Economy & Business

YIMBYism Goes National

Sen. Todd Young (R., Ind.) speaks at a news conference in Washington, D.C., May 8, 2019. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)
Both the White House and congressional Republicans are taking a hard look at restrictive zoning laws.

YIMBYism is the ideology of “Yes in My Backyard.” Its advocates support urban development to bring down rents, among other benefits, and they’re primarily concerned with overly restrictive local zoning rules. But lately they’ve made some inroads in the federal government: The White House issued an executive order on housing affordability, and Senator Todd Young introduced the “YIMBY Act.” While small moves, these are promising signals of the growing concern over the affordability crisis.

President Trump’s “Executive Order Establishing a White House Council on Eliminating Regulatory Barriers to Affordable Housing” commits the White House to lowering the cost of housing construction. It will create a council chaired by the secretary of housing and urban development that will study and recommend measures to reduce housing costs.

Senator Young’s bill would require communities that receive Community Development Block Grant funding to state why they are or are not adopting “pro-affordability” housing policies, from relaxing mandates on off-street parking to “upzoning” areas around transit hubs.

While welcome, both of these efforts are largely toothless. In the case of the executive order, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is not capable of dictating zoning rules to cities. Previous proposals by Secretary Ben Carson to tie federal funds to relaxed zoning rules are certainly positive, but haven’t yet translated into action. Additionally, many of the areas with the strongest restrictions on housing — wealthy suburbs — receive relatively little in the way of federal funds, so HUD doesn’t have much of a carrot with which to persuade local lawmakers.

And Young’s legislation is not meant to enforce anything, just to encourage better transparency about housing policy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s not the federal government’s role to mandate housing policy. But the “name-and-shame” approach actually has something to recommend it. Knowing exactly which places are refusing to permit market-rate or affordable housing could be a useful rhetorical cudgel for housing advocates and politicians to use against NIMBYs.

Even though the federal government has a very limited set of levers it can pull to affect housing policy, the affordability crisis is a national problem. American home construction has dropped to decades-low levels; relatedly, Americans are moving at far lower rates than in previous eras. If places with high levels of job creation — often large, dynamic cities — have unacceptably high housing costs, workers can’t take advantage of the growth. Some of the hardest commutes in the modern American city are not those of white-collar workers, but those of service-industry workers who can’t afford to live in the cities where their jobs are.

And one of the largest sources of economic anxiety for Millennials is rising housing costs and low rates of ownership. A looser housing market would let off some of that steam.

All this is an opportunity for Republicans. There are few better examples of how regulations can restrict economic choice and opportunity than urban housing markets.

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