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The Role of the YIMBY in the New Multifamily Construction Market

Anyone involved in the multifamily construction industry is well aware of the role that NIMBYism plays in the market. NIMBY is an acronym for “not in my backyard,” a phrase that generally refers to the opposition, by residents, to development in their area.

These days, YIMBY, an acronym that, as you probably guessed, is defined as the polar opposite of NIMBY, has added an interesting and unexpected twist to the local zoning and development battles that ensure when developers propose a new multifamily construction project. The “yes, in my backyard” movement encourages and supports the increased supply of housing units, particularly in areas where housing costs have escalated to unaffordable levels. 

As a housing crisis continues to weigh on communities across the country, the “yes, in my backyard” movement, acting as a counter-argument to the better-established and much louder “not in my backyard” movement, is finally coming into its own. By advocating for the removal of barriers to construction and creating local solutions to address the housing crises, “yes, in my backyard” organizations and groups are helping to push pro-housing initiatives throughout the United States, especially in progressive area like in the cities of Portland, New York, Seattle, and Minneapolis. 

As the YIMBY movement grows, experts say it could alter new multifamily construction trends in the U.S., which is good news for the multifamily industry. This article will take a deep dive into the “yes, in my backyard” movement, its mission, and its effect on the multifamily construction industry as a whole.

Who are the YIMBYs Supporting New Multifamily Construction Projects in their Cities and Towns?

Housing advocates at the heart of the “yes, in my backyard” movement are changing the conversation about new multifamily construction by fighting for denser development and supporting new multifamily construction projects. In turn, the multifamily housing sector is hoping for greater change moving forward. Historically for multifamily developers, the concern wasn’t whether or not there would be opposition to their projects but how much opposition there would be. 

Regardless of the location, size, or scope of the proposed new multifamily development construction project, for nearly a half-century, there has been a strong “not in my backyard” contingent whose default answer has always been “no.” Unfortunately, the reasons were almost always based on emotions rather than logic and facts. However, there has been a shift in recent years thanks to the rising “yes, in my backyard” movement. 

Like the NIMBYs before them, YIMBYs regularly show up at zoning hearings and council meetings supporting new multifamily construction projects. They have even started lobbying their state legislators to support pro-development initiatives in their states. 

Just five years ago, there was almost no positive reaction or support for increased density and development, even when there was an obvious need in the area. These days, however, future renters and their supporters are showing up in droves to support the latest new multifamily construction projects in their city.

How YIMBYism is Ushering in a Greater Acceptance for New Multifamily Construction Projects

Across the country, developers are seeing a greater acceptance of new multifamily construction projects in every sector, though it is most noticeable in the affordable housing sector. The “yes, in my backyard” movement continues to grow, spurred by a National housing crisis, where increased demand and a shrinking supply continue to drive up costs. The fact is, nearly everyone in America, from small towns to big cities, knows someone who is either struggling to find a place to live or pay their rent. Therefore, there seems to be a greater understanding that you have become part of the housing problem when your NIMBYism prevents new multifamily construction projects in your area. Residents can no longer close their eyes and argue that their quality of life is more important than the need for housing. 

In much the same way that NIMBYism seemingly swept the country in the last few decades in response to what the public perceived as overdevelopment in their local areas and regions, “yes, in my backyard” groups are forming in communities throughout the country. Rather than fight development, like their “not in my backyard” peers, these YIMBY groups are fighting against local development practices and overreaching zoning regulations that ultimately make local housing less affordable for the folks who need it the most.

The Current State of Housing in America, as it Relates to New Multifamily Construction

According to a report by the National Multifamily Housing Council (NMHC) and National Apartment Association (NAA), to meet the demand caused by the current housing crunch in the United States, developers would need to build 328,000 multifamily units each year until 2030. That’s a tall order.

The undeniable housing crisis that the country currently faces could be eased by the development of more high-density new multifamily construction projects. Unfortunately, as anyone involved in the multifamily industry knows, it is illegal to construct anything except detached single-family housing on 75% of residential land in most cities. 

In a joint statement, the NMHC and the NAA said that the housing industry continues to face significant barriers to developing new multifamily construction projects. Most “yes, in my backyard” leaders say that is an understatement, arguing that local governments have become anti-multifamily housing regimes. While developers can construct as many single-family houses as they want in most cities, those who propose new multifamily construction projects are put through the wringer. Developers spend years and excessive amounts of money just trying to get their multifamily development projects approved, often with nothing to show for it. Across the country, new multifamily construction projects are regularly shelved in response to increased pressure brought by NIMBY residents. 

It wasn’t always this way. Take California, for example. In 1916, the California legislature passed what is known as the City Planning Enabling Act, allowing California cities to zone their own land. The City of Berkeley was the first in the state to pass a single-family zoning ordinance. 

A decade later, the United States Supreme Court determined that local governments and municipalities have broad discretion in imposing zoning ordinances. In its decision (Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. 1926), the justices stated that the apartment building would destroy “the residential character of the neighborhood and its desirability as a place of detached residences.” 

Four years after that decision, 75 percent of the states adopted zoning legislation that blocked or set up significant barriers for new multifamily construction. Since then, cities across the country have continued to enforce existing zoning laws and create new ones that have not only proven detrimental to the multifamily housing industry but have helped to fuel America’s current housing crisis. YIMBY organizers are saying that this is no longer the world that most Americans want to live in and are working hard to reverse those long-standing traditions.

Like NIMBYism, YIMBYism Started on the Grassroots Local Level

Most experts agree that the modern “yes, in my backyard” movement was born in the Bay Area of California, which was, and still is, an epicenter of disastrous policies and zoning regulations that are destroying housing affordability. Now, “yes, in my backyard” organizations are cropping up in states all over the country and banding together to help each other promote YIMBY efforts that they hope will reverse long-standing NIMBYist trends. There’s even an annual YIMBYtown conference, a sort of “Woodstock” event for housing advocacy groups. 

YIMBYism has taken a seat at the table as a major player in the future of multifamily housing. The “yes, in my backyard” movement emerged because NIMBYs were continually showing up at local meetings and stopping multifamily development across the country, often for all the wrong reasons, based on emotion rather than fact-based evidence, and, for years, it had been working. Now “yes, in my backyard” groups across the country are hoping to turn the tide. 

Whether you look at the YIMBY movement as a housing justice campaign or as a market-driven issue, the long-held notion that homeowners should be allowed to stop housing growth in their neighborhood is the type of normative assumption that supporters of the movement are trying to dismantle. While many YIMBY groups are cropping up all over the country and are, in some cases, working together toward a common cause, “yes, in my backyard” groups are just as diverse as the neighborhood development they are ultimately trying to promote. As a result, YIMBY groups vary greatly across the nation’s towns, cities, and states.

How YIMBY Activists are Moving the Needle on New Multifamily Construction and Affordability

The “yes, in my backyard” groups forming in communities throughout the country, both large and small, continue to fight against the local development and zoning practices that they argue have made housing less affordable for the average American and have ushered in the current housing crises. 

For the multifamily housing industry, these “yes, in my backyard” organizations are bringing to the table an ability to quickly and effectively mobilize local housing activists when new multifamily construction projects need community support. Thankfully, many support organizations are forming in response to the “yes, in my backyard” trend aimed at helping multifamily developers solicit community feedback on their upcoming new multifamily construction projects. 

Often, multifamily developers have difficulty rallying the support necessary to fight NIMBYism on their own. When they can connect with local YIMBY groups that already have the means and the required built-in mechanisms to bolster support for their new multifamily construction projects, through emails, phone calls, and text messages, they can essentially break down these barriers and gather the support that they need to provide a real counter-argument to the “not in my backyard” rhetoric. 

For years, the multifamily development landscape and the conversations surrounding the issue of housing development have remained, for the most part, one-sided, with NIMBYism taking the lead role in community meeting rooms across the country. The “yes, in my backyard” movement brings much-needed balance to the conversation. The best way to combat the negative light that NIMBYism seems to put on every new multifamily construction project proposed anywhere in the country, according to the “yes, in my backyard” movement, is to shine a light on all of the community needs that can be met through new multifamily housing developments.  

Unfortunately, experts say that the current YIMBY movement is likely not enough to turn the tide on America’s current housing crisis and to overcome the “not in my backyard” movement, which continues to show no signs of weakening. However, the movement can certainly move the needle on specific new multifamily construction projects, which alone can be a major win for the industry.

The current, ever-growing “yes, in my backyard movement” is positive for the multifamily housing industry because YIMBYism promotes all housing types, not just affordable projects. Why? Because in some markets, it is believed that increasing the housing supply will inevitably result in lowering housing costs. That theory may still be hotly debated, but there are statistics to back it up, at least in some areas of the country. 

Sadly, the YIMBY crowd still faces an unequally long uphill battle. Many major news outlets, for example, are often seen as sympathetic to the “not in my backyard” voices, at least according to many “yes, in my backyard” supporters. That’s why “yes, in my backyard” groups across the country are working hard to get their pro-development messages out there, even when there is no specific new multifamily construction project in their line of sight. 

For “yes, in my backyard” organizations to be successful in the long term and ultimately turn the country’s perception of new multifamily construction from “not in my backyard” to “yes, in my backyard,” experts say that they are going to have to become more organized and find new ways to bring in broader community input. That’s going to mean getting out there and gathering insights and information from large swaths of the community. That is the only way for “yes, in my backyard” groups to understand better what it is that will not only compel a positive public response but turn those who have been poisoned by false information disseminated by NIMBYs into YIMBY supporters. The best way to do that is to play on their emotions like NIMBYs have been doing for decades. 

Ask the public if they know anyone that is having trouble finding housing. Ask the public about the challenges they have faced when finding housing. Ask them about the constraints the current housing crisis is putting on those they love. Having these conversations isn’t just a great way to educate the public; it is a wonderful way to gain constructive and valuable feedback that can counter the “not in my backyard” movement that has been stifling the industry for far too long.

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