YIMBYTown 2018

I was in New York last week presenting my and Eric Goldwyn’s bus redesign (see post here, with revisions coming soon). YIMBYTown happened just afterward, this weekend in Boston, so I hopped on the train up to go to the conference. I went to the plenary sessions and a selection of the breakout sessions, and, in between the sessions, had a lot of not-especially-heated conversations with various YIMBYs I’d long known online. For the most part I did not have a good time, and I want to explain why, because it’s relevant to the future of YIMBY in general and to any synergy between transportation and development.

The talks

I livetweeted two of the plenary sessions, by Ed Glaeser and Kristen Jeffers. My general impression of Ed Glaeser’s talk is that the first half was boilerplate and the second half included references to various studies, most (all?) by his grad students, regarding zoning, US migration patterns, and other relevant issues. Kristen‘s speech was extremely personal, and built up Kristen’s life story toward the climax of insisting planners must viscerally love the cities they work in. I felt weird about that, since I have the exact opposite visceral reaction to Boston, which gets stronger every time I visit.

The breakout sessions ran the gamut. I went to three on the schedule proper on Friday and two on the unconference schedule on Saturday. The first three were Jarred Johnson and Ted Pyne‘s session on equity and transit-oriented development, Emily Hamilton‘s presentation of her and Eli Dourado’s paper finding that more walkable places in the US have higher property values, and John Myers‘ proposal to encourage more homebuilding by empowering individual blocks (of, say, 20 homeowners or 20 tenants) to upzone. They all had slides and a fair bit of structure (as a moderated discussion in the first one and as economics or policy talks in the second two).

The unconference had four session slots, but I was discussing things individually with other people in the first and last, and only went to the middle two. These were Where New Housing is Being Built, which turned out to be a paper talk by Mercatus’s Salim Furth, with similar structure to Emily’s talk, and an inclusionary housing session, in theory run by Eric Herot and in practice run by Alex Baca and SF YIMBY’s Laura Foote.

My general impressions

The conference was heavily geared toward political marketing. There was very little discussion of policy as is. There are extensive disagreements among people who identify as YIMBY on actual policy issues:

  • Government interventions for housing affordability, including rent control, inclusionary zoning, and public housing; the first and third weren’t discussed at any panel I attended or looked at (judging by the description), and even the IZ discussion was more about discussing IZ than about IZ itself. Some people brought up rent control as a solution to displacement, but for the most part in the context of politically appealing to the poor rather than in the context of asking whether it’s good policy.
  • The relative importance of residential and commercial upzoning; there was just one talk about that subject, which conflicted with another talk I wanted to go to.
  • The typology of housing that’s most useful at scale. Practices differ greatly between cities (e.g. high-rise, mid-rise, missing middle), and to some extent so do YIMBY beliefs about what is most important to encourage. And yet, I didn’t see any discussion of this, in particular the missing middle vs. mid-rise question.
  • Whether demand for urban housing is driven by consumption amenities (like nice sidewalks, cafes, good schools, etc.) or production amenities (proximity to jobs, which cluster for reasons like strong institutions, geography, or preexisting industrial clusters). Ed Glaeser’s talk brought up a few correlates with consumption but did not probe further.

Likewise, the interests of the attendees were different from what I was used to from transit discussions. Many were officials (e.g. city council members) of high-income NIMBY suburbs of Boston, with several coming from Newton. Many were organizers; the conference seemed to be geared toward them. Few were analysts, writers, or the sort of nerds who nitpick everything I say about subway planning and disturbingly often find serious holes in my proposals.

Despite the dominance of organizers, there were some serious organizational gaps, most importantly the unconference structure. It was poorly announced; there was no central space within which one could suggest ideas for unconference talk topics, and instead everything had to be done through the website, which was difficult to access since we were expected to network with other YIMBYs for about twelve hours a day. I only learned how I could either suggest or vote on a topic on Saturday morning after the list had been finalized; I wanted to suggest a discussion of TOD best practices, especially in light of the problem of market-rate housing inherently not being TOD in auto-oriented cities.

The libertarians

The two libertarian talks I went to – Emily’s presentation, and Salim’s unconference talk – were both good. I call them libertarian talks but what Emily showed is that housing is more expensive in American zipcodes with high walk scores, and what Salim showed is that more housing is built in US census tracts in density deciles 1-4 and 9-10 than deciles 5-8 (while an analysis of market pricing shows demand growing monotonically with density, so deciles 5-10 all have shortages). Market urbanism is the philosophy they’re informed by, but not the main focus.

The difference between their talks and the others is that they were presenting academic papers. I had many questions for both regarding definitions and robustness checks, and they engaged on that level; Emily in particular had already done all the robustness checks I was asking about (about definitions of zip code center, housing prices vs. rents, etc.), and her results held up.

Leftists like to complain about the ideological line of the Mercatus Center, and they’re right, but in housing economics, the Mercatus Center’s line is more or less the same as that of a broad spectrum of experts. So to them, talking about housing economics is the same as presenting results to a lay audience, same way I might have talked about dynamical systems to an audience with no more than undergrad math education.

White guilt

The conference was 85-90% white; this covers both the attendees and the speakers. The plenary speakers included multiple black urbanists (not just Kristen but also a panel for one of the closing plenary talks); clearly, there was some attempt at diversity. And yet, the entire way the conference presented diversity reminded me of what I hate most about Boston: 90% white groups talk about diversity and how to be welcoming and yet remain 90% year after year.

People who follow my Twitter rants know I constantly harangue Americans about their hostility to immigrants. Here, there was a pub crawl, which on its face is neutral, but when people congregated at a bar that checked IDs, and wouldn’t accept my Swedish ID card as valid because foreigners are required to show a passport, I could not talk to people who I’d made plans with. Nobody who I mentioned this to thought much of it; to the Americans it was a mistake, not an injustice. I doubt that nonwhite Americans who came with similar complaints would be treated any better.

There was a group of about 150 protesters who interrupted one of the talk, ironically by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. They were about 50% white, 50% black, in a neighborhood that’s almost 100% black. They, too, seemed not to think too much about their own representation (and to be fair, Boston is extremely segregated).

The London talk

The London housing talk was strange. The PowerPoint projector failed, requiring John Myers to use printed slides, which had poor color contrast for many key charts. John argued that there’s a U-shaped curve in housing construction: a lot built with individual decisionmaking (e.g. regimes before zoning), some built with nationwide decisionmaking (e.g. England), little built with local decisionmaking (e.g. individual suburbs, San Francisco). Based on the U-curve, he proposed empowering very small groups, down to the block level, to move to the left of the U curve and not the right.

I had a lot of criticism even within the talk, as did frequent commenter ThreeStationSquare. San Francisco builds more housing per capita than England, which is toward the low end of unitary states (Sweden, France, and the growing parts of Japan all build more). John said that rent-controlled tenants are NIMBY because they’re insulated from the consequences of a housing shortage; in reality, a paper studying NIMBYism among renters finds no difference between market-rate and rent-controlled tenants in San Francisco, and Becca Baird-Remba‘s reporting in New York also sees no such difference within the city.

More fundamentally, empowering a group of (say) 20 people enhances group solidarity to the point of not being so willing to (in effect) take a buyout from developers to permit more housing. In Israel, even empowering groups of 6-8 owners in an Old North apartment building generally leads to hostility to developers and reluctance to make deals.

Inclusionary zoning

There was an unconference discussion about inclusionary zoning. Unfortunately, the discussion broke down early, with many more people than expected, around 30 or 40, more than the other events in the same time slot. Alex Baca and Laura Foote had to salvage it, running it the way they’re used to running group discussions.

But even with their management, making sure people talked one at a time, the discussion was too meta and too unfocused. We were talking about how to talk about IZ rather than about IZ itself. I wanted to bring up non-IZ models of affordability like the social housing so common in France or Sweden, but there was no time beyond my saying “there’s social housing in France and Sweden.” With nobody in attendance from Baltimore, there was no discussion of the city’s own recently-passed plan, focusing on very low-income people – nor any agreement to follow up on it with people more familiar than we were.

In effect, the way the discussion evolved seemed like the first hour of a six-hour conversation, and not like the one-hour conversation it really was.

Will I go again?

If it’s in a city I happen to actually be in, then probably. But it’s all organized by local groups, even though politically the entire point of American YIMBY is to leverage national social and political networks to make the professional middle class a stronger force in local politics relative to the local homeowner class (anchored by retirees, heirs to houses in the top wealth decide or two short of the top 1-2%, and shopkeepers). There’s no national attempt to site YIMBYTown in cities that are easy to get to domestically, let alone internationally. The next conference is likely to be somewhere where I have no reason to go except YIMBYTown, rather than in New York.

And in that case, I’m not likely to make it again. The productive conversations I’ve had are with people I’d have good conversations with anyway on Twitter and by email. It’s not a conducive environment for exchanging ideas with people I don’t already know; the panels are too much about how to pretend to be nice to the local working class (and I guarantee that the conference won’t get any less white or any less middle-class), and not enough about policy or analysis.


  1. electricangel1978

    People who follow my Twitter rants know I constantly harangue Americans about their hostility to immigrants.

    I forget… which chapter of How To Win Friends and Influence People was that covered in?

  2. John Myers

    Thanks for the comments! As I had hoped to make clear in the talk, I wasn’t saying that rent-controlled tenants are necessarily more NIMBY on a local level. I was saying that the mechanisms at the macro level through consumer confidence operate differently. And so explicitly said that I thought there were many variables driving approvals (not least different zoning system design), not just one.

    We already have counterexamples proving that allowing hyperlocal groups to opt in to more permissions can enable more home building. (Not to mention Manhattan circa 1905.) If it’s just an opt-in, not a veto, I’m sceptical that it can make matters any worse, across a massively fragmented number of groups who all have the choice to opt in, but I’d be interested to see specific examples where opt-in rights have done so.

    Overall I was delighted with the positive response to the talk. Thanks for the questions!

    • Alon Levy

      Manhattan circa 1905 did not have zoning or empowered community groups at all. It was an individualist model, tempered by public health regulations (like the New Law) and a handful of small zoning rules (like a ban on non-residential uses on Eastern Parkway). To the extent community groups had any power, they favored Eastern Parkway-like rules – I think, but am not sure, that there were more parkways that were zoned residential before 1916, on the theory that commercial uses made them less pleasant.

      In contrast, empowering blocks is the opposite of individualist – it’s communitarian and (in the cultural theory sense) egalitarian. It encourages solidarity among owners on the block (or tenants, but on the local level it’s not much better). You need to either break or bypass this solidarity if you want more housing. Japan does so by having a unitary state with national zoning (like the UK) and relatively weak local representation (unlike the UK with its MP casework).

      For what it’s worth, in the US, at no scale that’s currently available do homeowners sell out to developers. For example, Colma, California has 1,500 people, a lot of spare capacity (it’s full of graveyards), and a BART station within city limits. It can upzone if it wants to, but it doesn’t.

      • James Sinclair

        “For what it’s worth, in the US, at no scale that’s currently available do homeowners sell out to developers.”

        Suburbs and exurbs do it all the time. Every week in Clovis CA I see a farm apply to be rezoned from agriculture to medium density residential, and then s \ell to a developer that subdivides into 250 homes.

          • JJJ

            Its a domino effect where a block of farms (where each block is one mile) sells out to developers one after the other.

            But thats because the detached single family home is the “ideal”. Going from farm to tract housing is considered progress. Going from tract housing to anything denser is not, because of associations with inner cities and crime.

      • John Myers

        Agreed about how Manhattan worked in 1905. Sorry, my point was more that single owners definitely decided to build up; and two or three owners from time decided to combine their individual lots to build up (or sold out to someone who did). It’s obviously an empirical question how that curve is shaped and what other factors affect it. All we know is that for n=1, 2 or 3, you can get a landscape looking like Manhattan circa 1905.

        We also know that there are actual cases of multiple homeowners in the UK collectively agreeing to jointly apply for upzoning. (https://www.homesandproperty.co.uk/property-news/buying/new-homes/12-primrose-hill-neighbours-build-on-their-roofs-in-new-homes-model-that-could-offer-solution-to-a118516.html)

        So it can definitely work for as high as n=10. Again, the frequency will partly depend on the rules, the size of the incentives to do so and whether unanimity, supermajority or simple majority is required. Simple majorities would obviously make it easier but cause more of a backlash.

        I think it is Singapore that allows 80% of the owners in an apartment building to decide to sell it? And there is another jurisdiction with a similar rule.

        The Ortalo-Magné and Prat model is more about theoretical limits assuming you distribute all the uplift in land value to the voters across the jurisdiction deciding the zoning question, which is of course far from the reality in every system I am aware of. https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/mic.6.1.154 Most systems have vastly less incentives for voters to vote for upzoning. The point I was making (badly, sorry!) is that even with the best possible incentives, you hit theoretical limits.

        But the logic is fairly inescapable so far as I can see. At some point there is an incentive to create a regulatory cartel, if you give people the power to do so. The only question is at how small a scale and under what rules you have to allow defection from that cartel in order to keep housing costs down. We know it cannot be as low n=1 because there are counterexamples. In London our focus groups and surveys so far indicate that it could work on a large number of face blocks, given the low current density, low construction costs by SF standards, extensive Underground network and very high sales prices – not to mention the exemption of primary residences from capital gains taxes.

        We’ve been working to summarize this at londonyimby.org/handbook and would be very grateful for any comments!

  3. Daniel

    Regardless of the validity of the point you were trying to make, it’s not too surprising that you were asked to show a valid ID in the jurisdiction you were having your ID checked – would the cops have taken your swedish ID if they’d shown?

    Places checking ID in the countries I’ve traveled to have also expected a passport from foreigners, and an American driver’s license wouldn’t cut it.

    The major difference from my experience is that some bars in America actually check ID, not that they require a valid one.

  4. Nathanael

    Huh. I’m quite fond of Boston.

    Boston metro area is about 8% Black, so you shouldn’t expect more Black people than that at a conference, even though the city proper is 25% Black — the conference clearly draws from the metro area. On the other hand, the metro area is also roughly 10% Hispanic and 7% Asian, so whether the conference was representative of that is a question (which you didn’t look into).

    ALL conferences will be biased away from the lower classes, who typically don’t have time off work to attend conferences, and toward wealthier people with more free time. This is flatly unavoidable.

    The business of pubs not allowing people into the building without ID showing age is a particularly pernicious (but not universal) American custom, which constitutes illegal age discrimination. In other countries, and in most US restaurants, they make you show the ID to drink, not to walk in. As a teetotaler, this laziness on the part of the pub owners irritates me and I boycott restaurants and pubs and clubs and concerts which practice this pernicious abuse

    • Alon Levy

      There were very few Hispanics and Asians as well. On Twitter, I noted the relative paucity of Asians in YIMBY as an especial concern, since Asian-Americans tend to be disproportionately urban and educated and to not benefit from traditional NIMBY housing politics; Chinese-New Yorkers tend to be pro-development in their own neighborhoods, and Chinese-San Franciscans voted for London Breed.

      I count black people specifically because black people are generally overrepresented in American city centers. Overall, American urbanism is disproportionately Jewish among whites (especially progressive whites) and disproportionately black among nonwhites; I don’t know of a non-black person of color with the platform of Kristen Jeffers or Pete Saunders. There’s also a natural alliance between the (black-led) fair housing movement and YIMBY, but in practice there’s not much intersection between the two, because the praxis is different (fair housing prefers lawsuits, YIMBY prefers showing up to community meetings to speak in favor of development or ideally passing a state preemption law).

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