The rapid rise of pro-housing groups in the United States – Greater Greater Washington
This post was originally posted on brookings.edu by Cassidy Pearson and Jenny Schuetz.
Last fall, the California legislature made headlines when it passed Senate Bill 9, which legalized duplexes in single-family neighborhoods across the state. The bill is the most recent legislative effort to alleviate the state’s chronic housing shortage by adding “soft density,” and its passage represents a significant political victory for state and local advocacy groups in Housing Advocacy, led by California YIMBY (short for “Yes In My Garden”).
The emergence of these visible and vocal pro-housing groups has become a defining feature of land use debates in recent years – a counterweight to longtime landlords who oppose new housing, often referred to as NIMBY, for “Not in my garden”. .” Since the Great Recession, housing supply has failed to keep up with demand, leading to rapidly rising housing costs and increasingly heated policy debates, from California to Minneapolis, Massachusetts and Utah. While media reports offer snapshots of where and how pro-housing groups operate, systematic data collection and academic research on them is still thin.
In this brief, we analyze newly collected data to provide insight into the emerging housing movement. More than 140 such groups existed as of January 2022, although their size and level of activity vary. Nearly 60% of states (29) have at least one active group, with the highest concentrations in California, Massachusetts, Texas and Washington. Understanding where, how, and why pro-housing groups emerge—and how they affect housing policies and markets—are important areas for further research.
Pro-housing groups are growing rapidly and are mainly oriented towards local politics
Housing affordability has gained significant political attention nationally over the past five years, with elected Democrats and Republicans calling for the need for zoning reforms to increase housing supply. The number of pro-housing groups grew rapidly during this period; almost half of the groups in our dataset were formed in the past two years alone.
Our analysis found that two-thirds of pro-housing groups focus on a single city or county. This makes sense, as local governments are primarily responsible for passing land use regulations (such as apartment bans and large minimum lot sizes) and overseeing housing production. Some cities, such as San Francisco and Boston, have neighborhood groups that organize within cities (Grow the Richmond, Dorchester grow together). Groups that seek policy change at the state level (Texans for Housing, YIMBY Utah, YIMBY Maryland) represent only 8% of pro-housing groups. And only 4% of pro-housing groups have a national focus; several of them (YIMBY Action, Up for Growth) also advocate for local housing needs nationally.
Note: Groups are assigned to geographic categories by name. “Local” indicates that groups focus on specific cities or counties. “Neighborhood” indicates a point of interest within the city. “Metropolitan” includes more than one jurisdiction in a metropolitan area. “State” includes statewide organizations. “National” includes multi-state organizations.
We intentionally applied broad criteria to identify supportive housing groups and were unable to gather detailed information on group characteristics, such as budget or number of participating members. But secondary research indicates that pro-housing groups vary widely on two dimensions that likely impact their work: size and organizational ties. The groups in our inventory range from someone with a Twitter account to legally incorporated entities with both full-time paid staff and volunteers. Some groups operate as educational or charitable nonprofits, while others are classified as lobby or political advocacy groups.
Many of these groups operate under an umbrella structure of affiliated companies, conceptually similar to parent company and franchise agreements between for-profit companies. Chief among them is YIMBY Action, headquartered in San Francisco, which provides funding, training and coordination to dozens of local chapters across the country. The other nationally-focused group, Up for Growth, based in Washington, D.C., operates a research and policy-focused nonprofit organization and affiliated lobby group (Up for Growth Action) that advocates for in favor of favorable federal housing legislation.
Pro-housing organizations are more concentrated on the west coast
Forty-five of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States have at least one pro-housing group. Metro areas along the West Coast have the highest concentration of pro-housing groups, while Greater Boston has the most groups among East Coast metro areas.
Housing-friendly groups are particularly prevalent in high-cost metropolitan areas, but there is not a perfect correlation between these two factors (Figure 4). The San Francisco metro area has more than twice as many groups as Los Angeles, although the latter is much larger and has similar affordability (housing value relative to income). Similarly, far more groups are active in Greater Boston and Washington, D.C. than in New York City, which has twice as many people as the other two metropolitan areas combined, as well as notoriously high housing costs. Understanding what economic, political and institutional factors drive housing advocacy is a promising area for future research.
Not all pro-housing organizations embrace the term ‘YIMBY’
The pro-housing movement emerged in direct response to NIMBYism, and nearly half of the groups in our dataset use the term YIMBY — “Yes In My Backyard” — to describe themselves. But the term YIMBY has acquired political baggage, both due to differences in political priorities with traditional affordable housing advocates and choice of tactics. Some pro-housing groups have strategically chosen to avoid the YIMBY-NIMBY framing altogether, selecting names like Minneapolis‘ Neighbors for More Neighbors or Abundant Housing Massachusetts.
Yet YIMBY is the most commonly used term in pro-housing group names (Figure 5), with an additional 7% of groups choosing names that include either “neighbors” or some wording of “house” or “housing” . Many groups also have distinctly local names, such as A Better Cambridge and Greater Greater Washington.
Naming conventions vary somewhat from region to region of the country. Three-fifths of pro-housing groups in the South use the term “YIMBY” in their name, compared to two-fifths of groups in the West, Northeast and Midwest.
What should the local housing policy research agenda include?
The rapidly growing decentralized housing movement emerged in response to a tangible economic problem: housing costs are rising faster than incomes, creating financial stress for more households. Political engagement around this issue has mobilized social media to raise awareness, which has caught the attention of elected officials. Notably, the pro-housing movement is not exclusively aligned with either major political party; politicians from both parties, from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) to Gov. Charlie Baker (R-Mass.) and Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind. ), supported pro-housing legislation. At the national and local levels, pro-housing groups have won small but tangible legislative victories, while only just beginning to gain traction in other places.
As the pro-housing movement continues to grow and mature in policy circles, it offers fruitful research questions relevant to economics, political science, sociology, and urban planning, among other disciplines. Here are some interesting initial questions:
- How and why do local pro-housing groups form, grow or decline? Do they revolve around specific policy proposals or “trigger events”? What strategies or actions strengthen membership and/or visibility?
- Will the movement continue as loosely connected local and state organizations, or will it coalesce into more formal relationships?
- How do pro-housing groups fit into larger political movements? What relationships will be formed with political parties, mainstream affordable housing groups and the real estate industry?
- How successful are pro-housing groups in getting policy change? What factors influence the likelihood of campaigns for zoning reforms and other policy changes?
Absent major policy changes, the economic fundamentals driving the deterioration in housing affordability seem unlikely to change any time soon. As long as rents are rising faster than incomes, the pro-housing movement is likely to hire new recruits.
Data was collected in January 2022 by examining social media networks and cross-referenced with an in-depth literature review of publications and news outlets. Data was included for pro-housing organizations doing advocacy or organizing work in the United States. Groups inactive since 2020 were excluded. Organizations adjacent to the YIMBY movement, such as developers of ancillary development units, but not directly involved in policy and advocacy were excluded. For our analysis, the “chapters” of YIMBY Action were counted as separate organizations, but they operate under the direction of YIMBY Action. This inventory likely did not capture all pro-housing groups, especially if the group was not active on social media.
Thanks to Laura Foote and Mike Kingsella for their helpful insights and comments.