Housing advocate Lynn Weissberg doesn’t like the term YIMBY.
“It’s too divisive,” she says, about Yes in My Backyard, a growing pro-development movement. As part of the leadership team of Engine 6, an affordable-housing group based in Newton, Massachusetts, Weissberg was instrumental in assembling a broad coalition to get two Newtonville housing developments approved over the vociferous objections of NIMBY—Not in My Backyard—advocates. Both developments—28 Austin Street, a 68-unit development, and the 140-unit Washington Place complex—have 25 percent affordable housing components, 10 percent higher than required by Newton law.
“The people on the other side were NIMBYs and were very loud,” she says. “They accuse us of being in the pocket of developers. But we’re not. We are in favor of development because Newton needs more diverse and affordable housing units.”
Dating back decades, NIMBYism’s supporters object to new development in general, especially near their homes. Adherents of YIMBYism see themselves as the opposite of obstructionists who hold that more building—especially housing—is a good thing and that the new supply will not only help middle-class tenants and buyers but also trickle down to the homeless and others at the margins of society.
The clash has become highly contentious in urban housing circles. NIMBYs are branded parochial and selfish; YIMBYs are accused of being naive about urban economics and stooges for the real estate industry. It is all the more controversial in areas with chronic housing shortages, Boston and San Francisco being two prominent examples.
It has also become a subject of academic inquiry. A 2017 study by Boston University, relying on minutes of local government meetings, found that the average NIMBY pretty much fits the stereotype: an older white male, a homeowner, a longtime resident, and a voter in local elections. A fresh-off-the-press 2019 study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) suggests that the YIMBY narrative of more supply benefiting everyone is flawed, saying that higher housing density leads to higher prices, not affordability.
Civic officials in Massachusetts find themselves right in the thick of the NIMBY/YIMBY controversy. Andrea Kelley, Newton city councilor at-large, falls decidedly in the YIMBY camp and was a vocal proponent of both 28 Austin and Washington Place.
“The more that is built, the more opportunities there are,” she says, adding that NIMBY groups such as Newton Villages Alliance are populated by relatively few but very active people.
“Is the loudest voice the one you always listen to?” she asks. As an at-large councilor, she adds, she is free to consider the greater good for the overall city and represent underserved groups. “My job is to stand up for the single mother who doesn’t have time to come to City Hall. I believe we have a responsibility to be part of filling the regional need for housing.”
Then there’s the thorny aspect of class distinctions and racial stereotypes. Robert Friant is managing director of External Affairs for the New York City–based Corporation for Supportive Housing. “YIMBY is about the unlimited possibilities affordable housing brings to a city,” and, by contrast, “NIMBY is sometimes based on the uglier side of the table, contending that housing with an affordable component increases crime and decreases home values. We have studies that prove neither is true.”