Columnist Cade Cannedy argues that everyone is missing the real power player in housing: DWIMBYs

By Cade Cannedy  Jan 8, 2024

San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston speaks to the crowd of Transit Funeral attendees and supporters of funding for public transit in front of City Hall in downtown San Francisco on June 3, 2023. Adam Pardee/Special to SFGATE

YIMBYs and NIMBYs, a tale far less old and far more annoying than Cain and Abel, is a perfect fit for a post-pandemic, cyberurbanized California.

For those unaware, a NIMBY is an aging white couple in a coastal community using racially coded arguments to oppose an affordable housing project that threatens to bring in “ruckus.” A YIMBY, on the other hand, is someone on Twitter yelling indecipherably about how legalizing 5-over-1 single staircases is the only way your children will avoid homelessness in California.

The thing they have in common: You’ve never really met either.

Surely, cartoonishly racist NIMBYs exist, as do YIMBYs who would tolerate a firing range in their backyard if it kept them feeling smugly superior to their narrow-minded neighbors. But in reality, the vast majority of people fall somewhere in between, in a category called the DWIMBY: Depends What’s in My Backyard.

While DWIMBY decidedly lacks panache, it is the most accurate way to describe approximately 80% of people yelling about Bay Area housing on Twitter. Take the notorious Sunset-dwelling NIMBY: The very neighbors disgusted by the Sloat Towera 50-story phallus built over reclaimed sand dunes in a veritable transit desert, were the same folks who came together two years ago to support 135 units of affordable teacher housing, just a few blocks away.

But nuance leaves no room for moral superiority, which is the real point after all. So DWIMBYism recedes to the shadows, and the NIMBY and YIMBY labels are deployed mostly as political insults rather than anything honestly indicating anyone’s policy positions.

A rendering of a proposed 50-story skyscraper at 2700 Sloat Blvd. in San Francisco. Rendering by Solomon Cordwell Buenz

In the latest iteration of the ever-simmering blood feud, three local housing advocates released a report exonerating San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston of the housing obstruction charges leveled against him. Preston’s decades of work as a tenants right’s attorney are clear evidence of his progressive bona fides, yet a 2021 column in the San Francisco Chronicle painted him as a NIMBY. The column pulled information from a report titled “Dean Preston’s Housing Graveyard,” which the writer explained was authored by “members of local YIMBY groups that support building more housing for people of all income levels.” (The Chronicle and SFGATE are both owned by Hearst but have separate newsrooms.)

Citing the report, the writer said Preston “has opposed development plans and legislative proposals — at the city and state level — that could have yielded enough units to house more than 28,000 people.” The column was supposedly the first in an 11-part series examining the housing record of each supervisor, based on the reports authored by the self-proclaimed YIMBY group; there was one more column in 2022, based off a report examining the housing records of former Supervisors David Campos and Matt Haney, but no current supervisors other than Preston have been the subject of a report from the group, or a corresponding column from the Chronicle.

The responding pro-Preston report, released in December 2023 and covering votes cast since 2019, found Preston voted in favor of 29,815 homes, 86% of them affordable.

Where the two examinations of Preston’s housing record diverge is on what it means to “block” housing. The Chronicle story based off the YIMBY group’s report argues Preston rejected housing because he pushed for additional reviews resulting in delays, even if those projects were subsequently approved. “Counting the number of units he opposed is an important part of his record nonetheless,” the article says. The report from Preston’s supporters considers his reasoning for additional reviews: to study gentrification impacts, earthquake and fire safety or chemical contamination, or push for greater affordability.

Regardless of what one may think of Preston, the fact that two interest groups can come to opposite conclusions about the voting record of a single politician is a flashing red sign that something’s rotten in our housing discourse. As Preston told me in a recent interview: “I’m not here to spend all my time helping developers finance their projects,” he said. “I’m not here to stop them, but the market doesn’t produce for certain people, so the job of government is to make sure those people have housing.”

The current housing crisis in San Francisco is likely to become a key factor in the city’s 2024 elections. Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

Largely, YIMBYs argue that a lack of housing supply — a debt accumulated over decades of underbuilding relative to population growth — has pushed rents skyward. Private property owners have captured local governments, they say, spurring the creation of layers of bureaucratic regulations and zoning laws intended to stop new development, locking in property values and locking out “undesirables.”

“The biggest barrier in San Francisco to housing are the layers of discretionary review the city has built up over time,” Matthew Lewis, the director of communications for California YIMBY, told me. “The problems the city is facing are not any one person’s fault, it’s the conglomeration of years of bad process, bad policy and bad decisions.”

The problem, of course, is that a lot of that so-called “bad process” involves perfectly prudent measures. It took decades of tenant organizing, environmental justice advocacy and some of the worst disasters of the 20th century to give us things like environmental reviews, safety checks and inclusionary zoning.

This is what the YIMBY-NIMBY debate often overlooks: People experience California’s housing crisis in vastly different ways. For some particularly vocal groups, the housing crisis is most acutely felt as a shortage of options: There aren’t adequate apartment choices in their preferred walkable neighborhoods, at least not at a price reasonable enough to continue allowing them to contribute $1,500 per month to their employer-sponsored 401(k)s.

Others experience the crisis as a crushing burden, livelihoods and future prospects slowly suffocated by rent. They’re forgoing medical care, higher education and often bare necessities just to keep an overly expensive roof over their heads. There is an entire census tract in San Mateo County where 80% of residents are rent-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30% of their household income on rent. People stay in overcrowded homes or abusive relationships because there’s nowhere else to go. The racial wealth gap expands ever more.

Even among homeowners, tremendous disparities exist between retired coastsiders and poor people or those in redlined communities who, despite our country’s best efforts to prevent them from amassing intergenerational wealth, have managed to escape the precarity of renting. The latter have a much stronger case for opposing a tidal wave of development capital from flooding their neighborhood.

Ultimately, one’s understanding of the housing crisis and disposition toward new construction depends on personal experience. If you are an upwardly mobile urban dweller dissatisfied with shared, coin-operated laundry, new market rate construction addresses your problems fairly quickly. If, alternatively, your family eats cereal with a fork so everyone can use the milk, a YIMBY’s argument that every 10% increase in the housing supply reduces rents 1%, even if true, rolls over you like lead paint. Rent is unaffordable now, and 1% doesn’t begin to move the needle. So while a developer wins a big contract to build a bunch of new units that still aren’t accessible to you, and while politicians don hard hats for press photos and pat themselves on the back to celebrate, isn’t it reasonable to demand something meaningful in return?

“YIMBYs conflate any neighbor raising a concern or seeking any benefit from private market development with the very real issue of upper-income white NIMBYs,” Preston told me.

Therein lies the problem. The YIMBY movement on the whole is so absolutist, so all-or-nothing, that even decades long tenant rights activists like Preston are painted as NIMBYs if they oppose a project, even if they do so to increase the affordability or review gentrification or environmental impacts. Redlined communities who don’t want another traffic-choked mixed-use development spewing pollution into their yards are NIMBYs. And when everyone, from a wealthy white politician to a minority homeowner scraping by, is the enemy, then your multiracial movement for housing justice won’t spark the changes you’re hoping.

Yes, some people are straight-up NIMBYs, opposing righteous housing projects just to protect the sanctity of their coastal enclave. But most people are DWIMBYs. Recognizing those in the mushy middle who are bargaining in good faith is the only way we’ll ever make the progress needed to address this crisis.

Jan 8, 2024

By Cade Cannedy

Cade Cannedy is a freelance writer based in San Francisco