California YIMBY Sets High Goals For Housing In 2019
Brian Hanlon is the president and CEO of California YIMBY, a statewide organization that advocates for solutions to the housing crisis. YIMBY stands for "yes in my backyard" — a play on the term NIMBY, or "not in my backyard," used to describe people hostile to new development in their communities.
KPBS spoke with Hanlon while he was in San Diego for a Dec. 1 policy conference organized with the local YIMBY Democrats of San Diego County.
Q: So for anyone who's listening who's not really familiar with what the YIMBY movement is, what's it all about?
A: The YIMBY movement is a group of people that welcome more neighbors into their communities, that believe that California should be for everyone. Whether you're a migrant from Ohio, from El Salvador or if you're a native San Diegan, everyone should be able to achieve their full potential here in California, have access to good quality schools, access to good jobs and, crucially, be able to live in safe, secure, affordable housing.
Q: So what does that mean in terms of policy? And tell me about what your organization, California YIMBY, is doing.
A: Sure, so California YIMBY is a relatively new statewide housing advocacy organization that works to change state law in order to end the housing crisis. And so we believe that there, an all-of-the-above solution is necessary. So we need to, one, reform our outdated zoning laws that make building apartment buildings and condos illegal in the vast majority of California urban neighborhoods. We need to increase funding and support for people experiencing homelessness and for very low-income Californians. We need to reform the housing approval process. Right now you might think that if a person who wants to build, say, a four-unit building, it complies with all the local rules and they submit it — well that could be the beginning of a years-long process. And that makes housing much, much more expensive, and we just get a lot less of it.
Q: Pro-development or pro-housing interests are not necessarily new to politics. The building industry has been active in politics for decades. What distinguishes the YIMBY movement or YIMBYs from developer interests?
A: Developers are in it to serve their own interests, right? They have a financial interest in the outcome of legislation, in certain projects happening. As YIMBYs, we don't have any direct financial interest here, other than that we, like all Californians, want to be able to afford to live here, do not want to need to spend half our income on rent, would one day like to achieve the California dream of homeownership, perhaps. And so the advocacy looks different. One of the things that you'll notice is that these highly restrictive rules around housing development actually benefits a lot of incumbent developers. They maybe have great prior relationships with local elected officials, which can then keep out competition from other developers. And so what we're saying is, look, there should be an even playing field. If you are proposing a project that complies with local rules, you should be able to get it built, and it shouldn't be dependent upon any sort of political relationship that you have with the decision makers.
Q: Your organization sponsored a bill earlier this year that got a lot of attention, SB 827. It would have required cities to upzone land for housing around public transit centers. That bill, despite all the attention that it got, died in its first committee hearing — although the author, Senator Scott Wiener, has promised to bring it back in a different form. What did your organization, or did the YIMBY movement, learn from the fight over that bill, and what are you going to be doing going forward in bringing it back?
A: Well I think one of the things that we learned is there really is a large appetite for big change in California. We are in a crisis. And in a crisis, you need to take bold, decisive action to address the root cause of the problems. The horrendous fires that we've seen recently that have destroyed thousands of homes, that have displaced thousands more — this is unfortunately the new normal in California. We need to rethink where are we building homes. Are we building enough homes for all Californians in existing urban areas that are not prone to these types of catastrophes?
So we learned that there's a lot of support. That said, we learned, and sort of knew, there's a lot of opposition to changing the status quo. This is going to be a hard problem to solve. It took us decades to get into this housing mess, and it's going to take us some time to get out of it. That said, I do not believe it will take us decades to get out. I believe we can solve this problem much faster than that.
But I think one of the really important things that we learned is just that building coalition is vital. There are all sorts of different Californians and organizations that have a stake in California state housing policy, and it's really important to put in the effort to work with people, to hear their concerns, and then to come to as broad based agreement as one can get to in order to push big legislation. We're never going to make everyone happy, there will always be opponents to big, transformative change. But I think that we have a real opportunity to work with partners throughout the state in order to advance bold legislation.
Q: The goals of SB 827 were kind of twofold. You on the one hand wanted to increase the housing supply to relieve the sort of pressures on the market, but also to help California transition away from the automobile and allow more people to live within walking distance of public transit, and then help California's climate goals. Do you think those dual goals muddied the message at all over SB 827? And do you think that both of those issues kind of have to be front and center in the YIMBY movement?
A: You know whether it muddled the message or not, I'll leave that to the message masters. I am not a communications professional. What I will say, though, is that look, we are not going to hit our greenhouse gas targets, as a report that just came out yesterday, I believe, mentioned — unless we significantly reduce the number of miles that Californians are driving. And why are they driving so much? It's because our existing job centers mostly on the coast in California have said, "We welcome new job development, that's great, we welcome all that new tax revenue. But eh, the workers can go live somewhere else."
And so in Los Angeles, all the jobs on the west side, they're saying, "Well they can go live in San Bernardino or Riverside." In the Bay Area, in Silicon Valley and in San Francisco, they're saying, "Well, the workers can go live in Stockton or Tracy and commute from the Central Valley." I don't think that's acceptable. We are subjecting millions of Californians to these soul-draining, lengthy commutes — which they don't want to do, right? I mean no one wants to be away from their family for three extra hours a day because they're commuting so far. And so what we want to do is to be able to give Californians the opportunity to live near where they work.
Q: Where do you think the future or the focus of YIMBY organizing needs to be right now? Is it building coalitions with other progressive organizations and pro-tenant groups that you see maybe as your natural allies? Or do you think you have to focus on winning over the hearts and minds of many homeowners who have been resistant to new development in their neighborhoods?
A: Well look, I think the appropriate form of coalition building is going to look different in different communities. So for instance, there was a very successful YIMBY organizing in several towns in Silicon Valley where the median voter is a 64-year-old homeowner. And they might be fearful of, say, large apartment buildings. But if you look at what we're really asking for, we're not saying we want skyscrapers everywhere. That is not the agenda at all. We're saying we want the cities to build these more traditional forms again, these sort of two- to five-story buildings that are human scale, that are more naturally affordable to build than these glass and steel skyscrapers.
And the message that the YIMBY organizers hit on is, look, we're here, too. Where are your children going to live? Are you going to be able to see your grandkids as often as you want to see them? Because unless if we start building more housing in this community, you're forcing your kids to move further away so they can either drive back to their jobs, or maybe they decide, "You know what, Seattle is looking a lot better, housing is much more affordable there. Maybe I'll try Denver. Maybe I'll try Austin, Texas." And so that's a message that really resonated with quite a few homeowners.
That said, in other communities, perhaps communities that are less wealthy, that are more renter-dominated, it's really important to form coalitions with these tenant advocacy organizations, with service-providing organizations, with organizations that are deeply rooted in their communities.
Q: You held a policy conference here in San Diego over the weekend. Is this something your organization wants to do more of? More local organizing?
A: One, absolutely. But we want to make sure that we're working with and empowering any existing local YIMBY organizations that might be there. So for instance, here in San Diego we partnered with the San Diego YIMBY Dems. We recently held a policy conference in Los Angeles, where we had members from Abundant Housing LA, from the Orange County YIMBY group. In the Bay Area we had members from Santa Cruz YIMBY, from East Bay For Everyone, from YIMBY Action, from Marin YIMBY, from South Bay YIMBY. So this was our third policy conference, and the point of them is really to get feedback from YIMBYs throughout the state and better understand the issues that are confronting their communities. Is there state legislation that might help them in their own local organizing and advocacy? How do we need to better state legislation in a state as big as California so that it really does address the needs of all Californians?
Q: How is 2019 going to look for YIMBYs?
A: I think 2019 is going to be a very exciting year. It's going to be a big year. As you mentioned, Senator Wiener is going to introduce another round of ambitious zoning reform that will legalize more housing in both areas that are well-served by transit but also areas that are well-served by jobs. There are some communities that have tons of good, high-paying jobs but that have very little housing and maybe not great transit. And so we shouldn't let the fact that transit doesn't currently exist prevent us from building the housing that we know we need in these core job centers.
There are also going to be many other bills introduced next year. You're going to have bills that advocate for bringing back a form of a redevelopment so local governments have more flexibility in funding low-income housing. You're going to, I think, see more funding bills, specifically for low-income Californians and their housing needs. You're going to see bills that streamline the housing approval process. You'll see bills that reduce these incredibly onerous fees that some local governments charge for housing production. There are communities in Silicon Valley that charge $70,000 per unit in parks fees, in parks and recreation fees. I mean, this is insanity. We wonder why we're not building enough housing, and why the housing that's built is so expensive. Part of the story is that some local governments have larded up any housing developments with such incredible high fees and expensive requirements that the housing is only profitable to build if it's selling for a million dollars a unit or more. This is a disaster, and we can't let this continue. I think you're going to see bills that increase the development of accessory dwelling units, also known as casitas. You're going to see a really active legislative calendar for housing in 2019.