the city politic

The YIMBY War Breaking Out on the Left

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

Most ideological factions, left and right, agree that New York is in the grip of a housing crisis. After a pandemic lull, rents are skyrocketing again, brokers are slapping on prohibitive fees, and eviction cases are clogging housing courts. What to do about it, of course, invites all kinds of debates — and none may be fiercer than YIMBY versus NIMBY.

There is no agreement on the exact meaning of the two terms, but each group can be painted with broad enough strokes. The NIMBYs favor less development, either from the lens of preservation — keep bucolic, low-lying neighborhoods as they are — or in the belief, ultimately mistaken, that building market-rate housing will lead to rising rents nearby. Many conservatives, safeguarding the suburbs, are NIMBYs, as are run-of-the-mill Democrats and enough progressives, though they wouldn’t classify themselves that way. YIMBYs favor looser rules and rezonings to spur housing construction and increase the density of given towns and cities.

For the left, this battle has particular salience and real-world implications. Progressives and outright socialists find themselves on all sides.

Resistance to YIMBYism is natural because a significant number of pro-development voices have disdain for the goals of the working-class housing movement. They believe rent stabilization and rent control should be destroyed, not expanded, and they have nothing to say about groundbreaking laws like New York City’s right to counsel, which grants low-income tenants legal representation in housing court. They don’t openly support the ambitious social housing proposals embraced by left-leaning urban planners. The Bloomberg years were characterized by rapid development in gentrifying neighborhoods, with sweeping rezonings running up against bitter community opposition. Bloomberg was right about wanting to build, particularly in dense, transit-rich areas. His real sin was targeting communities of color while largely leaving other leafier, wealthier neighborhoods alone. The Bloomberg administration selectively downzoned chunks of the outer boroughs that should have seen more development.

But YIMBYs are right, fundamentally, that New York and other cities must build far more housing than they currently do. Socialists — those with the power to make decisions over the future of housing — are increasingly in agreement. Tiffany Cabán, a Queens city councilmember who belongs to the Democratic Socialists of America, recently green-lit the rezoning of an area in her own Astoria district that includes a large majority of market-rate units and some that are deeply affordable. The project, Halletts North, will be a three-tower, 1,300-unit development with a quarter of its units earmarked as affordable. Ten percent of the units will be reserved for tenants making 30 percent or less of the city’s area median income, or $35,790 for a family of four. The development will nearly double the number of local units available to renters making less than 50 percent of the area median income, according to Cabán. Inaction, for her, was not an option. “It sends the message to residents of Astoria Houses the next block over that they are unworthy of a safe, comfortable neighborhood. And it holds down the housing supply amid a brutal housing shortage,” she tweeted.

The development will be built on a vacant former industrial site across from a public housing complex, Astoria Houses, and developers will pay $16 million to clean up the site. They will also contribute $1 million to Astoria Houses, build a community space that local nonprofits will be able to use rent free, and incorporate a public waterfront green space.

The Queens DSA housing working group opposed the project, calling it an “insult” to Astoria Houses residents who couldn’t rent there. But Cabán was ultimately unswayed. This was because there was no viable alternative. If housing weren’t built on the site, it would sit vacant or take on another industrial use — Cabán raised the possibility of an Amazon warehouse coming there instead. What was most notable about her public statement was her reference to “supply” and a “brutal housing shortage,” a direct acknowledgment that more housing must be built in the city, not less, and market-rate units will have to be part of that equation. Another socialist, State Senator Jabari Brisport of Brooklyn, recently tweeted that he had spoken with NYU’s Furman Center about a study that found that the construction of market-rate units didn’t force rent hikes nearby. This had been, for many years, gospel on the socialist and progressive left.

There’s some evidence of a growing schism between socialists and typical progressive and center-left lawmakers on the issue of housing. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a DSA member, has talked openly about the need for far more housing construction, and next year her House district will include Halletts North. While she didn’t weigh in publicly on the project, she is more likely to be a backer than an opponent. Other progressives who are AOC friendly but not DSA aligned have taken a more skeptical approach to new construction.

The most prominent example is Yuh-Line Niou, a state assemblywoman who recently became a cause célèbre on the left when she ran for Congress in a crowded primary that included Dan Goldman, a multimillionaire former prosecutor. The goodwill around Niou obscured her unsettling housing record: She is one of several politicians, including Goldman, who oppose a proposed affordable-housing development in lower Manhattan called Haven Green. The seven-story Habitat for Humanity project located in Little Italy and Soho would provide 123 units of housing, with some set aside for the formerly homeless. The units are earmarked for seniors earning between $18,774 to $37,548 per year. If built, the project will also include retail and public green space. Niou, however, has joined a lawsuit that has tangled up the project indefinitely. Many opponents of Haven Green are angry it would be built atop the Elizabeth Street Garden, a sometimes-shuttered public park. She has criticized Haven Green for not being permanently affordable since the housing will go market rate after 60 years. But six decades is a very long time. If Haven Green were built tomorrow, Niou would be 99 years old when the affordability lapses.

Green space matters, but Soho residents can still go to Washington Square Park. A housing development for low-income seniors who could not normally live in an extraordinarily expensive part of the city should take priority. Cabán, given her recent rhetoric, would probably not sue to stop Haven Green. The potential for lost housing — housing that is, unlike most projects, 100 percent affordable — is still not enough to move Niou.

In this particular manner, a darling of the left behaved like a typical politician. And so did Kristin Richardson Jordan, a self-identified socialist city councilmember (the DSA did not support her campaign) who blocked a proposed development that would have built over 900 units of housing in Central Harlem. Half of the development would have been designated affordable housing, though not quite at the deep levels Cabán won in Astoria. Richardson Jordan called the development “nothing less than white supremacy,” a statement that was hyperbolic and absurd — a mixed-use housing development has nothing to do with racial terror. But more telling, perhaps, was another comment the councilmember made to a local publication. “I would rather have lots sit empty than have them filled with further gentrification,” she said. A NIMBY couldn’t have put it better.

The YIMBY War Breaking Out on the Left