Portland City Council must choose: affordable fourplexes or McMansions

In a little under a week, the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commissions is expected to endorse an ambitious, blazingly progressive Missing Middle housing plan, sending it to the City Council for final approval. Under the new rules, duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, and ADUs – the sorts of smaller homes affordable to the working and middle class – will be legal to build just about anywhere you can erect a single-family detached house.

Five city commissioners will then face a choice: end a century of racist exclusionary zoning and legalize smaller homes working people can afford, or continue Portland’s long saga of exclusion and continue the city’s descent into McMansion Hell.

Since 1924, the most amenity-rich parts of Portland have been walled off to anybody who cannot afford a single-family detached house. Because detached buildings are the most expensive way to house a family, white supremacists connivingly used single-family-only zoning across the country as an ostensibly colorblind way to exclude people of color from their imagined white utopias. Given Portland’s sordid racist history – which arguably peaked right at that time – it’s sadly no surprise that we retain that legacy in our building code today (indeed, Portland leaders liked exclusionary zoning enough in 1959 to expand it to nearly the entire city).

Portland should have tossed exclusionary zoning in the trash heap generations ago, but unfortunately it took a Great Recession followed immediately by a real estate boom, and a sudden surge of white people becoming housing insecure for the political moment to arrive.

When Herbert Hoover’s band of white supremacists dreamed up exclusionary zoning, no way did they envision the policy crippling middle-class white people’s ability to purchase or even rent homes to shelter their families. Yet that moment steamrolled in over the past decade, with a land rush and subsequent bidding war between affluent people nearly doubling the cost of land since 2012.

That bidding war and the landlord greed it engendered led to a wave of massive rent hikes and no-cause evictions throughout the city, reaching every demographic. Leading newspapers ran photos of white children protesting the crisis. Finally, the housing crisis had Portland politicians’ attention.

Better late than never, I suppose. Leaders should have acted long ago but the solution at hand will help working Portlanders across communities, and City Council needs to enact it.

We are talking about legalizing fourplexes today because back during the Hales Administration, a rash of one-to-one demolitions and McMansion constructions caused a collective feeling of whiplash across the city. While the Planning and Sustainability Commission has been crafting this response plan, wildly expensive McMansions have continued to regularly replace older homes.

The choice facing the Portland City Council is between the status quo – a steady spread of luxury McMansions across the city – and a city where newly legalized fourplexes make it possible for middle-and-working-class families to pool their resources to afford coveted land.

The cost of land plays an enormous role in the cost of housing. Take my house. The assessed value of the building itself is less than half of the Zillow estimate for my house’s market value. The value has increased by $150,000 in the roughly four years since I bought it, despite my making no major changes to the property. The dirt has just gotten really expensive. I couldn’t afford my house if I were trying to buy it today.

Legalizing fourplexes empowers Portlanders to split the cost of an expensive parcel four ways. With each taking on ¼ of the cost of the property, the price of a buying or renting a home is smaller for everybody.

Across the country, duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes are the least expensive type of rental home, with 20% cheaper median monthly rent than single-family detached houses.

According to Portland city planners, monthly rent for a new home in missing middle housing would be well under half the cost of renting a new single-family house ($1,823 vs. $4,159). The cost of buying a unit in a fourplex would be $270,375. Compare that to the median Portland home cost of $425,000 today.

Legalizing fourplexes would also give a powerful boost to nonprofit builders like Habitat for Humanity and the Portland Housing Center, which use community land trusts and other innovations to deliver housing justice to Portlanders in frontline communities. The policy going before City Council would allow new nonprofit, below-market duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes to be about one bedroom larger than those built for the private market, thus more able to accommodate larger families and deliver housing stability to the next generation.

Further still, legalizing fourplexes would also lead to a 28% drop in the risk of displacement for low-income renters in the vast majority of Portland – including in nearly every “displacement risk” neighborhood.

By effectively every social and economic justice measure, legalizing fourplexes will help the people of our city. You cannot approach this issue honestly, center the lives of working-class and middle-class people, and oppose legalizing fourplexes. The evidence and history are simply too clear.

The policy will not be magic. While, overall, legalizing fourplexes will decrease the displacement of low-income renters – the current plan may increase it in 3% of Portland census tracts. Any displacement is tough to swallow, even if it would be a marked improvement over the status quo.

Despite its myriad benefits for middle-class and working-class Portlanders, the policy will also not do nearly enough to house the poorest people in our city. It isn’t primarily a low-income housing reform, in the same way protecting Social Security isn’t primarily a way to make childcare affordable for working families. Working-and-middle class families and extremely poor families both need help affording a home in this city. The same policy won’t work for both of them. Which is why Portland should aggressively pursue a cascade of policies to fully fix this crisis.

There is no One Weird Trick to solve the rental housing crisis. Every level of government should use every tool at their disposal. It would be a colossal mistake for Portland City Council to keep fourplexes illegal because they are not a panacea. It would also be a colossal mistake to consider the job done after enacting this plan.

Portland should continue to expand public and other affordable housing at the fastest possible pace. For example, we could follow Austin’s example and legalize up to six units on all lots with no cap on the square footage, if at least half are affordable for owners making under 80% of median family income or renters making under 60%. The City of Portland should also lobby the Oregon Legislature in future years to ratchet down the 7% statewide cap on rent increases to 5%, and to exempt fewer buildings. It should work with other cities to lobby the federal government for a sweeping expansion of funding for new affordable public and nonprofit social housing.

The City should do all of those things, with vigor. But none of those policies is an excuse to perpetuate the rotten status quo of runaway home costs and McMansion infestation.

Legalizing fourplexes will offer middle-class and working-class people real options to for stable, affordable homes and abolish one major vestige of Portland’s white supremacist history. It will not solve the housing crisis on its own. But it will be impossible to solve the housing crisis without it.

[Featured image from http://missingmiddlehousing.com%5D

Stronger Together: The Necessary & Incomplete Platforms of Warring Housing Advocates – Part 2

(This is the second in a two-part series examining how YIMBYs and Leftists each offer necessary but incomplete solutions to the housing crisis, which are symbiotic but often treated as mutually exclusive. Last week, I focused on YIMBY solutions and their shortcomings.)

A little over a week has passed since my last post, where I dug into the policy and political benefits and shortcomings of YIMBY solutions to the housing crisis (some people suggested that YIMBY is a large enough umbrella to render it unfair to the label interchangeably with packing all market urbanists – a fair critique, but for nevertheless I will continue to use it for consistency between the two pieces).

In that time, we got exciting news on the housing politics front, followed by ample examples of the little civil war between housing advocates. After an indefensible period of inaction on housing, federal Democrats – led by Senator Kamala Harris – introduced an ambitious package of reforms targeted at providing relief to cost-burdened renters. Harris’s legislation would provide ample subsidy to renters with incomes under $100,000, to help them afford rent. Immediately, the proposal came under fire from YIMBY-minded public intellectuals, who accurately noted that the legislation would not fully solve our housing crisis. Duh.

This dismissal of Harris-and-company’s new legislation misses the bigger picture. High-profile Democrats are staking out territory on housing, and focusing their attention on immediate, palpable financial relief to cost-burdened renters. That’s huge. The details can be sorted out down the line, but from a political perspective, it’s a net win for people who care about American progress, and for prioritizing housing as an issue.

For understandable reasons (many of which I laid out last week), Leftists are currently winning progressive politician hearts and minds. Democratic gubernatorial candidates and nominees are backing expansions of rent control, while congressional candidates promote huge expansions of public social housing. These positions generally align closely with Leftist priorities.

Leftist housing proposals hold some serious appeal. Protections from eviction and rent controls/stabilization offer immediate relief for suffering tenants. The results are swiftly palpable, felt without any filtering or market adjustments required.  

Massive infusions of affordable housing prove attractive as well, especially in a moment when so many of us are suspicious of capitalism and so resentful of developer profits. Leading Leftist think tanks like the People’s Policy Project have audaciously proposed 10 million new units of publicly owned social housing, including some truly insightful ideas about mixed-income public housing.

While all of these proposals provide genuine promise, each also falls short of solving the problem, or risks cannibalizing other Leftist priorities.

True rent control – capped rents for incumbent tenants – offer real security for their current renters but appear to restrain the building of new homes and drive up rents for everybody else (neighborhood-based rent stabilization seems to work fairly well at helping renters across the board but is less widely used). Banning or limiting rent increases may offer temporary and much-appreciated salve but it cannot solve the housing affordability crisis writ large. Only building more places for people to live can do that.

Given the obvious and inarguable lack of available homes, even the most market-skeptical Leftists admit America needs a huge infusion of housing supply. That (understandable) market skepticism has led Leftists to insist that more-or-less any new housing be publicly owned.

Without question, our nation needs an infusion of public social housing. Myriad low-income Americans simply cannot afford market-rate housing at any imaginable price, and lessons from 20th-century housing projects strongly suggest that social housing should be integrated across socio-economic strata.

Yet meeting America’s housing need with exclusively public dollars presents a potentially insurmountable challenge, especially if we hope to achieve other key socialist priorities.

Let’s look at what it would cost to build 10 million new publicly-owned homes.

Let’s start with the assumption that these homes will be apartments (which are consistently cheaper to build per unit than single-family homes, townhouses, plexes, etc). The average apartment construction cost per unit in the United States is $125 per square foot. Add an additional 10-17% for architect fees (let’s say 14% as a midpoint), and we’re looking at $142.50 per square foot for designing and building the apartment.

None of this prices in land acquisition costs. But let’s set those aside for a moment, and assume that the government already has all the land it needs.

If we assume we are building the average sized American apartment – 889 square feet –  then each apartment costs $126,682.50 to build. Operating an affordable unit costs an additional $4,541 per year on average. At one million new apartments a year, that’s $131,223,500,000 annually (by the time you’ve built 10 million units, the operating costs would grow to $45 billion per year, but let’s keep things simple). That’s roughly the current federal budget for education and veteran services combined, which is not outside the realm of reality, especially when you consider the annual military budget is roughly $600 billion.

So, in a vacuum, we could likely afford to build and operate public social housing at the scale suggested by the People’s Policy Project. But that gets sticky when you factor in other progressive priorities and start staring down tradeoffs.

Let’s say leftist-leaning politicians take power and set about enacting the socialist dream budget – Medicare-for-All, Free Public College, and a Job Guarantee, plus social housing.

Bernie Sanders pegs the price-tag for Medicare-for-All at $1.38 trillion annually (on the low-end of estimates, but I’m inclined to trust Bernie). A Job Guarantee would cost $543 billion per year. Free public college pencils out at roughly $70 billion per annum.

That would be an additional federal expenditure of $2.124 trillion per year – over half of the total federal budget, three times the total military budget, and just about the cost of all nine years of the Iraq War.

$131 billion is a relatively small slice of our socialist dream budget, but that’s also operating at an almost impossibly low cost-per-unit assumption. Actual affordable housing is consistently costing $250k-$500k per unit, which would balloon the annual budgetary impact to $250 billion or $500 billion.

When we’re just speculating about new public programs, it can feel silly to worry about the costs. But as a socialist, I want to win. I want to make these programs real and that requires facing political reality. If we want our dream agenda, we need to figure out how to pay for it all.

Repealing the Trump tax cuts would get us ~$230 billion a year. Ending the military budget (unlikely, but let’s pretend) would net an additional $700 billion annually. That still leaves us over $1 trillion short every year. Eliminating essentially every tax loophole used by the wealthy would raise us ~$270 billion per year. Raising tax rates on the 1% to the current 33% to 45% would net another $276 bill per year. Which means with every tool in the toolbox (including some real long-shots), we’re still coming up hundreds of billions short.

There are some elements of the economy that we’ve seen truly need a universally available public option – education, health care, and a safety net for the chronically poor being the most obvious. There are others where smart regulation can largely do the job. If we want Medicare for All, free public education from kindergarten to grad school, and a job guarantee, housing offers a reasonable place to compromise.

We have consistently seen that building a lot of new homes drives down home prices across the board. We know that is not enough to meet the needs of the 7 million extremely low-income households who cannot find affordable homes, but a new housing boom could free up a million or two affordable units through filtering, and certainly prevent additional units from becoming too pricey.

Plus, exclusionary zoning bans publicly owned apartments just the same as privately owned ones. You must end exclusionary zoning to make any massive expansion of social housing work.

This is where a robust “kitchen sink” combination of housing solutions – from the YIMBY camps, and the Leftist camps, could solve our problem. Building, say, 5 million new deeply affordable units, plus ending exclusionary zoning and legalizing densely nestled housing in communities, plus rent stabilization, plus widespread rental subsidy may actually provide adequate, affordable places for every American to live.

YIMBYs and Leftists often treat one another like rivals, training our attention on one another while landlords and other wealthy property owners reap the profits of our dallying’s delays. If we instead join forces – recognizing that rent stabilization and tenant protections create political space for upzoning’s benefits to take effect; allowing that ending exclusionary zoning makes social housing apartments possible and creates budget space for other leftist priorities; recognizing that we need more affordable homes at all income levels – we can solve this problem and manifest housing as a human right in America.

[Featured image created by Michael T. Sweeney]

Portland’s “in no rush” city government is prolonging our housing crisis.

The many Portlanders struggling to afford homes received a jarring surprise this week when Mayor Ted Wheeler announced that City Council would not vote on the Residential Infill Project until March 2019. “I’m in no rush,” the mayor told the Portland Tribune.

The whiplash is intense, considering Wheeler has stuck to a pretty consistent line from the 2016 Primary to the 2018 State of the City – “we’re going to have to have a lot more density within our neighborhoods.” Yet, with the decision point at hand, we get delay.

While the city may be in no rush, Portlanders who are desperately seeking a home that fits their budget, or dreading their next rent increase, cannot afford another moment of delay.

The fault for Portland’s slow-as-molasses process revisiting exclusionary zoning does not solely lie with Ted Wheeler. In fact, it spans two mayoral administrations, two housing commissioners, two housing bureau directors, and a declaration and extension of a housing state of emergency. But it is the mayor’s responsibility to bring this process to a close, and end exclusionary zoning across the city at long last.

The City of Portland officially confirmed the obvious and declared our current housing state of emergency in October 2015 – itself a dawdling response to the panic around us. Portland’s vacancy rate dipped below a healthy level in 2009 and dropped past the crisis threshold of 3% in 2013. Rents increased by over 60% in the Portland areas (including over 70% in North Portland) between 2006 and 2016. In that time homelessness and no-cause evictions spiked. If the City Council had noticed the growing problem and acted with urgency, we may have avoided the panic that struck renters and the recently evicted across the city.

By the time City Council finally took action, Portland had been seized by crisis.

The City was slow to respond then. Though its willingness to consider curtailing exclusionary zoning shows it has learned something, this needless delay shows it still sorely lacks empathy for people who struggle to make rent and can see no path to buying a home of their own.

In July of 2015, the City recognized that exclusionary zoning – the implicitly racist outright ban on affordable, densely nestled homes like duplexes, triplexes, and fourplexes in neighborhoods – might be a problem. The first stakeholder meetings for the Residential Infill Project were held in September of that year. We have done our due diligence, and then some. All the while, the housing crisis rages on.

Over half of Portland renters are cost-burdened, paying more than 30% of their incomes in rent. Over ⅔ of Black and Latino renters are cost-burdened. That crushing burden traps them in vicious economic cycles. When so much of their paychecks go to rent, they cannot afford so much of what makes our city great. It restricts their access to healthy food. It renders the livability we hold near-and-dear borderline meaningless (what good are great restaurants and bars and healthy food if your budget does not allow it?). It keeps them from building the sort of savings that can build a ladder to a better life. A rent-burdened life is an economic prison. It is the City’s responsibility to do something about that.

Every month nearly 1,000 more people move to Portland. That means every month more people compete for the same paltry number of available homes, allowing landlords to charge soaring rents, and pricing out homeownership for all but the wealthy as average home prices climb above $400,000.

The Mayor expressed a desire to “strike the right balance” for Portland’s residential neighborhoods, which sounds reasonable at first glance. But the Planning and Sustainability Commission’s recommendations are already a compromise between housing advocates and the privileged property owners who command the loudest neighborhood associations. For the city to make further concessions to the proponents of exclusionary zoning would be to give not just half-a-loaf, but barely crumbs to the struggling Portlanders and Portlanders-to-be who need places to live.

All but one member of city council is a secure, longtime homeowner. There is no housing crisis in their own day-to-day lives. Like the incumbent property owners crowing apocalyptic about the evils of triplexes and fourplexes (the horror), they are also secure in their homes, living without fear of losing their shelter.

But for Portlanders in search of stable homes or stuck in a bad situation, exclusionary zoning cannot end soon enough. For the parent who sends their child to a struggling school because they cannot afford a home in a better district, exclusionary zoning needed to end yesterday. For the service worker who stays in a moldy, deteriorating apartment because they seen no affordable options elsewhere, exclusionary zoning is hurting their health today.

Across the country and the world, vulnerable people are looking around their communities, finding them dangerous, and looking for somewhere to flee. If you’re LGBTQ*; if you’re an immigrant; if you’re a woman who wants control over your reproductive decisions, Portland offers some real promise of refuge. But only if there’s a place to live here. Ending exclusionary zoning can make that place.

None of this is hypothetical. None of this is somewhere distant on the horizon. It is happening right now. Every month’s delay means that much longer Portland excludes people from good lives in our city.

We have spent nearly four years bogged in process. It is time for the city to end exclusionary zoning as soon as possible. Not in a year, but now.

Divided We Fall: The Necessary & Incomplete Platforms of Warring Housing Advocates (Part 1)

(This is the first in a two-part series examining how YIMBYs and Leftists each offer necessary but incomplete solutions to the housing crisis, which are symbiotic but often treated as mutually exclusive. This week, I focus on YIMBY solutions and their shortcomings. Next week, I will turn to Leftist policies, and lay out a unified vision for addressing the housing crisis.)

As our crushing housing crisis continues to plague American states and cities, effective policy answers remain stubbornly elusive. Comprehensive national solutions feel impossibly far off, and local measures tend to be either largely symbolic or half-a-loaf. While the original sins that led to today’s skyrocketing rents and rampant displacement were committed by predatory banks and redlining white supremacist policymakers, our present epidemic of stillborn solutions springs mainly from factions of left-leaning housing activists refusing to abandon their purism and join forces.

Successful governance runs through coalition, even when it may not seem like it. Humanity is simply of too many minds to allow a single group of ideologues to rule unilaterally (absent consistent state violence or its constant threat). Most modern democracies run parliamentary systems, governing explicitly through coalitions. When the government leans left in these nations, for instance, it is generally due to Greens joining Socialists joining Communists joining Liberals to cobble together a functional majority.

In the United States, and our constituent states and cities, governing coalitions go incognito, but nonetheless pervade politics. Barack Obama was elected president by suburban and rural economic populists tacitly aligning with urban multiculturalist liberals and civil libertarians. Obamacare passed through the coalition efforts of labor unions and nurses, doctors and hospitals, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and Medicare-for-All advocates like Bernie Sanders. For most of the push for the bill, any of those groups jumping ship would have sunk the effort.

Similar dynamics play out at the state and local level, where interest groups and interested parties weather uncomfortable alliances to pass common priorities, or split apart and scuttle reform. Governors, state representatives, and city councils take office through platforms and promises designed to appeal to a broad array of ideological groups, and the loss of one or two of those groups often means the loss of their office. Thus, the threat of those groups abandoning a politician can scare that politician away from reform. This is how proposals live or die in America. This is the context under which the housing policy debate rages.

Yet the two most prominent blocs of left-leaning housing activists refuse to accept this basic truth. Leftists and YIMBYs, each convinced of their own righteousness, have sunk one another’s efforts, over and over assassinating good policy in the name of their perfect idea. While the two groups together could likely muster the political will to pass sweeping reform in this moment of crisis, as mutual opposition they muster only mutually assured destruction.

This all-or-nothing ideological impasse proves particularly ironic, considering neither group’s platform could adequately solve housing’s most pressing political and policy problems on its own – but taken together, both possibly could.

To somewhat oversimplify the roots of the problem, the American housing crisis flows from:

  • A multi-million unit shortage of homes that empowers landlords to evict tenants, massively jack up rents, or both;
  • Massive wealth inequality and widespread poverty keeping huge swaths of the population from ever affording market-rate housing;
  • Exclusionary zoning blocking potentially affordable multi-family homes from being built in livable communities; and
  • Politicians afraid of any perception of their actions making the problem worse.

YIMBY policies chart a path to end the home shortage and economically integrate communities walled off by exclusionary zoning but offer no salve for the people suffering housing insecurity. Leftist proposals can tend to the raw economic wounds of the housing crisis but fall short of addressing the systems that keep affordable homes in short supply. To succeed, we need both. For the moment, let us observe what YIMBYism can and cannot solve.

YIMBYs aptly identify the basic roots of the housing crisis: widespread single-family zoning. Originally designed by redlining segregationists to create tacit neighborhood bans on people who cannot afford their own private plot of expensive land, these exclusionary zones have become an unquestioned status quo just about everywhere.

When cities attract new people and force them to compete for too few homes, land gets pricier, which forces up rents. YIMBYs recognize that the only workable way to handle this is to allow communities of people who cannot afford big plots of property alone to split the cost of the land through duplexes, triplexes, apartments, et. al.

Doing this at scale requires economically integrating those previously walled-off neighborhoods (a satisfying end on its own, even without the myriad social benefits). More homes in less space mean cheaper homes for everybody. The evidence overwhelmingly supports this.

Yet for policy and political reasons, building more homes is not enough. Building homes (especially densely nestled homes like apartments) can take years, and markets often respond to supply changes gradually. Even if rezoning somehow triggered building all the homes to need to solve the shortfall (consider me dubious), years would continue to pass with many people suffering housing insecurity or homelessness. “The market will eventually work itself out” offers cold comfort for a family facing eviction or rent spike.

The political pitfalls with supply-only approaches may prove more problematic. Building more homes will not end evictions or abate huge rent hikes. People will continue to hurt under the housing crisis, and voters will quickly grow skeptical of the reform while it takes root, especially as NIMBYs attack it mercilessly and blame it when rents continue to rise for some time.

ObamaCare offers a useful lesson here. The ACA completed the journey toward popular policy in 2017, following eight years of toxicity under constant assault from Republicans and the survival of a health care system that remains far from perfect. Years of uninterrupted, apocalyptic criticism against the policy sunk in before the benefits did, and it catapulted its opponents to office. It wasn’t until the policy was on the chopping block that people embraced it. This is the problem with market-based reforms. Even when they help huge portions of the population, people rarely recognize the impact in real time. This makes them delicate, and in particular peril of repeal.

In the face of these vulnerabilities and shortcomings, Leftist policies show promise. Smart rent stabilization (like the limitations on the size and frequency of rent increases used in Germany), no-cause eviction mitigation (like Portland is piloting now), and guaranteed legal counsel in eviction court (which New York is now using) can take effect immediately, and offer immediate relief to cost-burdened renters. These policies not only provide tangible help to current cost-burdened renters, they create breathing room for YIMBY solutions to take palpable effect.

Some YIMBYs will say that rent stabilization measures constrain supply, and thus cannot be embraced. Much of the evidence against rent control pertains to permanent rent caps (which I am not suggesting, and can be counterproductive). Rather I am encouraging measured policies to limit the ability of landlords to price gouge. These measures and the other measures above have shown to be effective to lower rents, and the perverse effects some have observed can generally be ascribed to supply constraints that have accompanied them.

Social housing also fills a need that YIMBY policies cannot completely satisfy. Many homeless and low-income people can likely never afford market-rate homes, no matter how saturated the market becomes. Building publicly owned homes for these individuals and families can ensure shelter for all people, regardless of their social station. Of course, ending exclusionary zoning is necessary for social housing to take root, but that is a topic for the second installment of this series.

YIMBY analysis understands much about the housing crisis – its driving forces, racist roots, and the long-term pathway out of it. Yet, like many market-oriented perspectives, YIMBYism falls short on immediately, palpably effective solutions. By abandoning its market purism, and embracing some of the best ideas of Leftists, YIMBYs can improve their cause, and come closer to solving the crisis.

Tune in next week for the second half of this series – the upsides & limitations of the leftist housing agenda.

YIMBYs, tribalism, & the class war in housing

Follow any urban housing policy debate for awhile, and you can expect to find a nasty split between otherwise-aligned progressives. In one camp sit the Leftists, that potpourri of radical activists who come to housing politics by way of environmental, economic, and racial justice work, and who train their attention on expanding renter protections and publicly owned housing. Across the divide are YIMBYs, urbanists whose “Yes In My Back Yard” banner carries with it a laser-focus on fighting the housing crunch by creating more space for people to live, through zoning changes and an upsurge of new homes. Both factions promote necessary but insufficient solutions to the crisis; together they may be able to solve it. Yet the schism persists, proving poisonous to major housing legislation.

Unlike many other bitter political rivalries, YIMBYs and Leftists fundamentally want the same thing – safe homes that people can afford across income levels. While their policy preferences admittedly often differ, they are by no means irreconcilable. More than anything the mutual distrust between YIMBYs and Leftists arises from tribal signifiers in their language. They talk about the problem disparately, and so cannot see themselves in one another. Neither bloc seems apt to change their policy prescriptions, nor should they – renter protections, social housing, and upzoning together compose the three-legged stool to stabilize home prices in America. Repairing this balkanized movement begins instead with how we communicate. In this respect, YIMBYs ought to tap into our humility and bow to the Leftists, who intuitively use more powerful language on this issue.

I know we can reconcile YIMBYism and the Left because I am a YIMBY socialist myself. I came to socialism after concluding that capitalism has ravaged communities, and finding the profit-uber-ales free market unable to provide for huge swaths of society. Outside the housing debate, I support single-payer healthcare, tuition-free college, and a federal job guarantee. Observing the American housing crisis, I believe we need a kitchen-sink approach that includes robust regulations to protect renters, and massive infusions of public money to support new below-market housing.

I am a YIMBY because I recognize that the seeds of our housing crisis were sewn when racist, classist elites in banking and government invented zoning to segregate communities and protect prosperous white people from the unspeakable horrors of living next to people of color and low-income whites. Ending this racist practice of exclusionary zoning is the only way to truly solve the housing crisis. A growing population requires a bountiful boom of new homes and neither renter protections nor social housing can fully meet that need if we hope to achieve any other socialist policy goals.

These positions can cohere, even become stronger together. Indeed, most YIMBYs I know are at least marginally socialist in their politics-at-large. Yet pesky rhetorical divisions persist in keeping us apart. The split can roughly be reduced to elegance vs. nuance, clear villains vs. complex systems. YIMBYs tend to ascribe the housing crisis to an arcane collection of laws, codes, and systems emerging over generations, and ascribable to nobody in particular.

Contrast this with Leftists, who succinctly blame capitalism and its puppetmaster tycoons for exploiting the human right of housing for runaway profits. There may well be a solid case that YIMBYs more accurately articulate the crisis’ root cause. As for poetry and public persuasion, however, the Leftists win in a walk.

Cognitive science tells us that complicated ideas (how the housing economy works, for instance) generally require conceptual metaphors to be understood. Anat Shenker-Osorio’s work (explained briefly here) has shown that people are more likely to favor progressive action on the economy if they conceptualize the economy as a vehicle (something that is controlled by people) rather than an autonomous entity (which behaves of its own accord, often mysteriously).

Absent a belief that someone drives the economy, preferences default to the status quo, lest action spook the beast and make things worse. You can see this scaremongering about upsetting the apple cart in NIMBY opposition to residential infill. The more abstract the story we tell about the economy, the less politically persuasive we will be.

Leftists comfortably name villains – generally, roundly unpopular figures like bankers, wealthy speculators, and corporate profiteers. This simplifies stories and makes the case for action stronger. It doubtlessly sacrifices some nuance. May we pour one out for the dead nuances as we christen new mixed-income homes. If YIMBYs want to win this war, we need to name villains.

Who we name as villains also matters, especially if YIMBYS ever hope to join forces with Leftists and end our residency in a house divided against itself. Above all else, naming a villain helps speaker and the audience alike orient themselves in the fight, to recognize who is on their side. This is critical for convincing the general public to join us, and for showing Leftists that YIMBYs are far more friend than foe. Are we on the side of the bankers and capitalists, or are we on the side of the people? With the right answer, YIMBYs can speak to the public at large, and neutralize a potent (though bad faith) critique against us – that we are lackeys or useful idiots for developer profiteers.

Successful narratives feature villains recognizable and believable as roadblocks to a better world. The less recognizable the villain, the more difficult our case. Americans readily recognize the wealthy as villains. Bankers, stockbrokers, realtors, and business executives consistently rank poorly on perceived integrity (lower than most, save politicians and lobbyists). Naming this cadre of capitalists as economic villains not only provides a persuasive case to the public but broadcasts solidarity to Leftists – a rare messaging twofer.

To date, YIMBYs have vainly tried to convince Leftists that we mean no harm, that Leftist critiques of us are founded on false pretenses. This strategy was always doomed to fail. Study after study shows point-by-point counterarguments do not persuade and can even entrench would-be converts in their original positions. Human brains evolved to recognize and cherish tribal connections, so tribal signifiers matter most. “We are with you, and against the capitalist profiteers” does far more to persuade than any treatise on the specific drivers of gentrification. Show that YIMBYs reject the evils of crony capitalism, and we can build toward common cause with our potential allies.

This proposition need not require abandoning the centrality of changing our zoning laws. A simple, honest history of America’s racist, classist zoning laws must lay blame on the sordid partnership between banks and political elites that spawned redlining and segregated neighborhoods. They created this problem; that is true and undeniable.

YIMBYs can tell a strong, simple story with clear victims, villains, and heroes:

People across our city/state/country cannot afford their homes today because generations of politicians and banks designed communities where only the wealthiest and most privileged can live, and forced everyone else to fight over scraps. That problem can only be solved by tearing down the walls that keep working people out of those wealthy neighborhoods and building communities and homes that can work for every kind of family. 

Will this heal all wounds between YIMBYs and Leftists? Of course not. But it might be a start, and at least it sets the conversation on the right track.