Power  /  Comparison

NIMBYs and YIMBYs Have More in Common Than It Might Seem

NIMBYs were citizen activists who set a model for participatory democracy that YIMBYs should follow.

Young people are frustrated by the high cost of housing in places like San Franscico, and they are doing something about it. Victoria Fierce, for instance, moved to the Bay Area in 2015 from Akron, Ohio, in search of a job in tech. “I ended up sleeping on a friend’s couch until I could find my own place,” she told a Census Bureau reporter. It was a long wait. Chastened, she launched East Bay for Everyone in 2015, a citizens group that says “yes to more neighbors, more housing, more renter protections, better public transit, and better infrastructure in our backyards.”

Fierce is part of a self-identified group demanding more, denser, cheaper, accessible housing, and they have created a very intentional acronym to express their desires: YIMBY, or “Yes In My Backyard.”  

A half century ago, activists in neighborhoods across the United States mobilized to protect what they considered to be their quality of life. The threats they battled ranged from traffic to resisting the denser housing that YIMBYs want more of today. The NIMBY ("Not In My Back Yard") politics of the past was often motivated by the desire to protect property values, which in America was frequently infused with racial concerns.

But the growth of NIMBY politics also was motivated by long-forgotten progressive agendas that sought to protect green space, preserve historic resources, and stop highways that threatened pollution and shattered communities.

In fact, it was concern about unchecked development that earned it the NIMBY label. By 1970, advocates for growth, from highway engineers to housing developers, homed in on a single factor in the complex mix of motivations that drove neighborhood activists—their self-interest—and branded those parochial interests with the label “backyard.” By the 1980s, the pejorative NIMBY routinely was hurled at those trying to constrain growth and development.

While YIMBYs see themselves as the opposite of NIMBYs, the similarities between the original NIMBYs and today’s YIMBYs are hard to miss. In both cases, people’s own self-interest has been a major catalyst for shaping their politics. And in most cases today, YIMBYs also pursue central themes of the progressive agenda—just like many of the NIMBYs from an earlier generation.