What the YIMBYs Never Understand
The tribulations of renting in America
In May, the New York Times Magazine wrote about the famed social housing in Vienna. Americans are usually shocked to learn that a vast majority of Viennese qualify to live in deeply affordable, high-quality housing. There is no downside to renting there because the rents will always be a small fraction of your annual income. Forty-three percent of all housing is insulated from the market and the government subsidizes affordable units for a wide range of incomes. Decades ago, a great amount of housing supply was built, and unlike in the United States, Vienna never abandoned the cause of public housing.
It’s obvious to any tenant reading about Vienna that life there, from a standpoint of sheer economics, is better than life in any major American city. Rents, always high in New York and California, surged across the country during the pandemic, fueling a homelessness crisis that will not abate. For those who have housing, existence is only stress-free as long as the job is well-paying. One wrong turn and eviction is around the corner. Certain localities have stronger tenant protections than others. Either way, rent is something many Americans—those who don’t own property, and are nowhere close to buying anything—must think about constantly. It is an economic and psychological burden. To be liberated from it, like the Viennese, would be to enter a utopic state.
The YIMBYs never quite understand this. I have some sympathy for them because they aren’t wrong about housing in America. We don’t build enough. In Japan, housing construction is constant and rents are relatively low. Owning a property is something like owning a car—it doesn’t appreciate, at all, over time, but making the purchase is plausible for most people. Japan has been building for decades and zoning restrictions are almost nonexistent. The United States could do this, but won’t. YIMBYs dream of Japan, just as socialists dream of Vienna.
But the trouble for YIMBYs is that they have no near-term answer for the struggles of the American tenant. The socialist proclaims that the government must build more housing and subsidize it, or allow tenants to form cooperatives and take charge of more buildings. In the twentieth century, the federal government was in the business of both building and subsidizing housing for the lower and middle classes. The New York City Housing Authority took off in the New Deal era, and programs like Mitchell-Lama allowed families, for a very low cost, to buy comfortable apartments. In the second half of the twentieth century, neoliberal governments turned away from these initiatives and encouraged the destruction of public housing. Low-cost SRO housing was outlawed and obliterated. Today, the market decides what most people pay, with unwieldy voucher programs available for the poor.
Matt Yglesias, the leading liberal pundit, is one of the internet’s most vocal YIMBYs. Leftists who read me revile him, but I’ve been a subscriber to his Substack for several years and find much of his writing worthwhile, even when I disagree with it. Unlike his Twitter feed, where the hot takes fly perplexingly fast and loose, his writing tends to be thoughtful and considered. He’s certainly been one of the louder voices against the restrictive, racist zoning America’s suburbs have maintained for more than a half century. His advocacy for housing density, in the cities and suburbs alike, is much needed.
But Yglesias, like other YIMBYs, neglects the punishing reality of renting in America. Housing supply, over time, will lower rents. But a tenant owing thousands of dollars in back rent—a tenant on the cusp of eviction—does not have the luxury of time. A tenant paying 50 or 60 percent of her income in rent can’t wait patiently for the Tokyo-style building boom to arrive. That tenant needs help now.