A national conference for people who want more housing choices and denser cities kicked off this morning at Portland State University.
“We have proved ourselves effective, we have proved ourselves influential, even powerful. We have begun to win!”
— Alan Durning, Sightline
YIMBYtown, as in “yes in my backyard” is a counter-movement to the scourge of NIMBYism that has prevented new housing and encouraged sprawl nationwide. The first YIMBYtown was held in 2016 in Boulder and has been held two other times since. Portland was slated as the fourth host in 2020 but plans were scuttled when the pandemic took hold.
As conference-goers came in from the unexpected snowfall that blanketed Portland Monday night, they settled into an opening keynote that featured Alan Durning, founder of nonprofit think tank Sightline, and Portlander Candace Avalos, executive director of Verde, a community development nonprofit based in Cully.
Durning’s Sightline plays an instrumental role in progressive urban planning issues and is similar to BikePortland in the way it mixes journalism with advocacy (one of their lead authors, Michael Andersen, is our former news editor).
In his opening remarks, Durning struck a confident tone. But first, he painted a picture of the difference between YIMBYism and NIMBYism.
“In the NIMBY towns most of us come from, housing in dominated by scarcity, by conflict and competition, by winners and losers, by displacement,” Durning said. “But here in YIMBYtown, we’re about the opposite of all that… We want more homes, of all shapes and sizes for all our neighbors.”
“We want an abundance of housing,” he added. Notably, Durning was the third person to use that same “abundance” framing, which seems to be the phrase that elicits less opposition than “density”
In a place where housing is abundant, During said looking for a home feels more like, “Going to a well-stocked grocery store with no lines.”
He then rattled off a long list of political wins by YIMBY advocates in the past few years. Looking to rile up the crowd, he said, “We have proved ourselves effective, we have proved ourselves influential, even powerful. We have begun to win!”
“If housing is a human right, then we need to understand the other ways our human rights are being threatened by these systems.”
— Candace Avalos, Verde
Candace Avalos is an accidental YIMBY advocate who comes to the work with a passion born of her own experience as a young renter worried about housing stability. Introduced as a first-generation Blacktina and child of Black and Guatemalan immigrants, Avalos told the crowd she wants them to expand their lens.
While running for a spot on Portland City Council in 2020 (she won 9% of the vote and lost to Carmen Rubio), Avalos said she realized how many Portlanders like here were “living on the brink” due to rising rents, declining wages, and lack of housing availability.
“It just really clicked for me how much these issues were connected to all issues of livability,” Avalos said.
Intersectionality is at the core of Avalos’ perspective. To her that means saying “yes” to better housing must also take other systemic issues into account like racial, environmental and social justice. “If housing is a human right, then we need to understand the other ways our human rights are being threatened by these systems.”
After hearing a rousing applause the large crowd of attendees is off to three days of conversations and activities aimed at changing a raft of policies that include not just housing but topics like transportation, parking, and many other things that shape urban landscapes.
If the conference is as effective as the YIMBY movement has been in the past few years, organizers will be very pleased.
In the words of Durning:
“If anyone had predicted at the last YIMBYtown that single-family zoning would be essentially gone in California, and Connecticut and Oregon, and on the ropes in Washington, and a number of other states… I think we would have rolled our eyes at the naiveté.
But that is exactly what’s happened. YIMBYtown is winning. We are winning. Not quickly enough. of course not. But we have changed the debate profoundly and we are changing the world.”
As we reported last week, this conference has a strong focus on transportation. Stay tuned for more coverage!