“Zoning used to be a total snooze. Arguments about building heights and density were the eye-glazing preserve of planning wonks and people whose next-door neighbors were contemplating two-story additions. In 2018, zoning got sexy.
The catalyst for the makeover was the fight over Senate Bill 827, introduced in the California legislature by San Francisco’s state senator, Scott Wiener, and drafted by Brian Hanlon, president of California YIMBY, an arm of the upstart pro-housing, market-friendly, millennial-led Yimby movement.
“Yimby” stands for “yes in my backyard,” a play on the better-known term “Nimby,” the “not in my backyard” tag applied to local opponents of development. Yimbys first appeared in the United States around 2014. They now have an international following. But it is in California and above all the Bay Area where they’re arguably most influential. YIMBY Action, a self-described “hub of membership” headquartered in San Francisco, claims nearly 2,000 members.
SB 827 drastically curtailed local authority over land use by restricting limitations on the height of residential development near major transit stops and suspending local parking minimums and density caps for such projects. The bill was endorsed by stalwarts of the state’s growth machine: the California Association of Realtors; the California Chamber of Commerce; the California Building Industry Association; the Silicon Valley Leadership Group; the Bay Area Council, which represents the region’s largest businesses; and more than 120 tech executives, including Nat Friedman (Microsoft), Dustin Moskovitz (Facebook cofounder), Marc Benioff (Salesforce), Logan Green (Lyft), Jeremy Stoppelman (Yelp), Alexis Ohanian (Reddit), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), and Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn cofounder).
Opponents included the Black Community, Clergy, and Labor Alliance; 96 cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles; and the Sierra Club; along with advocates for social equity, tenants’ rights, and local control. Though it died in its first committee hearing, SB 827 sparked a national debate over urban housing policy, transit-oriented development, democratic governance, and the neoclassical take on housing markets.
SB 827 incorporated the tenets of Yimbyism: To ensure maximum opportunity and economic growth, everyone who wants to live in a place should be accommodated. Housing prices are determined by supply. Cities like San Francisco face a crisis of housing affordability because of onerous local regulations passed by elected officials kowtowing to Nimby constituents, who are primarily the owners of single-family homes. Local resistance to “densification” in the name of quality of life, aesthetics, fiscal constraints, or the environment is a sham; the real motives are the protection of homeowner property values and the exclusion of poor people of color from affluent single-family neighborhoods. To house everyone, the state must set residential building quotas for local jurisdictions and penalize localities that fail to meet their allocations. Otherwise, in hot markets, affluent consumers will buy homes in poor neighborhoods, bidding up real estate values, displacing existing residents, and sabotaging shared prosperity.
Yimbys present themselves as insurgents; in fact, their position accords with the housing policies espoused by the American Planning Association. And SB 827 embodies another dominant paradigm in U.S. city and regional planning: smart growth, or transit-oriented development. The idea is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by getting people out of their private autos and onto buses, trains, bikes, and their own two feet. To be financially viable, mass transit needs ample patronage. As the theory has it, building denser development near transit hubs spurs greater transit use—hence the call to raise heights and densities, known as “upzoning.”
Yimby support of smart growth is opportunistic. When the model facilitates more housing, as in SB 827, Yimbys push it. But in keeping with their “build baby build” agenda, they’re happy to pursue residential development whose accessibility to transit is minimal. In 2015, the Yimby legal affiliate CaRLA, short for California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, sued the city of Lafayette over a housing project at a site 1.7 miles from the nearest light rail station and on a bus route with hourly service.”