“We Want More Housing, but How?” Talking with Max Holleran

“There are a lot of basic things that America has still not accepted in terms of how to live a happy urban life.”

While a lot of virtual ink has been spilled about YIMBYs (Yes In My Back Yard, a professional-class, market-oriented movement for increasing housing supply), cultural sociologist Max Holleran’s Yes to the City: Millennials and the Fight for Affordable Housing is one of the first considered, book-length accounts of this self-identified movement. For his ethnographic study, Holleran interviewed YIMBY organizers in five cities in the US, the UK, and Australia; and took on the unenviable task of scouring thousands of social media posts by and about YIMBYs.

The book teases out participant motivations for involvement in this upper-middle class, professional movement and positions it within broader struggles over rent that are taking place in English-speaking cities. Max and I talked over Zoom about YIMBYs, NIMBYs, and Hungarian winter fish soup.

Oksana Mironova (OM): Can you talk a little bit about why your research focused on San Francisco, Boulder, Austin, London, and Melbourne?


Max Holleran (MH): Well, the first thing that interested me about YIMBY activism is that it is unapologetically middle class. Secondly, and relatedly, most YIMBY groups are in places that are both wealthy and have seen huge rises in the cost of rent or buying a home. I had to write about San Francisco because it is the origin of the movement. Moreover, there is something peculiar about Bay Area politics, with the confluence of tech, housing issues, and social media that made it a very fertile ground for this particular activist movement. The other places that I chose were places that had differing growth policies. Boulder—where I should say I lived for 12 years—has a very famous slow-growth policy that kept it from developing even while they were part of a region that was one of the fastest developing for the last 20 years. Austin is the opposite. Austin is much more laissez-faire when it comes to moderating development, but they had huge problems anyway.

Other places that I could have focused on are East Coast cities like New York or Boston. I lived in New York for most of my life, which actually deterred me from wanting to write about it. I think it’s an overstudied example.


OM: Oh, interesting.


MH: The thing that was really astonishing for me is why YIMBYism gets so much traction in places that never really used the term NIMBYism (not in my back yard–ism), and also don’t really have a history of single-family home development in the same way the US does. So, I wanted to track how this term became a global way to talk about housing movements and whether or not it was successful—what it makes clearer, what it obscures. A lot of people have a visceral reaction to the YIMBY framing, partly because they have such a vehement online presence, where they take the level of performance and also animosity common in zoning meetings and deploy it online. In zoning meetings, the tactic is strategic, where they say, “Look, we will be big and loud and annoying because we want to get projects passed.” Online it seems a little bit more abusive.

But they have made people aware of fundamental urban planning issues that weren’t part of the conversation before. Or, at least they were only common in niche conversations among planning nerds or people who read Curbed or Bloomberg CityLab. They also really didn’t want to use the social justice framing, which they thought was overused or made people resistant. There are arguments to be made about whether or not that was the right thing to do in terms of who we worry about when it comes to housing, who is the most vulnerable. But I do think it was successful because it got a lot of traction.


OM: You refer very specifically to millennial YIMBYs, especially in Austin, who talk about doing everything “right” and still ending up in a position where they are unable to live in the city.

So, much of this organizing seems to be around class, but without the explicit discussion of class. What happens when the YIMBYs begin interacting with organizers who are talking explicitly about class and race? What does that look like?

There are a lot of basic things that America has still not accepted in terms of how to live a happy urban life, and so YIMBY activists see that as a planning mission.

MH: So, it is a yes and a no in terms of how they talk about class. On one hand, they will say they don’t really want to talk about class because that is off-putting and Americans all think they are middle class. The language of class politics is great if you are going to ISO parties in Brooklyn. But if you are in another city, as soon as you start talking about class people get prickly.

On the other hand, they do talk about being middle class a fair amount. The vast majority are middle class, most college educated. A lot of them have graduate degrees and they will say, “We are our own middle-class housing movement and we find ourselves to be complementary to working-class movements, and if we can help to upzone the wealthier neighborhoods, that will take the pressure off of gentrifying neighborhoods and middle-class people and we can leave working-class people alone because we won’t be tempted to go live in their neighborhoods.” That is the urban planning, housing, economics spiel that they articulate, which is not exactly true in practice but certainly reflects a bigger anxiety about middle class–ness. A lot of these people make really good salaries. They are young too, often making six figures at least. So they are saying, “Look, I’m quite successful economically. I have a privileged background and I am still struggling.” So what does that say about middle class–ness in general?


OM: Right.


MH: Everyone wants to see themselves as middle class. That is a weird, uniquely American thing. To be able to say, “Even me, someone who works in tech in San Francisco, I can’t get by,” really resonated with people despite the fact that it is not the worst story in the world.


OM: How does class translate to a place like the UK, where class is really well defined and people are more aware of their class positioning?


MH: In the UK and Australia the class issue is muted because it is more about planning expertise and having sensible solutions to planning problems. In London, Brighton, and Bristol they already have a housing morphology, which looks like what YIMBYs want in the US. The cities already have a lot of apartments, a lot of row houses, and so on. I would say they are probably a little bit more aligned with the liberalization of planning in general (e.g. getting rid of some of the waiting periods, streamlining zoning rules, probably also canning some of the environmental protections, being allowed to build on London’s greenbelts or on other greenbelts in the UK). Those are all big issues. These particular YIMBYs are basically saying, “We are the rational urban planning people, who are going to make this city look good and most cites have been ignoring their urban planners, either because of rapacious developers who just want to build everywhere, or because the city has gone so far in the direction of hating planners that we are now in danger of disregarding their sometimes very sensible ideas.” They frame themselves more as a citizens’ planning group. Some do it professionally as architects, planners, designers. They are not your typical activist group. They are the think tank consultant and maybe even a parallel zoning board.


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OM: Among the people that you interviewed, people adjacent to urban planning were really overrepresented. Maybe 50 years ago you would just go work for the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority or whatever and be okay with doing the capital-P Planning that was getting done. I’m wondering if, due to the decimation of the administrative state, you can’t do that anymore, so you get mad.


MH: Yeah, that is precisely it. Part of the movement is people who were working nine-to-five in planning, but they weren’t getting their ideas recognized, so they had this side hustle going to YIMBY events and speaking out as citizens. And a lot of it was educational.

This is one thing that I do appreciate about YIMBY activism: How can we make this a better city? How can we convince people that living closer together is not some terrible thing? How can we convince them that not driving will put them in less danger? Or that living in apartments is not just for poor people?

There are a lot of basic things that America has still not accepted in terms of how to live a happy urban life, and so YIMBY activists see that as a planning mission. It’s a lifestyle education. Wouldn’t it be nice to walk to the supermarket? Or, perhaps sitting in traffic is not the best use of your time?


OM: Yeah, in many places in America those are not okay things to say.


MH: And that is what really splits them from other housing activist groups. Other housing activist groups frequently call on the state for public interventions, whether in regard to transportation or public housing. But the YIMBYs really want to be involved in private development as well. They will say, “Private development is inevitable and developers are demonized, but there are good and bad developers and we want to be the ones who can help arbitrate who are the good ones and who are the bad ones, and what they are allowed to do.”

Many YIMBYs would say that in the ’90s and early 2000s a lot of housing activism just stepped away from these debates because they didn’t want to see private development, full stop, because private development didn’t have enough public units or was done by for-profit developers. Their point is that you should want to be involved in those conversations if you want to make sure that it serves the public.

Though you can argue that they haven’t been that successful because private development has not put many affordable units onto the market.


OM: Right, and I guess that is the question. What leverage does a YIMBY group have in the end to dictate what an apartment developer will be allowed to do?


MH: Yeah, this is evident in New York. When you give people carte blanche to build bigger and taller buildings with more housing units as a right—rather than something that is negotiated ad hoc with community benefits—that becomes dangerous. YIMBY groups would say, “Look, we need to allow for more upzoning in general,” but then that actually gets rid of a lot of the leverage that community groups have because they no longer need to bargain with people in that district for more units.


OM: That always seems to me to be the problem that YIMBYs run up against. We want more housing, but how?


MH: And the math isn’t really on your side. Even the most gung-ho housing economists—who really, really want more development—will tell you that it is going to take decades to make any impact on prices. Which isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be more market-rate building, it is just for people to realize that it is nowhere near a sufficient solution for the situation that we find ourselves in.

OM: In New York State, the governor just announced a plan to facilitate the development of 800,000 units over the course of ten years that, on the face of it, seems to align with YIMBY talking points. When the state says, “Fine we are going to do the thing that you want us to do,” where does that leave YIMBY organizers?


MH: That is a great question. There are a lot of YIMBYs who are pro–public housing and see it as an essential part of the ideal mixture. And they were, at some points, a bit dismayed that it wasn’t more of a focus. Particularly when they got some real power in places like San Francisco with London Breed and Scott Wiener and other politicians who are very much on their platform. But I suspect that they will have to adopt more radical policy plans in the future because the housing crisis is so extreme that redress is just not going to be feasible with private development alone.

There are also huge issues with states’ involvement in saving downtowns from the ravages of remote work, which could pose an existential threat in the future, though no one really knows the answer to that question yet. But there are definitely going to be interventions, probably extremely neoliberal interventions, that involve companies who keep their workforce in a downtown not paying taxes.

Or take housing for climate change. There are cities that will have to retreat from water or that are in forest fire areas. There will be a need for much, much more public housing. I can imagine 50 years in the future the military building housing for places that are badly hit by natural events.

YIMBY-ism in general is a fairly progressive movement, despite that not being their public-facing stance or people’s understanding of them. The people who are the most real estate connected or the most libertarian are a minority, not even really that affiliated with the movement, or who have cynically latched onto to it to, say, push the deregulation of zoning to allow for taller buildings, or maybe get rid of zoning altogether. I didn’t really speak with many people in the movement who genuinely held that viewpoint.


OM: Yeah, and I guess that is the problem with online versus in-person meeting activism. Twitter creates space for the voices that are the most egregious to come to the forefront because their messages are the ones that are going to get repeated.


MH: And, in fact, YIMBYs were okay with that. They had a very realpolitik idea of get us in the news and it is okay if it is something that is not very well considered or not very friendly. One of their favorite things was to find someone who didn’t share their ideas, criticize them, and then find out how expensive their house was and where they lived and when they bought their house. They could say, “Okay, well, we are just being honest about our class position,” but then they would really, actually tweet, “Look at this schmuck who wrote an article against us who lives in a $1.5 million dollar house that they bought in 1985” or something.

OM: Is there anything else that you would want people to know about your research or about where this movement is going?


MH: I guess this movement created such a big public conversation that it was tantalizing for urban sociologists to come have a look at it. And while I was skeptical of it, I do think that it has triggered important conversations about city planning and what makes a good neighborhood or a nice city. I talked to people who reconsidered their views. I also talked to people who said, “I would never live in an apartment, I find it super depressing.” I talked to someone in Australia who said, “If you end up in an apartment, you don’t really own anything because you don’t own the land underneath it.”

If people can have these conversations, they can maybe help themselves to imagine what life they want. Despite all the talk within the movement about generations, one of the fastest-growing urban groups is older people who have lost some of their mobility. They can’t drive, and they say, “Wow, I don’t know if I want to be in the suburbs in my 70s, 80s, and 90s. It might be nice to have a place where I can walk around and do things and create a community that is not car dependent.” Some of the basic conversation is just having people rethink what is an okay place to live and also just coming to terms with the fact that it is so incredibly environmentally unsustainable and, in my mind, socially unsustainable, to live in a ranch house and have to drive everywhere and be completely disconnected from your neighbors. A more close-knit urban community means sometimes you have to smell the person down the hall cooking garlic, but you still get a lot out of it. Maybe even because you have to smell the garlic once in a while.

I’m about to go get Hungarian winter fish soup, which is all garlic, so that last comment was a little subliminal.

OM: That sounds amazing.


MH: It is so good. It’s a Christmas dish and a place near here specializes in it.


OM: Nice.


MH: It is one of the perks of living here. icon

This article was commissioned by Sophie Gonick. Featured image: Max Holleran.