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Searching for solutions to SoCal's housing crisis, YIMBYs say 'yes' to development

Brent Gaisford, 27, leads Abundant Housing LA, one of the area's YIMBY organizations. Behind him is the M Lofts in Palms, the kind of development he said L.A. should be building more of. Josie Huang/KPCC

A backlash against high rents and home prices in Los Angeles has produced a movement that is so open to new development that many call themselves YIMBYs — as in “Yes in My Backyard."

Their mantra is "build everything" — be it subsidized affordable units or pricey condos. Local YIMBY leader Brent Gaisford, 27, of the group Abundant Housing L.A. is on a mission to show how adding homes for people of all incomes is good for the entire market. 

"It helps me, because those who can afford luxury units stop competing with me on apartments," Gaisford said. "The housing market is like a game of musical chairs, but like a sinister one where if you have more money you can always take my chair."

This pro-development stance clashes with other housing activists who want to focus on building below-market rate housing, and also with — not surprisingly — the "Not in My Backyard" contingent, a mix of homeowners fearing more crowding and traffic and tenants worried about gentrification.

The wide gulf between those who support for construction above all else and those that oppose development at every turn shows why solving the housing crisis is so intractable. 

The state Legislature is taking up a package of bills that if approved would provide funding for affordable housing and streamlining the development process. But it's not clear how far the legislation would go in solving a decades-long problem in a deep and significant way.

Since its formation two years ago, Abundant Housing has lobbied for denser, taller projects by mass transit and state legislation that removes obstacles to development.

Earlier this year, they worked on a successful campaign to defeat Measure S, a ballot measure that would have put a two-year freeze on major construction in L.A. Members spent hundreds of hours knocking on doors and working the phones in what Gaisford calls the group's "big coming-out party."

Gaisford counts more than 900 members in his group, including students, urbanists, progressives and developers.  Gaisford himself left a job as a management consultant last year to try his hand at building apartments, and perhaps, he said, help solve the housing shortage.

"I love it here. I would love to stay," Gaisford said of L.A. "But the number one thing that makes it hard for me to envision is the cost of living."

One of the featured speakers at a recent Abundant Housing event held at USC earlier this month was state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat from San Francisco, a hotbed of YIMBY organizing. Wiener, a self-proclaimed YIMBY, credited the movement with providing support for pro-housing legislation like his.  

"I want to thank the YIMBY movement in general for activating so many people — and so many young people — into housing activism," Wiener told the audience. 

Wiener's bill, SB 35, is a key component of the state's package of housing legislation being considered in Sacramento. The bill would speed up the approval process for multi-family developments in cities that fall short of their goals for building new housing. In some cases, that could include housing units that sell at market-rate prices.

YIMBY groups around the state, such as Abundant Housing, have registered their support for the legislation, arguing that increased housing will help go long way toward easing the housing shortage.

It's a theory accepted by many housing economists, including Richard Green, director of  USC’s Lusk Center for Real Estate. "It’s like anything else, the more you produce of something, the less expensive it’s going to be," Green said. "That part of economics really does work."

But other housing activists are wary of allowing for an influx of even more expensive housing, which already makes up the vast majority of what developers are building in L.A. as they seek to cover their high land and construction costs. 

"A lot of people are just leaving the city because there’s nowhere you can afford to move to," said Laura Raymond of ACT-LA, a pro-housing and transit group. Data bears that out. Raymond said solutions to the crisis should prioritize creating affordable housing.

Recent months have underscored the differences between YIMBYs and their fellow housing activists. A proposal by L.A. city officials to charge developers a so-called linkage fee to pay for affordable units has the widespread support of housing advocates who turned out by the dozens for a recent hearing to show their support.

The same advocates are pressing the city to adopt "inclusionary zoning," which would force developers who build market-rate housing to designate a certain percentage of their units for subsidized housing. Santa Monica recently adopted a version of inclusionary zoning and plans to monitor its impact.

Housing advocate Neil McGuffin of the Little Tokyo Service Center said that state and local leaders need to encourage affordable housing to prevent the displacement of longtime residents that's taken place in neighborhoods like Little Tokyo in recent years.

"There’s been about a thousand units of housing developed and that housing is not affordable for people who are living, or have lived in the community," McGuffin said.

Abundant Housing agrees that funding affordable housing is critical but warns both a linkage fee and inclusionary zoning will only add to construction costs, and stop projects from getting built. The group would rather raise the money for affordable housing by increasing the city's real estate transfer fees or coax developers into constructing more below-market units in exchange for more building height through what’s called density bonuses.

"You want to provide a carrot to incentivize people to build as much affordable housing as possible and at the same time build as much as market–rate housing as we can," Gaisford said.

Gaisford acknowledged that density bonus programs could be improved. An audit released by City Controller Ron Galperin in January showed density bonuses have produced an underwhelming number of affordable units and not living up to their potential.

For all their differences over how LA should be building, housing activists share a common goal of reducing rents and protecting tenant rights, and there are some affordable housing developers who also consider themselves YIMBY's. The theme of the upcoming annual conference for the Southern California Association of Non Profit Housing, in fact, is "YIMBY."

Housing activists forcefully came together earlier this year, partnering with labor unions to defeat a common foe at the ballot box. Measure S would have put a two-year freeze on major construction in L.A.

For YIMBYs, it was a victory over self-proclaimed NIMBYs like Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association. He acknowledged that the city has to fix its housing shortage, and that developers should focus on areas that want the new construction, such as the northeast part of the San Fernando Valley.

"The problem is developers like to build in Sherman Oaks and other nice areas of the city where they can get the highest profit," Close said. 

He said his work is to protect his community from the extra traffic and change in neighborhood character that often comes with new development. 

"What we see is people on the other side that have no regard for the current conditions in the community," Close said. "They’re focused simply on a single issue, like more housing."

Despite their loss on Measure S, NIMBYs like Close remain a powerful political force in L.A. that can kill or stall a project.  Abundant Housing leader Gaisford knows that to match their strength, YIMBYs need more allies pushing for denser buildings.

"I think there is a large majority who’s just not informed about the issues," Gaisford said. "We're trying to talk about this as much as we can."

Series: SoCal's Housing Crisis

This story is part of KPCC's in-depth coverage of Southern California's housing crisis. Follow along as we try to answer: How did we get to this point? What’s being done to fix the problem? And where do we go from here?

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts and questions below in the comments section or on our Facebook page.