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The rise of the ‘YIMBYs’

As California’s housing prices soar out of reach, a growing group of citizens is calling for cities to build, baby, build

Rick Swinger (left) speaks at a town hall meeting in Venice, Calif., expressing his opposition to a homeless shelter. Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

The rise of the ‘YIMBYs’
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Rick Swinger has an odd hobby as a photographer. He likes to walk around his neighborhood with his camera jostling by his side, looking for disgusting things to photograph.

He doesn’t have to look very hard. Swinger has lived in Venice, an Instagram-famous beach town in Los Angeles, for 38 years. Just a block away from his two-bedroom condo resides one of the largest homeless encampments in Venice, where tents, sleeping bags, gallon-sized garbage bags, and random pieces of furniture litter the sidewalks.

The other day, Swinger found two brown splashes of feces and an orange mush of vomit not far away from his doorstep. He later uploaded those photos to “Stop Illegal Dumping in Venice Beach,” a Facebook group he created that now has more than 1,500 followers.

“Hepatitis A, anyone?” he wrote on the post, prompting upset neighbors to comment, “I see it all the time. Disgusting.” Another wrote, “Unfortunately for us, the thinking has changed and homelessness isn’t a crime. … What about our right?” Another simply commented, “Homeless people are kinda gross.”

When I visited Swinger in his two-bedroom condo, he showed me more pictures of street pollution that he’s saved on his computer. He says he’d much rather take pictures of sunsets, but he’s fed up with all the literal crap splattering his neighborhood and wants someone to do something about it. So he chases after scavenging rodents with his camera, advocates for more rat-proof trash cans, and attends public meetings to oppose projects such as homeless facilities that in his words would attract more “serial poopers” into town.

Swinger is what some homeless advocates and housing activists call a “NIMBY.” Short for “Not in My Backyard,” NIMBY is a pejorative term used to describe homeowners who oppose controversial development projects such as low-income housing or metro stops in their neighborhoods.

Few people self-identify as a NIMBY. Swinger despises that term—he says it mischaracterizes him as a wealthy racist who places property values above others. That’s not true, he says: He’s a 59-year-old formerly homeless guy who got a job and worked hard to buy the condo he now lives in with his Filipina wife.

Today he says “no” to homeless shelters and housing in his backyard, because “you’ll be a fool to say yes to [expletive for poop] in your backyard.” He says he too wants to help the homeless—and has many ideas on how—but not at the expense of neighborhood safety: “Once you take away sanitation, you take away civilization.”

Homeless activists say Swinger is painting a false narrative of the homeless population. Homelessness, they say, may be a drug or alcohol or mental illness or unemployment problem for some, but it’s a lack-of-housing problem for others in high-cost states. And many Californians are now demanding changes to the housing policy status quo that they say is making California a more inequitable, unsustainable place to live.

This status quo, they say, includes outdated zoning laws, NIMBYism, and cumbersome regulations, which prevent significant housing development from taking place, thus leading to extreme housing shortages, rent hikes, and displacement of mostly poor minorities.

These housing advocates are calling themselves YIMBYs—“Yes in My Backyard”—and they’re making their presence seen and heard in public meetings, city council elections, and social media. YIMBY groups are sprouting across the nation in housing-crunched cities such as Portland, New York City, Boulder, Boston, Minneapolis, and Austin, but the movement is particularly strong in California. Their unofficial slogan: Build, baby, build!

Sen. Scott Wiener

Sen. Scott Wiener Rich Pedroncelli/AP

In California, YIMBYs helped pass a new package of state laws aimed at creating more affordable housing. Recently, local YIMBYs helped elect self-proclaimed YIMBY state Sen. Scott Wiener, who’s pushing for sweeping pro-housing bills in the state Legislature that will prevent cities and towns from banning apartment construction near transit and job centers.

YIMBYs are also pumped about newly elected Gov. Gavin Newsom, who calls California’s housing crisis “an existential threat to our state’s future.” He promises to create 3.5 million new housing units by 2025 and to begin enforcing a law that requires cities and towns to meet regional housing needs.

IF A NEIGHBORHOOD IN LOS ANGELES most dramatizes the clash between so-called NIMBY and YIMBY values, it’s Venice. Over the last decade, this once-eclectic, mixed-income town has become one of the most expensive neighborhoods in LA. The median rental price: $6,272 per month. The median home value: Almost $1.9 million.

Amenities have changed too, from hippie to hipster. The offices of Google and Snapchat are only a short walk away from Swinger’s apartment. Walk a little farther, and a raw vegan restaurant sells kelp noodles for $18, a coffee shop offers $5 coffee blended with grass-fed butter, and an ice creamery churns $5-per-scoop vegan frozen treats.

But one persistent problem stains this up-and-coming scene: The homeless population in Venice has grown to about 1,000 individuals, and neighbors are complaining about human excrement, property theft, needles, and overflowing trash on their sidewalks.

Because of new legal measures that allow the homeless to camp on public property, police mostly leave the encampments alone. So residents decided to take care of the matter on their own: Recently, a group of residents raised more than $80,000 on a GoFundMe page to landscape a pedestrian pathway that for the last three years had become a mini-tent city. Though the neighbors supporting this project insist it’s not “some anti-homeless agenda,” the goal is clear: Plants and rocks would take the place of human bodies along the pathway.

Over the past few years the number of homeless in California has grown enough to form a separate city—134,000 in 2017, up 14 percent from 2016 according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). More than one-quarter of the nation’s total homeless population lives in California, and LA County alone has more than 50,000 homeless individuals.

People ride bikes along the promenade in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles, Calif. 

People ride bikes along the promenade in the Venice Beach area of Los Angeles, Calif.  Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Hand-wringing local officials have pushed millions of dollars into creating more “bridge” shelters, but such temporary solutions don’t fix a critical issue: There simply isn’t enough housing to help people exit from the shelter into permanent housing. According to HUD, about 1 in 5 Californians spend more than half their incomes toward housing. Meanwhile, California lacks more than a million affordable and accessible rental units to extremely low-income Californians.

In LA County, 600,000 residents spent 90 percent or more of their income on housing, according to an Economic Roundtable analysis. Although unemployment is low in LA, homelessness has continued to swing up, partly because the majority of new jobs in the city don’t pay enough for housing in the area. For those scraping by to rent, even a minor setback—health problems, an unexpected expense, a rent hike—can start a vicious, traumatic cycle of homelessness.

One obvious solution is to build more supply to meet housing demand so that the housing market gradually balances out to more affordable costs. But California needs millions more housing units for this to happen—and for neighborhoods such as Venice, where housing construction has remained mostly stagnant, residents aren’t keen on the idea of losing their small-town charm to high-rise apartments or a concentration of homeless services that’ll turn Venice into the next Skid Row.

Last October, several hundred residents showed up at a town hall meeting to oppose the city’s plans to create a 154-bed transitional housing shelter on a former metro bus yard in Venice. For hours, the group chanted, “Venice says no!” Residents contended that the proposed shelter would draw more crime and drugs, lower property values, endanger schoolchildren nearby, and attract more homeless people. A few voiced support for the project, but the opposing side was louder.

That’s when the YIMBYs stepped in: YIMBY leaders tell me it’s time for an organized countereffort against these opponents of development, one that’s louder and stronger. The YIMBY strategy is simple: Update people on new projects and policies through social media; vote for ballot measures and officials who support more housing, particularly for the homeless; attend public meetings and write letters to show elected officials that a significant group of residents wants more housing.

The majority of YIMBYs are young urbanites who realize that if nothing changes, they’ll never be able to buy a house in their city. That’s how Brent Gaisford, director of housing advocacy nonprofit Abundant Housing LA (AHLA), got interested in housing issues. He says the crisis affects everyone: “Having a job is not enough anymore.”

Gaisford moved to LA 11 years ago and fell in love with the city, but prospects for having a family and finding “a safe place to live” seemed out of reach. The more he researched why, the more he realized how entrenched and complicated the housing crisis is. So he and about 35 like-minded people founded AHLA, a member-funded nonprofit with more than 2,000 members. This year, AHLA hired its first full-time managing director.

But YIMBYs also include homeowners who want to help others and also worry that their kids won’t be able to afford to live near them. Josh Albrektson, a radiologist and homeowner in Miracle Mile, founded two popular YIMBY Facebook groups after seeing people he knew become homeless despite having jobs. His friend who was making $60,000 a year working two jobs lost her rental unit and lived in her car for nine months. His building’s security guard also lived in a car, even though she was working two jobs and 60 hours a week.

Trash on a street in Venice.

Trash on a street in Venice. Stop Illegal Dumping in Venice Beach/Facebook

“That’s why it’s such a big thing for me,” Albrektson said. “It’s a humanitarian reason.”

YIMBYs showed up at a Venice Neighborhood Council meeting in November and a city planning commission meeting in January. For both meetings, YIMBYs outnumbered NIMBYs, and they all wore black T-shirts that read, “I support housing for unhoused people in my neighborhood.” They held single stalks of red and yellow roses to show their support for the proposed Rose Avenue Apartments in Venice, a permanent supportive housing project for 34 formerly homeless individuals and families.

The project, developed by nonprofit Venice Community Housing (VCH), would redevelop VCH’s current administrative offices into a four-story building, which would require the city’s approval to build 18 feet higher than the permitted 25 feet. Half of the units would go to transitional-age youth and the rest to the chronically homeless.

In both meetings more than 50 people lined up to make public statements: One opponent worried that the proposed building would “set a precedent” for “too massive” developments in Venice. Another worried that visitors to the building would leave scooters on the sidewalks. Opponents also complained that they weren’t properly notified about this project. As they spoke, YIMBY supporters sighed, moaned, shook their heads, and laughed.

Then one white-haired woman who has lived in Venice for 50 years stepped up. “It’s ridiculous that the opponents are placing their minor quality of life issues over poor people’s right for housing,” she said. A retired physician in a tweed jacket who has also lived in Venice for more than 50 years recalled Venice’s history of integration: “Venice needs to continue to be a welcoming community.”

A proposed 154-bed facility for bridge housing in Venice, Calif.

A proposed 154-bed facility for bridge housing in Venice, Calif. Mike Bonin

Another long-time resident said she fell in love with the diverse community of Venice, but “now Venice has become the poster child for income inequality.” Another older Venice homeowner said, “This boils down to humanitarianism or elitism.”

When one neighborhood leader called the homeless “transients” who have “disregard for the law,” the YIMBYs booed. When he then said, “The most productive thing [the homeless] do is strip down old bicycles and recycle them into new bicycles,” the YIMBYs howled. One woman stepped up to castigate him: “Your hatred is tangible, your terminology is toxic. I’d love to put you on a boat and ship you out.”

I LATER MET UP WITH THAT MAN, Jim Murez, at Venice Farmers Market on a chilly Friday morning. Murez founded the farmers market 32 years ago, and he’s been serving the Venice Neighborhood Council for 13 years. Murez bought a two-bedroom house on a 1,800-square-foot lot about 35 years ago, back when Venice was affordable enough for a young married couple with some savings.

A Los Angeles rally in support of solutions to homelessness.

A Los Angeles rally in support of solutions to homelessness. Joe Buscaino/Twitter

He’s also a vocal opponent of building shelters and supportive housing in Venice, including the Rose Avenue Apartments project: “LA is using the fact that all these services are here to build more services and housing. The more services you provide, the more you attract people who need those services. … And that’s what’s happening—we’ve provided in Venice, and they’ve been coming.”

Murez says building basically free housing for the homeless on prime real estate makes no economic sense: “Why not sell that $60 million piece of land, and buy something five times as big a mile out east for them? Why does the homeless have to have affordable housing right across the beach?”

As we talked, a couple stood near us by a white van covered with graffiti. They carried big black trash bags filled with recyclables that they had collected along the boardwalk, and glasses clinked as they divided the recyclables into cartons in the back of their van. A few steps away, a woman napped on the passenger seat of an old beat-up Toyota Corolla. The bags of clothes stuffed into the back seat indicated that she’s homeless.

That scene was a jarring juxtaposition from the farmers market, where young families and slim blondes in yoga pants shopped for farm-pastured eggs, purple cauliflower, heirloom tomatoes, and fresh-baked bagels with their recyclable bags and artisanal baskets. I smelled fresh flowers and brewing coffee where I stood, but a couple of blocks away, I smelled weeks-old body odor and urine.

The Venice Neighborhood Council votes to endorse the concept of bridge housing.

The Venice Neighborhood Council votes to endorse the concept of bridge housing. Mike Bonin/Twitter

“See this dirt right here?” Murez said, pointing at the major boulevard we stood on. In 1995, he had applied for state grant money to plant trees along the streets, and residents volunteered to plant them. “They were all once beautifully landscaped four years ago. Those YIMBYs saying it’s OK to support the homeless to live here? They’re not the ones who have to replant this. … Is the city sincerely trying to help the homeless? No. Are they pushing them to those who are trying to create a nicer community for themselves? Yes.”

But next Thursday morning at the public hearing regarding the Rose Avenue Apartments project, Murez stuck to land-use objections: He said the project didn’t plan for enough parking spots, which Venice already lacks.

Later, LA City Planning Commissioner David Ambroz spoke first by sharing a personal story: He was homeless for 11 years as a child in New York City, he said. He shuffled around foster homes until he received a college scholarship, and now he holds an influential position in the city’s planning affairs.

Contempt dripped from Ambroz’s voice as he reviewed the complaints against the homeless housing project: “I am tired of parking cars at the expense of people.” He shook his head. “Shame on us! And scooters? Are we really talking about that? Shame on us!”

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute and University of Southern California graduate. Sophia resides in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband.



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