Many people reading this (if anyone does!), will be unfamiliar with an arcane debate between “YIMBYs” and “NIMBYs”. It mostly takes place in an obscure corner of cyberspace called “Housing Twitter”. People with an interest, sometimes pecuniary, in urban policy, slug it out around the question of how many new homes are required to meet the pandemic of housing need and where they should be built.
One of the dubious advantages of having been involved in the housing field for as long as I have, is that very little is new. I don’t like being the “seen it all before” person, but I’ve heard variations on the YIMBY/NIMBY discourse many times.
Of course, the other thing I’ve seen over the years is a housing situation that has only worsened, so the current controversy does have additional potency. It is, as in the past, accompanied by a fixation with the planning system which regulates, or tries to, land use.
Those on the “Yes In My Backyard” (YIMBY) side tend to pin their arguments on a belief that, if only planning regulations were relaxed and simplified, house building would be unleashed and thus, housing need reduced, or even eradicated. Often, these arguments are sponsored, directly or indirectly, by the private development industry, or relate to a post-war quasi-anarcho “No Plan” philosophy, or a fake free market one.
The “Not in My Backyard” side is harder to categorise. Its classic identity is a group of well-off suburban or rural dwellers who want to protect their domestic idyll. But it’s become a bit more complicated than that. For example, in the UK, ever since the coalition government wanted to redefine council estates as “brownfield” sites, ripe for redevelopment, working class communities have been threatened by encroachment in the shape of “infill” projects aimed at increasing the number of homes in a given area (“density”, in the jargon). In many cases, this has resulted in the loss of much needed green open space.
A similar phenomenon is taking place in parts of the US, particularly New York City, where the potential land value of hundreds of public housing sites is attracting avaricious glances from private developers, who disguise their true profit-seeking intentions in altruistic terms. Other parts of the city are also being legally “rezoned” to enable the kind of blanket planning permission to build new homes that YIMBYs fantacise about. Like council tenants here, people I met in the rezoned areas of the Bronx last year, have few illusions that more building will mean more homes for them and theirs.
As always with housing policy, it comes down to politics. This iron-law was illustrated again last week, when the Tory government, in the shape of Michael Gove who, bizarrely, some people consider a force for social good, abandoned any explicit, nationally-set targets for new house building. Instead, local authorities will have “discretion” over what gets built in their area. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, as we say in Bethnal Green.
But my part of London is a good place to examine the facile – and potentially dangerous – YIMBY/NIMBY argument. Back in 1981, the Thatcher government imposed the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) on the area, an unelected quango that embodied a YIMBY-type libertarian planning approach. To paraphrase one local MP at the time: “You need more approval for a fish and chip shop sign outside the LDDC area, than you do for a 20-storey block within it.”
That was a bit of an exaggeration, but captured the sense of the ideology that has brought dramatic physical and social transformation. Thousands of new homes were built under the LDDC. But despite numerous promises of “affordable homes” (abuse of that term isn’t new either), 80% were for the private market, sometimes directly at the expense of council housing, at prices way beyond most working class people. Housing need – and anger about it – escalated, feeding the racist scapegoating that ultimately led to a fascist being elected as a councillor on the Isle of Dogs in 1993.
The LDDC has gone, but the domination of the planning process by private developers, in our borough and beyond, has continued unabated. More new homes have been built in Tower Hamlets over the last decade or so, than in any other comparable municipality in Europe. But despite this, the council’s 20,000+ housing waiting list remains static.
Chronic housing policy failure is multi-faceted, but one of its key features is political capitulation. Having worked in and with the private development sector, I know a bit about its culture. Leaving aside its white male domination (although this is significant), its main driver is the quest for profit and it will do whatever it can get away with to maximise it. The check on this, as most people in the industry I’ve spoken to acknowledge, are politicians, local and national. Returning to the LDDC example from 40 years ago, initially there was vocal opposition to its imposition by the Labour Party, but it didn’t last and very quickly became the spurious “partnership” approach that has dominated urban policy ever since.
In this context, YIMBYs, sometimes coming from an allegedly “progressive” perspective, accuse NIMBYs of perpetuating housing misery. Meanwhile, NIMBYs accuse YIMBYs of being clients of the real estate lobby. Some are, but others just have a tendency to look at the housing issue through the wrong end of a telescope (or in some cases, just don’t know what they’re talking about).
To illustrate how fatuous the YIMBY/NIMBY squabble has become, I recently saw, on Housing Twitter, someone ask if Red Vienna was the result of YIMBYism. This refers to the inter-war period in the Austrian capital, when a radical city administration built thousands of publicly-owned homes for rent, many of which survive today. This had nothing to do with an argument for or against new building. It had everything to do with an organised, militant working class demanding better living conditions and a municipality with the political will to do something about it, by taking control of new house building and restructuring it “away from a market to a communalized form” (Gruber 1991, pp55 – 56).
There’s the rub. The YIMBY/NIMBY arguments are a divisive distraction from the real cause of perennial housing need, best summarised by Marcuse (I never know if it’s dad Herbert, or son David):
“There isn’t a housing crisis because the market has failed. There’s a housing crisis because that’s how the market works.”
No amount of tinkering with the planning system, or playing the new homes numbers game, will change this fact. Looming environmental catastrophe only heightens the need to move away from the market model, towards a socialised – and socialist – model of deciding what gets built how, where and for who.
What the market hath wrought. The Isle of Dogs, where LDDC YIMBYism obliterated everything in its path, including the council estate, above my right shoulder, where my housing “career” began in 1991.
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