Housing allies mobilize ideas at YIMBYtown weekend events

The Boston YIMBY (“Yes In My Backyard”) movement may be feeling it has a little more visibility after a three-day conference based in Roxbury wrapped up on Sunday with municipal leaders throwing their support behind pro-housing policies looking to leverage the city’s booming market to address the accompanying land crunch.

YIMBY is a broadly housing-first response to “Not In My Backyard,” or NIMBY, anti-development stances, that advocates for a less dogmatic adherence to traditional restrictions on housing types and encourages building across the city, a viewpoint that often coincides with pushing for more non-vehicular transit access with an eye to sustainable long-term city planning.

Jesse Kanson-Benanav, one of the YIMBYtown conference organizers who kicked off the final panel on Sunday, said the goal was to “establish a model of organizing that builds bridges to new allies and promotes racial diversity and equity with its housing campaigns.”

Hosted this year at Roxbury Community College, YIMBYtown offered three days of panels and seminars on the numerous factors of Boston’s housing conundrum. They “really tried to focus on affordability,” Kanson-Benanav said.

Breakout sessions tackled wonky topics like zoning along with coalition and alliance building between affordable housing and equity groups. Speakers outlined unit-size housing guidelines that could allow for options like micro housing or co-living for demographics looking for smaller personal spaces or downsizing, led walking tours, and offered tips for reaching out to the new-housing-averse and mobilizing other YIMBYs.

Day two of the conference saw a switch in plans when a nearby housing affordability group interrupted the plenary speaker, Joey Lindstrom, field organizing manager with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, while he was discussing the need for the YIMBY movement to include deeply subsidized affordable housing.

The protestors, who had spent their day at a Housing For All conference focused on building a plan for “a just housing system,” said they came to the YIMBY session to share experiences with displacement and push for housing policy led by those left most vulnerable by the booming housing market. Afterward, on Twitter, affordable housing advocate Grace Holley noted that Lindstrom was an ally of the protestors’ movement.

“We’re here today just to say, listen,” one protestor told the assembled group in video shared on social media. After asking the YIMBY gathering if they were inclined to let the protestors lead the movement, he said, “It’s the people who are closest to the issue that have the solutions.”

After the conferences wrapped up, a group of pro-affordable housing advocates pushed out a pledge that they hoped Boston YIMBYs would sign. The pledge sheet so far has 24 signatures on the justcauseboston.org site, many from out of the metropolitan area.

Politicians and YIMBYs alike are happy to listen and work with affordable housing groups, they said at closing day panel on Sunday morning. Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone; Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll; Cambridge Mayor Marc McGovern; Janelle Chan, undersecretary of the state Department of Housing and Community Development; and Boston’s housing chief, Sheila Dillon, spoke on the panel.

“For the record, I am a YIMBYist and a regionalist,” Curtatone said, to whoops from the college auditorium. In his years as mayor and in legislative bodies, housing and displacement has been at the forefront, he said. “But I’ve never seen it at the crisis level it is today,” he said.

“It’s an old adage, all politics is local,” Curtatone added. “Unfortunately, in this region, beyond politics, how we think about how we grow, how the economy grows, how we think about mobility, housing, workforce development, participation — it has been too parochial and too local and too provincial.”

People moving in for the jobs they have now is “changing the face of the city, and it’s challenging,” McGovern said. “But these people are moving to Cambridge anyway. They’re gonna move to Cambridge whether we provide more housing or the developer provides more housing for them or not. They’re coming, and they’re going to outbid the teacher ten-to-one.”

More housing has to be built for all levels, the panelists said, to make sure that people are competing with those at similar income levels and given housing options that match their desired lifestyles, rather than keeping retiring individuals in houses too large and expensive to maintain because they do not have smaller options in the city limits that meet their needs.

A complication, Dillon said, is that the market is not enough to cover housing for many residents, and deeply subsidized housing requires more from the city than just housing costs. It takes operational cost subsidies as well for utilities, quality of life needs, and the like.

The three mayors and Dillon brought up avenues to wrest money for affordable housing from market rate projects. Among them: linkage fees, upping the Inclusionary Development Policy standards, demanding more from new developments along the forthcoming Green Line Extension, a citywide affordable housing overlay, density bonuses, and height bonuses to developers who build 100 percent affordable housing, and dedication of Community Preservation Act funds for housing.

Legislatures and cities have a responsibility to be more transparent about where affordable housing money and city subsidies are going, and collaborate with residents of YIMBY and non-YIMBY stripes alike, the mayors said.

“There’s no reason to give a company like Amazon any tax breaks,” Curtatone asserted.

When a woman in the crowd insisted that political will should be sufficient to demand more from developers, McGovern pushed back. The financing is rough, he noted. Banks lend to developers and require a certain return on investment.

“We just went through this process in Cambridge on how high could we raise the inclusionary zoning,” he said. “What we found was, at this point, in the hottest real estate market around, 20 percent was as high as they could go, because just over 20 percent, they cannot get the return they needed to get the loan to build the housing they wanted to build. So we could have passed a policy that said 50 percent, and we all could have walked away and celebrated… it would have resulted in no housing being built.”

The panel addressed other issues, such as creating neighborhoods with taller buildings, the need for better transit hubs to broaden the definition of transit-oriented-development, and the wait lists for homeless individuals looking for housing.

But the strain on the city and the region is growing. Dillon said that Boston has re-assessed its housing goals, a comment confirmed Tuesday when the city issued new benchmarks for the year 2030.

The private housing market does organically put out thousands of units that are within reach to households making $125,000 annually or less, Dillon said, adding to the city's designated middle income production.

“I say that’s important because we can’t build enough affordable housing… so we have to rely on the market to build something other than luxury housing,” Dillon said, adding that Boston should be “deliberate” about where it builds. There are areas where the city can squeeze density, and higher architectural standards might make for more acceptance of new buildings, she said.

“I, too, probably am a YIMBY,” Dillon said, “but I think we need to be smart YIMBYs.”

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