Yimby Conversation Gaining Momentum

The yimby acronym stands for "Yes, In My Backyard." Usually it's written in all capital letters. Obviously this makes no sense at all unless you have been following its opposite, the NIMBY trend (Not In My Back Yard) that has become so marked in conversations about LULUs (locally undesirable land uses) around the U.S.  OK, we promise not to introduce any more of the silly acronyms now in use.

We would be the first to say that some neighbor outcries against landfills, nightclubs, poorly designed housing developments, big box stores, fast food drive-throughs, or asphalt plants are well justified, even though proponents of the project would call their opposition NIMBYs (what the people involved are called).

Unfortunately in many places, a NIMBY reaction has extended to anything that would increase housing density, which means number of housing units per acre, and housing affordability.  Single-family homeowners routinely oppose construction of apartments and condominiums, or even two-family dwellings, nearby.



Sometimes the opposition is more subtle, such as when neighbors come out in force to oppose a housing development for vague reasons that all translate to opposition to a lower income group occupying the same neighborhood.

The budding YIMBY movement, if we could call it that, may embrace a wide array of land uses that the YIMBYs would like to support in their neighborhoods. 

Certainly there is no cohesive definition as yet as to what YIMBY really means. We will zero in one topic discussed among the groups in vanguard cities for progressivism that self-style as YIMBY groups.  Our purpose here is not to track the entire trend, but rather to use the concept as a lever for talking about something that really needs to happen quickly in the U.S. if we are to do our part toward alleviating the impacts of climate change. 

That something is an increase in housing density in strategic urban core or transit-adjacent locations.

The photo we chose shows judicious use of densification (a jargon term you will encounter) in the form of building higher-rise housing on a major street where low-rise buildings have predominated up until now. Given proximity to a fixed transit station, many shopping and entertainment options, and a reasonable street grid for driving, the addition of this building to the housing stock might result in lower rents in the immediate area in the long run, depending on where demand and supply meet.

But there are other advantages, as we will see.


Advantages and Disadvantages of Urban Densification

On the advantages side, we see several:

  • Potential for an inclusive approach to producing affordable housing. Lower-priced, smaller, or less deluxe units can be tucked into a project when motivation or governmental requirements produce this result. The YIMBY crowd could be vocal in their support for inclusion of such provisions in development agreements. The social advantages of mixed-income housing are compelling.
  • A larger market for commerce and entertainment, which will increase the variety of consumer choices and employment opportunities over the course of a few years and tend to cause existing businesses to refresh their offerings and reinvest in their properties
  • Increased social capital in the form of more opportunities to interact with other people's networks, bringing the potential for better business and employment networking and better understanding of people and groups different from oneself
  • Lower demand for expensive road and utility networks on the periphery of the metropolitan area, and therefore reduced costs of sprawl. Those who would like less government should take serious note of these costs and join in the YIMBY cause for that reason alone.

That list may be short, but it is mighty.

Our photo example case leads us to note three possible negative effects of densification:

  • Adding density in and of itself is not guaranteed to increase the supply of affordable housing, as proponents sometimes imply. Yes, an apartment unit here may be less expensive than a single-family home several blocks away, but new buildings tend to be constructed offering the latest trends in decor and amenities. The amenity package and granite countertops may result in higher net rents in the area in the short run.
  • Logically extending this idea, we see that gentrification might be a real threat in this approach. (Gentrification means the displacement of relatively lower-income current residents by higher-income people moving in.) While many municipalities would be well served to replace a tired strip center with a high-rise residential building, where the market would allow, the people who move in might well be higher-income folks from elsewhere.
  • Lastly we cannot overestimate the potential for damage to the urban design of the entire vicinity. Our photo shows as building that is considerably taller than any building nearby. If this building merely sets the pace for other high-rise construction in an area in the urban core, the additional height will work out fine and nicely complement the YIMBY narrative that welcomes greater population in a specific area. However, if these developers have over-estimated the market, and their building is the only one constructed at this height, over time this building could become a counterproductive white elephant if it is not updated regularly to fit market preferences.



Looking at the Future of the Yimby Trend

If you want to keep track of who is championing the "yes in my back yard" notion, please take a look at the yimbytown website.  On that site you will also grasp many other aspects of this trend that we have not described on this page. Watch for their 2018 YIMBYtown conference.

In fact the wide range of issues covered under this loose idea could be its doom.

But on the other hand, natural allies for the housing densification we have discussed include people and organizations in the smart growth movement, some urban planners, sprawl activists, and low-income housing and other social equity proponents. However, the concept is attractive to some conservatives also, who correctly understand that more compact development and living patterns will result in lower public infrastructure costs for both construction and maintenance.

The headwinds are strong also.  They include unspoken but very real prejudices against people who are "other," and in the U.S. at least, the fierce determination to own a large private lot.  The coalition of progressives and conservatives that we have hinted at obviously would not occur without some serious conversations about working together to increase housing density, agreeing to put aside other policy disagreements and style differences. But with persistence, people of good will could create such a coalition.


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