Forget YIMBY vs. NIMBY. Could PHIMBYs Solve the Housing Crisis?

13 min
Supporters of 'Public Housing in My Backyard' say municipally-run affordable housing is the best way to solve the housing crisis. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

T

he housing crisis has given rise to acronyms that define the battle over new developments: "Yes in My Backyard" (YIMBYs) vs. “Not In My Backyard" (NIMBYs). And now there's a new acronym: PHIMBY, as in "Public Housing in My Backyard."

“Some of my comrades down in the L.A. chapter of DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) came up with PHIMBY when we were writing a response to Senate Bill 827,” says Shanti Singh, co-chair of the San Francisco chapter of the DSA.

The bill, proposed last year by state Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, would have allowed for much more densely built housing near transit hubs. It was supported by the YIMBY movement, which began in San Francisco and encourages new housing development as one way to solve the housing shortage in the Bay Area.

DSA members worried the bill could speed up gentrification in neighborhoods and didn’t consider low-income residents and communities of color that are most at risk of being pushed out. Instead, they proposed an alternative and gave a new name to an old concept, PHIMBY.

“PHIMBYism calls for renewed investment in public and municipal housing and other mechanisms that aren’t market determined,” Singh said.

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Singh wants to see housing solutions that will support low-income communities and people of color who are most affected by the housing crisis. This includes better public housing and more of it, as well as strengthening tenant protections and rent control.

In San Francisco, building both affordable and luxury housing units costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Singh says when developers are profit-driven, there is little incentive to create affordable units.

Furthermore, market-rate housing can take years to depreciate enough to become affordable to low-income residents. One study found that it’s far more effective to build subsidized rental homes.

However, there simply isn’t enough affordable housing to meet demand. In 2017, more than 85,000 households applied for 1,210 units of affordable housing in a lottery through the Mayor's Office of Housing and Community Development in San Francisco.

“[PHIMBYism] is the most direct way to build housing and preserve housing that people actually need to survive and thrive," says Singh. "We’re not waiting for the market or to be shut out by exclusionary people."

What Does Public Housing Mean Today?

According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), public housing is managed and run by municipal housing agencies and funded mainly through the federal government. There are some 3,300 housing agencies in the United States, and about 1.2 million households living in public units.

That said, public housing has gotten a pretty bad reputation. For most people, public housing conjures images from the '80s and '90s of neglected high-rise projects with broken elevators and flickering lights in neighborhoods that suffered from disinvestment.

Public housing stands in Brooklyn on June 11, 2018 in New York City. Investigators claim that water leaks,holes in walls, lead paint, mold, malfunctioning elevators and rats were a part of daily life for the thousands of residents living in public housing.
Public housing in Brooklyn. Investigators claim that water leaks, holes in walls, lead paint, mold, malfunctioning elevators and rats were a part of daily life for the thousands of residents living in public housing there. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“There's been a shift in how we think about revitalization of public housing," says Tomiquia Moss, who worked in the mayor's office in  both San Francisco and Oakland and has headed various housing programs. She is now is the CEO of Hamilton Families, which houses the homeless.

"We want to have a much more integrated community where residents thrive in their neighborhoods, where they have access to opportunity, where there's jobs and resources and public parks," she says.

For decades, the federal government has made budget cuts to HUD and public housing programs.

“Local jurisdictions have been responsible for taking up the slack of growing income and wealth inequalities in their communities and figuring out how to provide more housing for the people who live in these communities,” says Moss.

In 2005, officials found that San Francisco’s Housing Authority needed to spend at least $267 million to repair and renovate its housing stock. However, HUD was allocating only $16 million to the city for those repairs and renovations. To address the problem, the city turned to public-private partnerships.

The city's public housing was brought under two big programs, HOPE SF and Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD). HOPE SF replaces distressed public housing with mixed-income communities, and RAD renovated old public housing projects and handed them over to nonprofit management.

“The public-private partnerships have become more of a tool for how [mayors and civic leaders] address the housing crisis,” says Moss.

While Singh says that partnerships between cities and nonprofits could be considered PHIMBY, she’d rather see community-oriented and municipally-run public housing.

The PHIMBY Dream

Vienna could be seen as a paragon of PHIMBYism.

The Austrian city allows people making almost twice the average annual income to live in social housing. The housing is desirable and is sought after by sports stars, high-ranking politicians and low-income earners. That said, in 2015 alone, the city spent 600 million euros on social housing.

“Vienna has mixed-income social housing to the point where rich and poor are living under the same roof," says Singh. "While that might sound like a fantasy, when you create universal social programs that people are universally invested in, like Social Security and Medicare, those tend to be strong programs that are hard to cut and hard to marginalize low-income people."

More locally, Singh would love to see a PHIMBY project at the 16th Street Mission BART Station. However, it’s currently the site of a contentious housing project by Maximus Real Estate Partners.

The development has been in the planning phase for about six years due to fierce opposition from the community coalition Plaza 16, which has dubbed the Maximus project “The Monster in the Mission.”

A rally before the San Francisco Planning Commission hearing to discuss the 1979 Mission Street development that's been dubbed by activists "The Monster in the Mission"
A rally before the San Francisco Planning Commission hearing to discuss the 1979 Mission Street development that's been dubbed by activists "The Monster in the Mission." (Jessica Placzek/KQED)

Plaza 16 demands that the site be turned into 100 percent affordable housing under a plan they call “The Marvel in the Mission.”

At a San Francisco Planning Commission hearing on Feb. 7, Maximus unveiled new plans to build about 330 units of mostly market-rate housing above the BART station. To fulfill affordable housing requirements, Plaza 16 suggested a land dedication where Maximus would purchase two other properties in the Mission that would be handed over to the city to turn into affordable housing developments.

During the hearing, a representative for Maximus called the Plaza 16 plans a fantasy, saying “the land is not for sale.”

While the plans for the Marvel in the Mission look like a PHIMBY dream, neighborhood organizers say their main goal is for this development to offer affordable housing for people making 30 percent of the area median income.

"As a working-class person of color who's grown up in San Francisco, our communities have been advocating for affordable housing for years," says Chirag Bhakta, a Plaza 16 organizer. “We’re glad people are listening, but we also don’t want to be co-opted.”

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Singh agrees that this is just a new name for an old concept. However, PHIMBY could be a new way to see beyond the dialectic of NIMBY and YIMBY, and get people to consider alternative ways to solve the housing crisis beyond private development motivated by profit.

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