(Before you start reading, see Betteridge’s law of headlines.)
The other day, someone pointed me towards an article on Truth-out.org with an amazing click-bait title: “YIMBYs: The ‘alt-right’ darlings of the real estate industry“.
For those who are already confused, “YIMBY”, an acronym for “yes-in-my-backyard”, is how some housing advocates describe themselves to indicate that they would like to see more homes built in their cities to make them more affordable for more people. And ‘alt-right’ is a term for far-right ideology, often linked with white nationalism and internet trolling.
The article is basically about a philosophical dispute between different types of affordable housing advocates in the San Francisco Bay Area. As the title suggests, it’s full of ad-hominem attacks and bad arguments. I ordinarily wouldn’t bother to write about this, but I think that it touches on some important principles that are worth exploring.
Here’s the nub of Truthout’s argument:
YIMBYs [Yes in My Back Yard] accuse anti-gentrification activists — those calling for affordable units instead of luxury ones — of preventing the construction of new housing development, thus reducing the new housing supply and driving up rents. But while YIMBYism is championed as progressive urban policy, critics like activist Tory Becker of the anti-gentrification direct action group LAGAI, believe it’s actually rooted in the same classist, racist ideologies it supposedly seeks to disrupt.
If simple supply and demand were a universal solution to rising housing inequality, then building new housing units in cities where the costs of living are high would indeed be a route to cheaper, better housing for all. However, the real world doesn’t work that way, and the YIMBYs’ “build, build, build” platform only stands to benefit a fortunate few.
The reality is that a low-income family of color who has lived in an area for years does not have the economic or cultural capital of the tech-moneyed arrivals who’ve got the local police station saved in their frequent contacts list.
That paragraph in bold would be convincing if it were backed up by any data. But it’s not. In the actual real world, as opposed to the fantasy version of the real world constructed by Truthout, we can point to many examples of places that have prevented price rises, or even brought prices down, by building more homes.
You can see it in Seattle, where doubling the pace of apartment construction is expected to halve the rate of rent increases:
The apartment boom in Seattle has already reached historic heights — more units opened in each of the past four years than ever before.
Now, the real boom is about to begin.
Seattle is set to see almost 10,000 new market-rate apartments open in 2017, nearly twice as many as in any other year in the city’s history.
With the construction surge set to continue through the rest of the decade, rent increases that have hit Seattle about as hard as any city in the country are forecast to be cut in half during 2017.
You can see it in Christchurch, where rents have actually been dropping over the last year due to a glut of properties, offsetting some (but not all) of the shortage-driven price increases after the earthquakes:
Christchurch landlords are being encouraged to lower rents and offer incentives to secure tenants as properties sit empty for up to a month.
The city is facing an oversupply of rentals as earthquake-damaged houses are repaired, new houses are built, and more as-is, where-is properties are listed as rentals.
Ray White Shelleys Property Management director Shelley Scott said she had to teach several property owners about realistic weekly rents over the last year.
“In some cases I have had to reduce a couple of my furnished ones by $100 a week, which is quite a lot.”
You can even see it in San Francisco, where recent increases in the pace of apartment construction have taken the heat of rents:
For years, the Bay Area’s mismatch between supply and demand in housing has been an increasingly challenging problem – leading to record-high rents and sale prices as well as an exodus of people unable to afford living in the area. But as thousands of new units come online in 2017, the dynamics of the region’s housing market may be shifting slightly.
Currently, San Francisco is experiencing the biggest apartment building boom in more than 75 years. Thousands of new apartments and condos are coming online in the Bay Area in 2017.
Specifically, he’s seen a 5 to 10 percent drop since the peak of the market in 2015.
“How much further they’ll fall, I don’t know,” Carlisle says. “But I’ve heard from rental agents that in the past few years through 2015, people were lined up waving cash in the air to get apartments. But now we’re seeing some apartments stay vacant for months.”
So there is some pretty good evidence that building more can improve affordability, or at least prevent it from getting worse. And, as Truthout inadvertently points out, if it gets worse it won’t be high-income people who drop off the bottom rung of the housing ladder: it will be low-income people without the means to afford higher rents for the insufficient supply.
However, it is true that in the context of a city that is largely built out, like San Francisco and the East Bay, building more homes means disruption to the existing built fabric. Sometimes, this will mean that people experience nuisances from construction in their neighbourhood. It may mean increased occupancy of on-street parking, which is inexplicably painful to some people. It may mean that some long-term tenants are evicted.
Truthout appeals to the negative consequences of eviction and neighbourhood disruption as a reason to disbelieve the fact that building more homes improves affordability:
When Truthout asked for evidence that the YIMBY trickle-down model would benefit people who aren’t making tech salaries, Foote Clark was quick to send a dozen papers that claim to show how neoliberal deregulation will end the housing crisis, and that rich NIMBYs are the main benefactors of further regulation.
But tell that to people like Iris Canada, the 100-year-old Black woman who had used local regulations to stay in her home of six decades, only to be evicted in February. “This eviction killed her,” Iris’s niece, also named Iris, said at a March 29 vigil for her aunt, who died from a stroke just a month after her eviction.
However, these stories can coexist in the same factual universe. Evictions are undoubtedly tragic for the people being evicted… but in the aggregate, ongoing redevelopment, some of which may entail displacement, will be beneficial for many more people. If San Francisco had built more homes in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and 2000s, Iris Canada would have had other places to live.
Finally, Truthout ultimately offers no solutions to the housing affordability crisis, except to disregard the YIMBYs and listen to the people who’ve been fighting evictions (and development) for decades:
YIMBYs brand the activists continuing the tenant’s rights legacy as “NIMBYs” who are aligning themselves with wealthy homeowners. However, activists like Becker and McElroy, who have been in the game for much longer than Trauss and company, foresee a new wave of redevelopment like that of the 1960s and 1970s, when “urban renewal” made a few people rich, while leaving large swathes of city dwellers homeless or forced to migrate out of the areas where their families had lived for generations.
At risk of being impolite, I have to point out that “activists like Becker and McElroy” have failed. Their decades-long struggle, which has had many tactical and strategic successes, has culminated in systematically unaffordable housing and the potential for more displacement across the entire the Bay Area. Their methods and philosophies, which undoubtedly have noble underpinnings, have come to naught. The YIMBYs may not be right about everything (who is?) but at least they are offering new solutions, which we urgently need.