Let me begin by stating that this is a critique of the approach taken by the YIMBY movement within California, not a critique of the solutions the movement is advocating for — though there is certainly room for that. I was employed by the movement from February 2020 to March 2021, and for me it was an exciting opportunity to move to a place I could call home while organizing for more “affordable” housing. However, as the events of 2020 begin to unfold, so too did my understanding of the movement I was employed by. And what caused me to disengage and eventually feel disgusted by the work I was doing was the ways in which it was being approached. I want to discuss the approach because I have noticed that regardless of ideology, white Americans take similar approaches to enacting societal change, an approach that is rooted in top-down hierarchical means of change, with little to no room for collaboration. This is what some would call whiteness.
I can recall right after the events of Summer 2020 unfolded talking with my therapist — who I sought out again in part, but not entirely, due to working in the YIMBY movement — about post-traumatic slave syndrome, a theory that explains the development of African Americans as a result of “multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery.” It was during one of these calls where I realized that if I were still navigating the consequences of my ancestors’ trauma and my positionality within this system, so must my white peers and the YIMBY movement, though on a different yet parallel journey.
While 2020 brought racism and systemic inequities back into the consciousness of this nation, including within the YIMBY movement, the current approach being taken by the movement still struggles to fully embrace the values of the multiracial, class-inclusive nation many of us would like to live in. And while those values may not be needed in the approach for majority-white progressive cities and states — which constitute the bulk of places that have ended single-family zoning — an entirely different approach is needed in a city like Los Angeles where white people are a minority of the population. The entirety of my time within the movement was spent trying to do just that, and my previous organization released this statement, which I believe is a testament to the success of my internal organizing. And while a series of panels and statements certainly move the movement into the right direction, they are simply not enough.
It is to the detriment of the movement that it has failed to confront and understand the slave master syndrome, a term put forth by Chiaku Hanson, who writes, “White America’s need to deny that race exists, or that racism is even taking place, showing signs of cognitive dissonance, defensiveness, outraged anger, projecting hatred and racists outlooks onto others, being resentful and retaliative when these subjects are brought to their attention, behaving in unfair manners, due to having subconscious negative feelings, exhibiting non-verbal communication, being standoffish, disrespectful, accusing, and having a burning desire to be in power and to lead others, without reason.” This inability to confront its slave master syndrome, paired with the climate anxiety experienced by mostly white Americans, has made the YIMBY movement unable to decide whether the approach of the movement should be rooted in centering the needs of low-income folks of color or whether it is rooted in a desire to get “back to normal” — normal, of course, being a United States where development and urban planning is centered on the white, middle class.
It only takes a quick scan of Housing Twitter to identify those who are still operating out of this slave master syndrome and climate anxiety duality. Perhaps it’s because they never learned, or because they simply have no desire to engage, or some mixture of the two. While I cannot say what the rationale is, I can say the outcome is one where the current approach of the movement is one that operates out of a place of harm — not care, equity, or justice. Certainly, after spending 13 months as an organizing director I’ll be the first to admit democracy is hard, it requires patience, death of ego, standing in solidarity with others, and an ability to center the needs of who you are advocating for, even when it makes you uncomfortable. And for centuries, Black Americans as a group have been at the forefront of pushing the United States towards the democracy our nation has failed to live up to, actualizing both a promise and an ideal that was never granted to folks of color or white women, because despite the trauma we carry we choose to fight for a world where others do not have to endure that pain and suffering. It was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that strategized and organized with a white real estate agent to get Buchanan v. Warley before the Supreme Court of the United States, the landmark case that addressed residential segregation within the context of the 14th Amendment. And it was the Civil Rights Era which led to the Fair Housing Act, a law protecting marginalized folks from housing discrimination. Both of these moments were fights to end segregation and open up exclusionary communities. So to see the YIMBY movement orchestrate itself as the “innovators” of this era while not operating in the organizing framework — working with and centering the most vulnerable among us — and ignoring countless activists, advocates, and organizers who gave the YIMBY movement its predcent, is textbook “talk the talk, but fail to walk the walk.” You cannot advocate for an end to segregation for low-income and BIPOC folks, but as a movement remain segregated from the organizations and communities that you proclaim to be advocating for. That’s hypocritical — and certainly another example of the white savior complex playing out.
During the last few months, I’ve been watching the show WandaVision, which I believe provides an illustrative example of how failing to address one’s stress, trauma, and mental health can cause a person to take an approach in life where they orchestrate a spatial environment that harms everyone. In the show, Wanda Maximoff, a white, middle-class woman, experiences a string of compounding traumas, including the struggle to bring back 50 percent of life in a universe that is eradicated in a catastrophic event. But instead of addressing her emotions, she decides to use her powers to manipulate others into acting out the desires of her fantasy world with no regard for how those people may be harmed. For the YIMBY movement, primarily composed of younger white, middle-class people, their pursuit of the “American Dream” was eradicated by our nation’s ever-worsening housing and homelessness crisis. Much like Wanda, YIMBYs have opted to deploy white rage across Twitter, raging against that lost dream and against anyone perceived to be in their way — even those they are supposedly “advocating” for. The irony of WandaVision, of course, is that it also takes place in the suburbs, the epitome of perfection not only within Wanda’s vision but also the American vision, as well. In the midst of everything that 2020 brought us, it is very disappointing that rather than aligning with those who are the most harmed by the housing and homelessness crisis, the movement continues to struggle with broader coalition building. And I suppose, in this world of YIMBYVision, for better or for worse, I find myself being Monica Rambeau. A person who has also experienced her own loss, but knows that the path forward is not projecting her pain onto others to feel better. A person that, despite being attacked by Wanda, decides to still lead with empathy and a willingness to put her body in harm’s way to help others.
It is past time for the YIMBY movement to recognize and atone for the harm they have done, and the harm the movement continues to do. Reach out and make amends with the communities you say you want to help. Build broad coalitions. Adopt a different approach. Because the housing and homelessness crisis, and the myriad of solutions being put forth right now by local, state, and federal government, will, in fact, test your support of Black people, other folks of color, immigrants, and working-class households across racial lines. Continuing to adopt strategies where everyone else is framed as the villain in your story calls into question not only what you are fighting for but who you are fighting for. If this system is to truly work for everyone, then the movements that are orchestrated to fight for that vision must put forth solutions for everyone — especially those that have long dealt with being marginalized and oppressed.
Roderick D. Hall is a community and regional planner and a believer in the creation of a system that works for all people.