YIMBIES: Looking Out for People Who Don’t Live There Yet

February 14, 2020
Affordable housing sign
Photo: Stock.adobe

Do individual cities have any incentive to solve the housing shortage, particularly if the loudest voters are homeowners that consistently oppose development?

The fate of a proposed 315-unit apartment building in Lafayette, Calif., suggests maybe not.

Residents of this San Francisco suburb turned downright hostile even when the developer revised the plan to 44 single-family homes. But even the locals faced opposition from a rabble rouser who eventually founded the Yes in My Back Yard movement and from Steve Falk, the city manager who initially was against the development but, against his own interest, eventually became a supporter. 

“I’m not sure individual cities, left to their own devices, are going to solve this,” Falk said. “They don’t have the incentive to do so, because local voters are always going to protect their own interests instead of looking out for people who don’t live there yet.”

Development battles are fought hyperlocally, but the issues are resonating everywhere. In late 2018, Minneapolis became the first major city in America to effectively end single-family zoning. Oregon followed soon after. California and New York have significantly expanded protections for renters. And as more economists give credence to the notion that a housing crisis can materially harm G.D.P., by exacerbating inequality and reducing opportunity, all of the Democratic presidential candidates have put forth major housing proposals.

They run the gamut from tax breaks for renters, to calls for more affordable housing funds, to plans for bringing federal muscle to bear on zoning reform. These ideas share a central conflict: Can city leaders — who in theory know local conditions best — be trusted to build the housing we need? Or will they continue to pursue policies that pump up property values, perpetuate sprawl, and punish low-income renters?

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