In an encouraging post this morning, Matt Yglesias – one of the O.G. YIMBYs – summed up 10 years of success since his book, The Rent Is Too Damn High, was published. If you’d asked me, I’d have guessed that Too Damn High was published in 2015 or 2016, when YIMBY was in its infancy and researchers like me were starting to nose around zoning as a major regulatory cost. Yglesias was several years ahead of the curve.
In his post, Yglesias gives free marketers a lot of credit for being for upzoning before it was cool. Market urbanists will certainly accept the compliment, and the legacies of Bernard Siegan and Bob Ellickson (1972…2022 – incredible!) are undeniable.
But there’s another major part of the pre-YIMBY world that’s missing in this story, which is the progressive critics of suburban zoning. One of the graphs that keeps me up at night is the Google n-gram showing that “exclusionary zoning” was less a part of the discourse in the 2010s than it was throughout the 70s and 80s… and yet the activists of the time accomplished so little!
The progressive critics of zoning, such as Paul Davidoff and Myron Orfield, were focused on allowing multifamily housing – especially if subsidized – in the suburbs. Urban housing markets were pretty slack at the time, and adding affordable housing in central cities risked concentrating poverty.
A great book that covers a specific housing battle spanning the 1990s is Lawrence Lanahan’s The Lines Between Us.
As I understand it, these activists’ energy became formalized in the affordable housing industry. A lot of those institutions – and individuals – are still active. They have a mixed relationship with the YIMBY movement. In some cities and states, they’re enthusiastic participants. In others, they’re antagonistic.
It would be too glib (and wrong) to say that YIMBY has its roots in libertarian critiques of zoning rather than progressive ones. What might be more accurate is that YIMBY, like the early market urbanists, recognizes that the greatest gains to zoning liberalization are in central cities. That’s a departure from the 1980s focus on opening the suburbs.
Ironically, most of the specific YIMBY wins, at least in state law, are broad requirements that loosen up exclusionary suburban zoning – such as California’s ADU laws, Oregon’s lot-split law, or Massachusetts “MBTA Communities” law (which doesn’t apply to Boston at all).
YIMBY is still gaining momentum. Last year, the outreach team I work with sent a blast to state legislators from all 50 states with my Menu of Options for zoning reform. About 40 legislators responded, making it possibly the most effective email blast in the team’s history.
This week, we sent basically the same email promoting basically the same product. We might already, in just 3 days, be close to surpassing last year’s number of briefing requests.
And this time, we only blasted it to 13 states.