Field Report from YIMBYtown 2016

This weekend I attended the first ever YIMBY conference in Boulder, Colorado. The YIMBY movement (that’s “Yes In My Back Yard!”) is an effort to make housing more affordable in cities across the United States and around the globe. Many people are struggling to pay rising housing costs and are being displaced due to ongoing housing shortages in major cities.

The YIMBY movement advocates for more housing (both market-rate and affordable) to be built to address this shortage. As more people move back to large urban centers, cities sometimes lack the political will to create enough housing for existing and future residents. As a result, there are more residents competing for the same limited number of housing units, which drives rents up.

Between 2010 and 2015, Minneapolis added approximately 30,000 new residents, but built less than 12,000 new housing units during that time. Other cities are also experiencing the same to even greater degrees:

Unfortunately, building more housing is not always as simple as it sounds. Outdated zoning codes make smart development more challenging by requiring things like parking lots and other archaic “amenities” to be added to projects in our cities. Huge swaths of our city are restricted to single family housing that doesn’t accommodate population growth. Even in areas where zoning allows for increased density, local neighborhood groups often oppose developments, ordinance changes, and infrastructure improvements which would alleviate this housing shortage. The YIMBY movement aims to counteract the influence of these NIMBY groups in order to create better cities for everyone to live in. Most often, this means advocating for new housing projects, which help amplify many of the benefits of cities. With increased density comes better access to transit, more walkable cities, and better infrastructure.

Several prominent YIMBY supporters, such as Sonja Trauss, Alex Steffen, and Sara Maxana, gave talks to the entire group. There were also smaller groups for hour-long discussions on several topics, such as improving YIMBY messaging and how to build alliances with other housing advocates. The event followed an un-conference format: anyone could propose a topic, and participants would then decide which to attend. If you didn’t care for a particular discussion, you were free to find another one more to your liking. I took notes for each session I attended, too (these notes are pretty raw, but give a flavor for the discussions which took place).

Small group discussion of how YIMBYs can better use data to tell stories

Small group discussion of how YIMBYs can better use data to tell stories. Photo courtesy of @YIMBYsea

Of course, one important benefit of these conferences is networking. It was always easy to strike up a conversation with strangers who are just as excited to talk about wonky housing and land-use topics as you are. Minneapolis and St. Paul are feeling many of the similar pressures that residents in Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle are dealing with, and it was worthwhile to compare notes on how best to deal with certain situations. Attendees from other cities were happy to hear that Minneapolis has had several success stories over the past few years, such as reducing parking requirements along transit corridors and allowing creation of accessory dwelling units (ADUs).

Yours truly talking about the amazing job Lisa Bender has done to urbanism in Minneapolis

Yours truly talking about the amazing job Lisa Bender has done to promote housing and transportation in Minneapolis. Photo by @YIMBYsea

Two key takeaways from the conference: if we want to create more housing, better transportation infrastructure, and a more equitable city, we need to organize and have fun (not necessarily in that order). Events like happy hours are a great way to get together with like-minded people, and are low-pressure ways to get involved in the progressive transportation and land use community. They’re also a bit more fun than city council meetings, but it’s important to show up to those too. Upcoming events include a chat with Mexican urbanist Gustavo Gutiérrez on June 22, and a picnic in July. See you there!

Anton Schieffer

About Anton Schieffer

Anton lives in Minneapolis and writes about information technology, government transparency, and local housing issues. He mostly wants to build enough housing so that everyone has a place to live.