A Few Notes From YIMBYtown

I had the opportunity to attend YIMBYtown in Boston. It’s a good chance to learn from other activists about what was going on in other cities, and to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Mostly though, people just asked me if I knew WedgeLIVE (yes) or if I was behind the amazing Neighbors for More Neighbors artwork (no). Here are some short interviews with some of the speakers and organizers of this conference:

I took notes at just about every session I attended, and here are three highlights:

Cities Provide Connections Among People

Ed Glaeser’s opening talk covered quite a few city-related topics, not strictly related to housing; it was a good reminder that cities exist for a reason. People are social animals, and it makes sense to live near each other and share ideas, do business, cook food, take care of family, etc. The 1960s and 1970s brought challenges to cities as places to live, as cars made it possible to commute to cities for work and live elsewhere, and the mass exodus known as “white flight” accelerated. For reference, the population of Minneapolis dropped from 482,000 (in 1960) to 370,000 (in 1980).

Cities are on the rise over the last decade or two. People seek more opportunity and are tiring of suburban lifestyles (why do we dedicate so much land to something almost everyone hates: driving?). Small towns, suburbs, and other low-density areas often lack opportunity, and this opportunity is only accessible to those with a car. Cities can act as a refuge against a sprawl-centered lifestyle, but only if cities have enough housing to accommodate all who wish to live there.

To move forward, cities should find ways to help people access opportunities without requiring car ownership. Current housing and tax policies tend to redistribute wealth to older, established residents. What is a city’s role in creating fair housing and land use policies?

Language is Powerful

Language shapes how we think about problems and how we discuss them with other people. One of the best sessions I attended at YIMBYtown was “Equity and Winning: Building successful coalitions outside your comfort zone” by Angela Park.

Park’s workshop focused on group identity and how activists must use clear, specific language to be more inclusive. For example, it’s not helpful to use words like “diversity” and “equity” without defining what those terms mean.

A heavy focus of this talk were the power dynamics at play between dominant and subordinated groups, and how those in dominant groups must go out of their way to ensure those in typically subordinated groups are empowered. Activists must learn to address their own dominant group identities in order to understand how they are perceived.

Group Dynamics

Housing activists, like everyone else on this planet, need to be mindful of power dynamics.

I’ll never be able to give this workshop a proper write-up, but it was by far the best talk at YIMBYtown.

Anti-Gentrification Activists Are Not NIMBYs

One of the more controversial sessions I attended was bluntly titled “Anti-Gentrification Activists Aren’t NIMBYs.” The message was clear: YIMBYs should take a backseat when advocating for new housing in gentrifying neighborhoods.


Rich people often have the political connections to keep new housing out of their neighborhoods.

This talk included perspectives of activists in the Mission District of San Francisco, which has seen more housing built recently. You may have heard that San Francisco is a fairly popular place to live, and the Mission District is one of the relatively few areas where new multi-family housing can be built.

One key difference between those who oppose all housing and those who oppose gentrification is that the latter are often able to gain concessions as part of new housing. Multiple projects in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco include more affordable housing and commercial spaces that rent at far below market rates. While a tactic anti-housing people prefer is to “concession a project to death,” those who focus on anti-gentrification have been successful in getting more affordable homes built in new developments (without stopping home construction).

Finally, here are a few slides from Joey Lindstrom from the National Low Income Housing Coalition:

Key campaign principles

Joey Lindstrom of the National Low Income Housing Coalition

Local solutions

No one tool will solve the affordability crisis but there are many options if we have the political will

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.

3 thoughts on “A Few Notes From YIMBYtown

  1. Bob Roscoe

    I have been aware as well as actively involved with all of these issues since 1972, starting with the Seward West Neighborhood renewal program in Minneapolis, where the neighborhood project area committee successfully turned a 70% housing demolition public agency plan into saving 70%.

    What may not have been mentioned at your conference is historic preservation. Perhaps no single issue has been as successful in creating graceful identity in neighborhoods and downtowns.

    Thank you for bringing forth these issues in a single document that I will save when I get done typing.

    1. Anton SchiefferAnton Schieffer Post author

      Funny you mention that, I met someone from the Twin Cities at the conference who is a big supporter of historic preservation. While there are certainly instances of historic preservation being beneficial (obviously you know a thing or two about Milwaukee Avenue), the downsides are that it can drive maintenance costs up, and that sometimes it can be used to delay or stop new housing entirely.

      Historic preservation also tends not to scale very well, which can be a problem when so many new people are moving to a city. I’d personally love to live along a car-free pedestrian mall like Milwaukee Avenue (looking at the current home prices tells me I’m not alone), but only a few dozen families can do so. It would be great if building those types of streets today were an option (maybe even with multi-family housing), but it would surely be derided as part of Lisa Bender’s giveaways to developers and the “war on cars.” Kinda nice that no one bothered to ask “where will they park?” in the 1880’s. Thanks for chiming in.

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