Tuesday, September 25, 2018


I got to attend YIMBYtown in Boston this past weekend and wanted to share a few reflections on the experience and the people. As someone who came to this work from a background in transit and land use policy, but who is also fortunate to be a homeowner, and who is also gay, white, male, and cisgendered, I am perhaps not unlike many other "YIMBYs", but this conference left me first and foremost with a single, powerful message that is going to stay top of mind for a long time to come; and it also left a few other impressions.

1. Who are we serving?
This question, and its answer, was the biggest takeaway for me and the conference's most powerful message. Who is all this (almost entirely volunteer) work for? Why give up dozens of hours a week, thousands of hours a year, and basically a second full-time job to this effort? Who am I, and we, trying to serve? It's an important question, because the follow-up to this question is: Are the people we are trying to serve represented in these efforts?

I am male and white and thus have privilege, and my reflection on these characteristics is that "to whom much is given, much is expected." It also means that, if, at the core of my work, I want all people to have an opportunity to be housed safely and equitably, then my voice must also be about empowering others' voices - the voices of those communities that have been in the proverbial trenches, fighting for housing opportunity for longer than have I and in communities for whom the challenges are acute. It's not enough to YIMBY from my own place in life -- I need to be about the work of lifting the voices of others, with whom I may even have fundamental disagreements, in order to build a sustainable movement grounded in a mission of housing opportunity for all.

As someone who has worked in a place where I saw first-hand the direct impact of housing insecurity on a very specific challenge - addressing the impact of HIV/AIDS on low-income communities - there's no doubt in my mind that housing security is at the foundation of addressing many other social ills that are compounded and made much worse by a lack of housing. And so it is that the question of "who are we serving?", offered to me during a session on understanding group and systemic challenges and discrimination, will forever be etched into my consciousness.

2. A movement without cohesion, policies, or a leader
There's no "YIMBY" leader in Congress or in a Governorship or almost any Mayoralty (yes, SF, I see you). Sure, many people accept "YIMBY" as a label unto themselves, but there's not a set of coherent policies established federally or being shared among states that demonstrate a coherent and cohesive movement. Even as a number of activists handed out flyers to YIMBYtown participants, criticizing us for what these activists perceived as our not having racial justice and preventing displacement at the core of our approach, frankly I see YIMBY as more of a set of beliefs than as a movement. And, to that, for many of us racial justice and preventing displacement are very much at the core of our belief systems.

This was the third-ever iteration of this annual conference, with the first attracting 100 people and this one largely drawing its 250 attendees from the local area plus a few major urban metropolitan regions. There's barely been more than a couple years for anyone to find themselves as identifying with the YIMBY label, and already they're being boxed into a category, even as the so-called movement lacks a cohesive strategy, policies, or leader. Indeed, much of the conference's work was local activists sharing experiences, in hopes that perhaps what has worked in one place might also work elsewhere. There was some data-sharing too. I'm all about sharing, but let's not confuse people's sharing of their experiences with a well-organized machine of any kind. Perhaps a decade down the road there'll be a more cohesive strategy and actually organized movement, but for now that fundamentally does not exist broadly, outside of a few pockets.

3. Cities are fun
One presenter commented that cities are supposed to be "fun." Which may be true in some sense, although the lived experience for many is oftentimes something much more difficult. Still, the underpinning of this assessment was that cities have existed in human civilizations for millenia because we require social interaction to survive. Loneliness is deadly, and our desire for human interaction is owing in part to our desire to have fun - which is also often the impetus for creativity and invention. There's a reason that "laughter is the best medicine," and cities provide the social interaction without which human beings literally die.

4. Land use and transportation are intrinsically linked
As someone whose eyes were opened by an undergraduate course in transportation and land use policy many years ago, this has since been readily apparent to me. However, for all the talk of housing policy at YIMBYtown, the crucial underpinning was the relationship between housing and access. Access to services, to employment, to education -- basically the things that provide opportunity and that are so often denied by virtue of being, literally, inaccessible. The people attending YIMBYtown got that, even though no session dove directly into the subject of housing's relationship to mobility and access. Still, this linkage lives at the heart of whatever ideology or approach that is YIMBY, and it was a frequent subject of conversation throughout the entire weekend.

5. Boston is lovely
(As a white man I know many people will dismiss out of hand my assertion of Boston's loveliness. Just hear me out for a moment, please, and we can and should still acknowledge that the city's history and even much of its present remain problematic on a number of levels.)
I got to take the "T" every day, including trains and buses, and they worked, were easy to use, and came frequently enough that I didn't ever worry about a schedule. There were bike lanes - including many that were protected - on many streets, and most roads were 25 MPH, although a couple were faster. The city's role in our nation's founding is ever-present and pretty cool to see in person, particularly for someone whose home city of LA has had a very different role in our nation's history. And everyone I met in town, from people I only met briefly to those I got to spend more time with, was an absolute delight. It may be a while before I return, but I'm so glad that I got this opportunity and made sure to not just attend the conference but to spend a little time (albeit still brief) exploring the city.

And, finally, hope...
Mostly, I left YIMBYtown feeling hope. Why? Because I saw people willing to explore the underpinnings of their interest in this subject matter and to acknowledge that our nascent "movement" has a very long way to go to truly understanding and representing the complex and difficult issue of housing affordability. While many people may have recently come to this work as housing prices have escalated to the point of increasingly putting the crunch on wealthier groups, the work that must be done requires all of us to be willing to accept our differences, to learn from each other, and to give this important issue the time and effort it will require for years to come if we are ever to truly provide housing opportunity for all. And this YIMBYtown recognized that challenge and dove straight into it. For that, I am hopeful, because there will always remain those people who say I and others don't have a right to or a voice in this work, but what I saw was a willingness by YIMBYs to listen, to share, and to learn. If we are ever going to see a time when housing opportunity for all is a reality in this country, which has done so much damage to so many people on account of who they are, then that work will necessarily require the ongoing introspection and the commitment that I witnessed firsthand at YIMBYtown in Boston.

Thank you to the organizers at A Better Cambridge for putting on an amazing conference, and thank you to those who came, shared their stories, and re-committed to this important work.

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