Newton Resident reflects on experiences at YimbyTown 2024

By Tom Gagen

I attended the Yimbytown conference in Austin, Texas, last month. Yimby stands for “Yes in My Backyard.” What I remember most is the enthusiasm and comparative youth of the 500 participants.

They came from all over the country – California to Minnesota to Texas, and North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Abundant Housing of Massachusetts sent more than 30 people to the conference, myself among them.

Many of us had a series of impressive political victories to relate. California has passed a series of state laws to override local zoning. Austin has permitted tens of thousands of units of construction in the last decade. And we from Massachusetts had the MBTA Communities Act.

There have been setbacks as well. In Texas, a bill to loosen zoning regulations died in the Legislature last year, as did one in New York.

But still the people at Yimbytown 2024 were excited. The movement is only about 10 years old, and has gained significance national attention that transcends partisan lines. I talked to a representative of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, who favored a market-based solution to the housing crisis. That’s basically what we Massachusetts are trying to do with the passage of the MBTA Communities Act.

I met a young man from Whitefish, Montana, a ski town near Glacier National Park. He was concerned that people from out of state were buying up property and raising the price of housing,

Even in this Republican state the Legislature just passed a package of laws to loosen zoning, And legislators included a $225 million package of bills to provide housing aid to low-income people. The Montana Legislature realized it is essential to help people left behind by market-based solutions. The only question is the amount of aid – is this enough?

I kept looking for ideas that made be applicable to Newton and couldn’t find many. Each locality has different laws that need to be changed and different socio-economic realities. But here’s one.

A few years ago, the City of Minneapolis approved an ordinance to reform local zoning. The city hoped developers would build two- or three-unit buildings on lots that had been zoned single-family. That mostly didn’t happen. Eighty seven percent of the new housing came in developments of 20 units or more. Based on the Minneapolis experience, housing advocates in Newton ought to think big, rather than settle for limited zoning changes on small plots.

Conference organizers scheduled 60 panel discussions on various issues. I could only attend a few and keep thinking that I was missing out on something important. But here’s one that sticks out, from Dan Reed and Alex Baca of Greater, Greater Washington, representing the D.C. area.

“Define your mission,” they said. “Build relationships.’’ “Remember that things take time.” “There are no quick wins.” “You have to keep doing the work.”

And by the way, “We have great parties.”

Building more housing is a long-term project, and I’m encouraged that the young people at Yimbytown 2024 will stick it out.

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