Build anything anywhere threatens communities

YIMBY sounds nice. YIMBY stands for “Yes in My Backyard.” It’s a positive-sounding rejoinder to NIMBY, “Not in My Backyard.” The NIMBY label is being used to stigmatize defenders of zoning laws, with the goal of bulldozing the rules.

Needless to say, real estate developers are all for YIMBY — though not necessarily where they themselves live.

The YIMBY movement has gained steam as a solution to the alleged shortage of “affordable” housing, a vaguely defined concept. Its backers now comprise a diverse group combining the left and the right for not always the same reasons. It is a blunt tool, however, and bad politics.

Zoning is intended to serve local needs and desires. The best examples consider geography, history and existing infrastructure. But states are now bullying towns to just build, build, build. Look, America is a big place. We don’t all have to stuff ourselves into a handful of urban corridors.

This is not a defense of all zoning laws. There are good arguments for easing regulations to let homeowners build accessory apartments, often sweetly referred to as “granny flats,” or to rent an apartment over the garage. Duplex (two-family) homes can be a nice addition to a neighborhood of single-family houses.

And in many places, a case can be made for allowing taller structures near rail stations. That kind of building happened naturally around Dallas’ 93-mile commuter rail line. But at the time of it the lines’ construction, many of the stations were surrounded by open land.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte got a bunch of YIMBY hugs when he pushed through a law forbidding local governments to enact zoning laws. (Anything goes? I don’t know.) A photo on Bloomberg News showed a sign heralding a future 82-house development outside Culbertson, Montana. The sign was surrounded by empty land to a distant horizon. Montana isn’t Connecticut.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s plan to force building in already congested suburbs is being jeered for good reasons. The townspeople don’t want high rises to obliterate their familiar downtowns.

The argument for trading quality of life for cheaper housing is a loser. Hey, if you really want to build more housing in Manhattan, why not erect towers on all that wasted land in Central Park? Imagine how much cheaper housing would become in Paris if they leveled all those six-story Belle Epoque buildings and erected apartment blocks in their place.

A battle rages in San Francisco over plans to put a 24-story apartment building at the foot of Telegraph Hill, whose steep streets and quaint cottages grace a jillion postcards. A group backing it, YIMBY San Francisco, represents developers claiming their dedication to affordable housing. But only a fraction of that project’s units would be “affordable” – and 10 of them would go to people earning up to 120% of the area’s median income. So much for “granny flats.”

Towns in densely populated Eastern Massachusetts are up in arms over the state’s MBTA Communities Act. It imposes strict demands to build multifamily housing in towns served by transit.

In a letter of protest sent to Gov. Maura Healey, the Select Board of Wrentham argued that they were not against adding to the housing supply but that the bill would force the town to increase its population by as much as 13% without any state funding. Wrentham doesn’t even have municipal sewage.

The Wrentham selectmen stated well the threat they see in the housing requirement — that it “will lead to the destruction of the small-town New England charm we’ve come to love.”

“Yes in My Backyard” so often means “Yes in Your Backyard.” But no. We don’t have to roll over for developers.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.