Australia’s housing crisis will not be solved by the generational conflict between the ‘nimbys’ who reject development and the ‘yimbys’ calling for more. By Elizabeth Farrelly.
The housing crisis and nimbys v yimbys
Nimby or yimby? Which are you? Pick a side. It has become fashionable to deride all anti-development protest as nimby and to identify instead as yes-in-my-back-yard. Yimbyism considers itself very socially minded, houses for people, all that. In fact, it’s a lot more complicated. Both nimbyism and yimbyism comprise truth and delusion; one part altruism, one part self-interest cloaked as virtue. But the antagonism between the two shows that planning – like climate change, like gender – has become a battlefield for the culture wars. Our cities will be the losers.
Some of the pugnacity is generational. Yimbys, by and large, are young progressives who, quite reasonably, resent being locked out of home ownership in their own cities. They tend to regard established home-owning communities as well-heeled, self-protective Baby Boomer nimbys, driven mainly to keep others out.
Is this fair? And is yimbyism an antidote to the housing crisis, or a misguided symptom of it?
The yimby argument centres on the idea that houses, like bananas, are just another commodity, making the crisis a simple case of demand outstripping supply. The obvious solution, therefore, is to build thousands more dwellings – tens of thousands, ASAP – and wait for prices to tumble.
Well-meaning as is, though, it plays neatly into the hands of the development lobby. This lobby, in turn, strives to self-present as a kind of social service, arguing that all protest is ignorant and every constraint – both green tape and red – is a hindrance to the overall social good.
Yimbyism also suits those cowardly governments, on both sides, that – as former New South Wales Planning minister Rob Stokes noted in a recent lecture – find “hard density” easier than soft. Easier politically, that is, to rezone a few sites to astronomic levels – incidentally delivering vast windfall gains to the cronies – than to face the difficult politics of pursuing a greater spread of mid-rise medium density, spreading the pain but also the profit much more widely. The latter may be less palatable politically but is a far better strategy for communities since it encourages smaller builder-developers and developments, and is far more likely to generate interesting, walkable streets and lively live-work neighbourhoods.
And that’s the issue. Both sides of this debate are flawed but the yimbys are wrong about one thing: nimbys are not the enemy. The enemy is bad governance.
First, let’s count the yimby truths. True, housing prices, purchase or rent, are now extortionate. True, home owners have a direct conflict between the self-interest of high prices and the wider public interest of affordability. And true, we must urgently densify our cities to combat climate change, preserve forest and food-growing land and create localised, walkable neighbourhoods.
Nimbys, too, have valid points. Hundreds of community action groups across our cities and regions feel ignored. Drowned beneath the political din, unfunded, derided and trivialised, the public feels betrayed by the very process purposed to its protection. Consider, for example, the huge public outcries in Sydney over the Italianate Willow Grove house in Parramatta, the demolition of Parramatta’s Olympic pool, the Barangaroo casino on public land and the Powerhouse museum in Ultimo – all of them ignored.
And yes, there’s truth here. Governments at all levels seem at pains to ensure that planning processes are obscure, that documents are difficult to access – often comprising dozens of separate, inadequately labelled PDFs – and that consultation exercises are at best ineffectual, barely a post-hoc briefing. Some residents also know from scarring experience that new buildings can often make things worse, not better. And they’re painfully aware that if they don’t protect their own patch, no one else will.
So, where are the falsehoods and hypocrisies?
On the nimby side, community groups can become myopic, focusing exclusively on their own patch, opposing every development on principle and commandeering arguments – such as traffic or parking – to strengthen a core objection that might be emotional or nugatory. In this vein, residents of Sydney’s privileged eastern suburbs can get extremely agitated about whether a new building in Double Bay or Woollahra should be five storeys or six, while people in Blacktown, in Sydney’s west, must accept 10 times those heights, no questions asked or tolerated.
Counterbalancing this is yimbyism’s core fallacy. Houses are not like bananas. The market is not floodable. Greenlighting an avalanche of development across our cities and towns is very unlikely to reduce prices because the market, being global, is essentially limitless. Unfettered development cannot resolve the housing crisis.
The evidence is threefold. One, throughout a decade of the biggest building boom in our history, housing prices in our cities and towns have only skyrocketed. Two, on census night last year just over a million homes and 13 million bedrooms – more than 10 per cent of the total – stood empty. And yes, this included properties vacated for renovation or sale, but also those many thousands of dwellings land-banked as speculative investments, often by overseas residents. And three, we know as a matter of both logic and history that if by some miracle prices did fall, developers would stop building. That’s how the market works.
The market has one driver: self-interest. To believe that removing constraints will magically transform developers into guarantors of the public interest is folly.
But that’s where we’re at. While nimbys and yimbys war with each other, developers and politicians lunch long and hard in a playground where dozens of special regulations, loopholes and political habits skew the balance towards giving voice, profit and power to a wealthy and self-concerned minority.
The upshot is that urbanism, the most public of all the arts, is the least publicly discussed. The public – whose habitat the city is and to whose benefit government is supposedly dedicated – is the only interest group excluded from a system that, dominated by a few super-powerful developers, is almost entirely top-down.
The trust has all but gone, worn away from the relationship like cartilage from a knee joint. Governments increasingly treat press and public as the enemy while the public – watching their habitat destroyed with no compensating upswing in affordability – feel increasingly betrayed. It’s hardly surprising a hard, unforgiving system based almost solely on competition creates a harsh and unforgiving urban habitat. We know co-operation is more likely to generate resilience in cities, as well as systems.
What, then, to do?
First, rebuild the trust. It’s not impossible. Governments could end the special favours – the loopholes, the access and the ministerial discretion that amounts to an invitation to lunch. They could grow a backbone, end spot rezoning, limit development size and footprint, disincentivise speculation and end negative gearing. They could use digital technology and citizen juries to elicit genuine public values – heritage, sunshine, lively peopled streets, trees – and shape the planning system accordingly. They could trust us, and we them. Then we could have a genuine public debate. Imagine.
Is it naive to think Australia capable of such change? Are our war-torn politics ready for rapprochement? Could we learn, as a culture, to invest rather than lazily speculate? The benefits would be huge.
It would mean accepting small-scale, incremental change across the cityscape – addressing the design challenge of inserting tight, medium-rise urban-village cores into existing suburbs, reducing car dependency and enlivening streets. This is the grail: neither low-density sprawl nor 45-storey towers, it is the yearned-for “missing middle” in city-making.
To find it, we must rebalance the system, rewrite our planning system to build the trust that, in turn, can enable livelier, healthier, more pedestrian-friendly cities.
As to yimbys and nimbys, their urgency is real but their antagonism misguided. In fact, we must all be both – balancing our defensiveness of what we love with the needs of others and the delights of walkable neighbourhoods, increased food security and reduced climate change. Such are the cities we deserve and need for the next century – projects we should revel in. But are our governments up to the challenge?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 20, 2023 as "Houses are not bananas".
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