Meet the YIMBYs: Smart Cities Dive


This article is the first in a Multifamily Dive series looking at how a push for greater density in cities across the country is affecting the multifamily sector. 

For years, whenever Jeff Head presented his firm’s affordable housing projects at public meetings, he wondered not if there would be opposition, but how deep the opposition would be.

“Whether for affordable housing or high-density housing, for 40 years the default answer has been ‘no’ for reasons that are usually not terribly logical or based in fact,” said Head, the vice president of development for Chicago-based The Habitat Co.

In the last couple of years, however, that has started to change.

Now, advocates for The Habitat Co.’s developments — often wearing t-shirts and buttons inscribed with the slogan “Yes, In My Back Yard,” or YIMBY — are showing up with some regularity at public hearings and city council meetings. They are even lobbying state legislatures for pro-housing initiatives.

The Habitat Co. is also getting support from outlets like Chicago YIMBY — a website covering Chicagoland construction and real estate from a pro-growth perspective — for projects like 43Green, a mixed-use development with 99 residential units (50 of them affordable) in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

As recently as five years ago, “I don’t remember any positive reaction to development and density — even when the need was there and the lease-up was obviously going to be there,” Head said. “Future renters of market-rate housing don’t typically go to public meetings to advocate for the 40-story building they’re going to live in, but I’ve definitely seen that in the last couple of years. There’s a sense of policy and a spirit of community behind it. It’s refreshing.”

Greater acceptance

David Block, director of development for Chicago-based Evergreen Real Estate Group, which has been developing and building housing for every income level since 1999, is also seeing greater public acceptance of his firm’s projects — especially the affordable ones.

“Five, six, seven years ago, I would go into a neighborhood meeting or zoning meeting bracing for everybody to be screaming at me about what a terrible thing I was doing to their community by building housing for the people who sweep the floors in the kids’ schools or serve coffee in the local Starbucks,” he said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised, recently, that the conversations are much more positive, with people saying: ‘We’re really glad you’re building affordable housing here.’”

As the housing crisis weighs on nearly every community in the United States, the YIMBY movement — which emerged about 10 years ago as a fledgling counter-voice to the louder, better-established “Not In My Back Yard” movement — is coming into its own.

Advocating for local housing solutions and removing barriers to building, disparate YIMBY groups in cities from coast to coast have helped push through pro-housing initiatives in their own backyards — in places like California, where the housing crisis is particularly severe, and in progressive cities like Minneapolis; Seattle; and Portland, Oregon.

The movement is growing because nearly everyone knows someone who’s struggling to find a home or pay the rent, said Christopher Ptomey, executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing.

“More and more, there’s an understanding that when you prevent housing from being developed, you’re part of the problem,” Ptomey said. “You can’t just close your eyes to it anymore and say: ‘My neighborhood is too important to be part of the solution.’”

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