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Yimbyism: There’s a Whole Lot of Shilling Going On

HOUSING CRISIS - Recently an op-ed appeared in the neoliberal, Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle that proclaimed, “Yimbyism is as progressive as it gets.”

If, by claiming Yimbys are “progressives,” you mean, “developer shills,” then you’re on to something.

Yimbyism, of course, (“Yimby” being short for “Yes in my back-yard”) is the quasi-religion of Real Estate that preaches “Build! Build! Build” (or, in another stream, “Build, Baby, Build!”). 

The tenets of Yimbyism include: forced densification within urban areas; the eradication of single-family neighborhoods; the deregulation of land-use, including the weakening and/or elimination of environmental protections; the elimination of local, community-based decision-making; and an increase in developer and corporate profits.  (OK, you probably won’t find that last article of faith in the public-facing prospectus of Yimby propagandists, but you will find it at the center of the Yimby version of the Holy of Holies).

The op-ed’s author, Bilal Mahmood, tries a number of cute rhetorical tricks to prove just how “progressive” (and presumably good for everyone) Yimbyism really is.  You can file it under the category of “new horizons in putting lipstick on a pig.”

  • If AOC said it, it must be “progressive.” If Tucker Carlson said it, it can’t be “progressive.”
  • Yimbys aren’t just a fraternity of white tech bros who had unhappy childhoods in suburbia; they are in reality a rainbow coalition of BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and female do-gooders.
  • And Yimbys are not, repeat not -- in any way, shape, or form -- “developer shills.”

Boy, does it seem that something or someone really touched a raw nerve with the high priests of Yimbyism to have sanctioned such a defensive, tetchy “defense” of their religion.  It has the feel of David Miscavige unleashing his minions whenever some miscreant has the temerity to breathe a bad word against Scientology.

Just like Scientology, the whole point of Yimbyism (so sayeth the Yimby prophets like Mahmood) is “to advance the human condition.”

Well, if “by advancing the human condition,” you really mean “serving the interests of the Urban Growth Machine and developer profits,” then you have a point.

In fact, Yimbyism was outed over 40 years ago, before it was even called “Yimbyism,” as one can read in an article in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers by Richard A. Walker and Michael K. Heiman. 

The articles of faith of Yimbyism are clearly nothing new.  As Walker and Heiman wrote in 1981, the Yimby precepts were “promoted vigorously by a small group of people closely associated with large developers and the business-backed regional planning movement.  The reforms they advocate are best understood in terms of the obstacles presented to capital accumulation…”

The lead was taken in those days by such groups as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Urban Land Institute, which was “the research and policy-generating arm of the big developers. It took the lead in pressing for zoning reform.”

Today its groups funded by the likes of the Big Tech oligarchs and the Koch Brothers; radical libertarian, Ayn-Rand-loving think-tanks; and AstroTurf groups like “Up for Growth,” founded by major Trump-donor, developer Clyde Holland. Dark Money permeates the Yimby enterprise, and, in a country in which money is speech and corporations are people, also serves to highlight the dire need for extensive disclosure and sunshine laws to at least in some small way counter the corrosive influence of all that Dark Money.

Despite its Trumpy pedigree and hardcore capitalistic focus on pursuing fairytales of eternal economic growth, “Up for Growth” has taken great pains to present a kinder, gentler, less-greedy façade by trying to drape itself in a mantle of “progressivism.”

Let’s take a peek at the live service mark and current description of “Up for Growth” at the US Patent and Trademark Office:

IC 035. US 100 101 102. G & S: Public policy research services; Providing educational information in the field of administration of public affordable housing programs and housing policy; Promoting public interest and awareness in the field of housing policy; Promoting public awareness of a need for affordable housing by means of public advocacy; Promoting the interests of people concerned with affordable housing issues by means of public advocacy; Promoting public awareness in the field of social welfare. FIRST USE: 20180824. FIRST USE IN COMMERCE: 20180824

Very “progressive” sounding, innit? Flowery talk about public education and affordable housing and, yes, “social welfare.”

And yet, that was clearly not the intent of “Up for Growth” from the get-go and that is clearly not the intent of nor raison d’etre for “Up for Growth” today. All one has to do is look at the original trademark registration, before someone in the “Up for Growth” PR department wised up and told the Elders of the Faith: “You may want to take another look at how we are describing the organization.”

The original, revealing, and now abandoned (as of Jan. 21, 2019) mark reads very much to the point:

(ABANDONED) IC 035. US 100 101 102. G & S: Political action committee services, namely, promoting the interests of real estate developers, real estate owners, construction companies, real estate investors, and property management companies in the field of housing policy legislation.

So a political action committee to promote the interests of real estate developers, real estate owners, construction companies, real estate investors, and property management companies in the field of housing policy legislation, has suddenly become – voila! – a force for “social welfare,” aiming “to advance the human condition.” Progressive! And they even have the self-styled “progressive” board members to prove it (including some of California’s most notorious Yimbys and the kind of non-white people Mahmood cites in his op-ed as “paragons of progressivism”)! Board members, who in reality are “promoting the interests of real estate developers, real estate owners, construction companies, real estate investors, and property management companies.”  You know: shills.

While “Up for Growth” would no doubt garner brownie points with Mahmood for quoting Senator Elizabeth Warren (“progressive!”), not sure what he would say about Clyde Holland thanking former President Donald Trump at the signing of a housing-related executive order as part of the Trump Administration’s “historic regulatory reduction campaign,” aimed at ending “overregulation and unnecessary regulation” and targeting “burdensome government regulations.”

At this ceremony, former HUD Secretary Ben Carson noted: “President Trump’s decades of experience as a world-renowned builder and developer gives this Administration’s leadership a unique set of insights when confronting the challenges of developing more housing.”

So the country’s only developer president in the history of the country, former President Trump is a Yimby, after all.  Take that, Tucker Carlson!

The unmasking of the Yimby organization “Up for Growth” pretty much describes the essence Yimbyism in a nutshell.  It is no wonder, many years after Walker and Heiman made clear “zoning reform” was all ‘bout the money, that former LA County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky properly rebranded Yimbys as “Wimbys” (for “Wall St. in my back-yard”).

In essence, Yimbys are developer shills who understand that shilling for developers is a very bad look.

Clearly, trying to rebrand themselves as “progressives” is a rhetorical strategy meant to confuse, as well as to protect their own fragile self-image. Oh, how refreshing it would be if they would just end the hypocrisy and let their true inner Gordon Gekkos all hang out by openly and unabashedly exclaiming what they are all trying to hide: “Greed is good!”

The rhetorical calisthenics they engage in go beyond their twisted usage of the word “progressive.” 

Yimbys claim to be “pro-housing.” But you can’t be “pro-housing” when your goal is to eradicate the kind of housing preferred by a vast majority of Americans of all stripes, namely single-family neighborhoods.  Yimbys are, more properly, pro-forced-density as a means to pursue -- as “Up for Growth” in its initial burst of trademark honesty revealed -- the interests of real estate developers, owners, and speculators.

Using the lingo and rhetoric of progressivism doesn’t make the policies advocated by Yimbys “progressive.” In some ways, far from coopting the use of the term “progressive,” the Yimbys have rendered it utterly meaningless.

Not surprisingly, the current Yimby push to impersonate “progressives” goes back decades to a time when the Urban Growth Machine tried to “invoke the litany of democratic ideals and social justice which underlie demands for greater opportunities in housing.”  As Walker and Heiman exposed over 40 years ago:

“The main impetus for metropolitan reorganization and planning came from big business interests organized into private civic groups such as the Regional Plan Association of New York (PRA), the Bay Area Council in San Francisco, the Metropolitan Fund, Inc., in Detroit, and the (national) Committee for Economic Development.”

As Alphonse Karr once so memorably noted, “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.” To this day, the Bay Area Council continues to wreak havoc with its anti-community policy prescriptions, all in the name of growth and greed, gussied up in the guise of “democratic ideals,” “social justice,” and “social welfare.”

Lipstick on a pig. Because, of course, then as now, it’s all ‘bout the money.

If it were really about housing affordability or social justice or democratic ideals, the Yimbys would be first in line to support a raft of anti-speculation housing policies.  But the Yimbys will never put their money where their mouths are, for the simple reason that for them, housing is ultimately a means to force growth and to maximize ROI. 

Mahmood touts “wealth taxes” as a progressive policy. 

Talk is extremely cheap.

So where are all the concrete Yimby proposals for wealth taxes, such as my own suggestion over four years ago for a corporate wealth tax?

Why do Yimbys openly say they “don’t care how much money developers make” and decry homeownership, while trying to turn us into a nation of renters?  Why at the same time do many of them oppose tenant protections and rent stabilization policies? (California Yimby organizations were, for example, nowhere to be found when there was a push to repeal the state’s Costa-Hawkins law that hamstrings cities looking to protect renters). 

Why do Yimbys and Yimby organizations steadfastly ignore and refuse to support robust anti-speculation housing policies and the decommodification of housing?  

Why don’t Yimbys consider housing to be a human right, but, evidently, citing “laws” that they consider to be immutable, universal, and eternal, like the “law” of supply and demand (while completely ignoring the “law” of diminishing returns) do think that the ability for developers to profiteer off housing is somehow the natural order? 

More recently, for the sake of optics and in response to sharp criticism, some Yimby groups are supporting weak-beer tenant protections, as long as they don’t interfere with the larger goal of unleashing “the magic of the Market.” 

These are just more layers of lipstick on the pig. 

For Yimbys, anyone who opposes putting developers and the Market in charge of urban planning is a Nimby.  Anyone who opposes Nimbys is “progressive.” 

They evidently think people will fall for it.  Writes Mahmood: “Yimbyism is an example of “supply-side” progressivism – if you focus on increasing the supply of housing by ending restrictive and exclusionary zoning laws, you improve equitable outcomes through increased supply.” 

Walker and Heiman foresaw this ploy four decades ago: “Because those who write about reform suggest policies that chiefly serve the interests of business (or a branch of business) as if in the general interest, they tend to transform pragmatic, short-run goals of capitalists into universal principles.” 

Four decades ago, they wrote: 

“A quiet revolution in land use controls has been occurring because a small group of liberal reformers, closely associated with large development capital, have been systematically urging adoption of a land use control system suitable to the changing needs of capital. And behind these political actors stand economic forces unleashed by the logic of capital accumulation. 

The principal justification for state and regional intervention is that ‘the public interest’ emerges at a regional level while local governments represent parochial concerns. Regional growth is for the good of all.” 

A footnote remarks, in perfect anticipation of Yimby dogma: “This is classic capitalist ideology equating the needs of business with that of the populace.” 

Walker and Heiman go on to recite the Urban Growth Machine/Yimby party line: 

“Local governments stand in the way of growth because they are slow, cumbersome, and notoriously exclusionary. In addition, they are bad protectors of environments of regional significance and not well suited to dealing with socially beneficial, large-scale developments. Hence they are to blame for social problems such as segregation, housing shortages, and environmental degradation. 

The geographical scale of regulation is thus presented as the essence of social conflict. Rebuttal of this position could proceed by arguing that the capitalist growth process is the real source of various social ills.” 

Bingo. 

And so the cure for our housing challenges isn’t more of the unfettered Market.  It’s less of it.  It isn’t putting the market in charge of urban planning.  It’s protecting people from the ill-effects and rapaciousness of the Market.  It isn’t more laws to “unshackle” the Market.  It’s anti-speculation policies and the decommodification of housing. 

Yimbys oppose those policies, and instead offer the following: Forced density.  Forced economic growth in the name of profits and ROI. Top-down, pro-Urban-Growth-Machine mandates.  That’s what Yimbyism at its core is all about. Not affordability, equity, or the environment.  And the lengths the Yimbys will go to in order to perpetuate the illusion, to keep the wool over our eyes and the lipstick on the pig is nothing if not extreme. 

The Yimby creation of the phantasmagoria of “supply-side progressivism” pretty much says it all.  

Just take a minute to ponder the term: “Supply-side progressivism.”  Now there’s a concept for you.  What’s next? Communistic capitalism? Marxist Reaganomics? Reaganomic Marxism? 

The DSA, the Democratic Socialists of America, consider themselves to be truly “progressive.” In fairness, many of them are not fans at all of the Yimbys. They see through Yimbyism as a tool of Wall Street, global capital, hedge funds, and speculators.  They understand that “Harmony of interests is a long-standing capitalist notion. Contradictions are due to malfunctions, not the logic of social organization; hence all social ills have purely technical solutions that represent the public interest.” They understand that “the capitalist growth process is the real source of various social ills.” 

It’s not only the DSA that sees through the Yimbys. Although Twitter is a cesspool dominated by all manner of Yimby developer shills, more and more people – including those for whom Twitter is twaddle – see through Yimbyism.  More and more people, including homeowners and those who aspire to homeownership, recognize that the Yimby word games come straight from the worlds of Orwell, Huxley, Kafka, and Carroll, and they recognize that Yimbyism is a thinly and poorly veiled front for the Urban Growth Machine and developer profits. 

It’s not just the DSA these days that recognizes an obvious truth: Yimbyism is about as progressive as a sales tax. 

And in giving new meaning to the word “progressive,” in the Yimby version, DSA can only stand for one thing: “Developer Shills of America.” 

Yes, Yimbys are nothing more than unremitting, raging developer shills. 

The lipstick is finally off the pig.

 

(John Mirisch has been a member of the Beverly Hills City Council since 2009, and has served as mayor three times. He is currently a garden-variety councilmember.)