The Obama Administration published a report this week that barely registered in the mainstream news but produced a thunderous crash on the urban planning internet (which is real, I promise). Titled the “Housing Development Toolkit,” Obama’s paper railed against laws and attitudes that restrict the development of housing in cities.
A president weighing in on local land use policy is historically unprecedented. Conversations surrounding where and what type of housing can be built are famously left to municipalities; even statewide intervention, like what happened recently in California, often fails in the face of intense local opposition.
Though the arguments Obama’s paper made weren’t particularly original, federal acknowledgment of a critical catalyst of income inequality in the United States was seen as a landmark step.
Pro-housing development activists cheered on Twitter:
In Slate, policy writer Henry Grabar wrote a piece titled, “The Obama Administration Is Finally Targeting the NIMBY Nonsense That’s Made Cities Unaffordable.”
For those who aren’t following the affordable housing conversation, that acronym might look unfamiliar. Indeed, one of the primary reasons the housing affordability conversation remains on the relative fringe of politics is because of the endless acronyms.
Here's your guide to understanding this crucial discussion.
So what does NIMBY mean?
NIMBY stands for “not in my backyard.” The term, in the broadest sense, refers to liberal residents of cities who, in principle, support increasing the supply of housing—just not in their neighborhood.
Is increasing the supply of housing really the best way to make housing affordable?
Yes. From Andrew Price of the Small Towns nonprofit:
When there is demand to live in an area, the market should naturally respond by increasing the supply of housing. Unfortunately, we restrict this, which drives up prices, and then we try to correct a problem that should have never existed with price controls—which hurts landlords, results in rationing, and drives up the price of the remaining supply of market value housing.
In the Los Angeles Times, economist Christopher Thornberg put it in even simpler terms: “You don’t need a PhD in economics to understand this," referring to a report he wrote on California housing prices. "It’s basic supply and demand.”
This is, in effect, the White House's argument as well.
“When unnecessary barriers restrict the supply of housing and costs increase, then workers, particularly lower-income workers who would benefit the most, are less able to move to high-productivity cities,” Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, told Politico. “All told, this means slower economic growth.”
If increasing the supply of housing is the best (or only) way to make housing affordable, then why wouldn’t NIMBYs support that policy?
NIMBYs are often homeowners whose net worth is wrapped up in the value of their homes. Even someone with a rudimentary understanding of real estate (or even HGTV) knows that if demand for housing is high, then the value of homes remains high as well. (The value the United States places on homeownership is a larger, more complicated conversation.) Understandably, homeowners are keen to keep the value of their homes high, but the cost of these tactics is severe.
There are other concerns, like maintaining the character of their neighborhoods, and the perception that building hurts the environment, but homeownership and home values are the main driver in the NIMBY phenomenon, a concept that's been around perhaps as long as the 1950s, but has turned especially ugly in recent years as Silicon Valley has skyrocketed companies to billion-dollar valuations and inflated the salaries of the people who work there.
Why does it matter?
In the San Francisco Bay Area, only one unit of housing is being built for every eight jobs that are created. As demand rises and supply tightens, only the richest can afford to live and work in these so-called areas of opportunity.
In the Bay Area, this disparity is (almost) comical: teachers in San Francisco commute for hours to work; the cheapest houses in Palo Alto eclipse $1 million; planning commissioners are moving because they can no longer afford the area.
As more and more capital flows into urban centers, it’s imperative that housing remains affordable. It ensures the United States doesn’t turn into a country where half the residents live in thriving metropolises, and the other half lives in rural squalor.
This sounds like a California problem—why is this an issue I should care about?
As Obama (and many others) accurately observe, this is an issue disproportionately affecting communities of color.
“When new housing development is limited region-wide, and particularly precluded in neighborhoods with political capital to implement even stricter local barriers, the new housing that does get built tends to be disproportionately concentrated in low-income communities of color, causing displacement and concerns of gentrification in those neighborhoods,” Obama wrote.
In other words, NIMBYism ends up hurting the communities that lack the financial muscle to keep development out of their neighborhoods. Oftentimes, this happens in historically black communities—just look to West Oakland, which is rapidly becoming unrecognizable as a disproportionate amount of development occurs in that specific area.
By putting up such a huge (and successful) fight against housing development in their neighborhoods, NIMBYs effectively force poorer (read: minority) communities to bear the brunt of construction of new homes, exacerbating the supply and demand issue. Because even with new homes and apartments being developed in these communities, it’s not the people living there occupying these units—it’s affluent white people snatching up all the relatively cheap inventory.
This isn’t just an issue of income inequality, it’s an issue of racial inequality, and housing affordability is at the root of it.
And it's not just happening in California: Just this week, there were protests in Nashville, op-eds in Pittsburgh newspapers, and even demonstrations in Springfield, Massachusetts, over the lack of affordable housing. The White House is arguing that restrictive zoning policies and unnecessary red tape only make these issues worse.
This is not just a California issue—this is an issue plaguing American cities, both a symptom and a cause of the growing inequality between the wealthy and the working class.
What do we do about it?
Well, let’s look at what Obama proposed. It’s a long paper, and you can read the whole thing here, but the main takeaway is that Obama wants to make it easier for developers to build housing. He blames local restrictions for suppressing housing growth, and proposes a collection of local and state policies to remedy the issue.
The first of Obama’s suggestions is taken directly from recent news headlines: “Establish by-right development.” By-right development, which seeks to remove some red tape for developers looking to build housing units, was recently floated by California governor Jerry Brown. It was shot down in committee; assembly members told housing activists that they supported the bill in theory, but too many of their constituents were against it for them to vote for it with a clear conscience.
And here lies the crux of the issue: everybody wants, in theory, for anyone to be able to afford to live in cities, where there are just more opportunities (for jobs, for culture, for quality of life). At a purely patriotic level, shutting people out of the chance to live in cities goes against every notion of the so-called American Dream, that promise that anyone from anywhere can rise from nothing to something. Not enough NIMBYs, however, likes this idea enough to sacrifice a little bit of their own wealth or comfort.
This is a conversation that needs to be had. NIMBYs are currently leveraging their impassioned advantage to great success—just look at Brisbane, a city just south of San Francisco, which just shot down using any of a proposed 4,434- unit development for housing.
On Monday, though, Obama just lent the YIMBYs—activists who say "yes, in my backyard"— a powerful ally.
“In more and more regions across the country, local and neighborhood leaders have said yes, in our backyard, we need to break down the rules that stand in the way of building new housing—because we want new development to replace vacant lots and rundown zombie properties, we want our children to be able to afford their first home, we want hardworking families to be able to take the next job on their ladder of opportunity, and we want our community to be part of the solution in reducing income inequality and growing the economy nationwide,” he writes.
The progressive narrative now considers income inequality one of its primary causes. Income inequality is the issue facing the United States right now; the presidential debate Monday night even led off with the question of how best to address issues of income inequality in this country.
What the Obama Administration’s paper makes clear is that if you’re a true progressive—a believer in progress, a believer in equality—you ought to make housing affordability, and YIMBYism, part of your agenda.
Michael Rosen is a reporter for Fusion based out of Oakland.