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Yimby-ism could transform the landscape(s)

Part of the planned Ebbsfleet Garden City. Gareth Fuller/PA Archive/PA Images

Part of the planned Ebbsfleet Garden City. Gareth Fuller/PA Archive/PA Images

October 16, 2017   3 mins

Why are people – and especially younger people – turning against capitalism in such great numbers? The easy answer is that popular support for capitalism depends on widespread ownership of capital. By pricing a whole generation out of the housing market, we have left the young without a stake in the system.

It’s a compelling theory – and one that appears to explain perplexing events such as the surge in support for left-wingers like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. For those of us who want to see capitalism reformed not replaced, the obvious conclusion is that we must build more houses.

And yet this argument has a problem. If young people are so angry about the lack of affordable homes – whether for rent or purchase, where are the protests? At a time when people turn out to march against all sorts of things – Trump, Brexit, austerity etc – where are the pro-housebuilding demonstrations?

As most elected politicians could tell you, the loudest protests on the issue are against development, not for it. There aren’t many who object to the principle of providing new homes, of course. No, it’s just the concrete reality that they don’t like. If the rumble of a bulldozer is even imagined within earshot, then the cry of ‘not in my back yard!’ drowns out all others.

But as Erin McCormick reports for the Guardian, a counter-revolution is gathering strength:

“Calling themselves yimbys, they are standing up to say “Yes, in my back yard” to any kind of new housing development…

“The movement is fuelled by the anger of young adults from the millennial generation, many of whom are now in their late 20s and early 30s. Rather than suffer in silence as they struggle to find affordable places to live, they are heading to planning meetings en masse to argue for more housing – preferably the very kind of dense, urban infill projects that have often generated neighbourhood opposition from nimbys…”


The epicentre of yimbyism is the San Francisco Bay Area. Thanks to the tech industry this is one of the most economically dynamic places on the planet, but also one of the most expensive parts in the world to live. It’s easy to see why the yimbys are angry:

“[The area] added 307,000 jobs between 2010 and 2013, but built fewer than 40,000 new housing units, according to state of California estimates.”

The movement is now going global:

“In Vancouver, yimby groups are organising tours to show the most wastefully zoned lots in the city, including a ritzy area where 150 acres houses only about 400 people. In Britain, groups have formed in London, Oxford and Cambridge and are looking at how to change the government process to enable more new housing. In Australia, newly formed yimby groups are looking to change laws to allow people to rent out the loft spaces above their garages or ‘Fonzie Flats’, as they are known Down Under.”

Unlike most youthful protests movements, yimbyism defies left-right categorisation:

“…members of yimby groups consider themselves progressives and environmentalists, but they’re not afraid to throw the occasional firebomb into the usual liberal alliances. They frequently take aim at space-hogging, single-family homeowners and confound anti-capitalist groups by daring to take the side of developers, even luxury condo developers.”

Indeed, yimbys can find themselves at loggerheads with ‘anti-gentrification’ campaigners of the conventional left.

Perhaps one reason why young people have been slow to get angry at the housing crisis is because most are still too young to think about such matters. Indeed, to a generation so committed to its eternal adolescence, home ownership appears as a pursuit for the middle aged.

But middle age is approaching anyway – a be-slippered grim reaper come to extinguish youth if not life. As one hits 30 and beyond, the idea of living with parents becomes evermore intolerable – and sharing with flatmates not nearly as fun as it used to be. Yimbyism is likely to find an increasingly receptive audience.

Furthermore, there are some early indications that this is a fight in which the tech industry could bring its growing power to bear. “Yimby groups have received funding from founders of several hi-tech companies” says McCormick. Indeed, one hears rumours: of political realignment, of game-changing Presidential candidates, of wealthy individuals ready-and-willing to disrupt the system. Political disruption always requires a wedge issue – and housing presents a clear opportunity.

The establishment therefore has a choice: Build homes for the future or see their own world come crashing down.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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