In San Francisco, public housing units like Hunter's View complex (seen here in 2014) are in very short supply.
In San Francisco, public housing units like Hunter's View complex (seen here in 2014) are in very short supply. Robert Galbraith/Reuters

In California, advocates who demand “Public Housing in My Backyard” have joined traditional NIMBY groups in fighting a bill designed to boost density in transit-accessible neighborhoods.

If you’re familiar with CityLab, you know your NIMBYs—the homeowners who say “Not In My Backyard” whenever anyone proposes constructing new housing in high-opportunity areas.

And you’ve probably met their adversaries in the “Yes In My Backyard” movement. Typically younger (and media-savvier) than their foes, YIMBYs have quite successfully framed their activism for more housing production at all income levels in opposition to NIMBY pleas for the preservation of abundant parking and “neighborhood character.”

The two sides are now facing off nationwide, but nowhere more fiercely than in California, where residents are debating SB 827, a pending, YIMBY-backed bill that would allow the production of dense housing in all areas within close proximity to frequent public transit. The bill is aimed at increasing the state’s housing supply, which has failed to keep up with job and population growth for decades, as well as meet its ambitious environmental goals by increasing the number of people who can live in walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods.

Neighborhood groups and city councils in wealthy areas like Marin County, Palo Alto, and Beverly Hills have lined up in opposition to the bill, deploying the kinds of NIMBY arguments that have historically been used to restrict housing supply. But as the debate over SB 827 heats up, a third faction has entered the fray: PHIMBYs, which stands for “Public Housing in My Backyard.”

A loose alliance of socialist activists and tenants’ rights and affordable housing boosters, PHIMBYs also oppose SB 827, but for radically different reasons than the affluent homeowners: They’re convinced that unleashing market-rate development will not significantly improve the housing situation for low-income people. Their efforts are instead focused almost exclusively on the production of subsidized, below-market-rate units, and strengthening tenant protections and rent controls for existing residents.

The collision of the three groups, each with its own vision of what’s supposed to be in its backyard, has created a confounding political dynamic. YIMBYs have criticized PHIMBYs for winding up on the same side as wealthy homeowners and rejecting zoning reforms that would likely yield real benefits to their stakeholders. PHIMBYs ding YIMBYs for their religious adherence to supply-side economics and their inability to reach out to, and provide for the needs of, communities that have long been on the losing side of housing policy. NIMBYs, meanwhile, stick mostly to their usual script—density equals traffic and parking woes—but are happy to co-opt the rhetoric of PHIMBYs when it helps them preserve the status quo.

It might seem like PHIMBYs should have a lot of common ground with YIMBYs. They disagree about what kind of housing California should build—whether built by private developers, nonprofits, or the state—but both groups concur that transit-accessible neighborhoods will need to densify to accommodate housing, one way or another. PHIMBYs, however, strongly believe that SB 827 is not the way to do it.

The term itself was coined by Los Angeles Democratic Socialists of America member Jed Parriott, one of several DSA members from chapters across California who contributed to a joint statement of opposition to SB 827. While other like-minded groups that focus on the needs of low-income and historically marginalized people have also stated their opposition to SB 827, none, until this collection of DSA members, had presented their opposition as part of a political movement.

The emergence of PHIMBYism tracks with a groundswell of wider interest in publicly owned housing: In a new paper released last week from the think tank People’s Policy Project, authors Peter Gowan and Ryan Cooper describe how the nation could build 10 million public housing units in ten years. The paper has been much discussed in housing circles of late.

“We’ve been talking about this idea of how do we insert a socialist perspective into the housing debates in California,” said Kristina Meshelski, co-chair of the DSA-LA housing and homelessness committee, and one of the statement’s authors. “Most of us are not property owners, so we don’t consider ourselves part of the NIMBY side. And the YIMBY side, I think some of us are sympathetic to—or maybe were a few years ago—but we felt that they were pushing more and more market-driven approaches that are not going to be sufficient.”  

The group’s opposition to SB 827, and their overarching critique of YIMBYism, is rooted in the idea that capitalist housing markets “depend on scarcity, class inequality, and racial injustice,” according to its statement. Further enabling these markets—which SB 827 would undoubtedly do—would only exacerbate the problems that have sprung from them.

“Development capital and their investors are not in the businesses of housing people,” said Shanti Singh, a member of DSA-San Francisco’s steering committee, and another one of the statement’s writers. “That’s not what they’re there for. They’re there to make a profit.”

The residential developments that typically offer the greatest profits are aimed at affluent buyers, and many California communities already have an abundance of high-end units: Between 2007 and 2014, San Francisco built or approved 211 percent more luxury housing than it needed to keep up with demand, while under-supplying low- and middle-income housing by a large margin. Statewide, there’s a 300,000-unit surplus of high-income rental units.

Another PHIMBY beef with SB 827 is the specter of indirect displacement in the affected neighborhoods. “Market-rate developments in low-income neighborhoods are not meant for existing residents and result in localized increases in property values,” their statement reads, “incentivizing owners of nearby housing to evict tenants in favor of richer, whiter incomers.” As property values rise in low-income neighborhoods, landlords have all the more reason to bring in high-rent tenants. Developers, meanwhile, have more incentive to build housing in areas where property values have the most room to grow—namely low-income neighborhoods on the brink of gentrification. The PHIMBYs’ statement criticizes SB 827 for not providing an adequate “value capture” mechanism that would seek to redistribute the gains in property values in the upzoned areas.

This collection of DSA chapters makes the calculus that if SB 827 were law, the gains to the rich would be too many, and the gains to the poor too few. Just as YIMBYism emerged in opposition to NIMBYism, so have PHIMBYs staked their own position as a way to “move beyond the trickle-down approach of ‘Yes In My Backyard’ to policies that truly guarantee housing as a human right.”

But are PHIMBYs and YIMBYs really adversaries? A hallmark of neoliberalism, a pejorative frequently hurled at YIMBYs (and others), is the belief that there is “no alternative” to neoliberalism. While YIMBYs want to work within the capitalist housing market, PHIMBYs are seeking to provide an alternative to it. But in framing their movement in such starkly oppositional terms, they skip over the parts of SB 827 where they might be able to find common ground with YIMBYs.

In its analysis of the bill’s impact, the San Francisco Planning Department found that SB 827 “would likely result in the production of more affordable housing” in that city, whose inclusionary zoning rules require market rate projects to include a certain proportion of affordable units. The bill’s latest amendments include a mandatory inclusionary zoning component, meaning any project of more than ten units made possible by the bill would automatically generate affordable housing. Another recent state law, SB 35, has demonstrated that developers are willing to designate as much as half of their units as below market rate in exchange for an expedited permitting and review process, similar to what SB 827 would provide.

SB 827’s first round of amendments, which were likely a product of pressure from the PHIMBY camp, indicate a commitment on the part of the bill’s authors to keeping communities in place, even while they add new residents. These provisions ban the demolition of rent control housing, and entitle residents whose market rate homes are demolished to 42 months of free rent in another unit and the opportunity to move into a new unit on the same site they previously lived, and at the rate they previously paid. Further amendments prevent the demolition of units that have been recently served a no-fault eviction and ensures that there will be no net loss of below market rate or rent controlled units, even as more such units are built.

For PHIMBYs, however, the fact that these amendments were not part of the initial bill indicates the YIMBYs’ lack of interest in the needs of marginalized communities. “They do not consult with communities of color,” Singh said. “They haven’t really tried to work with any tenants rights organizations.” For Singh, the failure of SB 827 supporters to reach out to these communities explains why the bill’s opponents have found such strange political bedfellows. “If you put race- and class-forward, affirmative zoning and planning into SB 827, you would not see the Marin Counties and the Beverly Hills of the world on the same side as the Boyle Heights,” she said, referring to the low-income East. L.A. neighborhood that’s become a gentrification battleground.

PHIMBYs insist that they are “not allied” with wealthy homeowners groups that also oppose the bill, but their shared stance could have real-world consequences. In San Francisco, mayoral candidate Jane Kim has staked her campaign on her opposition to SB 827, uniting her progressive base of low-income renters with homeowners in single-family-home neighborhoods. Kim’s strategy has provided her with a spike in the polls for the June election, showing the way for other candidates to build similar coalitions in the face of future land-use battles.

But it’s hard to imagine that Kim, or any elected official, would be able to implement a PHIMBY agenda if elected by people who don’t want their neighborhoods to add new housing. What’s more, wealthy, single-family-home neighborhoods like the ones Kim is courting, are more likely to object to public or subsidized housing in their proximity, compared to market-rate developments that are aimed at similarly affluent future neighbors.

Without upzoning California’s many transit-adjacent, single-family home neighborhoods, most housing production will continue to occur on the urban periphery, or else in the neighborhoods already zoned for dense development, which often happen to be poor and minority areas experiencing gentrification. Traffic and pollution will get worse, and prospects for the state to address its housing supply shortage of 3.5 million homes will be nigh impossible, meaning housing prices would have nowhere to go but up.

The PHIMBYs acknowledge this reality: “We really do believe there is a lack of housing supply and there should be more housing in California,” Meshelski said. “And we also believe in urbanism, and that cities should be dense, and that that is the most environmentally sustainable way for California to grow.”

If that is part of the PHIMBY vision, taking a stand alongside NIMBYs is a risky proposition. There may be an alternative to market urbanism, and PHIMBYs could be the ones who turn it into a reality. But if California is serious about housing all of its current and future residents, there is no alternative to allowing dense housing—whether it’s public, subsidized, or market rate—in transit accessible neighborhoods.

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