Saturday, July 22, 2017

Inside the Yimby conference

Inside the Yimby conference

Nice civil discussion on the surface -- and some nastiness behind the scenes
Last weekend about 120 attendees from 17 cities gathered in downtown Oakland for the Yimbytown 2017 conference. Organized by East Bay Forward, the event was bankrolled by a $40,000 grant from Open Philanthropy, a project of Cari Tuna and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz that also funded the initial Yimbytown conference in Boulder. Chicago Cityscape also funded scholarships for a quarter of the conferees. Admission was $75.
The event featured 20 sessions and three keynote speakers, including State Senator Scott Wiener. For this reporter, the most memorable aspect of the proceedings was the contrast between the participants’ civility and collegiality at the event proper and the organizers’ incivility and paranoia behind the scenes. A close second was Wiener’s disingenuous put-down of his and other Yimbys’ San Francisco opponents.
In an unusual gesture, Open Philanthropy posts the applications of its would-be grantees online. The Yimbytown application describes the conference as the “annual…catalyst for unifying housing organizers, funders, builders, and thought leaders on a national scale.” This year’s grant went to CaRLA (California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund), the legal affiliate of SFBARF (Bay Area Renters Foundation) that sues suburban cities for purported violations of the state’s Housing Accountability Act.
Housing for all — or just market-rate housing for the rich?
The application lists four goals for Yimby 2017:
  • Unite the North American Yimby Movement
  • Facilitate Peer to Peer Learning
  • Construct a National Yimby Framework to “further create a national visual brand, platform and chapter structure”
  • Amplify Yimby Research, Opportunities, Concerns and Solutions

A Yimbyism Primer
Missing from the application’s anodyne language is the actual content of Yimby ideology. Its basic assumptions: growth is good; limiting growth is bad. But sprawl is also bad. Hence, Yimbys push for the “densification” of existing, urbanized areas (upzoning)—the denser, the better—and fight those who seek to limit the construction of compact new housing. In the Yimby playbook, that means fighting current residents, especially owners of single-family homes, and the elected local officials who respond to such constituencies by passing or maintaining low-density zoning.
Yimbys also hold that growth constraints, particularly “exclusionary zoning,” harm disadvantaged populations by limiting supply and thereby driving up the price of housing.
I find this curious: To begin, all zoning is in some way exclusionary; that’s the point of zoning. Moreover, what’s primarily boosting the price of housing in the Bay Area is a factor that went unmentioned at Yimbytown 2017, tech-industry-driven demand. I also find curious the Yimby conviction that building market-rate housing will generate ample housing for people who can’t get into the market.
To my pleasant surprise, at the conference a few speakers voiced support for rent control and inclusionary housing, requirements that market-rate development include a certain percentage of officially affordable housing. However, I did not hear any references to the fierce battles being waged in San Francisco and Berkeley over the percentages, with Yimbys at times arguing for lower numbers and their adversaries arguing for higher ones.

Four Sessions at the Conference
The Yimby precepts were variously elaborated by the presenters at the four sessions I attended on Friday. Alan Durning, founder and executive director of the Sightline Institute in Seattle, spoke about that city’s Housing Affordability and Living Agenda, the ambitious program initiated by Mayor Ed Murray—a program that, in Durning’s words, came “straight out of the Yimby imagination.” He identified four HALA principles: upzoning combined with developer incentives for affordable housing; loosensed single-family zoning (in HALA-speak, Mandatory Housing Affordability or MHA) —“by far the most controversial”—55% of Seattle’s buildable land is zoned for single-family homes; reduced parking quotas; and re-legalized micro-apartments.
Yimby messaging: Downzoning hurts affordable housing
According to the city’s website, the mayor has set a goal of 50,000 new homes, including the preservation and production of 30,000 new homes in ten years. One of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., Seattle has a population of around 700,000.
Durning didn’t simply cheerlead for HALA; rather, he offered a nuanced evaluation of its progress so far: “too early to judge.” In downtown and the South Lake Union districts, he said, they city “got upzoning right.” In the University district, the “math is bad:” The upzoning is not high enough to motivate developers to build. The result will be “higher prices” and “fewer affordable homes.” He commended the idea of a “parking benefit district,” whereby revenues from parking meters funds local improvements, a concept that Seattle is testing via a pilot project. See full article HERE

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