YIMBYs, tribalism, & the class war in housing

Follow any urban housing policy debate for awhile, and you can expect to find a nasty split between otherwise-aligned progressives. In one camp sit the Leftists, that potpourri of radical activists who come to housing politics by way of environmental, economic, and racial justice work, and who train their attention on expanding renter protections and publicly owned housing. Across the divide are YIMBYs, urbanists whose “Yes In My Back Yard” banner carries with it a laser-focus on fighting the housing crunch by creating more space for people to live, through zoning changes and an upsurge of new homes. Both factions promote necessary but insufficient solutions to the crisis; together they may be able to solve it. Yet the schism persists, proving poisonous to major housing legislation.

Unlike many other bitter political rivalries, YIMBYs and Leftists fundamentally want the same thing – safe homes that people can afford across income levels. While their policy preferences admittedly often differ, they are by no means irreconcilable. More than anything the mutual distrust between YIMBYs and Leftists arises from tribal signifiers in their language. They talk about the problem disparately, and so cannot see themselves in one another. Neither bloc seems apt to change their policy prescriptions, nor should they – renter protections, social housing, and upzoning together compose the three-legged stool to stabilize home prices in America. Repairing this balkanized movement begins instead with how we communicate. In this respect, YIMBYs ought to tap into our humility and bow to the Leftists, who intuitively use more powerful language on this issue.

I know we can reconcile YIMBYism and the Left because I am a YIMBY socialist myself. I came to socialism after concluding that capitalism has ravaged communities, and finding the profit-uber-ales free market unable to provide for huge swaths of society. Outside the housing debate, I support single-payer healthcare, tuition-free college, and a federal job guarantee. Observing the American housing crisis, I believe we need a kitchen-sink approach that includes robust regulations to protect renters, and massive infusions of public money to support new below-market housing.

I am a YIMBY because I recognize that the seeds of our housing crisis were sewn when racist, classist elites in banking and government invented zoning to segregate communities and protect prosperous white people from the unspeakable horrors of living next to people of color and low-income whites. Ending this racist practice of exclusionary zoning is the only way to truly solve the housing crisis. A growing population requires a bountiful boom of new homes and neither renter protections nor social housing can fully meet that need if we hope to achieve any other socialist policy goals.

These positions can cohere, even become stronger together. Indeed, most YIMBYs I know are at least marginally socialist in their politics-at-large. Yet pesky rhetorical divisions persist in keeping us apart. The split can roughly be reduced to elegance vs. nuance, clear villains vs. complex systems. YIMBYs tend to ascribe the housing crisis to an arcane collection of laws, codes, and systems emerging over generations, and ascribable to nobody in particular.

Contrast this with Leftists, who succinctly blame capitalism and its puppetmaster tycoons for exploiting the human right of housing for runaway profits. There may well be a solid case that YIMBYs more accurately articulate the crisis’ root cause. As for poetry and public persuasion, however, the Leftists win in a walk.

Cognitive science tells us that complicated ideas (how the housing economy works, for instance) generally require conceptual metaphors to be understood. Anat Shenker-Osorio’s work (explained briefly here) has shown that people are more likely to favor progressive action on the economy if they conceptualize the economy as a vehicle (something that is controlled by people) rather than an autonomous entity (which behaves of its own accord, often mysteriously).

Absent a belief that someone drives the economy, preferences default to the status quo, lest action spook the beast and make things worse. You can see this scaremongering about upsetting the apple cart in NIMBY opposition to residential infill. The more abstract the story we tell about the economy, the less politically persuasive we will be.

Leftists comfortably name villains – generally, roundly unpopular figures like bankers, wealthy speculators, and corporate profiteers. This simplifies stories and makes the case for action stronger. It doubtlessly sacrifices some nuance. May we pour one out for the dead nuances as we christen new mixed-income homes. If YIMBYs want to win this war, we need to name villains.

Who we name as villains also matters, especially if YIMBYS ever hope to join forces with Leftists and end our residency in a house divided against itself. Above all else, naming a villain helps speaker and the audience alike orient themselves in the fight, to recognize who is on their side. This is critical for convincing the general public to join us, and for showing Leftists that YIMBYs are far more friend than foe. Are we on the side of the bankers and capitalists, or are we on the side of the people? With the right answer, YIMBYs can speak to the public at large, and neutralize a potent (though bad faith) critique against us – that we are lackeys or useful idiots for developer profiteers.

Successful narratives feature villains recognizable and believable as roadblocks to a better world. The less recognizable the villain, the more difficult our case. Americans readily recognize the wealthy as villains. Bankers, stockbrokers, realtors, and business executives consistently rank poorly on perceived integrity (lower than most, save politicians and lobbyists). Naming this cadre of capitalists as economic villains not only provides a persuasive case to the public but broadcasts solidarity to Leftists – a rare messaging twofer.

To date, YIMBYs have vainly tried to convince Leftists that we mean no harm, that Leftist critiques of us are founded on false pretenses. This strategy was always doomed to fail. Study after study shows point-by-point counterarguments do not persuade and can even entrench would-be converts in their original positions. Human brains evolved to recognize and cherish tribal connections, so tribal signifiers matter most. “We are with you, and against the capitalist profiteers” does far more to persuade than any treatise on the specific drivers of gentrification. Show that YIMBYs reject the evils of crony capitalism, and we can build toward common cause with our potential allies.

This proposition need not require abandoning the centrality of changing our zoning laws. A simple, honest history of America’s racist, classist zoning laws must lay blame on the sordid partnership between banks and political elites that spawned redlining and segregated neighborhoods. They created this problem; that is true and undeniable.

YIMBYs can tell a strong, simple story with clear victims, villains, and heroes:

People across our city/state/country cannot afford their homes today because generations of politicians and banks designed communities where only the wealthiest and most privileged can live, and forced everyone else to fight over scraps. That problem can only be solved by tearing down the walls that keep working people out of those wealthy neighborhoods and building communities and homes that can work for every kind of family. 

Will this heal all wounds between YIMBYs and Leftists? Of course not. But it might be a start, and at least it sets the conversation on the right track.