A clash of housing visions

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A clash of housing visions
Condos under construction on Washington Street in Dorchester. (Photo by Michael Jonas)

SEVERAL HUNDRED ADVOCATES from across the country are descending on Roxbury Community College beginning Friday for a conference committed to the idea of building more housing to relieve a crunch that is pricing people out of booming coastal cities like Boston. The YIMBYtown convention is the national ingathering of a new movement – this is just the third annual conference of the group — fighting the not-in-my-backyard stance toward new housing that often greets development proposals.

YIMBY efforts – the acronym means “yes in my backyard” – often clash with residential property owners looking to hold back new development. But the most visible pushback against the message of this weekend’s YIMBY gathering isn’t coming from cranky homeowners who want everything left as is, but from tenant activists who say the YIMBY movement is fueling, not relieving, displacement pressure on lower-income city residents.

It’s a clash of competing views on how to address urban housing needs that is playing out in high-cost markets across the country as cities grapple with the best way to manage growth and development.

“YIMBYism is a pro-housing movement in some of the highest cost cities in the country, trying to make sure our regulations allow the type of housing that people at all incomes levels need to live and thrive in community with each other,” said Jesse Kanson-Benanav, chairman of A Better Cambridge, the first Boston area YIMBY group to form.

A key belief of the movement is that booming metropolitan areas need to loosen zoning rules that make it hard to build dense, multi-unit dwellings, especially near transit locations that can accommodate a lot of resident growth without adding lots of additional cars. “When you have what tend to be higher-income folks moving into areas with a restricted number of homes, that means lower-income people will lose,” said Kanson-Benanav. “For us, it’s really about equity at the core – to make sure we don’t have such winners and losers.”

But a coalition of low-income tenant groups says unbridled growth only promises to worsen the affordable housing crisis in Boston and make for more losers at the bottom of the economic ladder. The YIMBY effort “often finds ways to make it easier for developers to build, and that often leads to housing that people can’t afford,” said Darnell Johnson, coordinator for the Boston chapter of Right to the City, a national alliance advocating for low-income tenants.

His organization, along with 10 grassroots Boston neighborhood groups, is convening a parallel forum on Saturday at Roxbury church half a mile from the YIMBY conference to draft a “People’s Plan” for housing. Among the proposals they will consider, said Johnson, is a call for 50 percent of all new housing in the city to be affordable for lower-income residents and for “democratic neighborhood governance” of development plans.

Lori Hurlebaus, a Dorchester resident active with one of the tenant groups, Dorchester Not For Sale, which formed a year ago to fight displacement pressures there, likened the YIMBY call to loosen zoning regulations to the “trickle down” Republican economic policies of the 1980s. “The market’s not going to right itself,” she said. “They’d like to pose this as a simply supply and demand issue.”

Kanson-Benanav said the YIMBY advocates don’t believe the market can solve all of a city’s housing needs. “YIMBYs strongly support and advocate strongly for subsidized affordable housing, but we support market rate housing as well,” he said.

Randy Shaw, a Bay Area YIMBY activist, said many “equity groups,” the term used to describe some of the movement’s opponents on the left, “have a stereotype of YIMBYs that is just not accurate.”

“Most YIMBYs don’t think build anything anywhere,” said Shaw, author of a book on the housing crisis due out this fall, Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. Shaw, who is director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, the leading provider of housing for homeless single adults in San Francisco, said most YIMBY supporters also care deeply about low-income tenants and the homeless. He said YIMBY activists are strongly backing a November ballot question in San Francisco that would enact a tax on large companies to fund housing for homeless residents.

Shaw lamented the fact that low-income tenant advocates sometimes make common cause with wealthy homeowners who oppose new development. Opposition from the two wildly disparate groups helped kill a measure earlier this year in the California legislation that would have overridden local zoning restrictions to allow greater density development along transit corridors.

“It was a textbook case where you had low-income housing advocates aligning with some of the wealthiest homeowners in the United States,” said Shaw.

Tenant advocates say the kind of growth the California bill would have unleashed often only drives up prices around it. While the economics of supply and demand argue that new housing supply will temper price increases across a region, even some pro-growth YIMBY advocates acknowledge new development may cause some increase in the cost of the existing nearby housing stock.

“We are looking at that phenomenon and whether or not that is true,” said Sheila Dillon, the city’s housing director. “But we take the larger view that we have to increase supply throughout the city, throughout the region if we are going to get our rent and sales prices in check.”

“While supply isn’t the only answer to the question, it is part of it,” said Jarred Johnson, founder of Dorchester Growing Together, a YIMBY affiliate in Boston’s largest neighborhood. “Growth is coming to Boston. The question is how we accommodate it, how do we harness the private market to provide the kind of housing we need,” said Johnson, who works as a project manager at the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, a nonprofit Dorchester development group.

He said the vast majority of those involved in the YIMBY movement support strong tenant protections while also believing the private market is how most new housing will get built. “As much as I would like for Uncle Sam or the Commonwealth to pick up all the bill for housing production, I know that’s just not going to be the case,” he said.

YIMBY activists say they are championing livable cities for all, not serving as the mindless shills for big developers they are sometimes painted to be. Meanwhile, tenant advocates say they are not NIMBYs reflexively in league with well-off homeowners.

“We’re not NIMBYs,” said Kathy Brown, co-director of the Boston Tenant Coalition. “We fight for housing that is truly affordable and directly benefits low-income families and communities of color, housing that stabilizes our neighborhoods.”

Boston has been aggressively pushing for new housing, including affordable units for tenants facing soaring rental costs. Mayor Marty Walsh has set a goal of permitting 53,000 new housing units by 2030. The city said 26,000 new units have been permitted since 2011, the bulk of them since Walsh took office four years ago. Of those, nearly 2,500 will be affordable to low-income households, 2,700 will be pegged for lower-middle income households, and 5,700 will be affordable to households earning up to $125,000 a year.

“We need production to alleviate the pressure on our housing stock,” said Dillon, the city housing director. “The issue has been that our population continues to grow rapidly even though we’re building more housing.”

Both sides agree that there are overlapping views in the two camps.

The YIMBY conference includes sessions tackling the very issues the tenant groups are raising, including one titled, “Before You Say Yes In My Backyard: How to Develop Without Displacement.” Another takes on the charge YIMBY activists sometimes lob at tenant groups: “Anti-Gentrification Activists Aren’t NIMBYs: Building Nuance for YIMBY Housing Policy in Gentrifying Neighborhoods.”

The organizers of the tenant-focused forum, meanwhile, say local YIMBY groups such as A Better Cambridge “have recently nodded to the importance of ending displacement.”

Boston’s housing chief struck a diplomatic note when asked about the dueling conferences taking place this weekend in Roxbury. “I think both conversations are healthy, and I think we can learn from each other,” said Dillon, who will be part of a panel discussion at the closing session of the YIMBY conference on Sunday morning.