YIMBY is Bad Politics

Progressive Democratic policy promoters have been working overtime during this primary season to flood the field with ideas. The latest one making the rounds in stump speeches and media appearances is the YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) movement. The Atlantic has the details:

The four candidates are demonstrating how much traction the YIMBY movement—the “yes in my backyard” campaign to roll back bans on new houses and apartments—has gained in Democratic policy circles. They and other Democratic candidates are sending an important message: A housing crunch in metro areas where tens of millions of Americans live is the kind of problem a president should worry about.

Progressive policy advocates could not be more wrong. This is precisely the sort of thing local and state leaders should worry about, not the President of the United States (or any other federal body). Beyond that, many the most sweeping of these housing plans have clear red flags that would make them disasters if passed (and frankly have almost no chance of being passed unless we get an overwhelming progressive House and Senate majority).

A rental tax deduction similar to the mortgage interest deduction? This is nothing more than an incentive for more capital to buy up single-family homes, making them less affordable and locking more Americans out of homeownership and capital accumulation. The notion of incentivizing (or forcing) states and localities to loosen their zoning laws to allow for the building of high-density apartments in residential areas is as clear an example of elite liberal policymakers confusing the issues important to where they live with the issues of the country at large. This solution might make sense in NYC, San Fransisco, or Seattle (I’m not exactly sure that it does), but it is both unnecessary and likely catastrophic to cities like Pittsburgh, Columbus, and Phoenix, where urban sprawl provides natural outlets for rising housing concerns over the next several decades and the opportunity for working, middle-class, and the “working wealthy” to see fantastic growth in their family wealth. Why would voters in these key states go for solutions that harm them and send the benefits to wealthier cities?

Does anyone at the DNC bother to talk to people who live in the areas they need to win in 2020?

What is YIMBY really about? Angry that they were late to the gentrification game, the YIMBY platform argues that zoning regulations (and the democratic hearings that go with them) are the problem. Eliminate zoning and we wouldn’t have such “underbuilt” cities. More than anything, it appears to be about young white people being mad that they cannot afford to live where they want to.

This isn’t a movement that came organically out of poor cities like Lima, Ohio arguing that there is a dearth of safe, affordable housing after the collapse of industry and a massive outmigration of human and economic capital. Nor is it coming from Detroit, seeking solutions to urban decay on a large scale. Instead, it comes from our most affluent cities and the trendiest places to live there.

Is it unaffordable to live in the best parts of San Fransisco or New York? Sure. Welcome to capitalism. These are booming mega-cities with hundreds of thousands of people making unimaginably large sums of money who all want to live in the same old Victorians or brownstones. Go outside the city to New Jersey and tell me it is unaffordable.

Oh. You don’t want to commute? Who does? Sorry, you don’t get to live out your “Friends” or “Sex in the City” dreams on a teachers salary.

Wiping out regulation isn’t going to lead to a bunch of developers clamouring to build low-income high-rises in these wealthy cities. New buildings will come in the form of luxury apartments. Each one less affordable than the last. Meanwhile,  loosening these restrictions in less crowded parts of the country might very well lead to the sort of economic losses that the NIMBY crowd is always vigilantly on the lookout for. YIMBY only offers benefits to wealthy, mostly white apartment hunters/condo owners and the developers who cater to them. Their platform offers pain to the people being pushed out of these areas already and to homeowners in almost every other kind of community. It is a total political loser.

To be fair, not all of the policy ideas are this disastrous. Some are actually quite good. Warren’s plan to provide down-payment assistance for first-time homebuyers in formerly redlined or segregated communities is a sound goose to the economy and a fairminded way to address real damage done by discriminatory federal practices in the very recent past. Policies that encourage homeownership in the broadest parts of America are smart. Homeownership is a desired trait. It is one of the key ways for working and middle-class Americans to build some measure of wealth. It is an investment that provides everyday benefits. Homeownership builds community bonds and the type of “in it together” spirit that binds us together as Americans. It gives homeowners “skin in the game,” making them active participants in their community and government. With that, you’ll find education tends to improve, the community becomes more attractive to potential employers, and crime is reduced.

I often complain about conservative attempts to promote vocational education over college-prep in the K-12 schools by saying, you first. When the wealthy start to send their middling children to trade schools instead of universities I’ll start to believe you really think this is a good thing for your child, the economy, and our nation. Until then, it looks like nothing more than an attempt to lower the costs of education and the competition for your child by telling the working and middle-class parents that this sort of future is reserved for only the exceptional among them. We can fix the problem, if some of you would simply accept making sacrifices while I reap all the benefits! Liberal housing (and energy) policies have a similar effect on me. Asking me to lose something (the equity of my home) because it is good for you while making no notable sacrifice yourself is a non-starter.

This is not rocket science, Democratic candidates. Promote policies that encourage homeownership and the ability of normal Americans to accumulate wealth. Fight against policies that enrich the rentiers. Such policies have universal appeal and would help people in all parts of the country, not just in dense urban cores.

Or you could keep promoting ideas that alienate the voters you most need. Your call.

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