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The problem with YIMBY

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Protesters stand outside 100-year-old Iris Canada’s home on Sept. 22, 2016, for the Right to the City Alliance National Renters Day of Action. (Courtesy Andrew Szeto)
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Last week, Truthout published our article, “YIMBYs: The ‘Alt-Right’ Darlings of the Real Estate Industry,” which investigated the Bay Area’s growing Yes-in-my-backyard (YIMBY) pro-development movement.

We exposed the ways that YIMBY activists have co-opted social justice movements against gentrification toward a capitalist, pro-gentrification agenda. YIMBYism’s long standing affiliation with right-wing free-market, or neoclassical/neoliberal, economics is precisely what our article illuminated. Rather than a scrappy group of young, liberal-minded “housing activists,” their politics are rooted in racist and anti-poor conservative neoliberal ideologies first inaugurated by Ronald Reagan. Further, they collaborate with the real estate industry to rebrand these racist and conservative policies as hip and edgy — this is the “alt-right’s” method of spreading right-wing politics beyond its old white men in suits image.

An article by columnist Seung Lee on May 15, took special issue with our framing of the YIMBY movement.

He suggests we “did not read” the “research” sent to us. This is a false accusation that could be remedied if Lee and others read the sentences following the quoted line, where we say such studies have been challenged again and again as empirical truth.

For example, YIMBYs cite a host of conservative economists, planners and sociologists as the basis for empirical validation of pro-development policies’ efficacy. Of note is work by prominent “new urbanist” scholar Ed Glaeser, whom has received funding from the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank. Glaeser, as well as fellow “market urbanist” Richard Florida, has been challenged extensively by scholars but is branded as commonsense in urban planning.

A recently published book, “Zoned Out! Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City,” for example, demonstrates that YIMBY policies — such as zoning liberalization — actually furthers racial and economic inequality. Countless other scholars offer research supporting our claims, including David Harvey, Neil Smith, Rachel Brahinsky, Jamie Peck, Peter Marcuse, Lisa K. Bates, Alex Schafran, Richard Walker and Sharon Zukin. This body of scholarship is strikingly absent from YIMBY’s materials; however, Lee takes no issue with that.

Lee’s second accusation is that YIMBYs are not a part of the “alt-right.” It is evident that YIMBY policies are aligned with conservative right-wing libertarianism. To be clear, YIMBYs are copying Donald Trump’s pro-business “trickle down” policies on economic urban development. Indeed, real estate development is how the Trump family developed their fortune. Milton Friedman could not be more proud.

In the aftermath of our article’s publication, we have been the subjects of a mass doxing campaign — a common tact used by the alt-right against leftists. Our personal information has been shared widely over the internet, and our employers and publishers harassed, presumably to have us fired. If YIMBYs are so sure they are not right-wing conservatives, their actions hardly prove otherwise.

The third point Lee makes is also one missed by other neoliberal pundits like Randy Shaw. Lee repeats a YIMBY talking point about how anti-gentrification activists are anti-immigrant and conservative for not endorsing the gentrification of working-class communities of color, like the Mission. Indeed, Lee goes as far as to label us “borderline xenophobic.”

What Lee obscures is the fact that it was the racism from white SF BARF ringleader Sonja Trauss, who first argued Latinx Mission anti-gentrification activists were “like Trump” in a November board of supervisors meeting. In that same meeting, then-supervisor David Campos expressed his own outrage at the YIMBYs’ blatantly racist tactic of consistently labeling actual immigrant communities as “anti-immigrant.”

If YIMBYs truly want to house people, why are they not lobbying for the houseless and others to be housed, first? Where are they when our communities are getting evicted? The answer is obvious.

Lee’s column is a part of a larger YIMBY strategy to divert attention away from those most impacted and to argue that tech employees are benevolent citizens bringing riches and not negatively impacting The City.

The mass outrage over our article is another distraction to the real crisis at hand: working-class, queer and trans, Latinx, black and indigenous communities being evicted to the outer reaches of the Bay Area.

Instead of the pro-displacement politics of YIMBYism, we should center and follow radical housing justice groups led by those most impacted like the national Right to the City Alliance and the Movement for Black Lives. These groups offer visions and policy platforms that clearly demonstrate that ending inequality, transforming our society and fighting for our right to The City requires going beyond neoliberal capitalism — and YIMBYism.

Toshio Meronek and Andrew Szeto are journalists reporting on gentrification, displacement and the tech political economy in the Bay Area.

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