What is YIMBY and How Is It Related to Affordable Housing?
This week we talk to Randy Shaw about the YIMBY (Yes! In My Back Yard) movement, and its necessity when it comes to sustainable affordable housing. Randy points out it is not just the poor who are negatively affected by a lack of affordable housing, but people under 30 and seniors are both having a hard time finding affordable housing right for them.
Mauricio Chacra: Alright, alright. Welcome back to another episode of the Doublewide Dudes. Today we’re joined by Mr. Randy Shaw. Thanks for joining us.
Randy Shaw: Thank you for having me.
Alberto Pina: We had Anthony Flint on the podcast a while back from the Lincoln Institute and he recommended that we reach out to you.
Randy is the director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco, one of the leading providers of housing for homeless single adults. He’s the author of “Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America”. He also edits for beyondchron.org and is a vocal advocate for the YIMBY movement.
We had talked a lot about the NIMBY movement, “not in my backyard”, and it wasn’t until Anthony was on the podcast that we learned there was a whole other side to this coin. From your perspective, Randy, can you tell us about the YIMBY movement?
Randy Shaw: Well, I think what people are accustomed to, five or ten years ago, you’d go to a land use hearing and people would all be there saying, “don’t build, don’t build, stop the housing, preserve our neighborhood.” And there’d be no one on the side to say, “wait, we need housing.”
And that trend, which I described in “Generation Priced Out” that is occurring in cities across America has resulted in extreme unaffordability of housing, and the housing crisis that we are in today. We haven’t built enough housing to meet population or job growth.
It’s been a very cruel game of musical chairs where we have all these people going around a small number of chairs, and those who don’t get a chair are in deep trouble. And that’s where we are in our cities today.
Mauricio Chacra: I was listening to a YouTube clip from one of the press tours you were doing on the book that you wrote, talking about that very movement in Seattle where these big developments are trying to get the highest bidder to buy out land there, which can then be used for affordable housing for these essential workers to live downtown, and reduce emissions and a bunch of other things. Is that another reason why you think the YIMBY movement is so important?
Randy Shaw: Well, yeah. And also, what’s interesting about Seattle, they do the best job of maybe any city in building housing, except they keep the single-family home areas off limits. So, you can’t build anything except for a single-family home in these vast affluent areas.
And it’s a problem we have throughout the country. Whereas in these progressive cities, they call themselves progressive, but they keep the white affluent areas free of apartments and any affordable housing. So, there’s an incredible level of hypocrisy that is occurring in a lot of urban America. The YIMBYs are really out to challenge that.
Alberto Pina: You were writing about how it’s the younger generation and the poor that are having a harder and harder time finding affordable housing. And part of it’s a lack of supply, right? Which it sounds like the YIMBY movement is looking to address. But what happens when we lack affordable housing in some of these more affluent areas? It’s not just the folks that can’t find housing, it affects everybody, right? How does that affect some of these other people that might not see it as closely as someone who can’t find a home?
Randy Shaw: I think the key point about my book is that there really is a generational divide about housing.
That’s why it’s called “Generation Priced Out.” I’ve heard from people who don’t like the idea of dividing people among generations, but it is a simple fact that when you have a hearing in Berkeley, for example, literally every person opposed to a development project is over 60, and everyone under 30 favors it.
And this is true all around the country, because older people, people like myself, were able to buy houses in the San Francisco Bay Area when they were a fraction of their current costs. And people like myself, I went to UC Berkeley. My parents paid $212.50 per quarter. So basically $650 a year in tuition.
Now, if you’re a Cal student it’s $15,000. So, you have students coming out with huge student debt. And they’re looking at a housing market that due to artificial scarcity is just way overpriced and they can’t afford it, and people are really suffering. And so, there is a generational divide because my generation, the boomers were able to get prices a lot cheaper.
Mauricio Chacra: Along with education that was more affordable, right. You combine that with housing, they’re getting priced out of the market, these younger generations.
I’m personally in the market too, here in San Antonio, Texas. We’re looking to buy a home, my fiancé and I, and we’re very much in that generation where we want to be in the development areas, where it’s close to the lifestyle we want to keep and close to her work in pockets that in the past two years have risen.
It’s really putting us in position to where we won’t be able to keep the same amenities because pricing is just super increased.
Randy Shaw: I have a chapter in the book about Austin, and Austin is a place where 10 years ago it was very cheap. And in the 1990s, they made a movie set in Austin called “Slacker.” And I always say they couldn’t make that movie today because you can’t be a slacker and afford to live in Austin. But Austin has been fighting, and I described it to the book, a real battle just to get increased density because they have all these people who have to live outside the city, and it creates huge traffic jams.
But people who live in the urban core, it’s single family home only. And there’s been a battle about this going on for years now, and hopefully it’ll finally be resolved, but it’s economically and environmentally not sustainable to say we’re only going to allow single family homes in the urban core.
Alberto Pina: We’re two cities connected by a strip of highway that is congested no matter what time of day you go. But I remember going to Austin 10 years ago, I had to go for my licensing class when I got into this industry. And it’s just dramatically changed over the last decade.
And I think a lot of what we’re starting to see in San Antonio is there’s a lot of folks that are moving from California, other states on the west coast or places where housing is just so out of control. So, they’re moving here because of the cost of living. But now for somebody like Mauri, or millennials that are ready to hit the market locally that’s now dramatically increased prices here over the last few years.
Randy Shaw: You hit it right on the head. And that’s happened to places like Seattle and Portland, which have always been considered affordable alternatives to the San Francisco Bay area. They don’t consider that Seattle’s prices or Austin’s prices have gone up as much as anybody’s. So, the people who grew up in those towns or places like San Antonio find they’re priced out of their own city. That’s why we have to build a lot more housing. There’s no ifs ands or buts.
We have to do a lot of things in this country on our housing market, but we have to build more. Because it’s not working when you dramatically increase the population, but don’t build any units for them to live.
Alberto Pina: I imagine that for cities that want to keep talent in their city or attract talent outside of the city, that’s going to be a major, major thing moving forward. And we’re seeing a lot of tech talent from the Silicon Valley area move over here, especially I think with COVID, that’s going to be accelerated. If you can work from home, why not go live where your dollar stretches a lot further on housing. I think we will see some cities that prop up affordable housing as a recruiting tool for talent across the country.
Randy Shaw: Well, that’s certainly possible. It’s interesting if you look at Silicon Valley, because San Francisco had the first dot com boom in the late nineties, the politicians all said “you know what we’ll do? We won’t build any housing. And then these Silicon Valley folks won’t come.”
Well, okay. We didn’t build any housing and they just outbid everyone else for the units that were in existence. And they just commuted because they didn’t want to be in Silicon Valley. They wanted to be in San Francisco. So, you know, the way in which we connect jobs, you have to build the housing for all income levels.
Otherwise, if you say, no, we’re not going to build it for this income level, they will take the housing that other income levels used to be able to afford. And that’s really, I think the core message our country has kind of missed over the past 25 years. This assumption that if we just stop building housing, everything will be fine, has been a disaster.
Mauricio Chacra: Along with that, it feels like the YIMBY movement is about diversity, right? But what’s your perspective on YIMBY and diversity?
Randy Shaw: Well, there’s a lot of the stereotypes which are not true. That YIMBY is an all-white movement. It’s not, it’s very diverse and it’s done very well in places with diversity, because like everything else, the housing crisis disproportionately affects people of color.
They’re the ones who are priced out. They’re the ones having to commute. 140,000 people have to drive two hours a day to work from Sacramento to the Bay Area. And those are people of color. A lot of Latinos who work in construction have to live hours away from where they can work.
The major victims of the housing crisis in terms of not building are people of color. So, the YIMBY movement is responding to that. And if you look at the homeowner groups in almost every city, certainly the 12 cities I write about, the homeowner groups, the boomers that are doing just fine and don’t want anything built, are overwhelmingly older and white. There’s a few neighborhoods in Austin that are Latino. There’s one African American neighborhood in Los Angeles, but generally it’s an older white crowd pricing out a younger diverse crowd. Right?
Mauricio Chacra: That’s an overwhelming statistic right there. You could very well say you’re going to want to be part of the movement, but as soon as it’s going to be affected in your neighborhood, you’re all about not allowing it. And these affluent white boomers that have the power and money to have legislation passed their way are the ones that are active. And the Latino and Black communities are just stuck with no place to go.
I was watching president Trump today, talk about what was going on with the black communities and all that. But before that, they had mentioned these high-risk property lines. When neighborhoods are being drawn up, these mortgage rates are having these high-risk property lines. And it’s really effected towards black communities to where the property value just in that section of neighborhood is lower than the adjacent neighborhood.
Randy Shaw: That’s a big problem, but I want to make something very, very clear, we are making progress. And for years, these weekday afternoon planning commission hearings, only the retired could attend. The working people couldn’t attend. That’s changing. You’re seeing a lot more efforts to get more people out to these hearings.
There’s YIMBY organizing in city after city. And I think that the tide is turning. Now when they have those land use hearings, you hear people from both sides. There’s often more people who want housing. I think you’re seeing editorial pages from major newspapers saying we need to build more housing there.
It’s being held back still a bit because the boomers have control, but that is changing. And I think it’s going to start changing more and more as the intersection of race and the housing crisis intersect. And people say, “Hey, we can’t just deal with police abuse. We have to deal with the fact people can’t afford to live in this town.”
Alberto Pina: If you look at housing, in some of the other conversations we’ve had, housing is really the center of upward mobility for families, the center of getting families out of poverty, for the next generation, and a lot of that just all ties together with some of the issues we’re seeing happening across the country.
I imagine folks that are against affordable housing coming into their neighborhoods, it’s dangerous to go in with the assumption that these are necessarily bad people. Sometimes they just don’t see things the way that maybe others that are struggling to find a place to live are.
And I think a lot of times people just struggle with change. Right? Change is very scary. So, for people, the idea that maybe a neighborhood they’ve been in for 30 years might change, can be a little scary and get people uncomfortable. But do you feel there’s maybe some foundations that need to get laid to help people see where this is a win-win from both sides? Or how do you think we continue to move forward with progress on this front?
Randy Shaw: Well, I wrote an article for beyondchron.org Called “Will Progressives End Racist Zoning?” And I quote a council member in Denver who says, “just because I support exclusionary, single family zoning doesn’t mean I’m a racist.” I’m not saying she’s a racist, but the implications of saying we only want people who can afford to buy a million-dollar house to live in our neighborhood or live in our city has racial implications. It means you’re going to get a city that’s just more and more white and less and less people of color.
So, I think that there is going to be this recognition. I think we are going to make progress and it is going to happen. Now, one of the things that’s happened in our society, we expect things to happen really fast. I mean, you know how it is. Housing isn’t one of those issues because even if tomorrow every city in the United States said, “okay, we’re going to build fourplexes, we’re going to build apartments. It’s all open,” it still takes a couple of years to build and to get the process going. But I think we’re in the right path. And I think if people listening, feel frustrated, wherever they’re listening from, look around for their local group and just get involved.
Because your voice in these hearings makes a huge difference. It really does because the land use bodies are not used to hearing from people saying, build more housing. The developers will say that, but they don’t just hear regular people who aren’t affiliated with development saying, no, we really need more housing.
It’s an affordability issue. So, everyone listening here can make a difference.
Alberto Pina: Yeah, that’s awesome. I think San Antonio, we’ve got a three-month inventory of housing. And again, month over month, the price has gone up another 3%. Dr. Drennon, on one of the last podcasts, talked about the missing middle, where those are folks that are really being affected by this as well. So, it really affects everybody.
One thing we said, even if you’re in an affluent neighborhood, you need teachers to teach your children and first responders to respond when things go wrong. Folks like that can’t afford million-dollar homes. It’s just not how the economy works.
So, you know, it’s really important that we stabilize everybody. And in your opinion, have you looked into or done some research on how factory-built housing or our industry might be a possible solution to some of this?
Randy Shaw: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a possible solution. It is an essential solution to have modular housing and factory-built housing.
It’s the only future we have for affordable housing in this country. I can’t tell you how much time I spend trying to get modular housing built in San Francisco and you have opposition. And as a result, a regular unit of affordable housing in San Francisco or LA… Are you sitting down now? What I’m gonna tell you, this is the truth. $700,000 a unit. There isn’t enough money to be able to only create one unit, given the demand.
With local modular, you could bring it down 20%. I have a developer friend who had a plan from China, where you bring them in from China and he could do the whole project in less than a year, and it’d be 60% cheaper. Which we need to do, because this is gonna be housing for homeless people. And I tried to get a law in San Francisco passed where we would be allowed to do all modular, just for homeless people. Building trades brought it down. I said, “just for homeless, for nobody else.” “No, once you get in, you’ll take over the industry.”
And I said, “well, pass a law that prohibits this kind of housing for anyone but the homeless”, I still couldn’t get it done. Very disappointing. So, we have, we have 8,000 homeless people here. We have 64,000 homeless people in LA, and we can’t use a cheaper form of housing to house them.
Alberto Pina: What are the current solutions out there for helping to address homelessness?
Randy Shaw: Well my organization leases hotels, and that’s a very cost-effective way. But acquisition, buying and building is really what most cities do. And if you’re going to spend $500,00 to $700,000 per unit, you need a lot more money. And there are bills in the Congress, but still the economics aren’t going to work when you have 60,000 homeless people in Los Angeles city, and you have to spend $500,000 to $700,000 on each person. That’s not gonna work. You gotta go modular.
Alberto Pina: Have you seen projects where modular has come in and helped curb that?
Randy Shaw: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’ve seen great projects. Patrick Kennedy of Panoramic Interest in San Francisco has done beautiful modular projects. They’re successful. You can see them all over the West coast. But when you try to do it with a public program, which requires legislative approvals, the political opposition becomes fierce.
Mauricio Chacra: This is the state tax dollars trying to solve affordable housing, right? Where a certain percentage of that money can go to projects like this, where they can buy land and include modular housing to lower the cost per unit, which only makes sense. Why wouldn’t we? Let’s pay less money on these units so we can house these individuals and empower people. Why is your opposition that is shutting that down?
Randy Shaw: Well, because you get a lot of the building trade unions feel like it’s taking away their jobs, even though, even on a modular project all the work is done by union. It doesn’t make sense because the construction industry is booming in California. No one’s unemployed. You know, no one wants to be working isn’t working. So, you’re not taking jobs away. And given the crisis of homeless people on our streets, you have to take this cost-effective direction. And when people look at a modular housing, I will tell you, you cannot tell the difference from the outside.
It is not ugly. It is not static. It’s just as nice as the regular housing. So, there’s no reason for it not to happen. No reason at all. And our tenants, we’ve brought them into a modular unit. They loved it. They all wanted to move in. But they weren’t allowed to.
Alberto Pina: Yeah, we’ve definitely run into that. And, you know, I definitely had some of those ideas of what I thought this product looked like before I got in the industry. But they’ve come a long way in some cases with modulars when they’re done. You really can’t tell the difference. It’s just an efficiency of labor.
I think what’s striking is we have found that we praise these efficiencies in just about every other industry, but when it comes to housing, the same efficiencies somehow seem strange and scary and things we don’t want in our neighborhoods.
Randy Shaw: Well, you really sound like my book! We don’t make food scarce. Right? We don’t say “let’s keep food scarce”. Why are we trying to ration housing? Why are we trying to make housing more expensive? Who benefits from that? I might have the only book that really blames homeowners because homeowners profit from keeping housing scarcity.
If they can just make sure there’s only a small number of units in their neighborhood, their house goes up a lot in value. If we start letting in fourplexes and larger apartment buildings, suddenly there’s a lot more options in that neighborhood for people to acquire and move into.
Alberto Pina: That’s an interesting take on it, although I think the problem is so large and there’s such a scarcity of housing that you really could have both. And as a homeowner, I totally get wanting to protect the value. That’s why you buy a home. Right? Because you expect it to go up in value.
Randy Shaw: And you absolutely can have both. And the prices have spiraled in San Francisco. A single-family home is at 1.7 million. 1.7 million for the median and single-family home. So, if it was only 1.2 million, homeowners would still do pretty well, huh? Considering they bought it for a hundred thousand, probably.
So, I think that one thing about fourplexes, we have seniors who are in these neighborhoods who want to stay in their neighborhood, and they don’t want that big house because their family is gone. They’re living by themselves. They’d love to move into a fourplex in the same neighborhood. So why do we stop that from happening? Why does almost every major city in this country, except for Portland and Minneapolis, not let you build a fourplex in various neighborhoods? That doesn’t make sense. It’s not good for seniors.
Alberto Pina: In your book, do you talk about that generation as well? I think that’s going to be the next one to get hit hard by this.
Randy Shaw: Well, I’ll tell you, I think the reason AARP has been very supportive of increasing density and getting rid of exclusionary zoning is because they know that the seniors want to stay in their neighborhood.
And if you don’t give them any options, other than a single-family home, they have to leave. They have to leave their friends. So, these policies are not even good for the residents. A lot of the residents.
Mauricio Chacra: Yeah. It’s interesting how these unions feel like they’re going to lose work, right? When there’s so much work. They’re scared to lose a percentage when really, they’re still gonna be profitable. There’s still gonna be work for everyone. It only makes sense to go in that direction.
I guess in that context, what do you think it’s going to take, to get the critical mass or enough people to get behind this legislation, to move forward towards sustainable housing?
Randy Shaw: Well, I think it’s two things.
One, we have to grow the YIMBY movement, which is happening in California and other states, in Texas, it’s happening all over. It’s growing because people have the same problems in every city. But I think also the crisis has gotten so bad that cities and states are gonna have to look at options and make it more affordable because the economics don’t work.
But as I said, when you have LA, you just had another 14% increase in homelessness. When you have 68,000 homeless people in one city, you need urgent solutions. One of the things I say in “Generation Priced Out” is that we have not treated housing as a real emergency. We say it’s an emergency, but we don’t really treat it like an emergency.
In an emergency. you’re able to go through red lights in an ambulance, right? We’re playing by slow rules. We need to go in emergency mode for the housing crisis.
Alberto Pina: This has all been super interesting. I have to check out that YouTube talk that Mauri was watching and definitely get a copy of your book.
For our listeners that want to learn more about your work with your organization and then with the YIMBY movement, what are some resources we can point them to, to get involved and get educated on the problem and the solutions?
Randy Shaw: Well, I write a lot of articles about this for beyondchron.org. And they can just see all kinds of articles I write about this.
I’ve written other books. I’ve written a book called the “Activist’s Handbook,” which if people are out in the streets, it’s a good way to know what to do to make sure what you’re doing is effective, whatever you’re doing in your activism, including YIMBY activism.
And they can follow me on Twitter @beyondchron. I tweet a lot about stuff and it’s a good way to really find out what the rest of the country is doing.
And people can always email me also. firstname.lastname@example.org. Always happy to answer any questions that you guys can’t answer.
Alberto Pina: There’s a lot we can’t answer! That’s why we like to have folks like yourself on here with us.
Randy Shaw: Thank you very much for having me.
Mauricio Chacra: Thanks, Randy. Thanks for joining us.
That does it for this episode guys, thanks for tuning in. Catch you guys in the next one.