From California to New York, YIMBYism is going mainstream

The housing crisis is empowering pro-development movements on both coasts. Will it make a difference?

(Illustration by Paul Dilakian/The Real Deal)
(Illustration by Paul Dilakian/The Real Deal)

A red and white “PARK YOUR FLEET” sign at a defunct Harlem gas station airs the frustration of a developer who just missed a pivot in the long fight to build more housing in America.

In January, Bruce Teitelbaum opened a truck depot on a West 145th Street site where he was hoping to build more than 900 apartments. Even after he promised half would be affordable, the project had been rejected by the local City Council member, who deemed it still too expensive.

While Teitelbaum contemplates alternatives — zoning allows a smaller, luxury building, and self-storage — his sign reminds the world that rejecting development has consequences. 

The saga has pro-housing groups mourning the missed opportunity for new apartments and progressives decrying the truck depot as a cynical ploy. But its framing as a high-stakes choice between housing thousands of New Yorkers or a handful of box trucks could shape how such debates play out in the city.

I think we are the canary in the coal mine,” Teitelbaum said. “A lot of folks are watching closely what happens here. The current system does not work.”

That message is being heard in New York and elsewhere. For the first time in memory, the state’s governor has given housing primacy over other issues and made restrictive zoning her main target. New York City Mayor Eric Adams is promoting a “City of Yes,” one that he says should “roll out the red carpet” for developers. They and other officials are emphasizing the need to ramp up housing supply at all income levels.

New York is following the lead of California, where “yes in my backyard” groups have gained considerable traction. Even the most exclusionary towns and cities are running into state laws that limit their ability to block housing.

But none of this guarantees that homes will actually get built. Tenant advocates argue that a focus on supply endangers vulnerable residents. And localities, pressured by constituents who only want single-family housing, have long been able to water down policies aimed at speeding up building.

Still, developers and pro-housing voices are cheered by what they see as a shift in perception.

There is a broader recognition of the human cost of not having enough housing in the city and state,” said Dan Garodnick, head of the New York City Planning Commission. “That’s why these proposals have gained so much traction.”

A shift on the left

In September, four months after Teitelbaum’s proposal died, Queens City Council member Tiffany Cabán chose what she saw as the lesser evil when she negotiated a deal to allow Halletts North, a 1,400-unit residential building in Astoria, rather than risk construction of a last-mile facility.

Cabán’s compromise was seen as a turning point in how far-left City Council members view housing development. That same month, socialist state Sen. Jabari Brisport, citing an NYU Furman study, tweeted that it was now clear to him “that the construction of market-rate housing does not raise nearby rents.” He added that it also did not significantly slow rent growth, so stronger tenant protections were still needed.

In November, the Council approved an even larger apartment project in Astoria, although intervention from the Council speaker was required to overcome resistance from the local member, Julie Won. The same scenario had played out a month earlier in the Bronx, allowing a 348-unit project.

Asked whether her approval of Halletts North represented a change in how progressives approach housing, Cabán said that “no individual development project or rezoning vote matters even a fraction as much as the policy landscape.”

The Council member said she is rejecting the “tired ‘Nimby/Yimby’ division in favor of a Shimby approach,” meaning “social housing in my backyard.” In announcing her support of the Astoria project, she released a 10-step plan including good cause eviction, which would protect tenants if their rent were raised above a certain threshold.

Although it is too soon to count socialists as allies, housing developers have more powerful friends in Albany. Gov. Kathy Hochul unveiled a plan in January aimed at creating 800,000 homes over a decade, mostly through zoning reform.

There hasn’t been that kind of support at the state level,” said Moses Gates, vice president for housing and neighborhood planning at the Regional Plan Association. “That is really a sea change.”

The state created 1.35 million jobs but only 403,000 homes in the decade preceding the pandemic. According to the Regional Plan Association, New York needs more than 800,000 more by 2032.

Rafael Cestero, CEO of the Community Preservation Corporation and a former New York City housing commissioner, said the government’s focus has largely been on rising rents and their effect on tenants. That is important, he said, but misses the big picture.

The biggest reason we need tenant protections is because we don’t have enough apartments,” he said. “What puts pressure on tenants is the supply-and-demand imbalance.”

Remedy hunting 

For nine years, Marshal Rothman has been trying to subdivide a 100-acre lot for 10 homes in Fairfax, California, a small Marin County town 45 minutes north of San Francisco. His proposal would prevent the owners from further developing their lots and create public walking paths for community members, who are worried about losing views of Mount Tamalpais.

But now Rothman is preparing to add 15 condos to his project, nine of them affordable. The walking path would be eliminated to make room.

He is not trying to pick a fight but to avoid one: Rothman could circumvent the town under an old state law that can allow projects even if they exceed local zoning limits.

From left: Jabari Brisport, Kristin Richardson Jordan, Cea Weaver, Bruce Teitelbaum, Grimes and Eric Adams

Fairfax is among at least seven Marin County cities and towns that missed a deadline to submit housing plans to the state, according to the Marin Independent Journal. The “builder’s remedy” law prevents localities without an approved plan from rejecting housing projects in which at least 20 percent of units are below market rate.

Rothman’s site is zoned for one house per 10 acres, which meets anyone’s definition of exclusionary zoning. But after years of getting nowhere with the Fairfax Town Council, he is going around it.

They basically think they are a little fiefdom and can ignore the law,” he said. “It is going to cost the town of Fairfax their whole budget if I have to sue them.”

California’s builder’s remedy policy dates back to 1990 but is largely untested. Rothman and other developers are seeking to change that. They are readying a wave of applications after years of the state passing pro-housing legislation and Yimby groups suing to force jurisdictions to meet their own housing targets.

Sonja Trauss, an early voice in the Bay Area’s Yimby movement, heads a group that sues localities for violating housing law, including the one that governs builder’s remedy.

Sign Up for the undefined Newsletter

Cities are often like, ‘We don’t know what to do, no one is proposing development.’ They might not be proposing anything that meets the local zoning because the local zoning is terrible,” she said. “This is a real way of calling bullshit on that.”

A Yimby for every market

The momentum behind Yimby can be traced to California, where advocates pushing for density and against restrictive land use regulations have gained considerable influence in the past decade. California Yimby, the largest of the state’s pro-housing groups, boasts that legislation it helped pass could create 2.2 million homes.

The U.S. has more than 140 “Yimby” groups, according to the Brookings Institution, though some shy away from the term in favor of conveying moderation instead of zealotry. Austin-based Aura’s tagline is “An Austin for Everyone.” Another organization in the state, Texans for Reasonable Solutions, counts singer Grimes as an adviser.

New York’s Yimbys have been sparse despite high housing costs in New York City and its suburbs, a result of restrictive zoning and other factors that prevent developers from meeting strong demand for homes. But one city-based group is growing in resources and influence.

Open New York has ramped up its spending power since launching in 2016 as a volunteer-only organization. It now has several full-time staffers, thanks in part to a $1.5 million grant from Open Philanthropy. The group testifies at hearings for local projects and supports pro-housing candidates. Last year, it ran a five-figure ad campaign to boost a City Council member, Carlina Rivera, who agreed to upzone Soho.

Ben Carlos Thypin, a co-founder of the group, said that five years ago the debate was dominated by “tenants versus big real estate.” The Yimby movement has helped change that, he said, as the middle class endured rising rents and found homeownership increasingly out of reach.

The class of renters is growing and becoming more politically potent as a result,” he said.

Other Yimby groups have popped up. Michael Daly, a broker with Douglas Elliman, started East End Yimby in 2017 after seeing people struggle to afford housing in and around the Hamptons. He called it “sort of my carbon offset, if you will.”

The political climate out here is anti-density, anti-anyone moving into the neighborhood,” he said. “We jokingly say that the definition of an environmentalist is someone who bought a house yesterday.”

The activists have been heartened by Hochul’s proposals, which include a California-style measure allowing developers to supersede local zoning in localities that fail to meet housing targets.

Daly believes his advocacy for affordable housing does not clash with his day job selling homes for millions of dollars, though some colleagues have questioned it.

I believe in luxury housing, I believe people should be able to have the house that they want,” he said. “But not at the expense of local community housing.”

The power of now

Building more housing to meet demand and to slow rent growth is not a novel concept.

I don’t think that Yimbyism is a particularly new or revelatory philosophy behind housing,” said Cea Weaver, coordinator for the socialist-backed New York tenant group Housing Justice for All. “Yimbyism is the economics of housing [people] learn if they take one econ class in their life.”

She agrees that more homes are needed but said the promise of gradually improving affordability does little to comfort someone in danger of eviction.

Because Yimby groups often advocate for the same things as developers, detractors call them shills for the real estate industry. California Yimby has faced criticism for receiving funding from tech companies, which are blamed for gentrification in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Pro-housing movements have also been accused of ignoring and even mocking cities’ most vulnerable people. In November, Leah Goodridge, a tenant attorney and member of the New York City Planning Commission, tweeted about a “racist co-opting by developers of civil rights language to denigrate and describe local residents who challenge big real estate.”

She objected to the use of “Nimby” to describe people like her, when historically the term was reserved for white homeowners who used racist arguments about neighborhood character to stop affordable housing.

But today, developers (who call themselves YIMBY) ascribe that word to anyone who opposes new, unaffordable housing in their neighborhood,” Goodridge tweeted. “When it comes to most cities, that is black and brown residents challenging big real estate on gentrification and displacement.”

Open New York has sought to stay out of those crosshairs by promoting housing only in wealthy districts and supporting eviction protections. But the relationship between the broader Yimby movement and tenant advocates still ranges from uneasy to hostile.

Looking ahead 

Council member Kristin Richardson Jordan, who stopped Teitelbaum’s project in Harlem, is now fighting his truck stop.

Our community should not have to choose between a high-rise luxury apartment complex that will displace our people in the last Black community in Manhattan and a truck stop that will add to the already dire levels of asthma in our community,” Jordan wrote on Instagram in January.

The Harlem site’s fate may well depend on June’s Democratic primary, in which Jordan faces challengers critical of her decision. Taking a project through public review, a process that can cost $1 million or more, would be risky if she wins re-election.

We don’t want to put a truck depot here, we don’t want to put self-storage here,” Teitelbaum said. “We want to put 900 units of housing here.”

Hochul’s plan, meanwhile, is getting pushback from the far left and suburban Republicans.

While Governor Hochul claims that ‘housing is a human right,’ her plan hinges on handouts to real estate developers that will neither create enough housing for working people nor protect tenants,” a group of socialist state senators and Assembly members said in a statement.

Her goal is to turn Brookhaven into the Bronx,” a Long Island Republican tweeted.

Some Yimby groups have aligned themselves with tenant advocates, which could help their cause. Yimby Action, California Yimby and East Bay for Everyone have sponsored a social housing bill. Open New York has endorsed good cause eviction, and although tenant groups have kept their distance, that could change.

Trauss, since she started attending community meetings a decade ago to endorse Bay Area housing developments, has noticed that some people now supporting her agenda seem unaware that their views have evolved.

Things that seemed radical at the time, obviously are not radical now,” she said. “People who were against you or thought it was weird, when they adopt it, may not realize their opinions have changed.”