Bryan Caplan  

How to Sell YIMBY to California and New York

We Wanted Workers...... Cotton from Teksa...
Housing is strangely expensive in California and New York.  Economists routinely blame their unusually strict regulation of land use and construction.  Political observers, in turn, routinely blame unusually strict regulation on NIMBYism - current residents' "Not In My BackYard" mentality.  Strict regulation of construction is so entrenched that only recently has the opposing view even found a name.  YIMBY - Yes in My BackYard - is finally a thing.

But how on Earth can YIMBY gain political traction - especially in the big, liberal, high-rent states of California and New York?  Publicizing astronomical economic benefits seems unlikely to make converts, especially when leftists can demagogue against deregulation and greedy developers.  To animate liberal Californians and New Yorkers, you probably need to somehow connect the high cost of housing to their hated enemies, the Republicans.  Given Republicans' marginal role in Sacramento and Albany, this seems like a tall order.

But wait.  Remember how Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but lost the election?  The reason, of course, is that she won by huge margins in states like... California (30 points) and New York (22 points).  For Democrats, these margins are probably counter-productive in the short-run, and clearly counter-productive in the long-run.

In the short-run: If more of the nation's Republicans lived in CA and NY, Clinton might have won big swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan, or Pennsylvania - without endangering her hold on CA or NY.

In the long-run: If more people - of any party! - from solidly Republican states moved to CA and NY, Democrats could count on more electoral votes.

The short-run partisan effect, admittedly, is debatable.  Perhaps the Pennsylvanians most likely to move to New York and Michiganders most likely to move to California are disproportionately Democratic.  The long-run effect, however, is clear.  If CA and NY sharply increased their population, the states would remain solidly Democratic but sharply increase their electoral vote tally.  Since electoral votes are zero-sum - five more for CA and NY means five less for the rest of the country - this is even better for Democrats than it sounds.

Going forward, then, here's how I'd sell YIMBY to California and New York.

1. We need more electoral votes to beat the Republicans.

2. The only way to get those votes is to to grow our population.

3. The only way to do that is to build a ton of new housing.


What about Republican migrants ruining liberal enclaves?  That's when you harp on the Democrats' enormous margins.  In fact, given current patterns, CA and NY Democrats should actively hope for mass Republican migration.  Imagine turning CA into the west-coast version of Florida, drawing in millions of Republican retirees with cheap housing.  Every Republican who moves to CA or NY enhances Democratic power in America.

Couldn't Republican states use exactly the same strategy?  Yes, but far less effectively.  The states with big Republican margins of victory already have pretty cheap housing and pretty light housing regulation.  But sure, there's always room for a little more YIMBY.

Liberal states are vocally resisting Donald Trump, but it's unclear that they're hurting his re-election prospects, much less paving the way for a less Republican future.  YIMBY policies could conceivably tip the scales against Trump even in 2020, and would plausibly devastate Republicans in the long-run.  And since almost all housing regulation is state and local, California and New York can start the great liberal YIMBY conspiracy today.

COMMENTS (24 to date)
Zeke5123 writes:

Isn't the counter to the above that while you increase your power in presidential politics, you decrease your power in Congressional (at least Senate) politics, if more Democrats compared to Republicans migrate to California / NY?

psmith writes:

You may be interested in Steve Sailer's theory of the politics of affordable family formation.

psmith writes:

To save curious readers the effort of Googling:

John Hall writes:

A big problem with NY, Chicago, San Francisco, and LA is that their city councils are completely dominated by Democrats (also true of their respective state legislatures with the exception of Illinois where Democrats aren't as dominate outside of Chicago). Sure, you could have more Republicans move to these cities, but they are still effectively disenfranchised if there will be no more than 1 token Republican member.

Minority groups tend to be under-represented in first past the post systems with geographical districts. I would strongly recommended moving to mixed member proportional systems. Give Republicans a better voice in heavily Democrat areas and vice-versa in heavily Republican areas. We might see better government if the Democrats get more input from other points of view.

Foobarista writes:

The best "anti-NIMBY" argument in places like Mountain View, CA, has been climate-change-based arguments, as well as general arguments about long commutes.

They seem to have worked; tons of new moderately high-rise apartment buildings are being constructed for the first time in many years (which is a good thing).

Mathew Halpern writes:

I think this doesn't speak any of the 3 languages of politics. The way to sell YIMBY is through saying things like height and density limits hurt poor people.

But I have to admit that my approach has had limited success when tried. In truth people are very non-ideological over things when they actually have a chance at affecting outcome. So being a loud voice at a local planning meeting gives people the chance to be more selfish, and less altruistic. Even when being completely selfish they still couch their rhetoric in terms that signal allegiance to their sides. We'll help poor people by not building new places only for rich people.

I have instead used reverse psychology. Just agree with the folks for horrible reasons. If we build more density the neighborhood will become more economically diverse, instead we need set asides so we only have so many poor people here, they can be our beards blocking allegations or racism while allowing safe neighborhoods and rising property values.

I've found this to be effective.

Nacim writes:

I don't see this working out. Sure, the appeal to electoral self-interest might be convincing but it's much easier to implement that by encouraging further sprawl development on the outskirts of town instead of dense cores. This in effect would only carry on the current status quo of grudgingly allowing long as it's as far away as possible.

AlanG writes:

I'm afraid that Bryan's argument breaks down for one simple reason. there is little land in the major metro areas for housing development. Apartment rentals in most areas of CA and in the NYC area are sky high (the other areas of NY don't have enough jobs to support a huge influx of new people; just visit Rochester, Buffalo, the Southern Tier, Albany etc.) Maybe Bryan knows where a lot of vacant land is. I've lived in both states and my daughter is currently living in Oakland.

@Foobarista - yes there is apartment construction but it's only affordable to high income Silicon Valley folks.

David R. Henderson writes:

You don’t need vacant land. There are huge swaths of SF that have single-family houses. Allow developers to buy them and built multi-story apartment blocks.

Nicholas Weininger writes:

Unfortunately, in my experience arguing with SF NIMBYs, a lot of them care more about their "neighborhood character" than any nationwide goal. If you point out their obstruction is endangering some such goal, they will make up a story about how it is some other neighborhood's or city's job to build the housing that would advance the goal. Classic concentrated benefit and diffuse cost.

Hazel Meade writes:

I think Foobarista has it right - appeal to Democrats moral superiority on things like climate change by pointing out that high density housing has a smaller environmental impact. Also appeal to their asceticism. Don't be greedy, live in a tiny apartment!
Once all the D's move to tiny condos in the city the rest of us will be free to buy moderately single family homes in the suburbs.

Andrew_FL writes:

You just made me hope no one can ever afford a house again.

Xenophon writes:

As a current denizen of Silicon Valley, I would say that NIMBYism is far too mild a description. I describe it as the BANANA theory of development: Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone.

Rich Berger writes:

First, assume a can opener. Also:

It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.

AlanG writes:

@David R Henderson - yes, purchasing lots is one approach but it is no guarantee of affordably priced housing. I don't know how often you get back to the Washington DC area but when you do come up to Bethesda where I live. Huge amount of building going on (Marriott will be building a 22 story hotel and world headquarters about a mile from where I live). Lots of these are condos and apartment buildings but my wife and I wonder if we can even afford them should we decide to downsize from our modest house. Small 2 BR condos are about $1M and an equivalent apartment rental is probably $2K/Month. I know that my daughter and her boyfriend are paying $2300/Mo for a 2 BR apartment in Oakland.

Maybe this is the way things should be but I'm not sure that it's good for society.

neil s writes:

The othe obvious challenge with this idea is finding red state conservatives who are foolish enough to move to California. High taxes, bad schools, unsustainable pension promises, and narrow minded, judgemental neighbors. These are some of the reasons I'll be leaving in a little over a year...

Foobarista writes:

The point isn't that you're going to get < $2000 2 bedroom apartments in Mountain View any time soon (you aren't), but having more housing stock in Mountain View means more techies will live there and take some price pressure off, say, south San Jose, where people of more ordinary means can live and have a less-awful commute than they currently do from places like Tracy or Modesto.

[html fixed. You can't use the keyboard less than symbol unless you want the rest of your comment to disappear. Please use the html entity for the symbol.--Econlib Ed.]

ChargerCarl writes:


Lack of developable greenfield land hasn't stopped Tokyo from remaining affordable:

Evan writes:

Republicans' marginal role in Albany? They basically control the NY state legislature at this point, with help from a conservative Dem caucus. Otherwise, good post.

Various writes:

Unfortunately I don't think your plan has much of a chance, at least for the reasons you describe. As a long-time Californian and someone knee deep in the real estate investment world, if anything California's anti-building tendencies are growing stronger. That is because in addition to NIMBYism, California's high cost of living combined with high earners driving major tax revenues have created state and local governments with very high cost structures. In a paradoxical twist, this results in super high building fees, which in turn choke off much development. As your compadre Arnold Kling likes to say, government often seeks to limit supply and stimulate demand. This is happening in spades with California real estate. However, I do see one possible countervailing force on the horizon, and that has to do with state finances. California's state and local finances tend to follow a boom/bust cycle that roughly mirrors the broader economic climate, except that "busts" are usually accompanied by major income tax increases in the higher tax brackets. State income taxes are now so high that I think it is on the brink of driving high earners away from the state during the next "bust", which will of course be accompanied by the inevitable tax hike on high earners. I'm not sure exactly where this tipping point is, but a top 15% state tax bracket is probably a reasonable guess. I believe the top rate now is around 12%. For an example of common sentiment, see Commenter neil s above. It is quite possible that California is one or two recessions away from major fiscal problems. I think Illinois is in a similar predicament.

Matthias Goergens writes:

It's a bit of a vicious cycle. The NIMBYs demand strict regulation. The strict regulation causes high house prices. But the high house prices contribute to NIMBYism again. See Why are there NIMBYs?

The author's argument is that having the majority of your networth (or even more than your networth, if you have a mortgage) in a single illiquid, non-diversified investment triggers people's natural risk averion. NIMBYism is often just the consequence of fearing variances.

Hazel Meade writes:

Various makes a good point. More people means more costs to pay for the services those people consume. Whereas higher prices prices in more revenue for the government. In theory more people paying lower taxes on more homes would balance things out but more people cost the government more money. Thus it is more profitable to the government to raise housing prices and limit population growth, they get the extra revenue without the cost of paying for services for all the extra people.

Joe writes:

That is one way to sell it, but I think its a bit to complicated and forces people to be knowledgeable about the electoral college, and weigh long/medium run benefits over a possible short term cost.

I think a better way would be to frame at is as an inequality, debate.

first you talk about RICH PEOPLE GETTING RICHER BY ARTIFICIALLY INCREASING THEIR PROPERTY VALUES VIA ZONING, then you highlight the poor black immigrant who can't afford to make ends meet because of high rent, then talk about how people don't allow the construction housing, especially housing that is designed to be at a low price point.

JMCSF writes:

I don't see this as the strongest argument for more housing. The environmental argument works well - its much better for the environment to have high-density transit friendly neighborhoods in California and New York than the sprawl that is being build in Texas.

Another argument is the effect of housing costs on lower income families and minorities. This is a huge constituency of Democrats and being directly harmed by housing policies.

This isn't the perfect solution, but I would say deregulation/upzoning as a financing mechanism for additional affordable housing programs. The upzoning can help sustain the market demand, and the financing is what gets it the political support.

Of course with BANANA NIMBYS, it quickly becomes clear that they actually dont care about affordable housing, and really when they say neighborhood character they mean they want the value of their home.

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