I would be very worried if a growing number of Republican politicians were coming around to universal rent control and public housing as their top priorities for dealing with the housing crisis.
Broadly speaking, these are the policies I believe are most necessary to move towards a society where everyone has a decent home. Meanwhile, the Republican Party exists to strengthen white supremacy, patriarchy, and corporate profits, and otherwise acts to ensure that the rich get richer while the poor suffer — so yes, I’d be a bit concerned. I hope that this unfortunate convergence would at least cause me to seriously reevaluate my positions.
Luckily, I have nothing to worry about on this front. But the YIMBYs — the “Yes In My Back Yard” advocates who see increased development of housing, even if it’s market-rate, as the foremost solution to the crisis — sure do.
A wave of Republicans, beginning with Ben Carson, have proudly declared themselves to be YIMBYs, or have put forward similar analyses and policy responses to the housing crisis. They prioritize getting rid of zoning laws and other regulations they see as barriers to new construction, which they say would unleash the power of the market and thus reduce prices. Some of the Republicans are even following the YIMBYs’ lead by citing the racist and exclusionary history of suburban zoning to justify their deregulatory programs.
In an article titled “Where are all the Republicans YIMBYs?,” City Journal, a magazine published by the far-right-wing Manhattan Institute, welcomed this trend. The authors giddily argued that this might even “lay the groundwork for an urban Republican resurgence.”
Most recently, Donald Trump himself signed an Executive Order to “establish a White House Council on Eliminating Barriers to Affordable Housing Development.” YIMBYs on Twitter can disavow Trump all they want, but there’s no denying that the analysis coming out of the White House is virtually indistinguishable from theirs — read the press release linked above.
None of this is surprising to those of us on the left.
YIMBY ideas embrace capitalism as a good system for allocating resources, and, perhaps more importantly, are great for landlords, developers, and the financial institutions that invest in housing. To hear most YIMBYs tell it, there’s no need to put a limit on profit-making, or for the state to compete by building tons of public housing — just get out of the market’s way and rents will go down.
That’s why the real estate industry funnels tons of money towards California State Senator Scott Wiener, perhaps the most die-hard YIMBY politician in the country. It’s not that they think his policies would lower rents — which is exactly what they don’t want. And it’s not because they care about segregation.
The real estate industry supports Scott Wiener because his attacks on zoning would increase their profits.
Certainly, zoning has been one of many tools used to keep poor people and people of color out of wealthier white neighborhoods, and I think most leftists would agree that these exclusive neighborhoods should be “upzoned” — meaning, changing the zoning to allow for taller and denser development. But it’s not nearly our top priority, in large part because most new market-rate housing isn’t affordable to those who need help the most, and because the private real estate industry is never going to undo the residential segregation it itself helped create and which is still fundamental to its profits.
On the flip side, loosening zoning can have really bad impacts when it’s done in low-income communities vulnerable to gentrification. Grassroots organizations from Los Angeles to New York have opposed such moves because they raise land values and make it more profitable to build luxury developments that intensify displacement pressures. (This book Zoned Out! has good case studies on rezonings in NYC.)
And YIMBYs don’t exactly have a great track record of targeting their zoning policies at wealthy white suburbs. (See SB 827; more on this below.)
So that’s why it’s not at all surprising to see Republicans embrace YIMBYism: real estate makes up 60% of all global assets; the industry is extremely powerful; and YIMBY ideas are pro-market and would generally make them more money by attacking regulations they don’t like.
Thus it makes sense that Indiana’s Republican Senator Todd Young has just introduced the “YIMBY ACT,” which is meant to “shed light on discriminatory land use policies [and] encourage localities cut burdensome regulations.” He supported Trump’s tax cuts for the rich, voted 3 times to kill Obamacare, approves of Trump’s handling of the border, and so on — but maybe he really does care about desegregating white suburbs?
Or, just maybe, Senator Young is paying back the real estate folks who collectively donated almost $1 million to his 2016 campaign. When organized by sector, “finance, insurance and real estate” was by far his biggest donor, totaling over $3 million.
The same goes for San Diego’s Republican Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who also came out as a YIMBY a few months ago. His support for allowing taller buildings and getting rid of parking requirements for new development might have something to do with his extensive ties to and donations from both developers and the broader local business community. But you’ll see zero skepticism of Faulconer’s motives from Liam Dillon of the LA Times.
City Journal again provides a clarifying perspective, summing up the utility of YIMBYism in an article last year about Scott Wiener’s failed zoning reform bill for California: “SB 827 shifts the window of acceptable discourse dramatically in favor of market-oriented reforms of housing policy.”
Sticking with SB 827 — the first version of what is now SB 50, an admittedly better bill — may reveal a lot about the YIMBY agenda, at least at the institutional level.
SB 827 tied its zoning changes to where mass transit is located, which practically guaranteed that it would blanked gentrifying neighborhoods that developers are eager to colonize, while simultaneously excluding precisely the wealthy white suburbs that YIMBYs claim they want to target. This was certainly the case for LA and Orange Counties. It was also true for the Bay Area, where Berkeley researchers found that nearly half of the land upzoned was located in “areas experiencing gentrification and displacement pressures,” while just 11% was in “areas considered more affluent or exclusive enclaves.”
So YIMBYs who claim that Trump and Carson don’t actually want to desegregate white suburbs are absolutely right — but they really shouldn’t be so smug, given their own history.
Ultimately, this is not to say all YIMBYs are as bad as the Republican Party. I think there are many people who call themselves YIMBYs who do truly care about those most oppressed by the housing crisis, and who have been convinced by the YIMBYs’ progressive branding and Econ-101 logic that attacking zoning should be the number one priority. I hope these people really interrogate their ideas and analyses, especially now that more and more Republican politicians seem to agree with them.
Instead, they should listen to the communities who have been fighting a housing crisis for decades, who are overwhelmingly pushing for policies like universal rent control and state- or community-owned housing. Like health care, shelter should be treated as a human right, not as a profit-making commodity that is allocated according to the needs of the capitalist real estate market.
Get yourself an analysis the Republicans will never embrace.