In laudable news, the Pew Charitable Trusts have backed a research project at NYU’s Furman Center to commission and publish work “to understand how specific land use reforms…have affected outcomes on the ground, especially with respect to residential development.”
While looking forward to that series, I want to highlight a more dispersed, emerging body of work: political case studies of some of the major (or minor) land use reforms of the YIMBY era.
In a recent exercise, I asked a large number of YIMBY and pro-housing friends to rate the effectiveness and political attainability of 17 distinct types of reform. What I learned is that there is relatively little consensus – some people think that curbing parking minimums is easy, some hard. Some think it would be highly efficacious, others don’t. There’s a lot we don’t know – and that it’s important to learn. (If you’re interested in the results, you can email me and get them in exchange for contributing your own views).
In that spirit, here are a few case studies of the political process that led to some of the substantial reforms in cities and states in the last decade. The best of these follow the model I learned in political science classes: identifying the key actors and their interests, describing some of the wrangling and horse-trading in detail, giving glimpses into private moments where possible.
I’m also certain that there are other pieces in the genre that I’m missing – leave them in the comments or email me; I’ll update the piece accordingly.
- Portland: Michael Andersen’s 2021 case study of the five-year process leading to Portland’s upzoning is rich with names and – thanks to Kayla Brock’s photography – faces. Andersen deftly deploys a listicle format to manage the tension between historical detail and narrative structure, basing his work on extensive interviews as well as his own recollections.
- Minneapolis: Richard Kahlenberg’s 2019 report walks through the key arguments, the opposition, and the successful tactics that led Minneapolis to become the first big city to eliminate longstanding detached-only zoning.
- California: A big story deserves book-length treatment, which Conor Dougherty’s Golden Gates provides. If the lesson from Minneapolis is that normal electoral politics can lead to YIMBY results, California’s story is of a very small number of people who created a major political movement ex nihilo starting around the time of Kim-Mai Cutler’s online classic, which is a case study in pre-reform statics that contrasts with the dynamics of the post-2016 reform era.
Aside from these essential works, there are smaller pieces that sketch the political process that took a city or state from “not in my backyard” to “yes!” With reader contributions, I hope to expand this list, but here are a few:
- Tyson’s: Policy change in Tyson’s, Virginia, is attempting to redevelop a classic car-only “edge city” of malls and offices into something like a real city. Emily Hamilton’s dissertation chapter analyzed the politics of change using a public choice framework.
- New Rochelle: An innovative process using a “master developer,” Generic Environmental Impact Study, and community benefits menu ignited a downtown building boom. Two case studies – at Better Cities Project and Up For Growth – have profiled it.
If we go too far back in time, this list will become unmanageable – and also distant from the YIMBY political moment of the present. But I can’t resist including two honorable mentions: recent case studies that frame 1990s reforms in contemporary terms.
- Houston: In an academic paper, Nolan Gray and Adam Millsap explore the political economy of Houston’s 1998 subdivision reform, as well as its effects. To neutralize opposition, Houston allowed motivated NIMBYs to opt out of the reform on a block-by-block basis.
- Vancouver: Thousands of basement units and divided suites existed outside the law. Alan Durning chronicles the city’s gradual toleration and embrace of its most iconic housing form, which has echoes of New York’s loft legalization.