“Not In My Back Yard!”
NIMBY, the acronym for people opposing new development that is too close for comfort, entered popular culture in the early 1980s. Some argue it even dates back to the 1950s.
NIMBYism encompasses opposition to pretty much anything, from landfill sites and prisons to preschools and affordable housing to high rise housing for the rich.
But several decades of slow-growth movements have led to a housing crisis in booming cities such as San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles. Now a counter-force is growing and members are calling themselves YIMBYs, as in “Yes, In My Backyard.”
Their target: restrictive zoning and strong anti-development measures like the pending Measure LV on November’s ballot in Santa Monica, and the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative on the March ballot in Los Angeles.
YIMBYs held their first conference in Boulder, Colorado in June of this year, following the defeat of two slow-growth ballot measures there (including one that would have transferred the city’s zoning authority to 66 different neighborhood-level associations).
Scott Epstein is chair of the Mid-city West Community Council and was among Angelenos who attended the conference. He says YIMBYs are motivated by the fact that “in our high-cost cities, the cost of housing has gotten out of hand. And you can’t fully address that without building new housing that’s both market rate and affordable.”
One of the more flamboyant YIMBYs is Sonja Trauss, a West Oakland-based renter and founder of SF BARF, aka San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation.
A New York Times profile reported that she uses guerrilla tactics “others are too polite to try,” like hiring a lawyer to go around suing suburbs for not building enough, and trying to elect a pro-development candidate to the Sierra Club’s executive committee.
She and her cohort attend planning meetings and land-use commission hearings for proposed developments all over the Bay area that would typically attract only naysayers on the other side. She has learned that it can take just a few engaged people to show up, to move a local elected official one way or the other on a proposed project.
When asked why she fights on behalf of developers who are most likely trying to construct market-rate or luxury housing that she and other renters won’t be able to afford, she responds, “if we don’t build expensive stuff, high-income people move into existing housing. I live in West Oakland, which is the first BART stop in San Francisco. So everybody who works in San Francisco downtown who can’t afford to live in the Mission… where do they start looking? They start looking in West Oakland.”
She also shuns the idea of trying to reason with folks who oppose a development on the grounds of preserving neighborhood character.
“Politics arises out of conflict. At some point you just say, I have different values and priorities than you. I’m going to organize people who agree with me. You organize people that agree with you. And we’re going to have to see what happens at the ballot box,” she said.
Not all YIMBYs are as supportive of any development as Sonja Trauss.
Epstein, who is also community engagement director for the New Urbanism Film Festival, says, “we don’t support every proposed housing project. I think we generally want to create livable communities, and some projects don’t do that. Some projects tear down rent-stabilized housing for people in neighborhoods and replace them with luxury townhouses. Some projects have too big of a footprint and don’t really fit into the neighborhood.”
That sentiment is echoed by Carl Hansen, director of Government Affairs for the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce. He is not a full-fledged YIMBY; rather he calls himself a MIMBY, as in “Maybe in My Back Yard.”
“I don’t want to say yes to everything. I want to see a project. I want to know about it. I want a city council member to do that,” he explains.
“But I think we have to say yes to something. And with many projects I’m definitely YIMBY and I think that’s a good attitude to have. I think NIMBYism is incredibly dangerous because it’s just pushing responsibility outside of your own court, and the consequences of that are really serious.”
Do you consider yourself a NIMBY, a YIMBY or a MIMBY? Let us know.