You’ve Heard of NIMBY (‘Not in My Backyard’). You’ll Be Hearing About YIMBY in 2021.

One of the many bills passed by the Democratic House which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not allowed to be acted on in the Senate is the YIMBY Act. If, as may well happen, the Democrats take control of the U.S. Senate in this year’s election, that act could become law next year.

The YIMBY Act (HR 4351) was bi-partisan, co-sponsored by Democrat Denny Heck of Washington and Republican Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana. It was passed on a voice vote by the House of Representatives on Mar. 2, 2020. Here’s a link to the full text of HR 4351.

Here’s how the act is described and promoted at www.UpForGrowth.org:

The Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) Act encourages localities to eliminate discriminatory land use policies and remove barriers that prevent needed housing from being built around the country.

The YIMBY Act achieves these goals by requiring Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) recipients to report periodically on the extent to which they are removing discriminatory land use policies and implementing inclusive and affordable housing policies detailed by the bill.

The YIMBY Act increases transparency in land use, zoning, and housing decisions; sheds light on exclusionary polices; and ultimately encourages localities to eliminate barriers to much-needed housing.

Background:

According to Up for Growth’s “Housing Underproduction in the U.S.” report, the United States has underproduced housing by 7.3 million homes from 2000 to 2015.

Exclusionary land use policies — including zoning and density restrictions, onerous parking requirements, and other burdensome development regulations — drive a severe housing shortage and affordability crisis.

The “Missing Millions of Homes” report from the New Democratic Coalition shows that the cost of shelter has been the single largest increase in household budgets in the last 15 years and that the median U.S. family now spends 42% of its income on housing.

Housing underproduction also increases cost of living for families, inhibits geographic mobility, burdens both renters and buyers, and stifles economic productivity. By one estimate, from 1964 to 2009, our national housing shortage lowered aggregate economic growth by 36 percent.

Many of these land use policies are rooted in racism and classism. Their continued existence perpetuates housing discrimination and contributes to the housing affordability crisis affecting large parts of the United States.

Legislative Solution:

The YIMBY Act increases transparency and encourages more thoughtful & inclusive development practices by requiring localities to fully examine and disclose their housing policy decisions.

The bill provides localities a framework for smart policymaking and regulatory practices, thus promoting more inclusive development principles.

The YIMBY Act is an important first step in decreasing the barriers to smart, inclusive growth and reducing the negative and cumulative impact of exclusionary housing policies. It is also a way to clearly demonstrate that the federal government takes seriously the challenges created by exclusionary zoning.

This proposal has not escaped the attention of conservatives, who consider it an attack on suburbia, primarily by eliminating single-family zoning. Allowing greater density and making housing more affordable means to them the introduction of lower-income and therefore racially diverse populations into communities which are historically white and upper-middle or upper income neighborhoods. It’s worth noting that it’s an argument that does indeed divide conservatives from liberals and, because of how it is being promoted, will be a factor in this year’s election.

However, we should remember that zoning laws are matters of local debate and enactment and cannot be forced upon localities by the federal government. That’s why the YIMBY Act only asks localities to consider the implications of their zoning decisions. Single-family zoning will only be modified or eliminated gradually if at all over time and only by a vote of locally elected representatives on city councils and county boards of commissioners. Voters would be wise to recognize fear mongering on the subject for what it is and to consider the underlying motives.

Moreover, it is inconceivable that an established and fully built out subdivision, especially one with a healthy housing stock under 30 or 40 years old, would see any effects from zoning changes. Instead you might see the legalizing of ADUs (Accessory Dwelling Units), which are already popular in many jurisdictions. These units can be in walk-out basements or above detached garages, and provide a great solution for modestly increasing a neighborhood’s and city’s density.

What we are already seeing in the older communities with pre-1970 bungalows is the scraping of isolated homes, making way for attached townhomes. Again, this is only done by the enactment of zoning changes by your elected officials who are not going to act in opposition to their constituents’ loudly expressed viewpoints.

No matter who is elected on the national level or what legislation is passed, housing will always be an expression and result of very localized democratic control — that’s democratic with a small “D.”

Moreover, the YIMBY Act would only apply to localities which accept Community Development Block Grants, for which no community needs to apply.

As the Housing Crisis Deepens, Zoning Laws Are in the Crosshairs

In December 2018, Minneapolis made news when it abolished single-family zoning. That began a nationwide conversation about the use of zoning laws to restrict growth and density at a time when housing affordability was worsening and homelessness was increasing.

One of our broker associates, Chuck Brown, attended the National Association of Realtors convention last November in San Francisco. I had attended the same convention there several years ago. I hadn’t noticed many homeless people on the streets back then, but Chuck reported that it was way out of control now, with the streets overcrowded with homeless people.

You, like me, have probably followed the coverage of homelessness in Denver, with that city passing an urban camping ban, which was ruled unconstitutional by a lower court but is still being enforced pending an appeal by the city. It could go all the way to the Supreme Court.

The conversation over zoning created by Minneapolis 13 months ago is growing louder. That’s because the history of zoning is one of intentional discrimination. In researching this topic, I read a Fast Company posting on the history of zoning in San Francisco.. After the 1906 earthquake, the Chinese population there was targeted by zoning changes designed to promote and protect white enclaves. This was long before there were federal laws making discrimination based on race or national origin illegal.

That Fast Company article included the following detail regarding the role of the mortgage industry: “In 1934, as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was established to insure private mortgages. The FHA’s underwriting handbook included guidelines that pushed cities to create racially segregated neighborhoods and encouraged banks to avoid areas with ‘inharmonious racial groups,’ essentially meaning any neighborhood that wasn’t exclusively white.”

Another New Deal program to help homeowners threatened with foreclosure to refinance their home with low-interest long-term mortgages, provided lenders with “safety maps” which used red shading for risky areas which were under “threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population.”  This is the origin of the term “redlining,” and the practice wasn’t outlawed until the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

Last week I attended a meeting of the Group Living Advisory Committee in Denver’s municipal building, where they are discussing a zoning amendment which would dramatically increase the number of unrelated persons who can live in a single family home. You can expect this proposal to arise in suburban jurisdictions, too, even if they don’t follow Minneapolis in getting rid of single-family zoning altogether.

I’ll be reporting again as this conversation evolves. Don’t shoot me. I’m just the messenger.