Market Urbanism http://www.marketurbanism.com Liberalizing cities | From the bottom up Thu, 21 Mar 2019 12:30:05 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.10 https://i2.wp.com/www.marketurbanism.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/cropped-Market-Urbanism-icon.png?fit=32%2C32 Market Urbanism http://www.marketurbanism.com 32 32 3505127 Democratic Candidates on Housing http://www.marketurbanism.com/2019/03/21/10740/ http://www.marketurbanism.com/2019/03/21/10740/#respond Thu, 21 Mar 2019 12:30:05 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10740 Anti poverty programs have been taking center stage as the 2020 Democratic primary heats up. Proposals from Kamala Harris and Corey Booker target high housing costs for renters and make for an interesting set of ideas. These plans, however, have major shortcomings and fail to address the fundamental problem of supply constraints in high cost […]

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Anti poverty programs have been taking center stage as the 2020 Democratic primary heats up. Proposals from Kamala Harris and Corey Booker target high housing costs for renters and make for an interesting set of ideas. These plans, however, have major shortcomings and fail to address the fundamental problem of supply constraints in high cost housing markets. 

Harris and Booker on Housing

Both the Harris and Booker plans call for direct subsidies to renters via the tax code.

  • Harris’ Rent Relief Act (RRA) is a refundable tax credit for renters making $100,000 or less and spending more than 30% of their income on rent.
    • The credit would be worth a percentage of the delta between the recipient’s rent (capped at 150% of area fair market rent) and 30% of their income. Actual benefits would be bigger or smaller depending on the size of the gap.
  • Booker’s Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, and Equity (HOME) Act is also designed as a refundable tax credit for renters paying more than 30% of their income in rent.
    • Unlike Harris’ RRA, there’s no sliding scale for benefits. The credit covers the entire difference between 30% of the recipients income and their rent (also capped by area fair market rent).

Both programs are in the same vein as other democratic anti-poverty proposals which use the tax code to affect transfer payments. The others, though, are expansions of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) whereas these two proposals more narrowly target housing.

Devils in the Details

Housing costs are a major impediment to financial stability for many, so it’s good to see reducing them called out as a poverty reduction strategy. And transfer payments (as opposed direct government provisioning or price fixing) make for better social safety nets. However, as Tyler Cowen points out, juicing the demand side of a supply constrained market is a recipe for higher prices. Sending more dollars to chase a static supply of housing won’t solve the underlying problem.

To its credit, Booker’s HOME Act attempts to address supply constraints by adding language to the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. After a cursory reading of the bill, though, it’s not clear how strong the extra language actually is. Harris’ RRA, as of this writing, has no such provisions.

A Federal Housing Agenda That Isn’t Terrible

If we want to reduce poverty by reducing housing costs, we need to build more housing. To that end, municipal regulations that prevent housing production need to be pared back. State capitals, with their different incentive structures and ability to override local policy, are the best points of leverage for reform.

Residential neighborhood in Harris’ hometown of SF

A pro-housing administration could use federal funds as a way to pressure states to liberalize land use. Funding for state administered versions of the Harris / Booker approach (and/or state level EITC programs) could be made contingent upon preemption of local zoning / permitting processes by state capitals. Direct subsidies would help uplift those at the bottom while land use deregulation would ensure a more supply responsive market overall. 

There some’s question about how far a hypothetical YIMBY presidential administration could interfere in state level prerogatives. My current understanding, though, is that if state governments can get money to do something they want to do anyway, no one will bat an eye (ie no state’s attorney generals will file suite). If the politics could be made to work, federal pressure on states to do the right thing could make for directionally correct federal policy. 

 

*One of the EITC expansion proposals was also authored by Kamala Harris

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Why Is Japanese Zoning More Liberal Than US Zoning? http://www.marketurbanism.com/2019/03/19/why-is-japanese-zoning-more-liberal-than-us-zoning/ http://www.marketurbanism.com/2019/03/19/why-is-japanese-zoning-more-liberal-than-us-zoning/#respond Tue, 19 Mar 2019 12:30:01 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10849 Over the past few years, Japanese zoning has become popular among YIMBYs thanks to a classic blog post by Urban kchoze. It’s easy to see why: Japanese zoning is relatively liberal, with few bulk and density controls, limited use segregation, and no regulatory distinction between apartments and single-family homes. Most development in Japan happens “as-of-right,” […]

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Over the past few years, Japanese zoning has become popular among YIMBYs thanks to a classic blog post by Urban kchoze. It’s easy to see why: Japanese zoning is relatively liberal, with few bulk and density controls, limited use segregation, and no regulatory distinction between apartments and single-family homes. Most development in Japan happens “as-of-right,” meaning that securing permits doesn’t require a lengthy review process. Taken as a whole, Japan’s zoning system makes it easy to build walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods, which is why cities like Tokyo are among the most affordable in the developed world.

But praise for Japanese zoning skirts an important meta question: Why did U.S. zoning end up so much more restrictive than Japanese zoning? To frame the puzzle a different way, why did U.S. and Japanese land-use regulation—which both started off quite liberal—diverge so dramatically in terms of restrictiveness?

I will suggest three factors; the first two set out the “why” for restrictive zoning and the third sets out the “how.” Any YIMBY efforts to liberalize cities in the long term must address these three factors. First, the U.S. privileges real estate as an investment where Japan does not, incentivizing voters to prohibit new supply with restrictive zoning. Second, most public services in the U.S. are administered at the local level, driving local residents to use exclusionary zoning to “preserve” public service quality. Third, the U.S. practice of near-total deference to local land-use planning and widespread use of discretionary permitting creates a system in which local special interests can capture zoning regulation and remake it around their interests.

At the outset, why might Americans voters demand stricter zoning than their Japanese counterparts? One possibility is that they are trying to preserve the value of their only meaningful asset: their home. In the U.S., we use housing as a kind of de facto social safety net. Through a mixture of interest deductions, capital gains and property tax exemptions, and subsidized mortgages, current housing policy in the U.S. does everything it can to nudge every American into plowing their life’s savings into a home. Over time, the thinking goes, homes will accrue in value and homeowners will build “wealth.”

In reality, even with all these subsidies, a home is a poor investment: it’s highly illiquid, and if a region isn’t growing or if a lot of new housing being built, any meager housing appreciation will be wiped out by maintenance costs and taxes. To overcome this issue, U.S. municipalities systematically restrict the construction of new housing, creating artificial housing scarcity which drives up the values of existing homes. For more on this hypothesis, check out The Homevoter Hypothesis by William Fischel.

The situation in Japan is almost the exact opposite. Homes have little resale value in Japan. By one estimate, the average Japanese home fully depreciates after 22 years. There’s surely a cultural element, but most observers agree that the island’s frequent earthquakes play a big role: with structural damage so frequent and safety standards constantly improving, nobody wants to live in an old home. The result is that the resale  value of a home is really only in its land value, so Japanese savers have little to no reason to “invest” in a house, treating shelter like a consumption good.

This system has two downstream effects on land-use regulation: On the one hand, the average Japanese household simply has no reason to perpetuate housing scarcity, like their American counterpart. On the other hand, the average Japanese household has a vested interest in keeping land-use regulation light, insomuch as they see themselves as potential future developers in the event of a move. Would it be better if Americans, like the Japanese, demolished most homes after 30 years? I’m not so sure. But it would be wise to stop subsidizing excessive investments in housing, which would encourage smarter investment behavior and reduce demand for restrictive land-use regulations.

Another reason why Americans might support more restrictive zoning than the Japanese has to do with the peculiar way that we provide public services. Here in the U.S., the quality of essential services like parks, education, and public safety can vary dramatically municipality to municipality. A larger population of low-income households means higher public outlays, higher taxes on middle- and upper-income earners, and lower quality public services.

Residents respond by self-selecting into the most affluent communities they can afford and pulling up the ladder once they’re in. To put it another way, to ensure access to quality schools and open space, American households are encouraged to move out to a suburb and employ land-use regulations to keep out anyone poorer than themselves. This partly explains the extreme racial and economic segregation see in most U.S. cities today; for more on this, see The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.

Japan avoids these pressures both by standardizing local public service provision and by enforcing strict economic and racial homogeneity through a mixture of high marginal tax rates and xenophobic immigration policy. The desirability of the latter two policies is highly suspect, but the decoupling of public service quality from local municipal boundaries is a no brainer. Insomuch as U.S. policymakers can expand policies like school choice and city-county consolidation, they minimize the need for local voters to try and exclude outsiders from moving into high opportunity areas.

We now know why a certain segment American voters might prefer restrictive land-use regulations. But how do they enforce these preferences against the apparent needs of the country as a whole? In the U.S., our 89,000 municipal governments are entitled to develop their own unique  system of land-use regulation, with little to no oversight from the courts, state governments, or federal regulators. The result is that zoning restrictiveness rises to the preference of local special interests like homeowners, which in small, homogenous, middle- and upper-income suburbs can be quite restrictive. This severely limits new development in most suburbs, with ugly elements of racism and classism typically mixed in.

In cities, the mechanism of enforcing these restrictive preferences is slightly different. More so than in suburbs, many U.S. cities force every development proposal to go through a long and costly discretionary review process. This is often done by making land-use regulations so restrictive that any development must pursue a discretionary action like a rezoning or a special permit. In practice, this submits all proposed development to months of negotiating and public review, in which locals can shout a project down to their preferred size (which is often a vacant lot) or extract large concessions from the developer.

Japan bypasses these problems completely through a large national role in land-use planning and an as-of-right system of development. On the first score, the national government sets out 12 zones, which are clear, liberal, and generally focused on actual nuisances. This places a lower bound on how strict a local land-use regulation can be, with even the most strict zone allowing for multifamily, home-based businesses, and small local retailers. This national zoning system takes away the power of local municipalities to develop complicated and exclusionary local land-use regulations.

On the second score, Japan combines these liberal use and design guidelines with an “as-of-right” system of permitting, meaning that if a project complies with the zoning, it doesn’t need to go through a discretionary review process. In this sense, Japanese zoning gets close to proper planning: policymakers consider upfront what type of development they would like to permit and where, and when developers come up with a conforming proposal, they hand over the needed permits. This provides developers and local residents with a high degree of certainty about what can and cannot be built.

So what exactly should we learn from Japanese zoning? At a superficial level, we might take away that Japan shows that a liberal zoning regime is workable and highly desirable. YIMBYs can and should go out and work on liberalizing our local zoning code in the near term. But at a deeper level, YIMBYs should learn that making their mounting victories sustainable in the long term means taking on the policies and institutions that built our system of exclusionary zoning in the first place.

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A great new paper on how government fights walking http://www.marketurbanism.com/2019/03/07/a-great-new-paper-on-how-government-fights-walking/ http://www.marketurbanism.com/2019/03/07/a-great-new-paper-on-how-government-fights-walking/#respond Thu, 07 Mar 2019 15:14:13 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10808 Many readers of this blog know that government subsidizes driving- not just through road spending, but also through land use regulations that make walking and transit use inconvenient and dangerous.  Gregory Shill, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, has written an excellent new paper that goes even further. Of course, Shill […]

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Many readers of this blog know that government subsidizes driving- not just through road spending, but also through land use regulations that make walking and transit use inconvenient and dangerous.  Gregory Shill, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, has written an excellent new paper that goes even further.

Of course, Shill discusses anti-pedestrian regulations such as density limits and minimum parking requirements.  But he also discusses government practices that make automobile use far more dangerous and polluting than it has to be.  For example, environmental regulations focus on tailpipe emissions, but ignore environmental harm caused by roadbuilding and the automobile manufacturing process.  Vehicle safety regulations make cars safer, but American crashworthiness regulations do not consider the safety of pedestrians in automobile/pedestrian crashes.   Speeding laws allow very high speeds and are rarely enforced.

If you don’t want to read the 100-page article, a more detailed discussion is at Streetsblog.

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Market Urbanism MUsings March 1, 2019 http://www.marketurbanism.com/2019/03/01/market-urbanism-musings-march-1-2019/ http://www.marketurbanism.com/2019/03/01/market-urbanism-musings-march-1-2019/#respond Fri, 01 Mar 2019 19:36:54 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10719 1. Recently at Market Urbanism Any Green New Deal Must Tackle Zoning Reform by Nolan Gray According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), transportation and electricity account for more than half of the US’ greenhouse gas emissions. As David Owen points out in his book “Green Metropolis,” city dwellers drive less, consume less electricity, and throw out […]

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A viaduct for the California High-Speed Rail Project

1. Recently at Market Urbanism

Any Green New Deal Must Tackle Zoning Reform by Nolan Gray

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), transportation and electricity account for more than half of the US’ greenhouse gas emissions. As David Owen points out in his book “Green Metropolis,” city dwellers drive less, consume less electricity, and throw out less trash than their rural and suburban peers. This means that if proponents of the Green New Deal are serious about reducing carbon emissions, they will have to help more people move to cities.

New York State’s Property Tax Cap by Michael Lewyn

New York’s Gov. Cuomo has recently proposed a tax cut that buys popularity for state lawmakers on the backs of municipalities.  In 2011, the state passed a law to limit local governments’ property tax increases to 2 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower.  This cap was originally temporary, but Cuomo now proposes to make it permanent.

What Should YIMBY’s Learn from 2018? by Nolan Gray

Believe it or not, the YIMBY movement won a lot in 2018. And rolling into 2019, elected officials at every level of California government—from the state’s new Democratic governor to San Diego’s Republican mayor—are singing from the YIMBY hymn sheet. All in all, it wasn’t a bad year for a movement that’s only five years old. But what really made 2018 such an unexpected success for YIMBYs?

Yimbyism: the Evolution of an Idea by Jeff Fong

Five years ago everything in California felt like a giant (land use policy) dumpster fire. Fast forward to today we live in a completely different world. Yimby activists have pushed policy, swayed elections, and dramatically shifted the overton window on California housing policy. And through this process of pushing change, Yimbyism itself has evolved as well.

Evidence that home-sharing doesn’t raise rents by Michael Lewyn

A common argument against Airbnb and similar home-sharing companies is that they raise rents, because every apartment used for short-term rentals could be used for long-term rentals. A recent paper by a Spanish Ph.D. candidate suggests otherwise.

Big Media Gets Big Buildings Wrong by Michael Lewyn

After googling “one in four paris apartments vacant” I found an article claiming that 26 percent of apartments in four Paris arrondissements (neighborhoods) is vacant- a much narrower claim, comparable to an assertion that one in four midtown Manhattan apartments is vacant. One would think that a journalist as distinguished as Johnston would know the difference between “Paris” and “some parts of Paris.”

2. Also by Market Urbanists

Nolan Gray and Brandon Fuller at Citylab, “A Red-State Take on a YIMBY Housing Bill

Nolan Gray and Lyman Stone at Citylab, “How ‘Vasectomy Zoning’ Makes Childless Cities

Emily Hamilton at Mercatus, “Cities and States to Watch in 2019

Vote for both Emily and Nolan in the Neoliberal brackets on twitter:

Vote for Emily

Vote for Nolan

3. At the Market Urbanism Facebook Group

Roger Valdez at Forbes: Imagine No Housing Prices, Only Data: The United States Of Amazon

Michael Strong shares: An intelligent and informed paper explaining why Singapore’s approach to planning has been successful.

Jay  Carlson says: Prop 13 is the Brexit of property tax policy.

Anthony Ling asks: What are your thoughts in Ricard Florida’s petition against Amazon HQ2’s “auction”?

Michael Hewitt Wilson shares: Zoning Laws Cause Poverty

Via Joe Wolf: No, Zoning Reform Isn’t Magic. But It’s Crucial.

Via Randy Shaw: SF’S Moment of Truth on Housing

Via Brendon Harre: Japanese urbanism and its application to the Anglo-World

Via Christopher Stefan: Why Are Developers Only Building Luxury Housing?

Via Randy Shaw: Newson’s 2004 Housing Vision Finally Popular

Via Chris Bergren: The Wretched Climate-Killing Truth about American Sprawl

Via Sean Lawrence: New ‘trackless train’ which runs on virtual rail lines launched in China

Via Stephen Rowe: Stephenville mayor evicted from off-the-grid home after council vote

Via Tom W. Bell: The Behavioral Sink

Via Joe Wolf: Amazon threatens Philadelphia over plan to ban cashless stores

Via Joe Wolf: Amazon signals slowdown of Seattle growth as it gives up on New York

Via Michael Burns: Housing Shortages Are Self-Made, Unnecessary

Via Joe Wolf: I’m Really Upset About Losing Amazon’s HQ2

Via Randy Shaw: Blue Cities Should Enact Local Green New Deals

Via Donald Shoup: Free Parking:Is it the Secret Ingredient in NYC’s Traffic Problem?

Via Matt Robare: Supreme Court limits power of states and localities to impose fines, seize property

Via Joe Wolf: Even AARP endorses Sen. Wiener’s pro-housing bill

Via Joe Wolf: What if the problem of poverty is that it’s profitable to other people?

Via Nevram Norman: Could a car-free, Dutch-style city work in Colorado?

3. Stephen Smith’s hottest tweet:

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Big Media Gets Big Buildings Wrong http://www.marketurbanism.com/2019/02/28/big-media-gets-big-buildings-wrong/ http://www.marketurbanism.com/2019/02/28/big-media-gets-big-buildings-wrong/#respond Thu, 28 Feb 2019 20:25:55 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10774 While reading someone else’s work, I recently ran across an article by David Cay Johnston of the New York Times, claiming that overseas oligarchs  turning apartments all over the world into unused “ghost apartments”.  In this article, Johnston writes:  “In Paris, for instance, one apartment in four sits empty most of the time.” This claim […]

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While reading someone else’s work, I recently ran across an article by David Cay Johnston of the New York Times, claiming that overseas oligarchs  turning apartments all over the world into unused “ghost apartments”.  In this article, Johnston writes:  “In Paris, for instance, one apartment in four sits empty most of the time.”

This claim struck me as so astonishing that as to be implausible, for the simple reason that in other “global” cities vacancy rates are much lower.  For example, in New York only 9 percent of housing units are vacant, and most of those units are currently for sale or rent.*  Even this vacancy level should not be particularly astonishing, since cheaper American cities often have higher vacancy rates.  For example, Houston has an 11 percent vacancy rate, and Atlanta has an 18 percent vacancy rate.

After googling “one in four paris apartments vacant” I found an article claiming that 26 percent of apartments in four Paris arrondisements (neighborhoods) is vacant- a much narrower claim, comparable to an assertion that one in four midtown Manhattan apartments is vacant.   One would think that a journalist as distinguished as Johnston would know the difference between “Paris” and “some parts of Paris.”

A more recent article claims that only 7.5 percent of Paris apartments are vacant- a lower vacancy rate than that of New York.   Moreover, we don’t know what the local media means by “vacant.”  Does this category limited to apartments that are unused 365 days a year?  What about units that are rented out now and then through Airbnb?  Or units that are currently being advertised for rent or sale?  I suspect that the true number of “ghost apartments” is far lower than 7.5 percent, since in London (another “global city”) less than 1 percent of housing units are entirely empty.

Why do I care about how many oligarchs own unused apartments in Paris? The “ghost apartment”  claim is a common theme of NIMBY activists.  Anti-housing commentators argue that new infill will always be bought by foreign oligarchs who will not actually use the apartments; as a result, new housing will never lower housing prices.  Of course, this claim contradicts other NIMBY arguments (such as that new housing is terrible because it congests the highways and/or subways, or leads to gentrification by bringing nonpoor people into a poor area).

*For detailed statistics, go to the Census American Factfinder site, and click the “Housing” box for New York City.

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Evidence that home-sharing doesn’t raise rents http://www.marketurbanism.com/2019/02/27/evidence-that-home-sharing-doesnt-raise-rents/ http://www.marketurbanism.com/2019/02/27/evidence-that-home-sharing-doesnt-raise-rents/#respond Thu, 28 Feb 2019 02:15:47 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10771 A common argument against Airbnb and similar home-sharing companies is that they raise rents, because every apartment used for short-term rentals could be used for long-term rentals.  A recent paper by a Spanish Ph.D. candidate suggests otherwise. The paper focused on Santa Monica, California where, in 2015, the city adopted an ordinance restricting home-sharing.  This […]

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A common argument against Airbnb and similar home-sharing companies is that they raise rents, because every apartment used for short-term rentals could be used for long-term rentals.  A recent paper by a Spanish Ph.D. candidate suggests otherwise.

The paper focused on Santa Monica, California where, in 2015, the city adopted an ordinance restricting home-sharing.  This city’s ordinance was successful in reducing Airbnb listings- especially listings of complete apartments, which cities are most likely to regulate (as opposed to spare rooms in a residence used by an Airbnb host).

If the anti-home sharing argument was valid, rents should have gone down.  Instead, rents rose in Santa Monica by the same amount as they rose in other Los Angeles suburbs that do not regulate home-sharing to the same extent.

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Yimbyism: The Evolution of an Idea http://www.marketurbanism.com/2019/02/19/yimbyism-the-evolution-of-an-idea/ Tue, 19 Feb 2019 14:46:01 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10685 Five years ago everything in California felt like a giant (land use policy) dumpster fire. Fast forward to today we live in a completely different world. Yimby activists have pushed policy, swayed elections, and dramatically shifted the overton window on California housing policy. And through this process of pushing change, Yimbyism itself has evolved as […]

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Five years ago everything in California felt like a giant (land use policy) dumpster fire. Fast forward to today we live in a completely different world. Yimby activists have pushed policy, swayed elections, and dramatically shifted the overton window on California housing policy. And through this process of pushing change, Yimbyism itself has evolved as well.

Learning by Listening 

Yimbys started out with a straightforward diagnosis of the housing crisis in California. They said, “…housing prices are high because there’s not enough housing and if we want lower prices, we need more housing”. And they were, of course, completely right…at least with regards to the specific problem-space defined by supply, demand, and the long run.

San Francisco, the birthplace of Yimby activism

As Yimby’s started coalition building, though, they began recognizing related, but fundamentally different concerns. For anti-displacement activists, the problem was not defined by long-run aggregate prices. It was instead all about the immediate plight of economically vulnerable communities. Increasing supply was not an attractive proposal because of the long time horizons (years, decades) and ambiguous benefit for their specific constituencies. 

Yimbyism as Practical Politics

Leaders in the Yimby movement could have thrown up their hands and walked away. But they didn’t. Instead they listened and developed a yes and approach. The Yimby platform still embraces the idea that, long run, we need to build more housing, but it now also supports measures to protect those who’ll fall off the housing ladder tomorrow without a helping hand today.

Scott Weiner’s SB50 is a great example of this attitude in action. If passed, the bill will reduce restrictions on housing construction across the state. It targets transit and job rich areas and builds in eviction protections to guard against displacement. At a high level, it sets up the playing field so that renters in a four story apartment next to BART don’t get evicted to make way for twelve stories of condos. But it still incentivizes homeowners next to the station (or, awesomely, just in Cupertino) to cash out by selling to a developer who’ll put in a triplex.

The strategic direction California Yimbys have taken, as exemplified by SB 50, makes all the sense in the world. Even if you take issue with the policy specifics, you have to admit it makes for great politics. This is politically viable legislation that opens the door to building more housing where we need it most.

Making a Big Tent Bigger

My co-contributor Nolan Gray has written about the growing bi-partisan nature of Yimbyism. And, in noting the tension between left and right oriented activists within the movement, has called out the challenge this represents for future coalition building.

If I’m reading him correctly, Nolan is noting that there’ll be work here, not necessarily making a prediction about future failure or success. I’ll stick my neck out, though, and say that the Yimbys will overcome the challenges posed by ideological tension. My general read is that the real action is still at the state level and that there’s limited need for inter-state coordination. There are still things to be gained from sharing best practices and lessons learned, but Yimby’s separated by state lines are operationally independent. Also, Yimby leaders have historically valued cooperation on practical politics over fights on questions of ideological purity. It’s been a healthy impulse in the past and I believe it will continue to serve Yimby activists well in the future.

I see the last five years of Yimby activism as one of the great policy success stories of our lifetime. I have every expectation that we’ll see the unwinding of a century’s worth of terrible policy in California and elsewhere across the country. And even the initial progress to date should give us hope that institutional inertia is not absolute and that positive change is everywhere still a possibility. 

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What Should YIMBYs Learn From 2018? http://www.marketurbanism.com/2019/02/04/what-should-yimbys-learn-from-2018/ Mon, 04 Feb 2019 14:00:30 +0000 http://marketurbanism.com/?p=10662 Believe it or not, the YIMBY movement won a lot in 2018. It kicked off with January’s high of California State Senator Scott Wiener’s introduction of SB 827, which would have permitted multifamily development near transit across the state, but fell to a low after its eventual defeat in committee, invariably followed by a flurry […]

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Believe it or not, the YIMBY movement won a lot in 2018. It kicked off with January’s high of California State Senator Scott Wiener’s introduction of SB 827, which would have permitted multifamily development near transit across the state, but fell to a low after its eventual defeat in committee, invariably followed by a flurry of think pieces about how the pro-development movement had “failed.” At the time, I made the case for optimism over on Citylab, but that didn’t stop the summer lull from becoming a period of soul searching within the movement.

And then, a strange thing happened: YIMBYs started winning, and winning big. In August, presidential-hopeful Senator Cory Booker released a plan to preempt exclusionary zoning using Community Development Block Grant funds, quickly followed by a similar plan from Senator Elizabeth Warren in September. Also in August, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson unexpectedly outed himself as a YIMBY. Then, in December, things really got crazy: two major North American cities, Minneapolis and Edmonton, completely eliminated single-family zoning. States like Oregon soon started talking about doing the same.

In the same month, California kicked into overdrive: San Francisco—ground zero for the YIMBY movement—scrapped minimum parking requirements altogether. State Senator Wiener introduced a newer, sharper version of SB 827. And rolling into 2019, elected officials at every level of California government—from the state’s new Democratic governor to San Diego’s Republican mayor—are singing from the YIMBY hymn sheet.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad year for a movement that’s only five years old. But what really made 2018 such an unexpected success for YIMBYs?

Focus on Citywide Reform Over Individual Rezonings

Showing up and saying “Yes!” to individual projects that are requesting a rezoning, variance, or special permit is bread-and-butter YIMBY activism. And while YIMBYs should still show up in support of especially good local projects like homeless shelters or fully-affordable buildings, the real battle is at the city-wide level. YIMBYs in 2018 were so successful, in part, because they focused on two types of policy reforms: text amendments and comprehensive plan updates.

Unlike a rezoning or special permit, which only facilitates a single project, a good text amendment permanently changes the zoning for an entire class of developments, potentially making thousands of new developments possible. This is what happened when San Francisco eliminated parking requirements. Without minimum parking requirements, an unknowable number of new projects may now pencil out.

The same is true of comprehensive plan updates, which, in many states, will force changes in the zoning ordinance through a mechanism called a “consistency requirement.” That means that if a comprehensive plan calls for a policy—for example, that all residential districts must allow at least triplexes—then the zoning ordinance must change to accommodate this. This is essentially what happened in Minneapolis, thanks to the activism of the the YIMBY groups.

Why focus on text amendments and comprehensive plans over individual applications? First, because in most cities, the former can mostly fly under the radar. Since everyone is bearing some of the burden, nobody has a special incentive to show up and NIMBY. Second, citywide reforms will simply facilitate far, far more new development than any individual application, for roughly the same amount of activist resources. If YIMBYs are going to solve the housing affordability crisis and end exclusionary zoning, cities are going to need to build a lot of units everywhere, and doing that requires citywide reforms.

State Legislatures Are Your Friend

In 2019, YIMBYs should continue to encourage state legislative efforts that will ease up on burdensome land-use regulations and phase out exclusionary zoning. As with citywide reforms, successful statewide reforms could open up hundreds of thousands of new development opportunities.

An effective state preemption can create a lot of new units. New Jersey, for instance, has required that exclusionary municipalities build their fair share of new units since the Mt. Laurel decisions in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In March, a court ordered that at least 155,000 new units be permitted in the next decade alone. More recently, California legislators enacted sweeping ADU reform, effectively eliminating single-family zoning and sparking the development of thousands of new units in unused garages and attics.

State preemption makes sense for many of the same reason that citywide reform makes sense: It eliminates the need for a costly, city-by-city reform campaign, and it could open up many hundreds of thousands of development opportunities. But state preemption goes even further in opening up NIMBY suburbs that will never build more housing without outside intervention. This is key, because the YIMBY cause is also about desegregating our metropolitan areas and helping working people afford to live in the areas with quality schools and plenty of job opportunities.

YIMBY Is Bipartisan, Whether You Like It Or Not

The YIMBY movement is overwhelmingly composed of Democrats. That makes sense: most people who live—or want to live—in cities are Democrats. But an unexpected lesson of 2018 is that there’s a surprising appetite for YIMBY ideas among Republicans as well. The politics of leveraging this interest may be one of the trickiest political challenges the YIMBY movement will face going forward.

Consider three 2018 developments: First, in the committee vote on whether or not to advance SB 827, two of the committee’s three present Republicans voted in favor of the bill, while all but two Democrats—including Senator Wiener—voted against. Second, one of the only big-city mayors to come out forcefully as a YIMBY thus far has been San Diego Republican Kevin Faulconer. Third, HUD Secretary Carson—arguably the person with the most power over U.S. housing policy—has lately come out as a YIMBY.

For Republicans, the underlying motivation may be more property rights and deregulation than racial justice and environmentalism. But whatever their motivations, it’s clear that more and more Republicans are open to saying “Yes!” to new housing development.

There are two ways YIMBYs could react to this new GOP interest. To avoid alienating leftist YIMBYs, they could safeguard their left flank and eschew any cooperation with this budding Republican YIMBY offshoot. Or they could leverage this political capital to expand into high-cost red states like Utah and Idaho, build stronger coalitions in high-cost swing states like Colorado, and advance YIMBY policy in an indefinitely divided Congress.

The right mix in 2019 will likely often be a bit of both, depending the level of government and politics in play. Threading this needle won’t be easy, but it’s an essential next step in the maturation of the YIMBY movement.

 

For future content and discussion, follow me on Twitter at @mnolangray.

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