What I learned at YIMBYtown 2017

Last week Anton Schieffer and I formed the Minnesota delegation at YIMBYtown 2017 in Oakland, Calif. YIMBY stands for “yes in my backyard,” which is in opposition to NIMBY, “not in my backyard,” which is a name you can call someone who opposes a thing you like, if you’ve given up on being persuasive or civil.

Last year, the first annual meeting of the YIMBYs was in Boulder, Colorado. This year, the event was hosted by East Bay Forward, a network of folks who try to get local governments to approve the construction of more homes in Oakland, Berkeley, and other cities in Contra Costa and Alameda counties. They held the conference at Oakstop, a co-working space in downtown Oakland. Despite the occasional earthquake, the San Francisco Bay Area is a nice place to be. They have rail transit that goes through tunnels, palm trees, burritos, and a low unemployment rate. Too bad the median rent for a one-bedroom costs three times as much in Minneapolis.

9th Street in Oakland, CA

9th Street in Oakland, CA

Three keynote speakers, a bunch of small conference and unconference style presentations and panels that I’ll categorize by topic.

The first keynote speaker spoke on Thursday. Sasha Marshall, an urban planner for the City of Houston, presented on Houston’s “Say Yes” outreach campaign to correct misconceptions of affordable homes. After an affordable housing development was halted by neighborhood activists, the City set out to humanize the issue of housing affordability. The Say Yes campaign sets the ambitious, inclusive goal of promoting “quality homes for all incomes in all areas of Houston.” The city took the dry, technical income limits table from HUD and assigned professions with salaries that would qualify for subsidized housing. For example, an entry-level firefighter in Houston earns $43,528, which isn’t enough to afford a home in some areas. They distributed flyers with a photo of a real-life Houston firefighter and the text, “I protect your home. Can I be your neighbor?” The campaign clarified the human stakes of building affordable homes in all parts of the city.

Say Yes flyer

A flyer from Houston’s Say Yes campaign.

The second keynote address was from Seattle activist Laura Loe, and she spoke on Friday. She spoke about her experience as a housing activist with a background in education, community organizing, and punk rock. She gave advice on how to build a sustainable and robust pro-housing movement: “Take selfies, power map, listen differently, keep showing up, pay organizers, try to be charming and disarm people at meetings, be relentless, send old-fashioned paper notes, write articles about housing and pitch them to local editors, and lead with kindness to others and yourself.” Seattle is the fastest-growing large city in the U.S., and 500 people move there each week.

California State Senator Scott Wiener gave the third keynote address. Sen. Wiener is the author of SB35, a bill in the state legislature that would make it easier to build homes in cities that aren’t meeting their housing goals set by the state. During his presentation, members of the anarcho-queer collective Gay Shame shouted violent chants from the street. Sen. Wiener posited that he and Gay Shame were motivated by the same problem: high rents, and residential and commercial displacement in San Francisco. He lamented that his own journey — moving to San Francisco as a young adult without much money — is impossible for young people today. After pointing to their commonalities, Wiener explained where he differed with his opponents: “The idea that building more housing makes housing more expensive… and that if we reduce the amount of housing, then housing will be more affordable, is a ridiculous argument.”

Selfie with Sen. Scott Weiner

YIMBY town 2017

The rest of the conference was planned and impromptu sessions about overcoming the housing shortage. You could divide them into three subjects: policy, messaging, and organization. I’ll try to give the gist of each session without taking up too much space or doing too much violence to the presenters’ ideas:

Policy

  • Issi Romem from BuildZoom presented research on expensive and expansive cities. He concluded that attractive metros either build more homes (either in the core or the suburbs) or see rising rents.
  • Dan Keshet from Austin, Texas proposed a state-level solution to exclusionary zoning: automatically upzone neighborhoods where the land value per dwelling unit is more than $150,000. The idea behind this technocratic approach is to target zoning reform to areas where the current land-use laws are excluding people from desirable areas. (I made a rough map showing where the land value-dwelling unit ratio exceeds $150,000 in south Minneapolis.)
  • Emily Hamilton from George Mason University’s Mercatus Center and the blog Market Urbanism reviewed studies showing that restrictive zoning has made Americans poorer.

Messaging

  • Andrea Kelley and Sasha Marshall reviewed effective YIMBY responses to concerns about more housing.
  • Keiko Budech from Seattle’s Sightline Institute reported the results of a focus group they’d conducted on housing messaging. She suggested housing activists focus on inclusive values, personal stories, and vivid descriptions: say “walkable neighborhoods” instead of “density,” “homes” instead of “dwelling units.”

Organization

  • Aaron Brown from Portland, Oregon gave a passionate presentation about intersectional YIMBYism. Housing activists need to understand race, class, and other systems of oppression to build a robust movement, to get stuff done, and to lead fuller lives.
  • Sarah Guidi from Greater Greater Washington, Madeline Kovacs from Portland for Everyone, and Skylar Taylor from YIMBY Action discussed how their organizations started, how they are structured, and where they get their money.
  • Laura Foote Clark from YIMBY Action discussed the benefits and limitations of different organizational structures. YIMBY Action is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit social welfare organization that has more freedom to lobby and support political campaigns than a 501(c)(3) organization like Our Streets Mpls.

YIMBYtown was a great opportunity to hear how other communities are struggling and succeeding against the great urban housing shortage. I left Oakland with a lot of energy, and a lot of questions I’m still puzzling through (on my own and with anyone who will listen). I’m very grateful to East Bay Forward for the generous scholarship! A Better Cambridge announced their intention to host YIMBYtown 2018 in the Boston area.

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