The YIMBY movement is spreading around the world. What does it mean for Australia’s housing crisis?Alistair Sisson,Macquarie University
2024 looks set to be another year of rising rents, stalling supply and intense debate over how to respond to the housing crisis.
Occupying an increasingly prominent place in that debate is the YIMBY movement. Short for “Yes, In My Backyard”, YIMBY is a play on the well-known pejorative NIMBY, which has long been applied to residents opposed to change in their local area.
Where did YIMBYism come from? Who are the YIMBYs? How are they reshaping the politics of housing in the 21st century?
These are the questions tackled in sociologist Max Holleran’s book Yes to the City: Millennials and the Fight for Affordable Housing. It is, to date, the most authoritative study of the rise of YIMBYism and its spread throughout the United States and beyond.
What is YIMBYism?
YIMBYism focuses on increasing housing supply, particularly higher-density infill housing, as the solution to housing affordability. It does so by targeting barriers to new construction, such as zoning, heritage protections and design standards.
The development and construction industries have long targeted such restrictions. Grassroots organisations and non-profit housing advocates, on the other hand, have focused on measures like social and affordable housing, ending tax concessions for property investors and rent regulation.
YIMBYs take a different approach. They argue that building more housing – even at the upper end of the property market – will improve affordability overall through the process of “filtering” by freeing up more affordable, lower-quality housing.
Thus, Holleran writes, YIMBYs are
promoting a new framing within the housing debate: concentrating on supply-side mechanisms, working with (not against) developers, and emphasising the rights of middle-class newcomers to wealthy cities.
Who are the YIMBYs?
Holleran depicts YIMBYism as a mostly white, middle-class movement. It has arisen in cities like San Francisco, Boulder and Austin, where young professionals earn good salaries but face soaring housing costs.
Many YIMBYs work in the booming tech industry, which has helped drive population growth in those cities and contributed to housing pressures. As one of Halloran’s interviewees puts it, YIMBYs
are often the ones who have done everything right […] the university grads with knowledge-sector jobs, but the prices are so high now they feel like they’ve done something wrong with their lives.
The tech industry has played significant financial, cultural and ideological roles in the growth of YIMBYism – particularly in San Francisco, where the movement originated. Holleran sees a “tech-oriented practicality” among YIMBYs. They pursue a “technocratic insider’s game for the highly educated”. They believe their “ideological flexibility is useful for getting things done”.
Tech corporations have also made significant financial contributions to a range of YIMBY organisations and aligned politicians.
The politics of YIMBY
YIMBYs often see housing affordability as a conflict between wealthy “baby boomer” homeowners, who purchased property when it was cheaper and often aided by government subsidies, and millennials, who can’t afford to buy due to opposition to new development from those boomer homeowners.
Yet, framing the issue of housing affordability as a conflict between generations can elide its class and race dimensions. This elision has been a source of tension between YIMBY groups and established, racially diverse and working-class anti-gentrification organisations.
The YIMBYs’ call to “build more of everything” has led them to support projects that have replaced cheaper housing with more expensive housing, and displaced existing residents in the process.
San Francisco YIMBYs, for example, initially agreed with anti-gentrification activists to concentrate their efforts on middle- and high-income parts of the city. But they later betrayed this agreement, supporting projects opposed by local activists in the Mission District.
This “showdown” between YIMBYs and anti-gentrification activists is at the heart of Holleran’s book:
The former see themselves as expanding the struggle; the latter think the new focus is missing the crucial goal: helping those in most need.
This conflict is a useful jumping-off point to consider the implications of the rise of YIMBYism in Australia.
YIMBYism in Australia
Yes to the City was written before the establishment of Greater Canberra, YIMBY Melbourne, Sydney YIMBY, and the Housing Now! coalition – organisations that have experienced a rapid rise to prominence. Judging by recent reforms in New South Wales, especially, they can claim some success in influencing government policies.
Holleran’s book does, however, discuss the work of HousingAIM in western Melbourne (AIM stands for “Affordable Inclusive Maribyrnong”). Active in the 2010s, the group was originally named “Yes in Maribyrnong’s Backyard”.
Unlike its US counterparts, HousingAIM concentrated on affordable housing developments. It strove to protect the diverse working-class character of the Melbourne suburb of Footscray, with some success.
There are some practical difficulties with the YIMBY formula. Rezoning urban areas for higher density development might increase housing supply and improve affordability eventually. But it will take a long time to have even a relatively modest effect and risks displacing lower-income households into worse housing in the meantime.
Targeting higher-income areas involves fewer displacement risks, but it means focusing on areas where opposition to new development is strongest.
The popularisation of YIMBYism also carries the risk that governments will present up-zoning as a panacea and continue to ignore other solutions, such as legal protections against evictions and rent increases, ending landlord tax concessions and investment in public housing.
Politicians, including Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and NSW Premier Chris Minns, have repeatedly argued that the key to solving the housing crisis is planning reform to increase supply, by way of fending off these more contentious or costly proposals.
How YIMBY organisations approach these other solutions, and the question of gentrification more broadly, will shape their reception and determine the possibilities for collaboration and alliance building.
Australia’s housing problems show no sign of abating, and the political capital of YIMBYism looks set to grow. How that political capital is expended will have important implications for housing reform and urban life.