- Interview by
- Galen Herz
In the most populous state in the country, California, a bill to build social housing — meaning publicly owned, mixed-income housing — came extremely close to passing on its first year of introduction: it was voted out of the State Assembly and got blocked in a Senate committee. Most legislative bills, especially bold ones, don’t pass out of the Assembly on their first introduction. I was thrilled by its momentum, as I had covered the lead-up to this bill in 2021 for Jacobin.
The sponsor, Assemblymember Alex Lee is a proud socialist (the only one in California’s Assembly) and a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member. He’s also a proud YIMBY.
YIMBY stands for Yes In My Backyard, in opposition to NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard), and is a movement that defines itself as “pro-housing.” YIMBYs are best known for aiming to increase the supply of housing by eliminating so-called exclusionary zoning laws, which ban the construction of apartments, public and private. And it was the YIMBY movement in coalition with organized labor and progressive housing nonprofits in California that provided the core muscle behind the social housing bill.
On the Left, the concept, as well as the label, are controversial. For many, YIMBYism is equivalent to a stance of looking to the market to solve the housing problem. So what’s going on? Have the YIMBYs changed?
I spoke with Darrell Owens, a self-described “Left-YIMBY” who was intimately involved in developing and campaigning for the social housing bill. Owens is from Berkeley, California, and is a member of East Bay for Everyone and a policy analyst with CA YIMBY. He also writes a Substack newsletter, The Discourse Lounge, that includes articles such as “10 Reasons We Need California Public Housing.”
We discussed the ideological makeup of the YIMBY movement, legislative lessons from California’s social housing bill, how developers should be regulated, and more.
You see this characterization from some on the Left, that YIMBYs believe that if we get rid of zoning, the market will solve the housing crisis. Does that characterization have merit?
Do I know any YIMBYs who think that solely unleashing the full capacity of the market will solve the whole housing crisis for every single person? Yes, I do. But it’s a small fringe of the movement at this point.
The name YIMBY had been infrequently used by low-income housing developers in the 1990s. Then, in 2016, these libertarians and tech-worker-class, market-oriented, centrist types revived the YIMBY name for zoning battles in San Francisco. While they always supported low-income housing, they hyper focused on supporting market-rate projects, which under San Francisco zoning regime, were focused in low-income areas. So they constantly butted heads with the anti-market rate progressives there. So to be fair to the Left, I can see why the early articles understood them as such.
There were always some lefties involved with YIMBY. But by 2019, the movement really changed considerably because a lot more left-wing people started to adopt the idea that there was a housing shortage and joined the YIMBY movement.
Nowadays, the old tired line of “YIMBY equals Reaganite trickle down economics” and “they solely want market solutions to the housing crisis” is pretty silly. I understand it came from those high-profile fights with YIMBYs in San Francisco around 2017. But frankly, it’s intentionally lying at this point.
The overall YIMBY movement understands that we need more market-rate and public housing, more subsidies for housing, zoning reform, and stronger tenant protections, especially around eviction. And while there are some moderates and neoliberals that don’t support rent control, they’re in the minority. For example, the majority of local YIMBY groups across California endorsed the repeal of the ban on statewide rent control in 2020.
Also, in 2020, we saw progressives like Bernie [Sanders], [Elizabeth] Warren, and others tackle exclusionary zoning in their housing platforms. The first time YIMBY policy appeared in the federal government was when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wrote the A Place to Prosper Act, which combined tenant protections and fighting exclusionary zoning.
What do you attribute that change to?
Honestly, for a lot of people it’s kind of a personal radicalization. If you spent any time in the housing market, searching for a place in a big city — you hear these stories about NYC where dozens and dozens queue up outside just to see and apply for an apartment. That stuff converts a lot of YIMBYs pretty quick. It’s hard to say there’s not a housing shortage when people are literally queuing up for some crappy old apartment that they’re going to spend way over asking price for.
For example, where I’m from in the Bay Area you see that most places that are undergoing gentrification are not undergoing development building booms. Most gentrification in most areas is just existing housing stock going to the wealthy.
Like any political movement from Occupy Wall Street to Bernie Sanders, most mass participation is the result of personal experiences in these systems of disadvantages and inequalities.
The growth of YIMBYs among young people on the Left made the overall YIMBY movement more progressive.
In your article about the different kinds of YIMBYs, you touch on the size of the various ideological currents. Can you expand on that?
As far as rank and file goes, I find it tends to be mostly liberal, center-left with older people, followed by left with young people, followed by neoliberals in think tanks and stuff.
Center-right YIMBYs are such a tiny, tiny minority. You’ll rarely find Republicans embracing YIMBYism. They’re pro-development for a quick second, and then as the YIMBY agenda continues for eliminating single-family zoning and segregation, they go back to being NIMBYs. They’re not really YIMBYs, they’re just pro-business.
What do you see as the pros and cons of YIMBYism as a big-tent movement?
The benefit is it’s easier to pass legislative bills. You can get the upzoning of commercial corridors and eliminating segregationist zoning like apartment bans with an almost unanimous Democratic vote and some amount of Republican pick offs. That’s pretty good.
But yeah, the fact the YIMBY message is appealing beyond partisan lines across the US is why you’re seeing a lot of reforms from here to Oregon to Charlotte to Florida.
There are a few anti-YIMBY voices on the Left that attack us, but it’s always the far right that we have to deal with as the fundamental enemy. You’re starting to see that right now in Florida with Ron DeSantis coming out against getting rid of single-family zoning, and of course [Donald] Trump ran against that too. Every night on Fox News it’s about protecting the suburbs from YIMBYs. So the Right has actually been the number one enemy, as far as policy and laws go.
Another really good thing about being a big-tent is it’s actually kind of a conversion tool for the Left, sort of inadvertently. You’ll get an average center-right, maybe moderate Libertarian who only cares about supporting market-rate development, who comes into the YIMBY movement, and then from discussions with their peers and debates with other YIMBYs, it becomes quite clear to them, that actually no, eviction protections, fair housing, and low-income housing supply are equally as important as zoning reform.
The social housing bill, for example, got a lot of support from people who started out as centrist, moderate YIMBYs because it was led by progressive and leftists YIMBYs, including socialist Assemblymember Alex Lee. Leftists explained their position and former moderates wound up being for it.
You’ve talked about people with middle-class salaries who couldn’t afford housing, which drew them to YIMBYism. Do you see much of a pathway for working-class people into YIMBYism?
There is a pathway and it’s already being used. It’s having to experience long waitlists in subsidized housing. It’s having to experience opposition from their neighbors when they want to build an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) for their multigenerational family.
You don’t see them online, but they’re the biggest supporters of policy. The polling backs this up. You see polling from the Public Policy Institute of California, the people most supportive of building housing are black and Latino, the least supportive are white and they’re upper-income. It’s the complete opposite of what people on social media talk about.
The people who are going to want to legalize multifamily housing are people who want to live in multigenerational families, which tends to be non-white minorities. People who want to make sure their grandparents can live near them when they’re no longer able to live by themselves tends to be a lot of, in my experience, black homeowners.
A lot of black folks in neighborhoods around Oakland are highly interested in legalizing multifamily housing. They do it illegally all the time, right? Then they hate it when people snitch on them and then their family has to leave or their house gets condemned.
From my experience, a lot of the black and Latino communities, when they talk about policies that are YIMBYistic, they want to know how black and Latino homeowners can finance building housing.
For example, we talked about this with Oakland, where Oakland is proposing to eliminate single-family zoning and replace it with fourplex zoning. And the response from a lot of the black community and the nonprofits and local groups, is how can we design the system so it really empowers the black community to build multifamily housing which we desperately need but don’t have the capital to do. That’s one of the new paths for YIMBYism — to go into finance reform. Public banking to deal with redlining and permitting to deal with NIMBYism.
So, as I understand it, the current YIMBY movement pushes for new supply, with both market-rate and social housing. Left YIMBYs, such as yourself, want universal social housing to scale and eclipse market-rate housing, but recognize market-rate housing is needed in the meantime.
Many on the Left have been skeptical of market-rate housing seeing it as a driver of displacement, but that seems to be changing. New York State Senator and socialist Jabari Brisport recently spoke with the Furman Center at New York University about a housing study they produced and Brisport tweeted, “It is now clear to me that the construction of market rate housing does not raise nearby rents.” (Though he also added that the study found that rents only grew slightly less quickly in the surrounding area.)
So can you provide a good overview of what the latest research says about new market-rate housing?
There’s so much research on this topic. Almost all of it says the same thing, that when market-rate housing is built, rents go down at the regional level. Anti-YIMBYs back in the day would argue that market-rate housing didn’t help rents go down at all, or that it made rents go up. Research has unanimously blown that out. There’s a good review of studies from the University of California’s Urban Displacement Project, as well as from UCLA on this.
A new book to refute anti-homeless right-wing talking points, Homelessness is a Housing Problem, looks at the relationship between vacancy rates, absolute rents, and homelessness in many cities and found the same thing. Homelessness is not higher in New York City or San Francisco than in other cities because of liberals being “soft on crime,” but because there’s a clear housing shortage in those cities compared to cities with little homelessness.
So the debate on the Left has now transitioned to — okay, that’s true, but there’s a submarket problem, where market-rate housing may increase rents in a submarket for the lowest-income households nearby the development, even if it decreases the rents of median and high-income households. First we have this eviction paper studying San Francisco on court-filed evictions near new housing developments, which found no correlation or fewer evictions. But then we have the [Anthony] Damiano working paper from his study of Minneapolis. When he studied market-rate housing near transit stops, the lowest-income bracket saw rent increases. That was pretty worrying!
Since that study, the Urban Displacement Project did a joint study with the University of Toronto, sort of inspired by Damiano’s theory on submarkets. The University of California did some pretty profound research by literally tracking households and migration before and after market-rate housing, and before and after rent control, and did this at the block level. What they found was when market-rate housing was built, low-income households moved into the neighborhood more than when it was not built. But also, more low-income households left the neighborhood than when it was not built. As a whole, the rates of in- and out-migration were pretty close, with a slight net increase of low-income in-migration.
They also found that with rent control, but especially just-cause eviction, low-income families stopped leaving an area but also virtually none could immigrate in. So if you can combine both effects of market-rate and subsidized housing, rent stabilization, and anti-displacement protections, and the housing is at a medium density, so cheaper wood frame over the expensive super-high-rise stuff, then you get all the benefits of the increase in low-income net migration into a neighborhood without the externalities of possible displacement.
We need a lot more research, though. If future peer-reviewed research ends up showing displacement then we have to accept that.
Something that YIMBYs and anti-YIMBYs on the Left do agree on is that in the meantime, we should dismantle exclusionary zoning and focus more dense development in wealthy neighborhoods. This is basically what modern fair housing laws are now pushing. Putting all the development in poorer neighborhoods has been the land-use practices of NIMBYs and segregationists for years now.
I don’t expect radicals and communists to feel like they should ever go to bat for a big developer, but that’s not really the point. If you prevent housing supply from keeping pace with population growth, then you get what we have here in Berkeley, where all the old houses cost millions of dollars. That’s a housing shortage. It in no way serves the goals of getting to a universal social housing program.
Tell me about how you started to get involved with the social housing bill, AB 2053, and the coalition you’ve helped build there?
My local YIMBY group, East Bay for Everyone, got together in 2018 and drew out the schematics for a social housing plan. It was mostly seen as a countercyclical project, because we understood if another recession like 2008 happens, rates of private home construction would plummet. Even though housing demand is still growing, builders would simply lack the financing to build. So we realize, OK, how are we going to confront a problem like that in the future?
The first thing we thought of is a countercyclical fund, which would fund nonprofit developers to build subsidized housing units in a recession. But then we started thinking more broadly about how this can be more robust, more efficient, because nonprofits tend to be very inefficient. After studying all these social housing systems throughout history we thought up the idea of a California public developer.
Now, to be clear, social housing didn’t start with us. Social housing stretches back many years, and many other groups were also thinking of similar solutions to the housing crisis.
After we developed our plan, Assemblymember Buffy Wicks got elected in 2018, and I think in the next legislative session, she was very interested in implementing our social housing plan. But of course the coalition for social housing was very small at the time.
And then a socialist from the South Bay, Alex Lee, gets elected in 2020. He comes in and he’s a huge YIMBY and urbanist. He’s highly interested in this and already on board. He and Buffy get together and propose AB 2053, which started off with few supporters besides East Bay for Everyone and some unions, like United Auto Workers, that we were in touch with. But over time, we built a coalition that expanded to include a lot more groups, a lot more unions, and a lot more progressive supporters.
How did you expect the bill to do in the legislature?
Way worse than it actually did. I still can’t believe it got as far as it did. It got to the assembly floor and passed! We thought it was going to be killed in its first assembly committee. And then it got through several senate committees before dying at the hands of a conservative.
Which was a little reminder to the whole social housing coalition, that the ultimate enemy of abundant public housing is conservatives and right-wingers.
We didn’t think it would make it to a floor vote. The big takeaway is YIMBYs and unions and progressive housing groups combined can basically bust anything through the legislature, with enough effort. That was a really promising development. I’m super excited for the bill’s return, because now it really simplifies things, now we can sort of pick people off.
Can you talk a little more about this coalition with unions? Was that hard to build?
Ultimately, any successful social housing project is going to have union labor. That’s how every successful social housing program in the world, from Weimar Germany to the Soviet Union to Finland, did social housing. It has to have very good labor and job opportunities. And a lot of people who were YIMBY skeptical endorsed AB 2053, so the coalition was pretty good in that regard.
Ultimately, the reason why the bill died is the conservatives poisonpilled it. What happened is one of the more conservative Democrats in committee undemocratically took out the union labor provision in an attempt to kill it. So that got a lot of unions, like the influential state building trades, to drop out at the last minute. That made it vulnerable to attack by conservatives in the Senate committee who ultimately killed the bill. The lesson there is to find a way to make sure that when that tomfoolery happens again, we can stand against it.
Were there productive relationships between DSA and more traditional left organizations and the social housing bill?
Yeah, there were productive ones and unproductive ones. The productive ones, like the Berniecrats, were really good. They had a lot of constructive criticism, but overall they were down with the bill. We had good relations with a lot of the DSA groups. I found the DSA chapters that are heavily into the housing discourse and tend to be run by a lot of fervent anti-YIMBYs just were mostly quiet about the bill. They didn’t attack it or anything, but they just didn’t want to support it, I think because it was seen as a YIMBY social housing bill.
Most of the issues we dealt with from the Left were from nonprofits, which very much did not like the robust nature of the public sector development. They wanted a lot more nonprofit involvement and others wanted hard income requirements. They also made a big deal about how the bill needed companion funding on launch. Usual sausage-making stuff.
What tensions did you have to balance while building support for the bill?
There was kind of an interesting debate among leftists about the nature of having a mixed-income model. We heavily modeled the bill off of Vienna and Singapore’s funding systems. Instead of letting private developers and banks capture market-rate rents for profit, the market rents would instead turn back to subsidize units.
But there was concern from some tenant groups. They wanted hard income requirements so that the majority of public units would be for people with extremely low incomes in gentrifying areas.
On the other side, you had the nonprofit builders, who are in the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) system, who were like, well if you’re going to build a social housing agency, what the hell is the point of us? We’re the public housing, we’re how housing is provided.
Yeah. In Seattle, you’re seeing that, some of the traditional low-income housing nonprofits were originally opposed to the social housing initiative there.
It became a thing where we had to appease both sides and that’s how legislating works, it’s all about compromise. To the LIHTC people, we said we’ll try to make sure that the low-income housing added is a net increase, rather than a transition of current nonprofit housing.
And we made a compromise with the tenant groups, and struck out the revenue neutrality, so theoretically the state agency doesn’t have to generate positive revenues, it could build heavily subsidized, dependent, net-loss revenue housing.
While these issues were important, they were ultimately intracoalition conversations.
Just so I’m understanding correctly, to have a net increase in low-income housing, it’s not that you’re just taking an existing housing subsidy and making it publicly owned, it’s that you’d be building mixed-income buildings, some of which would be revenue positive, and taking that revenue to build additional buildings with low-income housing.
Exactly, it’s a cross-subsidy program. You would have a publicly owned complex, where a portion would be market-rate, a portion would be moderate or low-income, and a portion would be extremely low or no income. The rent, instead of going into the pockets of shareholders or investors, would go back into the building and for building more housing. And of course, subsidizing the lower-income tenants’ rents.
These are just the basic foundations of an effective self-sustaining social housing model around the world, which we wanted to do for the US real estate groups who fought against mixed income housing in the US so that the projects were exclusively low-income and therefore wouldn’t cut into their profits.
And there was always kind of a gripe about the old projects, that they perpetuated segregation and created a lack of class solidarity, because it was only segregated out as a poor person thing. This was so that real estate groups could ultimately dismantle it in the future. With our policy, we were trying to treat housing as we want to treat Medicare for All. It’s something that all classes should be involved and invested in, rather than a means-tested program.
For social housing to truly scale, I think we’re going to have to contend with the American reality that, unlike more renter-heavy societies, people put a lot of stock into the concept of homeownership and its ability to build wealth. Housing shortages are necessary to keep up home equity. That’s a bigger conversation we could have.
What else would do you think it’s important to understand about the Left and YIMBYism?
I’ve studied many leftist social housing systems and socialist and communist states’ housing policies, and supply was always how the most effective ones solved the crisis. The most productive country that built more housing than any other state in the twentieth century was the Soviet Union, and they did it with a robust public housing system that did things some might refer to as “market-based solutions” but in reality are just efficiencies.
So, for example, they investigated how construction costs made it harder to provide housing, so they did a lot of modular housing. They made sure that design and local review didn’t impede the greater social need for housing.
And again, housing shortages — yes, that includes in the market — don’t help anybody but landowners and speculators, who profit from peoples’ desperation. Vienna didn’t and doesn’t have things like exclusionary zoning nor did Vienna’s Social Democrats spend their time trying to block market housing, which wouldn’t help anyone. Rather they outperformed the market through building social housing.
You have to really understand the empirical evidence as to why there’s no solution to the housing crisis that isn’t through housing abundance. A lot of leftists do get it. They may not necessarily call themselves YIMBYs. A lot of them do. But, that’s the real debate that should be happening here: How do we acquire housing abundance?