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With more people saying ‘yes’ to the city, might more Boiseans lean to ‘YIMBY’ rather than ‘NIMBY?’

Three photos: one of a yard sign that reads "YIMBY," a headshot of author Max Holleran, and the book cover of "Yes to the City: Millennials and the Fight for Affordable Housing" that is adorned with computer graphic buildings.
Boise State Public Radio, Princeton Press
Max Holleran is author of "Yes to the City," published by Princeton Press

With Boise in the throes of a broad rewrite of its zoning code, Max Holleran, author of “Yes to the City: Millennials and the Fight for Affordable Housing,” says, “I think I could write a whole other book of cities that have just exploded in their populations and the desire for more housing – places that are beautiful and have a lot of natural assets, like Boise.”

Holleran adds that indeed millennials are the driving force of urbanism.

“They're a generation that is comfortable living in apartments. They're more comfortable with not owning a car, taking mass transportation, and they're not necessarily enamored with the single-family house suburbs of the past.”

Holleran visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about his research, some friction to YIMBYism coming from two very different sides, and how more cities, like Boise, are rethinking density.

“YIMBY activists who have gotten very successful in American cities are asking people to rethink some very fundamental parts of American urbanism and to live closer together with their neighbors.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. There's an exciting new book out with the title “Yes to the City.” Accent on Y-E-S, yes. Excuse the cliche, but it could be ripped right from our headlines. It's published by Princeton University Press. And when I reached out to ask to talk to the author, they asked, “Well, how do you feel about time changes?” The author, Max Holleran, is here and he joins us from the other side of the planet. He's in Australia where it is… tomorrow. Max Holleran, good morning.

MAX HOLLERAN: Thank you so much for having me.

PRENTICE: And for the record, it's winter there.

HOLLERAN: It is winter, but it's not real winter. It's not Boise winter.

PRENTICE: Fascinating book. Congratulations. At the heart of “Yes to the City” is… and walk us through this… is YIMBY - Yes In My Backyard. Walk us through this. This is more than just a trend.

HOLLERAN: It is. So, Yes In My Backyard is a reaction against the idea of NIMBYism, which is Not In My Backyard, which for a long time has been a big force in neighborhoods in the United States and elsewhere against building things that will deplete the value of people's homes in certain neighborhoods. Yes In My Backyard is about making more developments, particularly dense residential development apartments, row houses, duplexes in American neighborhoods. Most American neighborhoods are zoned only for detached single family homes. And this movement has really been about getting rid of that zoning code. And it attempts to build more housing, to address housing shortages and to hopefully make housing more affordable through increasing the supply.

PRENTICE: You mentioned San Francisco, but also Boulder, Seattle, Austin, Boston… And for our listeners, if they don't think this doesn't apply to Idaho in general and Boise in particular, they're not paying attention.

HOLLERAN: I think I could write a whole other book,, after the pandemic of cities that had just exploded in their populations and the desire for more housing - places that are beautiful and have a lot of natural assets, like Boise, that have seen tremendous amounts of growth in population and also astronomical rises in the price of housing. The thing is that not only has housing increased, but rent is also increased. So, for anyone trying to hang on in cities that used to have a pretty stable population, they are now really confronted with a large population shift that's happening in the US, which has a lot to do with people working remotely and with people moving to places like Boise and the housing market is absolutely on fire. As we said before this interview, people in Boise have been confronted with 4% rises in the value of their house per month, not per year.

PRENTICE: By the way, you chronicle that in large part Millennials have pushed YIMBYism.

HOLLERAN: So previously you would see a lot of housing movements framed as anti-gentrification, and you'd see it in class terms. You'd see it as neighborhoods that were trying to hang on, as a working-class refuge, as a place with affordable rents or affordable home prices for people buying. You would see that sort of as a sort of a battle between people of different economic positions. In many ways, we've seen housing now chronicled within the terms of generation. So, it's very much about millennials versus people in the older generations. Millennials are disadvantaged in some ways because they experienced a lot of wage losses during the 2008 crisis, and that extended for almost a decade. And also, a lot of them have delayed family formation, buying houses, having children. And they have a kind of existential framing of the housing crisis as something that has disproportionately affected their generation.

PRENTICE: And to that point, in your book you chronicle this as well - there has been friction.

HOLLERAN: There's a lot of friction. Millennials are also a very urban generation. They're a generation that is comfortable living in apartments. They're more comfortable with not owning a car, taking mass transportation, and they're not necessarily enamored with the single-family house suburbs of the past. And so, for them, changing zoning is not such a big deal. It doesn't have the kind of threat of destroying the character of a neighborhood or letting in more people isn't seen as something that's really going to overwhelm public services. So, the idea of building a kind of six story apartment building is not such a kind of confronting thing for people who are under 40. But it could be a really big deal for people who have grown up in the smaller suburbs of the past. And so, the idea of what a city should look like has changed a lot in the past 20 years. And millennials are pushing for much more densification, and that's something that sometimes rubs people the wrong way.

PRENTICE: Let's talk about the future of YIMBYism …and crafting or the possibility of crafting some kind of coalition, and how fragile that process will probably be.

HOLLERAN: In this have gotten a lot of trouble because one of their main goals is to have growth in areas that already have a lot of economic development that are already doing pretty well. So, one of their main goals is to make wealthy communities, places like downtown San Francisco. Parts of Washington, D.C., downtown Seattle, accept new housing, particularly small apartment buildings. But they've also done that in some neighborhoods that are gentrifying. And so, they've run into two different kinds of roadblocks and two different groups of people who oppose development. One are the people who they label as NIMBYs. So Not In My Backyard. People who just say,” Look, we have a great neighborhood, our schools are filled, the streets don't have any parking and we do not have room for the apartment building that you are proposing.” That is one group and that's one group that they really vociferously fight against. The other group is when they go into places that are not as socioeconomically developed. So, you could say a gentrifying neighborhood and then they propose the development there. And those are groups that say, “Look, we have a neighborhood that's just barely hanging on here. We have people who cannot afford to pay rent. We have people who can't afford to buy. And if you build more here, we will be pushed out and we will experience displacement.” That's happening in a lot of cities. So, you have two kind of adversaries that have fought against this movement. The sort of bottom line for the movement is that all housing will add to the available stock and that will decrease prices. But there's a lot of questions about that, particularly when you're building in places that have a really fragile economic status, where basically the neighborhood's changing really dramatically in terms of demographics. If you build new housing, you could potentially push people out.

PRENTICE: And there it is again: the word “fragile.” And all of the nuance that any community has. And then you layer something extraordinary like a pandemic over the possibility of density, and that's an entirely new factor.

HOLLERAN: Yeah. I mean, in some ways, the YIMBY activists who have gotten very successful in American cities are asking people to rethink some very fundamental parts of American urbanism and to live closer together with their neighbors. America is not a place that traditionally likes that. People want their own land. They want their own backyards. On the other hand, it's very cultural, which is that people, they want their own kingdom, their own domain. And living in apartment building is something that a lot of people have trouble embracing. That was true before the pandemic, but with the pandemic, you get all these epidemiological fears. You get fears about people coughing in the elevator. You get fears about the heating and cooling system and the germs that are coming into your apartment. And so, it's a rough time in some ways to convince people that they want to be closer rather than farther away.

PRENTICE: The name of the book is “Yes to the City.” It is published by Princeton University Press, and he is Max Holleran. My sense is that the needle is moving on this with every passing day on this issue.

HOLLERAN: Absolutely. I think it's an issue that will be with us for a long time as rents rise and people look for more sustainable alternatives to suburbia. I think that an hour-long commute seems like something that's not only not a lot of fun, but also not very economically sustainable.

PRENTICE: Max Holleran, thanks for sharing some of your tomorrow with us today.

HOLLERAN: Thank you so much. Take care. Bye.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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