How YIMBY Reflects New York’s Priorities

The conversation about YIMBY and zoning seems to be centered around San Francisco. Googling YIMBY Guardian gives me two articles about Northern California out of the top three results (the third is an op-ed about London). But the real origin of YIMBY is New York. The term started with New York YIMBY, which was always a real estate magazine rather than an activist movement. San Francisco YIMBY adopted it and intended to publish under the umbrella of New York YIMBY before eventually going its own way, buoyed by SF YIMBY founder Sonja Trauss’s strong political organizing skills, which are much better than those of the New York YIMBY founder. However, for the most part the goals and actions of YIMBY are still based on New York-centric assumptions, which may not apply elsewhere.

This does not mean that YIMBY is a New York imposition. On the contrary. But some of the specific details come from New York’s context. They port more easily to Paris, Tokyo, and London than to San Francisco, Boston, and other American cities.

Commercial versus residential upzoning

I’ve argued for commercialization before. Near-CBD residential neighborhoods are prime locations for high-end retail and office uses, leading to expansion or even migration of the CBD. Midtown historically arose this way, beginning with commercialization around Fifth Avenue, and so did the Paris CBD, which is well to the west of the historic core; in London the primary CBD is still the City, but the West End has many jobs as well.

However, in practice, New York needs residential development more than commercial development. There is demand for new office space, particularly from the tech industry, but this is a minority of the city’s employment. In contrast, residential rents are very high, and there is very little construction permitted; according to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the average over the last few years has been about 2.5 annual units permitted per 1,000 residents (in Tokyo the average is 10.7). As a result, New York’s activist YIMBY group, called Open New York, focuses on residential and mixed projects and not on purely commercial ones.

When a city does not allow the construction of office space in or near its center, jobs are displaced to sprawling suburbs. This is routine all over the US, where high-rise CBDs are surrounded immediately by residential neighborhoods with little political will for commercialization, and thus people work either in the CBD or in auto-centric suburban office parks. San Francisco is especially prone to this trend, since the origin of the tech industry is not in the city but in the office parks stretching from Redwood City to San Jose. If Uber, Airbnb, Slack, and Twitter don’t have room to grow in SoMa they will move to a suburb hungry for sales tax revenues. Nonetheless, SF YIMBY has opposed the plan to add office space to SoMa on the grounds that residential space is of prime importance.

The politics of rent stabilization

New York has rent control (which means the real rent is fixed) on a small number of apartments, all continuously occupied since 1971, mostly in rich Manhattan neighborhoods. It has wider rent stabilization in a large (though not overwhelming) fraction of rental units, which permits some real rent increases, determined politically every year but averaging about 1%. This status quo has many problems, chief of which is that the details of rent stabilization incentivize harassing tenants into leaving or looking for tenants who’d only stay for a short period of time. However, the status quo is politically stable.

The importance of this is that YIMBYs in New York don’t have to take a position on rent stabilization, or on related issues like inclusionary zoning (moreover, New York’s high real estate profits ensure that inclusionary zoning, which is a tax on revenue, has less impact than in cheaper cities like Portland, where the same tax on revenue represents a much higher tax on profits). SF YIMBY adopts this approach, but this comes into tension with California’s politics in which populists demand more rent control, even applying it to new buildings.

YIMBYs can’t honestly support rent control on new buildings and expect the private sector to keep providing housing. In New York it’s irrelevant because nobody calls for such policy, but San Francisco has a more active leftier-than-thou community (as does Paris, but this is expressed in museum exhibits about Che Guevara and not in rent control on new buildings).

The frontier of the Millennial middle class

When the middle class moves into a low-income area it’s called gentrification. However, the same trend can be observed in areas that are already well-off, including the neighborhood I grew up in, Tel Aviv’s Old North. The Old North was never poor: it was built in the 1930s and early 40s and the initial population was middle-class German immigrants fleeing Hitler. Nonetheless, by the 1980s the area was unfashionable, and the retail on the main commercial drag, Dizengoff Street, declined in favor of newer shopping malls. But since the late 1990s, younger people have moved in, making the area more in vogue, often renovating old buildings from the 1930s (which are a UNESCO heritage site, even though locally they’re viewed as dinghy). The demographic entering the neighborhood is the same as the one that gentrifies poorer neighborhoods (such as Florentin), so it’s worthwhile to view this as part of the same trend.

I bring this up because in New York this trend of a middle-class frontier includes a wide swath of neighborhoods, some poor and gentrifying (Harlem, Washington Heights, Bushwick, Lower East Side) but others already comfortable (Astoria, Upper West Side, Morningside Heights, South Brooklyn). Open New York has a policy of focusing on supporting construction in areas that are already rich and gentrified, to avoid the risk of gentrification in places like Washington Heights. As a strategy, it makes sense for New York, as well as for other city whose frontier of young middle-class urban transplants is mostly in well-off areas, like Chicago, Boston, and Paris. It’s weaker in San Francisco specifically, since there the frontier is largely the Mission, where gentrification is unavoidable.

The role of the suburbs

New York may be permitting only 2.5 housing units per 1,000 residents every year, but its in-state suburbs build even less. Westchester’s average between 2011 and 2017 is 0.9, Nassau County’s is 0.7, and Suffolk County’s is 0.8. Moreover, the dynamic of suburban white flight is well-understood around the region, and criticizing suburban-style exclusionary zoning is easy from within the city. There is animosity between the city and the suburbs, a feature shared with many areas in the American Rust Belt, and this makes it easier to demand more building in the city. (In the other direction, it’s easier to demand more construction in the city if there are no city-suburb social tensions at all.)

In the American Sunbelt, the situation is different. There is less city-suburb animosity – often the boundaries of the city include de facto suburban areas while excluding dense areas. (This is to some extent true of New York but the examples are all on the New Jersey side, which New Yorkers ignore.) Just saying “we need more housing” doesn’t sound progressive. What’s more, even in places like Houston and Austin, the city proper votes liberal and wants internal political movements to align on the left, let alone in California; in these areas, upzoning sounds like a bad deregulation.

Counterexample: single-family zoning

In exactly one respect, YIMBY groups in North America have proposed something that departs from the movement’s New York origins: they call for replacing single-family zoning with what they call missing middle, such as townhouses with two to four apartments per building. Missing middle is in turn relevant mostly to Canada, where there are mid- and high-rise neighborhoods and single-family neighborhoods and not much in between. In the US, everything is missing except single-family and CBD high-rises.

In New York, of course, there is no missing middle – for one, there are rowhouses, which would count as missing middle elsewhere. But more to the point, these rowhouses and townhouses are on the outer margins of the subway’s coverage area (such as Southern Brooklyn) or even beyond it (such as Kew Gardens Hills), and aren’t where there is the most demand. The demand is for converting surviving low-rise buildings in inner neighborhoods to mid- and high-rise apartment buildings, so this is what Open New York and urbanists in general focus on.

Which cities are like New York when it comes to YIMBY?

New York’s situation is the same as in the European cities I’m familiar with. Missing middle density in Paris happens on the outer branches of the RER network, whereas the real demand is for more housing in the city and a handful of rich inner suburbs in Hauts-de-Seine, and the same is true in Stockholm, London, Zurich, and other expensive European cities, even though they’re less dense than Paris so they might have rowhouses (like London) or missing middle density that needs to be replaced with mid-rise (like Zurich).

The politics in New York, where it’s easier to sidestep concerns about gentrification by just focusing on upzoning rich areas, is also similar to that of cities that never experienced white flight. This includes nearly all major cities in the developed world outside the US; the biggest exception I know of is Brussels, where the politics is complicated by the fact that middle-class residents are often affiliated with the EU and many only stay temporarily.

Commercialization of near-CBD areas is also more common in Europe, so there is less need to argue about that specifically. Zoning is also looser in the sense of permitting small offices, such as those of doctors, lawyers, and accountants, in residential zones. Thus the focus is exclusively housing, especially in the largest cities, i.e. London and Paris, where traffic congestion is such that there is less risk of job sprawl than in (say) Stockholm.

Finally, London and Paris have no rent control. Both have political controversies around this – Paris passed rent control but it was stricken down by the courts on administrative grounds, and in London some people are calling for rent control – but the current status quo is market-rate. The European cities I’m familiar with that have rent control do not have vacancy decontrol, unlike in the US, but instead have long waitlists, measured in years and in some extreme Stockholm examples even decades, so YIMBYs can more readily point to long waitlists as evidence that more housing construction is needed.

New York’s specific social issues are much more American than European, but the way they interact with its urban layout and transportation network is unique, partly because it has decent public transit unlike anywhere else in North America and partly because it’s just bigger. This interaction in turn makes its housing politics look somewhat more European as far as YIMBY is concerned. This suggests that people interested in making housing affordable should be especially excited to implement the proposed program in big global first-world cities outside New York, led by London and Paris (and Tokyo, which is already sufficiently YIMBY).

Here and in London, the need for more housing is dire, as in New York. What’s more, it’s not possible to just propose missing middle density in single-family areas or even mid-rises like California’s SB 827 and say something about great cities, because Paris is already great. (In London this is easier – there are rowhouses in zone 2 of the Underground.) There are some unusually short buildings here and there, down to 3-4 floors, but usually replacements have to be much bigger, so they’d be perhaps 12-15 floors. And in the most desirable neighborhoods, around the 8th and 16th, full high-rises are warranted. The one point of light is that such a program is unlikely to run into California’s gentrification concerns, if only because the main target areas for upzoning are the richest city neighborhoods in France.


  1. Onux

    Two factual issues with this post:
    1. Nowhere in California is rent control being applied to new buildings, since there is a statewide law (the Costa-Hawkins Act) which prevents it. There is an upcoming ballot initiative to repeal Costa-Hawkins and a number of communities (Santa Monica, Berkeley) which will strengthen rent control if it passes, but no new building in the state come under rent control.
    2. There is no resistance to up zoning in Houston, because there is famously no zoning to begin with. Depending on the author, some will argue that private property covenants in some neighborhoods act as de facto zoning, but they are not a result of municipal politics per se.

    I also think you mischaracterize the political environment of Houston. Although it shatters many stereotypes of both “red states” and the American South (it is solidly Democratic and followed a two term openly lesbian mayor with an African American mayor) it also a very much pragmatic and business oriented place. Plastic bags bans and other “lefty” policies similar to West coast cities like San Francisco are a hallmark of Austin, not Houston.

    • Alon Levy

      Ad 1, I’m well aware, but as you note there is a strong movement to repeal Costa-Hawkins, forcing SF YIMBY and such to take a stand on this issue.

      Ad 2, the Ashby high-rise saga made it clear that Houston isn’t quite the free for all some people wish it were.

      • Onux

        Re 1: It is nitpicking the point, but “wanting to apply it to new buildings” is still different than “applying it to new buildings.” Also, it is yet to be seen if the movement to repeal Costa-Hawkins is actually strong statewide. The fact that it is up for vote as an initiative is a hallmark of it not having broad status quo political support. If broad support existed, the legislature would have repealed Costa-Hawkins directly already. In the past two years, 10 California cities voted on rent control. Five voted against, four voted in favor, and one approved one measure while rejecting another. All but one of the cities was in the Bay Area, and so even in the most renter friendly part of the state the drive to increase rent control is at best running 50/50.

        Re 2: In 2014 a judge ruled that there was no legal way to stop the project, but allowed a jury to award damages to local residents for impacts. In 2016 an appeals court overturned the award of damages. In 2017 Swamplot reported that site work was underway. I am not sure of the current status of the project, but the Ashby high rise legal history (as opposed to the public ‘saga’) indicates that Houston is in fact zoning free. Even the strongest and most organized community organization couldn’t affect the project, let alone stop it. This is in stark contrast to say Washington DC, where reductions in height or number of units is normal to appease neighborhood opposition, let alone San Francisco, with its stories of successful opposition to 33-foot high homes in 40-foot height zones.

        Furthermore, as the saying goes, anecdote is not the singular of data. The developers of the Ashby high rise certainly drew a bad lot with the Boulevard Oaks neighborhood, but just across the freeway in Montrose there are multiple mid rises (5-8 stories) built or under construction in an otherwise similar SFD neighborhood. This is far beyond the normal up-zoning that YIMBYs ask for in such neighborhoods (ADUs, duplexes, row houses) and more in line with what SB 827 proposed. Once again it points to Houston being zoning free, and thus free from resistance to up-zoning.

  2. Michael James

    Ha! I had to read right thru to the final para to find your constant war/campaign to build hi-rises in Paris. And in the 8th and 16th! Forget it. First, they are already dense (well, the 8th is a bit low at ≈10,000/km2 but still higher than NYC average; 16th is 19,000/km2 close to Paris average). Second, you’d run into immediate trouble deciding what to demolish since everywhere is already mature. Hidalgo did threaten those elites who live along avenue Foch, to build social housing along their very wide (quadruple) street–yeah, as they say, good luck with that. Third, it would impact directly on the vistas of the Arc de Triomphe and the Tour Eiffel, so again, good luck with that.

    The 8th is low residential density for structural reasons: part of it is the business district; part of it is an entertainment and showcase retail precinct; it has Gare-St-Lazare; a chunk is consumed by the Champs-Elysées and Place de la Concorde and the adjoining gardens (Grand + Petit Palais) and a not inconsiderable chunk is consumed by the Elysées Palace & UK & US embassies; and then there’s Parc Monceau. In fact if the density were re-calculated with this lot removed it would probably be at the Parisian average.

    Other than the politics (as Hidalgo is discovering with her bizarre and rather pointless plan to replace the news kiosks) and the sheer vandalism, there really is very little point. As Haussmannian housing already produces the highest residential densities, the only way to increase it would be to build over all that space I just listed. Hidalgo (and Levy) should do some flanerie in the eastern-13th to see what a hi-rise district looks like, not to mention not achieving significantly more residential density. It’s why they stopped building those 31-storey apartment blocks about 3 decades ago.

    Other than bits of brownfield in-fill (mostly railyards) on the outer edges, there is little logic in trying to make Paris ever more dense. It has excellent transport to and within the near-suburbs and that is where the focus for Ile-de-France housing issues lies (of course outside the power and purview of the mayor of Paris).

    To bring it back to the topic of American urbandensification, I still claim that Paris Haussmannian principles are a suitable guide. A bit like SB827, and see how that was shot down in flames. It can achieve densities that are only achieved in one place in all of north America (Manhattan) yet retain human-scale, urbanity and walkability. Hi-rise is only something that developers and their political proxies want. And maybe deluded planners:-)

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, the 13th is full of high-rises. So is the 11th to some extent, but they’re mostly the same kind of housing as in the tourist ghettos but with 10-15 stories rather than 5-9 (the style is different, but there are no setbacks unlike the towers in the park of the 13th and the Zone).

  3. Diego Beghin

    FWIW, the NIMBYs in Brussels are mostly of the preserve-the-neighbourhood-character variety, not anti-gentrification activists. Like Michael who’s convinced that Paris is already perfectly beautiful, and it would be criminal to change anything. While the Parisian preservationists may have a point, the ones in Brussels really don’t. They even landmarked a supermarket FFS, saying it was a magnificent example of industrial architecture within the city.

    Dynamics in Brussels are complicated by the political fragmentation in 19 communes. The poor communes are more willing to allow development in order to get that sweet tax money. Richer communes in the East and South can afford to block all development to please existing residents. Watermael-Boitsfort is even losing population despite a large city-wide increase.

    • Alon Levy

      In Paris they landmarked the administrative tower at Jussieu, which is hands down the ugliest piece of architecture on the Left Bank.

      • Michael James

        Alon Levy, 2018/07/21 – 13:12

        In Paris they landmarked the administrative tower at Jussieu, which is hands down the ugliest piece of architecture on the Left Bank.

        Yes, though your comment is laden with irony since the “they” has to include people like you who would build hi-rise in the 8th and 16th (and 9th, 1st etc), ne c’est pas? Which would end up being lamented (and lamentable) like the Tour Montparnasse and the 13th.

        Re Diego Beghin’s comment, yes Paris is near perfect but plenty of us who think so don’t believe it should be, or in fact has been, wrapped in aspic. The place was a veritable building site for most of the time I lived there, while the Louvre and the other of Mitterand’s grand projets were completed. It’s got more interesting modern architecture than New York or London. Just over the past few years it has the Gehry Vuitton Foundation, the Jean Nouvel Philharmonie, the Canopée and Musée du Quai Branly. Currently there is the program, which aims at 600 projects scattered all around, but these will be consonant with the existing fabric (as far as I am aware; look at the Pershing project at Porte Maillot); some will be exceptional, some will turn out to be pedestrian but none will ruin either its local precinct nor negatively impact Paris. Hi-rise tends to be a very limiting architectural form. The real aesthetic beauty of Paris lies in its whole. Nothing on the planet like it, that integrates the ancient with the medieval and ultra-modern.

        As for the Jussieu tower, I am disappointed some urban archi-guerrillas didn’t take advantage of all those years it was empty, shrouded in scaffolding for its asbestos cleansing, to dynamite it–if done expertly, like WTC-Building 7–it would have collapsed neatly and hurt no one or any other buildings. Parisians would have cheered.

  4. adirondacker12800

    ……don’t have room to grow in SoMa they will move to a suburb hungry for sales tax revenues.

    Office buildings don’t generate a whole lot of sale taxes, not compared to retail. There might a burst of it when they go out and buy all the office furniture and equipment and then continuing on the office supplies and cafeteria(s) but retail generates a lot more sales tax. They do get a fresh assessment under Prop 13. And likely structured so the carefully crafted corporation created to build, own and operate it never gets reassessed.

    • Alon Levy

      Office buildings create demand for high-end retail, though. They also raise local property values by increasing access to jobs, while consuming very little in municipal services (i.e. schools). In the long run they don’t get reassessed, but in the short run they’re assessed at present-day value, and now that Prop 13 rates are inherited residential rates don’t get reassessed either.

  5. Tal Alster

    Hey Classmate 🙂

    A good opportunity to thank you for your excellent blog.

    1. What do you mean when you write that “New York’s high real estate profits ensure that inclusionary zoning, which is a tax on revenue, has less impact than in cheaper cities like Portland, where the same tax on revenue represents a much higher tax on profits”? In what sense IZ is a tax on revenue, rather that an air-rights based way of funding below-market housing?

    2. Do you have any thoughts concerning YIMBY in the old country?

    • Alon Levy

      1. IZ as practiced in the US tends to be de facto mandatory. In New York taxes on certain real estate projects (I forget which – Stephen Smith knows more) are high, and to get them waived you need IZ. In some places the city’s also refused to upzone on the grounds that it would make developers less likely to build 20% extra for IZ.

      2. Hmmm. In Tel Aviv the big political problem is that the state needs to approve any zoning changes. I don’t know if it is interested in doing so, even if there’s a social movement within Tel Aviv asking for more construction.

      • Tal Alster

        2. First of all, Tel Aviv approved the city’s master plan last year so it has a spectrum of possibilities there, all under local authority. For instance, the plans approved for the old north (quarters 3 + 4) are by far more restrictive that allowed without any need for the regional planning agency. And of course the whole TAMA 38 discussion is about strong municipalities limiting the scope of the TAMA and downzoning it.
        In short, I think the city has ample zoning power enabling it to allow more housing.
        As for the motivation of the central government, as in most cases, it’s zionists vs. neo liberals. I suspect that with the affordability crisis the neo liberals have a lot of political credit to promote rational, choice-based planning.
        Just as an anacdote, the current debate on Sde Dov, where Huldai leads a wide coalition to downzone an approved plan for 16,000 apartments in order to undo the demolition of the airfield, is telling on the priorities (the central government favors more housing, for affordability and land price maximization) and on the political strength of the different stakeholders (I’m betting Huldai will get what he wants, despite Kahlon’s position).

  6. Reedman Bassoon

    How about the “superYIMBY” cities? In 1950 Detroit was bigger than LA at 1.8 million population, and has 680k now. Detroit would GLADLY approve any residential, commercial, retail, or industrial growth.

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