related to food scarcity. I’m not sure how I feel about the term “food desert,” but many around here fear that we’ll be in one. Unlike, say, on Franklin Avenue near Eastern Parkway, also in Crown Heights and about 20 minutes away, there simply aren’t a lot of options for groceries around here, especially fresh produce.“Build, build, build!” is not a response to people asking where they will obtain the kinds of foods that can’t be bought at the corner store, particularly cheaply.
“They can just go up the road on Empire to Western Beef!,” said a neighbor of mine1, in the midst of a longer rant about how misguided those protesting the deal are. This is, to me, a really good example of dismissing the concerns of the kind of people YIMBYs most need to convince, in the long run. It’s a pain in the ass for me to hike down the road to Western Beef instead of to Associated, and I’m youngish and able-bodied. If you’re elderly or disabled a walk of that length can mean the difference between having practical access to groceries and not. Same goes for the Key Foods on Nostrand. Look, proximity to stores that sell fresh produce and other groceries has a direct impact on your quality of life, and the value of a supermarket that you can just pop into is real. This is particularly true when we have a general public health preference for people to cook more at home rather than to eat at fast food and deli/pizza/patty/etc places, which are plentiful in the neighborhood. Telling people to get over it and accept that their lives have to get worse so that affluent white people can move into a neighborhood where the longtime Caribbean population is just hanging on… it’s not good politics. And that racial dimension is the other layer.
That other layer is, it seems to me, absolutely essential for the future of these discussions: in my experience, when speaking in the abstract YIMBYs almost exclusively define resistance to development and changes to housing policy as battles waged by affluent white people. The archetypal NIMBYs are affluent Park Slope liberals who use local housing ordinance and zoning to prevent new construction that clashes with the brownstone townhouses the neighborhood is known for - the neighborhood’s character - which is particularly problematic because you can’t fit a lot of people in a brownstone. Or wealthy suburban types who fight against halfway houses, bike lanes, light rail stations, etc. anywhere near their homes. This is a nearly-universal aspect of the rhetorical landscape surrounding these ideas: NIMBYs are defined as white, well-moneyed and, thanks to their overall progressive politics, hypocritical. It crops up again and again.
A piece for Curbed San Francisco defines the typical portrait of a NIMBY as “someone with a screw-you-I’ve-got-mine attitude, either a wealthy, white homeowner who thinks renters lower property values or a nostalgic progressive opposed to neighborhood change.” In The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo defined NIMBYs explicitly as “wealthy progressive Democrats.” (Would Manjoo see PLG’s activists fighting the Associated deal as NIMBYs at all? Unclear.) Another Times piece uses Park Slope, Cape Cod, and Berkeley as archetypal examples of NIMBYism - all affluent and liberal spaces. (Everybody hates Park Slope people!) A site called New York YIMBY claims that the opposition to Amazon’s new headquarters in Queens was driven “only for the benefit of a select group of wealthy donors,” which would certainly come as a surprise to the many ordinary people who fought against the city’s massive tax gift to an immense corporation. The Gotham Gazette says “The term NIMBY has been used in the past as a pejorative for wealthy white neighborhoods that wanted to avoid any change to their communities that they considered undesirable, including an influx of people,” but goes on to say that the term has grown to encompass more groups over time. In the 90s Dr. Robert D. Bullard wrote that “NIMBY, like white racism, creates and perpetuates privileges for whites at the expense of people of color.”
This is the fight YIMBYs want to have, and they frequently refuse to argue in any other terms: NIMBYs are rich, white, and liberal. The reasons for this are obvious, as wealthy people and hypocrites are inherently easier targets than other groups, particularly in the progressive discursive space. It’s setting up the argument in a way designed to make opponents of development maximally unsympathetic. This kind of selective framing, obviously, is not unusual in political arguments of all kinds. But in my limited experience YIMBYs are so wedded to this narrative that it makes it hard to talk about the reality on the ground sometimes. And a great deal of the local resistance to development, at least in many urban spaces, in fact comes from working and middle class people of color.
In the interest of full disclosure, I do housing activism in the city. It’s all pretty small potatoes, but I value it a lot and I think the groups I work with are forces for good. I answer phones on a hotline for tenants, providing information and advice related to New York State and City housing law. I write for an activist newspaper, little local stories about bad behavior by landlords or relevant developments in city politics. I go to a lot of protests and actions. I help organize trips to Albany or the Rent Guidelines Board meetings. Like I said, small bore stuff, but I enjoy it and I think things like the Housing Safety and Tenant Protection Act of 2019 shows that, at least in places like New York, this kind of work can make a difference. In any event, my perspective will necessarily be very New York-centric and my opinions filtered through the experiences that I’ve had as an activist.
“Housing activism in New York City” is in fact a very capacious term. There are the individual-building and specific-landlord tenant’s associations that help neighbors organize together. There are tons of neighborhood-specific organizations like Good Old Lower East Side or Crown Heights Tenant’s Union. Some groups focus on specific racial, ethnic, or similar groups, such as CAAAV2. There are groups that solely fight specific pieces of housing law, like MCIs, a particularly pernicious tool that incentivizes landlords to spend on wasteful common-area projects in exchange for higher rents. There are groups that focus on immigration and housing, like Make the Road NYC, and on health care and housing. There’s the influence of bigger organizations like DSA. And there’s tons of interface with partisan politics (read: Democrats) and offices like the Public Advocate. There are also anti-gentrification organizations like MTOPP who spend most of their time fighting development and thus live on the NIMBY faultline. I’m telling you this simply to say that there’s a lot of different kinds of work that goes on and my group in particular does not do a great deal of work related to the kind of clashes related to NIMBYism. Which is good because I don’t always agree with other activists about development.
For example, I sat out opposition to the Industry City rezoning. It was not clear that the identified downsides were specific and problematic enough for me to go to the events protesting the deal or to do the ancillary work of advertising and organizing these protests. The potential problems identified all seemed to be vague gentrification concerns, and while I am sympathetic to the human costs of gentrification, I don’t think opposition to specific rezonings is an effective way to oppose gentrification in general. (It’s a great big issue and a classic example of where individual behavior has very little impact on the overall trend; responsibility is diffused throughout many actors.) I didn’t publicly oppose the project; there are commitments to solidarity that go beyond my individual conflict, so I kept my mouth shut. But I didn’t actively attend any of the protests and, at the least, I felt and feel that there were legitimate conflicting interests of the type that make so much of local politics difficult.
Still, generally I have to respect what local communities want. Their perception of the actual day-to-day interests of their neighborhoods will always be better informed than mine. I live just south of Crown Heights. That neighborhood has seen gentrification on a much greater scale than mine3. There, too, local activists have opposed many developments, including the maddening Bedford-Union armory deal4. Many of those activists are local residents who have been in the neighborhood for decades, and Crown Heights being what it is, many of them are Black and working or middle class. Their protests are a reaction to watching their neighborhood totally transform, and in a way that suits the interests of the kind of white and wealthy people who would never have lived there 15 years ago. (I’ve only been in the area for 5 years and the change is remarkable.) None of this means that they’re correct about any given development. I have been saddened by the resistance from Crown Heights residents to desperately-needed homeless shelters, which in terms of the basic political dynamics is textbook NIMBY behavior. But the cover image on that NYT piece is illustrative: these protests against homeless shelters have been spearheaded by Crown Heights’s large Black middle class. It seems the enemies of development and infrastructure are not as uniform as the conversation would make it seem, and this has consequences for messaging and politics.
All of these factors came to a head with the wearying MTOPP-Tim Thomas fracas from a couple year ago. I won’t go into it much because I know several of the players personally. But for me it was something of a worst case scenario. I believe Thomas has pulled down the specific blog posts that were most inflammatory, but they really were not at all constructive - condescending, rude, and conspiratorial, accusing local activists of all kinds of malign motives, when the plain reality is that they wanted to preserve aspects of a neighborhood that has been their home for decades. (Thomas accused MTOPP’s leader Alicia Boyd of only doing this organizing because she rents her townhouse on Airbnb. Of all the ways you might criticize Boyd, to question the sincerity of her political engagement is… bizarre and pointless.) The group’s preservationist motive might not be correct, but it is a reflection of real community sentiment, as gentrification fears are intense around here, spring from perfectly legitimate concerns, and will not go away because you make fun of them.
I hate the phrase “not a good look,” but a white man, the most prominent YIMBY voice in a majority-Black neighborhood, attacking a mostly Black, mostly female group and the Black woman who leads it was… not a good look. As much as the reaction to Thomas might have been extreme, it was just shitty politics from beginning to end. I didn’t want Thomas silenced, as became the meta-debate at one point, and I agree that casting criticism of opponents of development as racist can be unfair. (Thomas got a lot of supportive local press making him out to be a martyr, for the record.) But Thomas also was deliberately provoking in his advocacy for development, in a manner I’ve grown used to and tired of in the YIMBY community. The way it all went down spoke to a profound lack of strategic communication among too many YIMBYs, which seems to stem from this communal dedication to making jokey derision a key part of the culture. If I thought this was a one-off I wouldn’t dwell on it, but I don’t think it is; all of my experience in online YIMBY spaces shows that clumsy and provoking rhetoric like Thomas’s is all too common.
Scott Alexander, who lives in the greater Bay Area and thus is in close proximity to a NIMBY/YIMBY clash himself, put it well:
certainly I know many YIMBYs who are amazing people who I love. But as for the movement as a whole, I feel like apparently-reasonable people have dropped the ball on this one. Sorry for having to say this, but YIMBYism is one of the most tribal, most emotional, most closed-minded movements I have ever seen this side of a college campus.
And that sucks. Because we need YIMBYs.
I may have buried the lede here: in general, I’m with YIMBY over NIMBY and it’s not particularly close. Generically this country does need to increase housing stock dramatically, particularly in its expensive urban cores. There genuinely are tons of inane and destructive zoning and construction policies that hurt the country. Parking requirements are completely unjustifiable. Density is key in all manner of contexts and, of great personal appeal to me, our only real defense against suburban sprawl. (Ugly, soulless, and an environmental disaster, sprawl represents the worst of both worlds - taking up lots of land, while housing few, and pushing more and more carbon-belching cars onto the road.) I’m glad the YIMBY movement exists and is growing, and I think more YIMBYism will in general be better for everyone.
But the key phrase in the above paragraph is “in general.” I think YIMBY vs. NIMBY is a classic false dialectic, an artificial binary. (Here’s a nice piece making this case.) Because all housing is local. And the rhetorical flourishes and, let’s say, somewhat superior attitude of YIMBYs leads too many of them to dismiss out of hand issues that are hugely important to actual local communities. Like access to a supermarket.
Noah Smith sometimes does a good job of resisting the tendency Alexander describes and sometimes… less. Here he shows the usual YIMBY addiction to speaking in soaring generalities regarding issues that are resolutely specific:
YIMBYs, on the other hand, recognize that the forces affecting cities change, and urban development has to change with them. Immigrants move in. People and companies move in and move out. Vast economic forces tug at cities, and it’s just not possible to stand athwart urban history yelling “Stop!” No matter how much you try to restrain developers and companies and new arrivals, cities WILL change — they just won’t remain collections of idyllic little Jane Jacobs villages preserved in amber. And its up to us to shape that change into something equitable and inclusive instead of something chaotic and cruel.
Well, look: first, that’s not the kind of rhetoric that you hear a lot of at Community Board meetings in a lot of New York. Instead you often hear condescending platitudes about how those who prohibit unfettered building are the real enemies of the working class. Which, even if true, would not explain the frequently bizarre aggression of on-the-ground critics of local housing protesters here in the city. Besides, the opposing side is not really dedicated pro-development political types but developers and landlords, who as a class are a malign political force. And as I suggested, the level of abstraction that Smith uses here is a big part of the problem: no one is saying they want their neighborhoods to never change. They are saying that they want to have the power to help dictate the change that does happen, in their own homes. For many YIMBYs the ultimate goal is to strip the local populace of all the tools they currently have to help decide a neighborhood’s future. Wouldn’t you get pissed off too?
I’m sorry that I can’t link to more of what I’m talking about, but that’s only because (like my broader experience in housing) I’ve absorbed most of what I’ve learned through the kind of day-to-day interactions that occur at protests and in community gatherings. And like all individual experience, mine is limited and particular. But so much of the insensitivity and self-defeating attitudes I see in local disputes over development are echoed by online YIMBYs, most glaringly on social media.
Here’s what I would ask of the YIMBY community.
Stop picking low-hanging rhetorical fruit. By which I mean, stop constantly framing every conflict in housing as a battle between those dastardly affluent Park Slope liberals trying to preserve their neighborhood’s character vs the benevolent Knights of YIMBY. Very often, YIMBY preferences will conflict with those of local poor communities of color. That doesn’t mean that you should stop advocating for what you think is in the best interest of a given city; we have to be sensitive to the needs of such communities, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t ultimately decide that other needs should prevail if the utilitarian math says they should. My point is simply that politics will always be a conflict between differing perspectives that have legitimate needs and legitimate points of view. Constantly framing everything in these binary terms by insisting that anyone who opposes you is a NIMBY, and defining NIMBY in the most argumentatively convenient terms, distorts the reality of who argues over development and public projects in real urban spaces.
My impression is that this has been getting better in many YIMBY spaces, over time. But it’s going to take a real sea change in the culture to get these people to accept that their self-conception of never opposing the desires of local communities of color is simply wrong. There’s been a lot of this lately - saying that because public hearings are more likely to be attended by older and whiter residents, that represents a distortion of the process. But their assumption is that if more younger people of color showed up to these meetings they would universally support development. That simply is not true, and again the YIMBY addiction to generalizations hurts the conversation. Sometimes your values will conflict with the stated desires of working and middle class people of color. You’ve got to come to terms with that.
Assess prevalence and intensity of preferences, not just you own perception of legitimacy. There is a giant building that is almost certainly going up across the street from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, again in Crown Heights, again opposed by MTOPP. There are all the usual issues with this relating to gentrification. But there’s also been another dimension: shadow studies show that the building would cast large sections of the Garden into darkness for much of the day5. Light is pretty important for a Garden! Both for issues of visitor enjoyment and, well, photosynthesis. But that strikes me as precisely the kind of complaint that YIMBYs would dismiss, probably haughtily. And my position here is that they should spend less time insisting that a given objection is illegitimate on the merits and take objections seriously if they are passionately held by a lot of people.
You don’t think saving the Brooklyn Botanic Garden from shadows counts as a serious objection to new construction, cool, say so. But you actually have to take seriously the fact that a lot of other people disagree with you! The Garden is a beloved community resource. You can’t go around constantly dismissing the arguments of your opponents because you’re so sure that no reasonable person could disagree with your priorities in good faith. We get it: you don’t care about the character of a neighborhood. Fine. With some exceptions, I don’t take neighborhood character very seriously myself. But it matters that many other people do! Even if you think it’s stupid. So stop preempting hard conversations about conflicting viewpoints by insisting that a particular objection doesn’t matter, and start saying “many people passionately believe X, but that’s not constructive because….”
Don’t romanticize developers. It’s inevitable that the interests of YIMBYs and developers will often overlap. But this doesn’t mean that you should adopt a general stance of being friendly to them. There are an enormous number of genuine scumbags in this arena, and here in New York, the real estate lobby is arguably the second most powerful entity in state and local politics, below only the Democratic party. The sins of REBNY, the Real Estate Board of New York, are legion. So make these strategic alliances skeptical ones too please.
Stop being dicks. I understand that there are certain discursive commonalities that crop up in political tendencies that see themselves as insurgent. I also recognize that it’s tempting to see yourself that way when the conditions you dislike are so entrenched and controlled by such a diffuse collections of actors. Because zoning and construction laws are so complicated and overlapping, governed by so many bodies and subject to so many influences, they are notoriously hard to reform. And for a long time YIMBYs were a voice in the political wilderness. So I get being frustrated and I get adopting a communal acerbic tone. But it’s not helping, from my admittedly limited vantage point, and I think it’s time to stop being either class clowns or stridently dismissive crusaders and start seeing yourself as members of communities who, as is inevitable in any community, have disagreements with your neighbors.
(I recognize that I have limited credibility in regards to argumentative tone, myself.)
I’m not myself a YIMBY for a lot of reasons. We’ll never see eye to eye on rent regulation, in particular. And I will no doubt stand and wave a sign and chant against a coming development several times this year, in exactly the way that YIMBYs see as destructive. But despite my criticisms I don’t want YIMBYs to stop YIMBYing. We need them. I just want them to be more thoughtful and constructive, for no reason more than so that they win more often.
Not a bad guy, but if I designed someone in a lab to exemplify how recent transplants frequently show insufficient respect to longtime residents, it would look a lot like him.
Once Citizens Against Anti Asian Violence, CAAAV has now (like KFC) dropped the name but kept the initials, to demonstrate that they’ve broadened their focus.
My neighborhood has been designated a likely gentrification hot spot for a long time, and there’s been development in the west and south, but I think people overstate how much it’s changed, particularly in the quiet corner I live in. In general I think people overestimate the certainty of gentrification and the uniformity with which it arrives; it’s a profoundly contingent and multivariate process.
The basic question local activists asked, “why should a gift of land from the public to developers not result in 100% affordable apartments?,” has never been satisfactorily answered, in part because the people who oppose such activists almost never bother to argue in good faith and let their contempt do their talking.
The developers, of course, have their own shadow studies that show no meaningful shadows on the Garden.