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The YIMBY movement comes to New York City

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Open New York, the city’s first self-style YIMBY group, advocates for more housing in high-opportunity areas

Downtown Brooklyn and Fort Greene, currently at the center of a pitched battle between NIMBY and YIMBY activists.
Max Touhey

On a Wednesday morning in August, the New York City Council’s zoning and franchises subcommittee convened for a hearing about 80 Flatbush, one of the largest proposed developments in Brooklyn. The project’s developer, Alloy, is seeking a rezoning to facilitate the construction of a massive, mixed-use complex with 900 units of housing—200 of which would be affordable—in two towers, along with two new schools and office space.

During the hours-long hearing, residents of nearby brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods expressed their opposition to the project, which they say is too tall and out of scale with the mostly low-density neighborhoods nearby. (They also noted that its height would block much-needed sunlight from Rockwell Bear’s Community Garden.) And why, they asked, is the city always relying on huge projects by profit-seeking developers to create below-market-rate housing?

“The reality is that this project highlights a basic problem in our housing policy: We can’t build our way out of our housing crisis,” Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon, who represents the area, said at the hearing.

But some people present that day would disagree: Members of the nascent pro-development group Open New York, which advocates for more housing across the city, also testified during the hours-long hearing. In their view, the project’s opponents are selfishly trying to thwart development during a housing crisis over far less immediate, parochial concerns like aesthetics, shadows, and an undue sense of control over preventing further neighborhood change. (Project opponents frequently noted how long they had lived in the area.)

Ben Carlos Thypin, an organizer with Open New York who testified that day, characterizes the proposal’s critics as “wealthy homeowners who, at best, seek to maintain the aesthetics of the neighborhood, their views, parking, and property values—and at worst, seek to maintain the ethnic and class composition of the neighborhood that they’ve gentrified over the past several decades.”

Those factors, the group argues, ought not to trump the benefit of new housing near the Atlantic Terminal, a prime piece of real estate and optimal spot for new housing. A crucial vote for the project, from the City Council’s committee on zoning on franchises, will happen later this week.

“The bottom line is that we need to build more housing, especially in high opportunity neighborhoods like Downtown Brooklyn and Boerum Hill,” says Thypin.

Open New York, formerly More New York, began in earnest in 2017. Having grown tired of what they regard as the one-sided nature of land use politics in New York (a developer will propose a city-backed project, neighborhood groups vehemently oppose it), Open New York seeks to add a pro-development perspective to the anti-development chorus that often commandeers housing debates.

Its core philosophy mirrors that of other YIMBY—or yes in my backyard—groups in cities like San Francisco or Los Angeles, which advocate for doing away with exclusionary zoning, and combatting the exclusionary sentiment of wealthy enclaves they believe prevents cities from becoming more equitable.

The group’s members see several factors contributing to the dearth of new housing in what it calls New York’s high-opportunity areas: restrictive zoning, excessive landmarking, and City Council members who cave to pressure from a vocal minority in their districts. (See: the fight over rezoning the former Long Island College Hospital site in Cobble Hill.)

Often, explains Spencer Heckwolf, an Open New York board member, that vocal minority is largely composed of wealthy residents who prefer to “live in stagnation and not let people build housing in the most high-demand areas.”

The group’s central focus—adding housing density in high-income, transit-rich areas—is a widely-supported approach in planning circles, but doesn’t necessarily have a natural constituency in New York City—or, at least, not one that shows up to weigh in during the city’s multi-step land use review procedure.

Open New York’s members hope to change that by attending community board meetings, City Council hearings, and other places where they can spread the pro-housing gospel. While 80 Flatbush is the most high-profile project it supports, Open New York has also participated in the public review process for proposals in Murray Hill and Union Square, as well as senior housing on the site of the Elizabeth Street Garden.

Moses Gates, vice president for Housing and Neighborhood Planning at the Regional Plan Association, says that while there’s hardly a shortage of planning types who favor YIMBY policies, Open New York has been distinct in translating its philosophy into the tradition of “neighborhood advocacy.”

“What’s new is there’s a little less shouting into the void, and a little more realization that if you want to effect YIMBY public policy, you’ve gotta do the work that other organizations and other movements know how to do, which is the grassroots work, the showing up at the moment, the figuring out of strategy,” he says.

According to Thypin, 80 Flatbush-type projects—sites in transit-rich neighborhoods, like Downtown Brooklyn or Boerum Hill, where the longtime residents are mostly well-off—are the group’s bread and butter.

“In high-opportunity areas where people actually really want to live, the well-heeled, mostly white residents are able to use their perceived political power to stop the construction of basically anything,” he says, adding that low-income communities don’t share that ability to keep development at bay.

“Philosophically, we think that the disproportionate share of the burden of growth has been borne by low income, minority or industrial neighborhoods for far too long,” he says.

The lion’s share of the downzonings during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure, for instance, occurred in high-income areas. During Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, exclusively low-income, majority-minority areas have been rezoned with the aim of adding more housing. Indeed, since de Blasio took office in 2014, his administration has pushed through rezonings in East New York, downtown Far Rockaway, East Harlem, the Bronx’s Jerome Avenue corridor, and Inwood (the last one was met with raucous opposition from protestors).

“The current zoning and land use regimes are very, very broken,” says Meghan Heintz, an Open New York board member who joined after moving to the city from San Francisco. “All the housing burden gets pushed into black and brown neighborhoods.”

Because of that, Open New York chooses carefully which battles to fight; its members abstain from weighing in on land use decisions in comparatively lower-income neighborhoods, such as 1601 DeKalb Avenue, a planned housing development in Bushwick, or the neighborhood-wide rezoning of Inwood.

Still, that strategy hasn’t shielded Open New York’s members from ire. At a May community board meeting on 80 Flatbush, board member Lauren Thomas was told to “go back to Ohio,” among other mudslinging. While heated emotions aren’t rare at those meetings, the comment did underscore the recurring anti-newcomer sentiment often heard in land use discourse.

The remark was also was a reminder of Open New York’s broader vision: a city in which people from all backgrounds—transplants and native-born New Yorkers alike—have their voices heard, creating a city with ample room for everyone.

To that end, the group says it is aiming to build alliances with established activist groups on the left in New York, many of which rarely, if ever, take pro-development stances, and are at times explicitly antagonistic to specific proposals. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a card-carrying Democratic Socialist of America member in New York who would testify in favor of a mixed-income development, or to see a coalition of activists protest City Council members who kill projects slated to bring more housing to their districts.

Candidates that have in recent months received the left’s backing—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Julia Salazar, and Cynthia Nixon, among others—have consistently railed against big real estate’s influence on neighborhoods and politics more broadly. This cohort has opted to direct its efforts on tenants’ rights and universal rent control rather than pushing for more housing. Land use policy is mostly conducted at the city level, while many rent laws are decided in Albany, likely accounting for much of the group’s focus on rent and tenants’ rights.

But that has not led the city’s left-wing political actors to stay out of land use battles. Ocasio-Cortez, for example, railed against a project known as the Shoppes at 82nd Street during her successful primary bid. That development involved a rezoning application for a mixed-use project; it was nixed by the development team after Francisco Moya, the local City Council member, rescinded his support.

Still, most of Open New York’s members are optimistic about the prospect of establishing inroads with the left. “This ultimately is about equity. It’s about ensuring access,” explains Open New York board member Kyle Dontoh. “If we want a city that can continue to welcome and provide an accessible path to opportunity, not just to high earners or the well-connected, it comes down to ensuring that people can afford to live here.”

Others argue that the access Open New York desires won’t come via influx housing, especially at the high prices newly built rental units go for on the market.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation—which went toe-to-toe with Open New York over the recently approved Union Square tech hub—says the group promulgates a childish “Ayn Rand fantasy,” not well-thought-out housing policy likely to drive down rents.

“This small group of pro-development fetishists seems to make no distinctions between good or bad development, or have any recognition of the need for balance and mitigation,” he notes. ”I think most New Yorkers agree that simply allowing the barons of real estate to have their way with our neighborhoods and our city, as this group proposes, is not the way to cure our ills or plan for our future.”

In addition to preservationists, tenants’ rights advocates often fight against new development, believing it will accelerate gentrification and drive people from their neighborhoods. Their concerns are often about affordability (will the below market-rate units promised in rezonings be truly affordable for an area’s residents?), whether developers use union labor, and the displacement pressures that mixed-income developments could invite. The DSA, New York Communities for Change, and similar organizations have put the the city’s housing policies on blast for being too developer-friendly, and have protested specific proposals like the Bedford-Union Armory in Crown Heights because of the gentrification they believe development would spawn.

Zoe Johnson, an Open New York member, says that she is sympathetic to communities wary of gentrification, and their legitimate fears of displacement. And, of course, newcomers ought not impose their norms on longtime residents of gentrifying neighborhoods. But she says that doing her part to push for more housing was a non-performative action she could take to fashion a city that is both hospitable and livable for longtime residents.

“Being more polite to your neighbors is not going to keep them in their apartments or keep their rents down,” she says.