One YIMBY asked whether an empty lot was the place where a NIMBY obstructionist had lost their virginity. Another designed a meme that showed a stick figure wearing a “NIMBY” mask that, when lifted, revealed another mask featuring the words “Fuck the poor.” And they tore into the zucchini lady, a Berkeley, California, homeowner who went to a city council meeting, armed with a zucchini from her garden, and angrily explained that this particular vegetable would never have existed if zoning had not protected her yard from shadows cast by a multistory building next door. But between the zucchini and the housing-insecure millennial living paycheck to paycheck, whose future matters more?
The YIMBY activist sensibility is grounded in instantaneous communications, online anonymity, urban style, and justifiable anger. A generation of adults under the age of 40 feels shut out of the market for affordable housing in prosperous cities, so they are fighting back by using words and images that resonate with many others in the same age cohort. They share a scorn for older adults, mostly of their parents’ or grandparents’ boomer generation, who profess progressive values and embrace hippie iconography but monopolize control over scarce urban real estate. And YIMBYs have done their homework, for almost 30 percent of the ones that Holleran interviewed had studied urban policy in school. They range from socialists to libertarians, but liberal activists make up the group’s core.
Like the very earliest liberals, they fight an entrenched landed elite with “a privilege of a medieval character.” Indeed, this is how Justice John Paul Stevens described California’s property owners, “the Squires,” in a 1992 dissent he wrote against the constitutionality of 1978’s Proposition 13, which limited property tax collection or liability based on the owner’s seniority. Such concern also aligns with data from economic history: Thomas Piketty warned that any semblance of a meritocracy would break down when rates of return on heritable capital surpass income from work itself.
Holleran’s case studies of San Francisco; Boulder, Colorado; Austin, Texas; and global participants in Australia and the United Kingdom neither confirm nor deny the real estate trends that are animating YIMBYism. The heart of the book is the movement’s dialogue, which opponents often characterize as being the puppetry of entrenched interests — so-called astroturfing. But no one is quite so critical as other YIMBYs within the movement who bitterly attack their own allies.
I have done considerable research and policy writing on public housing, housing vouchers, and rent stabilization, so I was eager to learn more about a YIMBY subgroup, the self-described PHIMBYs — short for “Public Housing in My Back Yard.” People have advocated for the construction of scattered public housing units in United States suburbs since Richard Nixon’s Housing and Urban Development secretary George W. Romney started his short-lived Open Communities initiative. Had Holleran not tunneled so thoroughly into case studies of specific cities, he might have expanded on this topic. Since the book is heavily grounded in interviews (65 of them) and internet posts (over 2,000 of them), readers are left assuming that PHIMBYism amounts to little more than an occasional talking point at the movement’s fringe. That might, in fact, be all there is to it.
Yes to the City, at a rather brief 172 pages of body text, misses other opportunities as well. In covering the abolition of single-family residential zoning in California, Holleran neglects the legislative drive for statewide rent stabilization, which some YIMBYs decry as a disincentive for profit-seeking developers to build more housing. Instead of exploring this schism, Holleran simply casts stabilized-rent tenants against market-rate tenants within a “three-caste social system,” where there are “older homeowners who live in rent-stabilized apartments or, more likely, homes that had been affordable but now are worth millions.” This simplification grossly distorts the picture and obscures the great class divide between property owners and beneficiaries of rent control.
Holleran also dismisses activism outside blue-chip Birkenstock cities, and writes off widespread works of New Urbanist design as “a kind of on-paper architecture that was ignored by real estate developers who were busy quickly erecting identical single-family homes on greenfield exurban sites far from stores and mass transit.” This might have been true in San Francisco, Boulder, or Austin, but by the turn of the millennium, developers had long been putting these principles into practice in Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and Southern California’s own Playa Vista. This divergence between progressive cities where YIMBYism is a robust movement and more conservative ones where YIMBYs have no niche to fill is telling. The author confesses that the thinking undergirding YIMBYism is that of neoliberal economics’s “supply-side believers.” They believe tomorrow’s new luxury condos will turn today’s middle-class housing into tomorrow’s affordable housing through a process that developer-patronized experts have labeled “filtering.”
Maybe I would have taken filtering more seriously had there been any maps or photographs proving this process regularly happens. For all the power that this book assigns to gut-punch online visual discourse, I was surprised to find Yes to the City features no images whatsoever. Are there copyright issues that prevent fair use of the memes that the author instead rehashed with mere words? Or was this oversight akin to the author’s failure to include maps of Boulder’s greenbelt or the distribution of Austin’s million-dollar neighborhoods? These omissions alone are grounds for anyone with training in urbanism, spatial analysis, or visual culture to skip Yes to the City.
I predict that some readers will get more out of subscribing to any one of the #YIMBY Facebook groups, which is where these wonk-populist debates about land use and zoning are continuing to rage and to evolve in real time. That is also where scholars will see why books are so rarely up to the challenge of covering contemporary online social movements. As a dimension to histories that have already happened, hashtagging and flame wars are ripe for analysis within a bounded period, e.g., the first five years of YIMBYism. Otherwise, the tone and content of online discourse tends to transform too swiftly for print publishers to have kept pace. Publishers can better serve readers who are curious about such an ongoing movement by taking the same resources that would go into a Yes to the City and devoting them to moderating and publicizing a sponsored social media page where the author could invite interested parties for collaborative meta-commentary on a topic like YIMBYism. Max Holleran would be perfect for this assignment.
Peter Sebastian Chesney is a freelance historian working gigs in Silicon Valley.