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.
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 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.
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.
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.