The Rise of the WIMBYs

By Jean Simonian

The so-called Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) movement casts increased housing density and the elimination of single family zoning in up-beat, buzzy terms like “saving the planet,” creating a world of “social equity,” and “affordable housing” for all. YIMBY, of course, is a wry twist on Not in My Backyard (NIMBY), a dismissive term for people the YIMBYs view as obstructing progressive housing reforms.

But the YIMBY moniker is gradually being replaced by the LA journalist Jill Stewart and former LA County Supervisor and City Councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky.

They coined WIMBYWall Street in My Backyard — in recognition of the source of both the YIMBY movement’s funding and ideas: A conglomeration of tech executives, investment bankers, Chambers of Commerce, the realty and building industries, economic development lobbyists and the politicians they woo. These are the stalwarts of the Urban Growth Machine, a term popularized by University of California Santa Barbara sociologist Harvey Molotch.

Understanding why the new moniker is more representative of the movement’s intentions requires a look back into the history of urban development — even as it applies to sleepy little Bloomington.

Post-War Urban Transformation

After World War II, federal partnerships and their all-important funding captured the post-war optimism of the era, when peace and prosperity reigned, and thus set out to reshape the 19th Century urban landscape. Cities harnessed the power of “free” public sector money and the expertise it conferred on urban planning and redevelopment, and took advantage of tools like zoning and eminent domain (the right of city officials to seize and reshape land in the interest of the “public good”). Cities were transformed with a new vision of life that was modern, futuristic and egalitarian.

This vision gave birth to the Urban Growth Machine, an alliance between federal, state and municipal government entities, major universities, civic organizations, leaders of commerce, social, scientific and philanthropic groups, and leadership institutions of public influence (including, in many areas, the churches).

Across the nation we saw huge advances in industry, in the construction of hospitals, high-rise apartments, low-income housing, and schools. The federal highway system ushered in our national obsession with automobiles and the services to support them: Gas stations, motels, highway restaurants, tourism. Meanwhile, we saw the growth and romanticizing of suburbia, with its acres of homes, yards and picket fences.

At the same time, we saw a wealth gap widen; inner-city communities broken, their residents displaced; concentrations of poverty; racial lines drawn and perpetuated by design and economics; and new bases of political power. The Urban Growth Machine was responsible for both the benefits and the problematic consequences of development.

Urban Renewal Averted

During this period in Bloomington, the city’s Near West Side first became a target for “Urban Renewal.” It embodied all the drivers for redevelopment: Its housing was old, its poverty rate was high, it included a substantial community of color (often viewed as fair game for displacement by development), and its location was close to downtown retail and service businesses, industry, government and the university – themselves the partners of the Urban Growth Machine.

The term “Urban Renewal” conjures up images of failed 1960s public housing experiments in the big cities. Were it not for local activism led by the area’s African American community, who fought for resident self-determination and the preservation of neighborhoods, there would be no trace of the Near West Side as we know it today.

By the early 1970s, cultural attitudes shifted into alignment closer to the foresight shown by local leaders like Elizabeth Bridgwaters and Ronnie Bland. Residents’ and tenants’ rights won out; neighborhood integrity was a front-page issue. Bloomington backed off its redevelopment plan, and its administration switched from Republican to Democratic.

As support from the federal government ebbed in the 1970s, it created a vacuum filled by private funding sources from the business/real estate investor community. Community Block Grants largely gave way to private investment vehicles which favored development in economically stressed areas in exchange for tax breaks: Enterprise Zones, to be followed by Empowerment Zones, and eventually Opportunity Zones flourished.

The first Enterprise Zone was the creation of Republican Rep. Jack Kemp and was a classic example of supply-side, trickle-down economics. The neoliberal Reagan administration ushered in Empowerment Zones, allowing the private sector enhanced access to distressed economic areas in exchange for the promise of increased jobs and prosperity. But they rarely produced the promised results. The percentage of Americans living in poverty remained unaffected. Despite attempts under Democratic administrations to tinker with these Zone policies, extreme poverty, defined as <50% of the federal poverty level, grew.

A Neoliberal Playbook

Today’s neoliberal initiative is Opportunity Zones. Thanks to the Trump Administration’s 2017 Tax Bill, real estate investors now benefit from an additional 20% tax credit on investment. That incentive increases the odds of displacement of both homeowners and renters as their modest housing is cleared to make way for “economically enhanced” redevelopment, in the form of market rate housing. Such profit enhancement also incentivizes The Urban Growth Machine to seek to increase property values in order to maximize profit.

The frequent WIMBY rationalizations of “supply and demand” and “filtering” flow straight from the neoliberal playbook of Ronald Reagan: The benefits of “supply side” economics will be a “tide to lift all boats” and the benefits will “trickle down” to those lower on the ladder. Except they don’t.

So what stands in the way of this beast? Single Family Zoning.

Single family zoning protects residential neighborhoods from speculation and enables residents to own property and to accumulate modest wealth through appreciation over time. That’s why it was instituted in Bloomington in the 1990s by Democratic Mayor Tomi Allison. Such zoning, had it existed in the 1960s, would have saved Elizabeth Bridgwaters a great deal of struggle. As it is, it protects the legacy of her efforts.

The rise of the tech sector in Silicon Valley coincided with the rise in Reagan’s free market economics. As the tech sector experienced phenomenal growth in capital, nearly-overnight billionaires looked to deploy that capital and found the real estate industry a willing partner. Thus, by 2014, the tech industry became the first — and biggest — corporate backer of the YIMBY movement, catapulting it to national prominence. (See California’s “Yimbys”: The Growth Machine’s Shock Troops, Zelda Bronstein, Dollars & Sense, Sept/Oct 2018.)

The consequences of profit-driven development at all costs —“speculation,” “rent inflation,” “gentrification” and “displacement” — rightfully alarm people. Much better to adopt friendly, trendy terms like “growth,” “added value,” “market enhancement,” “improvement” and “transformation.”

A Co-Opted Generation

Enter the WIMBYs, the foot soldiers of the pro-development, private equity-funded investor movement. The foils in this clever drama are the NIMBYs, a straw man creation of this same Urban Growth Machine, devised to diminish criticism of its agendas, deflecting rational opposing arguments with the broad-brush stereotype of fear of change.

It is the role of the WIMBYs to create a sense of urgency, cast profiteering in a friendly and virtuous light, and draw in those supporters rightfully frustrated by an economy that has both taken advantage of them (through student loan issuance fraud, for example) and put its riches out of their reach.

How best to co-opt this disenchanted generation? By packaging free market development and housing density (density = profit) with the goals of enhanced transit for climate mitigation; by the assumption that unregulated free market development will insure affordability; and by casting all zoning as the tool of redlining and segregation. And so, according to Bronstein, the tenets of the YIMBY movement call for:

  • Focusing on “walkability” and equating density with climate change mitigation (place a premium on transit corridors for site selection and equate density of building form with changes in human behavior);
  • Incentivizing the free market to build as much as it wants, wherever it wants (whole-hearted adoption of supply-side economics); and
  • Eliminating “exclusionary zoning,” stereotyped as perpetuating racial/social inequities.

Sound familiar? These talking points have been repeated ad nauseam in debate on Bloomington’s housing challenges since early 2019.

Bloomington Truisms

We are told repeatedly that we must focus development in core neighborhoods because they are “walkable” and close to “amenities.” We are told that areas for upzoning were chosen “mathematically” by lot size – the largest forms to be placed upon the smallest lots to achieve maximum density. (Note that the smallest lots tend to be less costly and, when used for the largest building forms, yield the greatest profit.) Never mind that the use of a lot-size “zoning formula” is unheard of in planning circles beyond Bloomington.

We are told that if neighborhoods are walkable, people will stop driving. Would that it were so simple. Would there be need for a neighborhood parking permit program if residents had no need of cars? If we really want people to walk to work, then why is there no proposal to build housing near other nodes of employment outside of Bloomington’s downtown?

We are told that transit is less damaging to the climate where neighborhoods are most dense. Certainly, buses would operate more cost-effectively — potentially more riders over shorter routes. But a full fleet of electric buses is in our future, which would make distance travelled largely a moot point.

We are told we have a housing crisis. Without transparent access to accurate vacancy data, that is conveniently difficult to determine. Copious construction of new rental housing has only increased rents. Yet we are told we “haven’t built enough” to see pricing decrease, and that price increases would have been higher without such growth.

The fact is that nationally, in cities that have upzoned, slight price softening has only been found at the top end of the market: no increased affordability has been found at the lower end of the market—even in cities which have added far more units than Bloomington can ever hope to build.

We are told that single family zoning – indeed, the very act of owning property – is corruptly privileged and racist by design, regardless of the circumstances upon which zoning was instituted. This is the final salvo when all other attempts fail, designed to shut down an argument, however cogent. It’s popular in Bloomington. But it doesn’t hold water.

These are the nationally dictated talking points of the WIMBY. We have heard them before, and will continue to hear them. They are a pale substitute for reasoned argument and evidence, and certainly not a sound basis for policy-making. We can do better, Bloomington.

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