#YIMBY2016 Dispatch #1

As I was taking notes during Sonja Trauss’ kickoff speech yesterday morning, I wrote myself a little sidebar of terms that could’ve populated a YIMBY bingo sheet: ADUs, bike lanes, neighborhood email lists.

You could do that for any conference (imagine the social-justice terminologies that would come up at something like SACRPH; most wouldn’t fit on a single bingo square), but here, where a whole bunch of hyper-concerned, above-average-involved individuals are obviously wrangling with how to bring back what we’re talking about here to where they live—and turn it into something actionable—it made me laugh a bit.

Sonja’s speech was good for this crowd; she’s is the seemingly never-ending font of enthusiasm behind the Bay Area Renters Federation. Much writing has been devoted to her vibe, which rides largely on showing up and making people pay attention to the fact that there are demands in San Francisco for something other than the preservation of the value of historic single-family homes. While I disagreed with her comment on growing up with an anti-suburban bias and seeing that broaden (most of the country lives in suburbs, maybe by honest choice or maybe because we’ve subsidized the hell out of them; regardless, suburbs are still the default operating standard for Where Americans Live), she effectively linked integration with housing affordability. We can’t count on liberals, or even ourselves, to integrate neighborhoods, even as that’s the best way to bring the benefits of mixed-income places to everyone.

There was only one session timeslot today. I went to Anna Fahey’s presentation on communicating Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Index. Anna is the communications director of Seattle’s Sightline Institute and comes from a background of climate communications, another field in which facts don’t play well in the face of high-key emotions. Sightline performed a media audit in advance of the vote on HALA in order to understand how people were talking about the potential of increased density in their neighborhoods. (I realize now that this isn’t Sightline’s first rodeo with media audits and resulting talking points. Here’s something it put together for green jobs.) I need to ask Anna for a copy of density media audit, but the major takeaways were that people aren’t swayed by facts; new buildings (perhaps condos) replacing old favorites is an emotional wave you can’t counteract; “density” scares people but easy, common words like “enough housing” are more palatable. I think all of this is fairly intuitive, but it’s nice to have backed up by research.

Here are some concepts I’m thinking about:

The left, progressivism, what have you: To me, YIMBYism seems borne out of a techno-liberatrian view on regulations, but maybe I get that vibe because I lived in San Francisco and read a lot of the Twitter, the rallying cry of which basically, “Build it all! And also deregulate!” (This is valid.) One thing about this movement that seems weird to me is that there have *always* been affordability problems with housing—increasingly so post-recession, I will grant—but now that it’s smacking those who should be able to afford housing in the face, it’s a marketable problem. I mean, I made $85,000 in San Francisco and paid $1,350 a month to live in a group house on top of a hill. This was not that bad, but my long-term prospects for housing were shared spaces subject to a landlord’s whims. I wasn’t down about this because I was going to leave San Francisco, I knew it. But I get semi-depressed thinking about what I’d have to do to move back to D.C., which is where I actually want to be living. Anyway, there seems to be some sort of dithering over whether YIMBYism is left or right or somewhere in between, and whose party and ideology can best represent the myriad ideas it holds. To be honest, I’m not really sure it matters—some objectively good ideas are liberal, and some are conservative. While I fall well on the liberal side, I also know that the things I love best about, say, public transit and density, like their economic ROI, are straightforwardly conservative. There are some occasions where the market is obviously straining against regulations (San Francisco), and other places where sensible regulations could provide a check on an inefficient market (Cleveland, or any other mid-size, middle-America city).

Who’s here: I’ve only met one person who works for an elected official. There are many advocates here, some full-time at organizations like Sightline and some volunteers. The people who aren’t day-job YIMBYs seem largely to work in software. There are a few people affiliated with what seem to be socially responsible developers. Even though this is an unconference and you didn’t need to provide any credentials to attend, I am definitely the outlier in that my employment does not match my personal interests whatsoever, that I am from Cleveland, and that I’m not the leader of some sort of initiative. It’s cool, #YIMBY2016, I’m not too proud of myself either; I’d happily take on the mantle of Cleveland’s full-time transportation advocate as soon as I find a grant that will allow me to quit my job and still pay my mortgage. Geographically, there is a whole bunch of San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Boston people, in addition to our hosts in Boulder. I am doing my best to speak up for the not-so-hot areas of the nation. (This blog may just turn entirely into an attempt to speak up for the not-so-hot areas of the nation.)

Who are we going to talk to in the future: This entire thing is so blatantly white, it’s almost painful. It feels…squicky? I understand that it was the first year and that donors for this kind of conversation are not exactly plush. I feel incredibly lucky to have received a scholarship that covered my airfare and hotel stay even though I don’t do this kind of work full-time. (I used to pay out of pocket to go to APA for my own personal enrichment, and it was steep.) And isn’t it really important to pull in the people who aren’t directly engaged in this? I think everyone was sensitive to the diversity issues, and to be fair, there was a surprising fluidity in age and gender. But the whiteness was real. We gotta do better next year.

How much do people dislike stuff just because it looks new: Famously, people once hated bungalows. Is there kneejerk opposition to condos in part because they are generally snoozy glass boxes? The opposition to new housing is complex and multi-layered. But I can’t help but think that design plays a role.

Nothing is a monolith: #notallliberals, #notallconservatives, #notallsuburbs, #notallcities. Everything contains multitudes! The affordability and supply problems facing Seattle and San Francisco are actually not limited to Seattle and San Francisco, though they work differently in different places. For example, I just saw a neighbor in my Facebook feed bemoaning the new construction of single-family homes on empty lots, because they cost $200,000, and who would pay for that? We don’t need those in the Shoreway! But, we do, because the Shoreway is one of maybe four Cleveland neighborhoods that’s in demand. If we don’t build now, we’re going to be facing Seattle-ish problems later. I have infinite examples of this. But I think it’s useful to remember that while we’re all special snowflakes, there’s a lot to learn from other places.

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One Comment on “#YIMBY2016 Dispatch #1”

  1. Danny says:

    Good read. On your observations of YIMBYism’s political bent…my sense is that it is generally regarded as progressive but that, as you note, there are regional and urban-size variations. In my small-to-mid-size city, the YIMBY-class is largely comprised of an urban-set with plenty of social and economic capital (in some cases also lineage capital stretching back several generations) who have relocated from larger cities like NYC and San Francisco, and who are by default considered to have a knowledge of how “real cities” work. (One of the defining characteristics of the big-small city divide is how much small cities rely upon the “innovation” coming out of bigger cities, both for actual projects and rhetorical framing.)

    I define this as progressive because, on many issues, modern progressivism (and heck, even historical progressivism) is largely tied to a belief in small-scale entreprenurialism that (rhetorically, at least) has a heart. I’d guess that, even in big-city San Fran, that sentiment of the “little guy” innovating for the betterment of the future world–a defining characteristic of progressivism–is also there alongside the techno-libertarians who seem to demand the same amenities as progressives. I’d also define the move to the city as progressive based on voting and demographic trends–these are Democrats, mainly, and younger…or at least, that’s what the amenities that cities are creating seem designed to appeal to.

    If you’re interested, here’s I a slightly longer piece on this, which defined the current century as one that needs to address a Progressive Urban Consumption complex.


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