O C F I T B L O G Legal Cross-Ideological YIMBY Coalition Defies Increasing Polarization—So Far

Cross-Ideological YIMBY Coalition Defies Increasing Polarization—So Far

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The New York Times and Atlantic writer Jerusalem Demsas both recently published articles on how the YIMBY (“Yes in my backyard) movement has cut across ideological and partisan lines in an era where such divisions have engulfed most other policy issues. The Times headline calls it “The Surprising Left-Right Alliance That Wants More Apartments in Suburbs”:

For years, the Yimbytown conference was an ideologically safe space where liberal young professionals could talk to other liberal young professionals about the particular problems of cities with a lot of liberal young professionals: not enough bike lanes and transit, too many restrictive zoning laws….

But the vibes and crowd were surprisingly different at this year’s meeting, which was held at the University of Texas at Austin in February. In addition to vegan lunches and name tags with preferred pronouns, the conference included — even celebrated — a group that had until recently been unwelcome: red-state Republicans.

The first day featured a speech on changing zoning laws by Greg Gianforte, the Republican governor of Montana, who last year signed a housing package that YIMBYs now refer to as “the Montana Miracle….”

Day 2 kicked off with a panel on solutions to Texas’s rising housing costs. One of the speakers was a Republican legislator in Texas who, in addition to being an advocate for loosening land-use regulations, has pushed for a near-total ban on abortions.

Anyone who missed these discussions might have instead gone to the panel on bipartisanship where Republican housing reformers from Arizona and Montana talked with a Democratic state senator from Vermont. Or noticed the list of sponsors that, in addition to foundations like Open Philanthropy and Arnold Ventures, included conservative and libertarian organizations like the Mercatus Center, the American Enterprise Institute and the Pacific Legal Foundation.

Demsas makes similar points:

Over the past four years, as the affordability crisis has worsened, the YIMBYs have gained ground. In conservative Montana, an anti-California message spurred lawmakers into passing pro-development bills; in Washington State, ambitious proposals were passed in the name of affordability and racial equity. But members face pressure on both sides to abandon ship. How long can they hold on?

One reason the YIMBY movement has remained bipartisan is that it’s decentralized. But the gang gets together periodically for a national conference amusingly called “YIMBYtown”—the rare place where you might find socialists, centrist economists, and Trump-supporting elected officials all in the same room, working toward the same goal.

I have been writing about cross-ideological agreement on this issue for years. Housing deregulation is a cause that unites a wide range of economists and land-use experts across the political spectrum. Thus, I—a libertarian property rights scholar—end up in the same boat with liberals like Richard Kahlenberg and Paul Krugman, and conservatives at the National Review.

Prominent political advocates of zoning reform include Virginia Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin and Colorado Democratic Governor Jared Polis. Gov. Polis captured the broad appeal of housing deregulation well, when he said recently that “[i]t’s a solution to housing costs that embraces our individual property rights….  The fact that it’s meeting a real need that people from the left to right, the center, no matter where they are politically, want to do something about high housing costs is really what makes it even more salient.”

In a forthcoming Texas Law Review article, Josh Braver and I explain why the constitutional case against exclusionary zoning can also cut across ideological lines. I’m a libertarian originalist; Braver is a progressive living constitutionalist. But we both agree that exclusionary zoning violates the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Of course,  the opposing side in this debate—the NIMBY (“Not in My Backyard”) forces—also cuts across ideological lines. It includes left-wingers suspicious of capitalism and development, and right-wingers—including Donald Trump—who play on fears that deregulation will lead more poor people and minorities to move to white suburban neighborhoods. There are also many NIMBYs who believe—contrary to basic economics—that allowing developers build more housing will actually drive up costs rather than increase them. Others who fear that it will reduce property values and change the “character” of their neighborhoods. For some progressive homeowners in the latter camp, narrow self-interest trumps ideology. In reality, many existing homeowners have much to gain from housing deregulation, especially if they have children. But many either don’t know that, are highly risk-averse, or both.

If I had to speculate on what really unites YIMBYs across the political spectrum, and divides them from their opponents, I would suggest that one big factor is that YIMBYs generally understand Economics 101 and apply it to housing issues. They know that increasing supply by allowing more construction reduces costs, and thereby also increases the availability of homes—especially to the poor and disadvantaged. NIMBYs, by contrast, tend to ignore or deny this.

More generally, YIMBYs are less likely than NIMBYs to see the economy as a zero-sum game where some people can only gain at the expense of others. Thus, they recognize that letting developers build more housing and letting more people “move to opportunity” benefits not only the developers and migrants themselves, but also the rest of society, which has much to gain from the resulting boost to productivity and innovation. Zero-sum thinking is at the root of many political divides, and likely plays a significant role here, as well.

I don’t claim zero-sum thinking and economic ignorance are the only factors at work. As I’ve emphasized before, you can be a highly knowledgeable, logically consistent NIMBY if you are highly risk-averse and elevate preservation of the current “character” of your neighborhood over such concerns as protecting property rights, creating opportunity for the poor, and increasing growth and innovation. But NIMBYism would be a far less powerful political force if it were limited to people who think that way.

You can also reach NIMBY conclusions if you endorse complex “market failure” theories, which essentially hold that Econ 101 doesn’t apply to housing. But then you would need to confront overwhelming evidence indicating that areas with little or no zoning (most notably Houston) have far more affordable housing, even in periods when demand goes up, because many people want to move there. Although we don’t have systematic data on this point, I suspect that only a small fraction of NIMBYs have actually carefully considered complex market failure theories.

For the moment, YIMBYism remains a valuable cross-ideological coalition, one that has managed to score some important successes, despite also suffering some setbacks. Whether it can continue to defy the forces of polarization remains to be seen.


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