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.
Yglesias’ argument against public or Vienna-style housing is rather straightforward: construction costs in America are too high, and the government can’t be counted on to build at a reasonable rate or do it efficiently. Instead, the private sector should take on the cost of housing construction because there are plenty of developers who will do it and not spend astronomical sums of money. Private developers are less likely to build highways, trains, and bus shelters, so that kind of infrastructure should be left to the government to fund, Yglesias argues.
“In a country where every level of government is strapped for cash, and where budgets for even the most plausible and necessary projects seem to be exploding, how does it make sense for the government to build things that the private sector is willing to do?” Yglesias writes in Bloomberg. “Both Singapore and Vienna launched their investments in public housing at times when the private market lacked confidence that investing in construction would pay off. Both cities built publicly financed apartment buildings as a way of investing in themselves at a time when private markets didn’t want to.”
“It would make sense for the government to build public housing if it could prove that it was good at building stuff efficiently,” he adds. “But that’s a hard case to make. Until the US can figure out a way to build the things it needs the government to build, and at a reasonable price, why not simply allow the private sector to build more housing?”
The answer to this is more straightforward than Yglesias would like to admit. Yes, the private sector should be allowed to build more housing. But private developers need to turn a profit—preferably, for them, a healthy one, given the lifestyles builders are used to enjoying. Real estate isn’t charity. Developers, to make money, have to price new apartments at what euphemistically is called the market-rate, and what really means whatever a poor or working-class person cannot afford. This is true, certainly, in New York. New condominiums are resented so much because local residents know, unless they win a housing lottery (or a real one), they won’t ever live there. Upzoning is fine, but it’s not as if the glittering condos on 4th Avenue in Park Slope and along the Williamsburg waterfront are now welcoming Target clerks, home health aides, and janitors. Many parts of the city are, quite literally, unlivable for the working class, the rents too high, the surrounding stores and restaurants too expensive.
If government, as Yglesias insists, is not up to the task of building housing, why not advocate for a massive federal subsidy for private developers that would guarantee a large majority of the apartments they build are priced at the level of what a renter would expect in Vienna? Private markets, on their own, can’t solve the affordable housing crisis because the actors in these private markets need to stay rich while building housing. If it’s actually affordable, developers will have a much harder time walking away with a large profit. Yglesias, by not advocating for an enormous federal subsidy, makes it clear he’s not all that concerned about working class tenants in America. He knows private developers aren’t going to price one-bedroom apartments at $1,000 a month or less. The market won’t allow for it.
For all the YIMBYs get right, this is what they miss. They tend to be much wealthier than the average renter and some, like Yglesias, are homeowners. In his extensive writing on housing, Yglesias rarely addresses rent control and rent stabilization. I gather the technocrat in him doesn’t support these programs; they, in some sense, constrain supply by permitting tenants a degree of year-to-year stability the market otherwise wouldn’t allow them to enjoy. They decrease the likelihood of evictions. Great for the working class, less so for the landlord.
No YIMBY is ever much for timelines. Yes, we must increase supply, but by how much and when? How many apartments will be enough to lower rents everywhere else? How much building must be done? I am not a New Yorker who gets sentimental about landmarks or laments the rise of a new glassy spire. I welcome change. But many of us want to know where this is all leading—at what point, even in theory, will there be enough market-rate apartments to significantly drive down the cost of living? And it’s here, for all their technocracy and commitment to the numbers, YIMBYS never have an answer. Like pastors or rabbis or shamans, they demand belief. Wait for mashiach—he will come! Most tenants, though, rightly lack that kind of faith and certainly don’t have the time. They need help now. They need the intervention of the higher power here on Earth: the federal government.