When one resorts to invective in policy debate, it’s for one of two reasons. Either you’re trying to put likely resistors back on their heels or you’re losing the argument. In the great housing debate, density advocates may be doing both by referring to everyone else as “NIMBYs.”
Like any pejorative label assigned to a broad swath of society, NIMBY is a word used to attack. Literally standing for “not in my back yard,” just about every homeowner in every city in America, irrespective of their political persuasion, is a NIMBY. Renters committed to their apartment complex for the long term are NIMBYs too. Essentially, a NIMBY is just about anyone who likes where they live.
Increasingly you will hear the word uttered by YIMBYs. Standing for “yes in my back yard,” a YIMBY seems to be someone with an ideology that runs against the grain of the vast majority. The publication Current Affairs described YIMBYs as “allies of developers who believe in letting the ‘free market’ determine what kind of housing will be built,” and as devotees of “free-market thinkers like [Ayn] Rand.”
Local YIMBYs often resort to invective against people they don’t know and don’t choose to. A YIMBY could care less about neighborhood fabric or character, the quality of life most residents sought when they chose their home or the rich history of places like Old Town, Del Ray or Woods Avenue.
They advocate for turning single-family home properties into places to build duplexes or small apartment buildings. They applaud the notion of inserting a high rise in a townhouse
community, a second apartment tower in the parking lot of an existing one or apartments on school property. They don’t care if the rest of you have to deal with more noise, parking problems, less open space or more traffic challenges. “Deal with it, NIMBY. You don’t deserve what you worked so hard for.”
And a YIMBY also plays fast and loose with the facts. If a YIMBY reads, it’s generally the ruminations of some activist author focused on a history that no longer reflects reality in Alexandria, one that ends with the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. The progress made since is of no import to YIMBYs since it does not support their narrative.
They also invent new terms like “existing zoning tools,” those mechanisms that purportedly continue to keep people out of particular neighborhoods. And they speak of the city’s emerging “zoning toolbox,” those unproven policies that city officials claim will make housing more affordable, while finally ridding our increasingly diversifying neighborhoods of the systemic racism that so obviously exists, at least in their minds. In essence, YIMBY is a misnomer though, as they advocate more for “yes in your back yard” than in their own.
Local YIMBYs have their own ecosystem, led by the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments and the Urban Institute, their hired gun “think tank.” The ecosystem includes a host of other self-appointed movement leaders and non-profit housing advocacy groups that are sometimes funded by developers. Increasingly, the unelected members of the ecosystem work to influence what happens in the neighborhoods of local jurisdictions like Alexandria.
Because they’re few in number, YIMBYs pose no threat on their own. The real threat is that city officials have allied themselves with the YIMBY movement in their push for ever greater density in Alexandria.
Their approach has been to use the YIMBY’s invective as a policy weapon. Watch it play out as the so-called “Zoning for Housing” debate heats up this year. If you push back on city hall, expect the whole YIMBY ecosystem to come at you full force, and call you “NIMBY.” You won’t know what hit you.
The writer is a civic advocate, management consultant and longtime Alexandria resident.