What's the YIMBY movement and how can it help housing policy? - Podcast

Grattan Institute’s work on housing policy keeps coming back to one basic idea: Australia needs more housing in the areas where people want to live and work.

So why hasn’t Australia built enough homes to keep prices under control? Because of the land-use planning regulations that dictate what gets built where. Those planning regulations have a status-quo bias. They give too much say to people who oppose development or change – the so-called ‘NIMBYs’, or ‘Not-in-my-backyard’.

Enter the ‘YIMBY’ movement: enthusiastic young people who say ‘Yes-in-my-backyard’.

In this special Grattan podcast on Australia’s housing crisis, our Senior Associate, Joey Moloney, and guests Jono O’Brien and Melissa Neighbour from the YIMBY movement discuss this grass-roots movement that aims to revolutionise the housing debate and make it easier for young Australians to get a roof over their heads.

Transcript

Joey Moloney: So Grattan has spilled a lot of ink over the years on house prices and rents and most of it keeps coming back to the pretty basic idea that we need more housing built in the areas where people want to live and work. Now no surprises, these are the areas where prices and rents are the highest and we think the evidence is pretty conclusive that more homes is what is needed to address this.

Now, for a long time, the housing debate centered mostly on prices, and there were a lot of debates about whether interest rate, low interest rates were to blame, whether tax and transfer settings were to blame, but now we’re dealing with high and fast growing rents, which can only really mean one thing.

There’s not enough homes to go around. So historically, what’s been the main cause of outhousing was? So, Grattan has pointed the finger at land use planning regulations that have a status quo bias, giving too much weight to those who oppose change, so called NIMBYs. So, enter the YIMBY movement. These are groups of enthusiastic, relatively young people trying to even the ledger, saying yes to more housing in the desirable suburbs of our cities.

So, I’m Joey Moloney, I’m a Senior Associate in the Economic Policy team here at the Grattan Institute. And I’m joined today by two key players in this movement to unpack its motivations and objectives. So from YIMBY, Melbourne, we have Jonathan O’Brien. Jonathan, welcome to the pod.

Jono O’Brien: Thanks for having me.

Joey Moloney: And from YIMBY, Sydney, we have Melissa Neighbour. Mel, welcome aboard.

Thanks. Great to be here.

So I want to start just by unpacking what attracted you to this movement, to the YIMBY Jonah, maybe you’d like to go first.

Jono O’Brien: Yeah, sure. So the thing that really drew my attention to kind of housing supply problems was I actually moved moved during the pandemic or just at the very end of the pandemic.

So it was kind of the one time in Melbourne’s history when we had surplus supply. And it was incredibly easy for me to find a high quality home in a place where I wanted to live. And since then, of course, we’ve seen everyone, and everyone in my life who’s had to move, go through the absolute opposite.

Showing up to inspections where they’re one of 40 people, having to, you know, negotiate, you know, huge rent increases, and so on. And it sort of radicalized me on the fact that, oh, I had this one good experience, what was the thing that was different? And the answer is, there were more houses to go around per the people who were looking for them.

Joey Moloney: And Mel, what what attracted you to the EMU thing?

Melissa Neighbour: Yeah, for me so I’m a town planner. My day job is getting applications approved through council. And I, that means I really see firsthand the direct impact that people objecting and saying no to new development applications has on limiting housing supply.

And it’s really frustrating both from a professional point of view and a personal point of view as well. And I think the current planning system is It really makes it easy for wealthy, English speaking, and usually retired neighbors. Who have more time on their hands to have a say by their local councils.

And it means that the views of potential residents from outside the area are ignored. And also those views of people that might be a bit more time for like young families or busy professionals, their views go unheard. So this unfair gearing of the system means that councillors are only hearing one side of the story, this limited public feedback, which is just various versions of no, not in my backyard.

And yeah, I think that really was part of the drivers for me to jump on board with the yin bing movement.

Joey Moloney: One phrase I keep hearing. from the movement, both in the Australian context and its overseas brethren, is the phrase housing abundance and as a succinct way to describe what the movement’s about, what its fundamental objective is.

So John, I was hoping, could you give a bit of a flavor of what housing abundance would look like?

Jono O’Brien: Yeah, sure. So there’s obviously a whole bunch of incentives that have come into play over the last sort of 30 years and even going back further than that. That have really incentivized housing scarcity, right?

In part, it’s because home ownership has been kind of one of the biggest drivers of particularly middle class wealth in this country. And then those people, of course then go on to kind of have the bit of the status quo bias. They want to maintain their house prices. There’s kind of an illusion that, you know, stopping housing keeps their house prices high.

And so on. So, we’ve had this housing scarcity mindset for a long time. What we argue for in the YIMBY movement is that there should be more homes everywhere. More different kinds of homes, more affordable homes you know, more different types of housing. You know, there are models for co housing, there are models for all kinds of ways of living that people want to do, but they can’t.

Because housing has been made artificially scarce, like you said, due to land use regulations, due to status quo biases. Of our legislature and housing abundance really says we should create a society where you’re not fighting, you’re not competing for a landlord. Landlords are competing for you.

Joey Moloney: I feel like I’ve picked up something that this movement is really more about more than just the dollars and cents connection between housing supply and housing costs, which.

You know, historically, it’s probably where gratis folks, it’s ancient, because we, there’s a lot of economists here, so, you know, when you use the economics framework, they’re, they’re, that’s the sort of. Things you end up focusing on, but what I feel like I’ve picked up is that the movement is also about a broader question of what kind of cities we want to live in.

Jono O’Brien: So Mel, I was hoping, could you share a little bit about what you think makes a good livable city and how much do Australian cities currently diverge from that vision?

Melissa Neighbour: Yeah. I would say there is definitely a, a very strong contrast in how Australian cities and, and look, even American cities, for that matter, are laid out, let’s say, in comparison to European cities.

So, in Australia, we have a very centralised pattern. There’s like a main CBD and then maybe a few other dense centres, but in between that is what I call the urban carpet, which is basically just like this rolled out carpet of single detached homes that sprawls forever. And all of those residents that live in that urban carpet are jumping into their car to go to work.

To visit friends, to get their hair cut, and sometimes even just to get some milk and some bread. So, in Australia, cars really dominate our cities with infrastructure. So, they, they literally take up so much space. About 50 percent of our urban environment’s for streets, highways, and car park. And then we’ve got this modern life that we’re living that’s centered around the car, and it’s isolating us from each other and from services, right?

Now, if we compare that to somewhere In Europe, like Barcelona, and I like using Barcelona as an example, because they have these, what are famous in, in planning world, all the planners out there will know this. There’s these famous super blocks. So essentially what these are, are neighborhoods of three by three blocks.

So there’s nine apartment blocks in total, and traffic is restricted to the outside. So they’ve converted the internal streets into public squares, parks, and playgrounds, and those streets are only allowed to be used by pedestrians and cyclists. So what that means is that residents have access to way more public amenities by walking or cycling.

But even more importantly, in my view, is that these superblocks stitch the urban fabric back together. And what I mean by that is that streets themselves are the lifeblood of a community. But when cars rule the road, they actually stop the flow. So they, streets end up segregating and isolating people and neighbors from one another.

Joey Moloney: So what’s really great about superblocks or the design of Well, well designed medium density walkable natal goods is that they reunite this segregated flow of people, nature, and energy. And I think that’s the lifestyle we can all aspire to. I think the example of European cities is, is really illuminating.

Yeah, I said at the start that the YIMBY movement It probably slants relatively young, it’s not exclusively young people, but my sense is that they, it is it is skewed towards young people outlining a different vision for their cities and a stat that sticks out to me is that we have Millennials and Gen Z are roughly about seven times more likely to visit a European city than their parents.

And I just look at that stat and I have to believe that for all these young people who have visited the Barcelona’s of the world, the Vienna’s of the world, and seen what these, you know, density done well, livable, vibrant cities look like, and then come back to Australia and be like, hey, why can’t we do that?

Yeah. Okay, so the ultimate objectives of the YIMBY movement sound pretty clear and desirable. We want cheaper housing. What about the presumably trickier question of how we get there? So, the policy landscape that governs what housing gets built where is complicated, to say the least. There are zones, design and development overlays, heritage overlays, design requirements.

Now, I might be giving you a hospital pass here, but without getting too stuck in the weeds Johnno, could you give the listeners a sense of what are the main policy levers that you’re targeting for reform?

Jono O’Brien: Absolutely. So, there are a couple of different ways that government can, can work here. The main policy levers that I would say we would pull land use restrictions, like you’ve said.

So, a lot of inner city blocks I’ll use Melbourne as an example a lot of inner city blocks even if they’re zoned, for instance, for three stories, four stories, or even mixed use. They then have half a dozen other overlays, sometimes, that’s on the higher end, but two to six other overlays, design overlays, parking overlays, so parking minimums, heritage overlays, neighborhood character overlays that actually restrict them being used fully.

So part of the problem is that each of those things, so zones tend to be set by the state with some input from councils, but then overlays are set by councils with sign off from the state. So there’s Sort of kind of confused thing. And that can also be different council to council overlay by overlay.

So part of the problem is that we have this complex web of different restrictions on every block of land in the city. That actually make it unfeasible or impossible or sometimes essentially illegal to build these good, dense, medium density developments like Mel is talking about. So the main level that we want to pull is sort of, look, there’s appetite for planning reform in both Victoria and New South Wales.

What we want to say is, look, while we’re reforming, we need to make it easier to build homes and build buildings that are mixed use. And that’s what we’re Kind of create third spaces, these spaces where we don’t live or work these sort of communal areas, like Mel was saying, with the superblocks. We need to create these spaces, and we need to make it legal to create these spaces, and viable to create these spaces, and that’s for both public builds and private builds.

The reality is that the public building infrastructure, you know, the big build is hugely held back by the complex web of planning laws and overlays and so on that we’re dealing with, so Yeah, land use is sort of our main thing. Everything else helps to facilitate better and more free land use within our cities.

Joey Moloney: I did want listeners that it’s a complicated landscape, but I think you’ve done a great job of, of outlining it there. And I think you hit on a point that I think is really important, that there is a certain camp that says, yes, more supply, but only affordable housing. And I think that people don’t realize the degree to which the constraints that we’re talking about.

Also, hold back public housing and community housing as well. A really, really important point. So I want to dig into this a little bit further. So on top of a complex range of policy levers, like you got at a little bit there, Jono, we have them at various different levels of government. And a common refrain, certainly in the discourse, is to attack local governments when they hold back individual development.

So you’ll see news articles about Development X, Council Y, and there’s a bit of a spat about that. Now, Mel, given your experience as an urban planner, I want to direct this question to you. Should we be casting our eye at the broader frameworks, the broader planning frameworks, overseeing by higher levels of government?

Melissa Neighbour: I really love this question and it’s a really good one. Before I dive into it though, I just wanted to share some good news that ties in with some policy changes that like Jonathan was talking about, but what we’ve actually seen happening in Canberra, if that’s alright. So Greater Canberra, which is our Yindhi sister in Canberra, they recently managed to get ACT Labor to endorse a motion to call for upzoning of all ours.

RZ1 area, so it’s like low density, to RZ2, which is like a more medium density type of development. So that basically means that now townhouses are permitted across the entire city. So if we think about that in Sydney terms, that would be the equivalent of Sydney upgrading from R2 to R3 everywhere. And the Labor government now have to implement that plan for the next, before the next election, which is just so exciting.

So yeah, just wanted to share that little win and show that, you know, change can happen and it is happening. And I, and you know, I hope that it comes to Sydney soon and for Melbourne as well, Jonathan. But yeah, look, back to the great question about, you know, LGAs and you know, you know, is that where we need to be focusing on policy reform?

Or do we need to look at, you know, higher levels of government? Local representatives. at the local level need to represent the views of their constituents, right, their residents. And as I said earlier, though, the system is really geared towards favoring NIMBYs, basically. And so what we’re not seeing is elected representatives weighing up the desires of their wealthy neighbors against potential residents need for shelter.

And I do think that more state and federal politicians, which represent wider electorates, would actually place more weight on the latter group. And they have different trade offs to make. Right, so in some, in some ways, yes, broader social welfare would be advanced by stronger policy from higher levels of government, such as the state, where the state government has been failing us in terms of bringing in new policies for encouraging medium density is that the frameworks that they bring in always and continue to rely back on the local plans.

So, it reverts back to the local council plans and if they say medium density housing isn’t allowed in a particular zone, then it’s not allowed and that state policy has zero effect. So we really need to see stronger leadership at the state level and see them using the teeth that they have to create change and, and help us bring about housing abundance.

Joey Moloney: So, we started talking about how the YIMBY movement originated essentially in opposition To NIMBYism. Which isn’t to say it’s purely defined by opposition, it has a very clear vision over time, but you know, any effective movement needs to confront the arguments of their opponents in good faith. So, Mel, I’m going to come back to you on this one as well, again, given your experience in urban planning.

What do you think we can say to those people who are concerned that more density just means more? Poorly built and overly apartments where more congestion, less sunlight, et cetera, et cetera.

Melissa Neighbour: Look, I would say that we’re actually all on the same side here. Right, so equal to our desire to see more housing is our desire to see vibrant, attractive, and well planned neighborhoods that promote walkability and have outdoor green spaces and reduce traffic and congestion and cars altogether.

As we said earlier, you know, we’d love to, as Jonathan said, we’d love to see You know, minimum car parking requirements for new developments, either reduced or removed altogether. So, I do think that we’re all on the same side here, and I think that, you know, the other point I’d love to make here is that the bottom line is that we’re in a housing crisis.

People don’t have roofs over their head, and we need to build more housing, and that housing has to go somewhere. So if we’re saying no to housing in our own neighborhood, if we’re stopping our neighborhood from expanding and allowing people to live in it, that means that the housing is going to have to go on the fringes of our urban environments, and we all know the serious environmental consequences of that.

So what I’m getting at here is that when someone says no to new development in their own neighborhood, They’re by default, they’re saying yes to climate change and to unaffordable housing and they’re forcing people like young families out of Sydney and out of Melbourne.

Joey Moloney: To wrap up I want to talk about where the housing debate is at today.

So my impression is that things have turned a bit of a corner. I think that high rents have really sharpened people’s focus on supply because like I said at the outset it’s very hard to rationalise that away as anything other than a mismatch between the demand and supply for housing. I feel like I’m hearing Premiers in New South Wales and Victoria saying the right things about urban infill and reforms to the planning system to allow that to happen.

I think the Federal Government has stepped up. I have realised they have a role here with the Housing Accord. And then from the bottom up, we’ve got this YIMBY movement. And from what I can see, and like you were illustrating a bit before, Mel, it seems to have already had a few tangible successions successes to point to.

So My question is, what do you think? Do you think I’m being over optimistic, or do you share my optimism? And maybe in your answer, if you could talk a little bit more about any other success stories of the movement so far. So, Jonah, maybe I’ll start with you.

Jono O’Brien: Yeah, I definitely think we’ve turned a corner.

I think we’ve seen that in the past few months, which I think is why You know, Mel’s group at Sydney and being us at you may Melvin have seen kind of so much attention on us is because we’re saying where the conversation is going. We’re saying what people are beginning to realize, which is that there’s a lack of supply on Q and a on Monday night.

The Minister for Finance openly stated that the number one thing That the federal government can do is increase supply in terms of the housing crisis. It was a huge announcement for her to say. And I think outside of, you know, half and debating about how large that should be and how it should be distributed.

That is an overwhelmingly excellent call card to hear from the federal government. There are of course, you know, distributing direct money which to certain public and affordable builds, which is super important. But there’s also, the federal government has the potential to pull a lever and just make it easier to build everywhere, and that would cost much, much less, and would reduce housing prices for everyone significantly.

I think that’s one of the things that we were kind of pulling on there, and Mel was pulling out, which is, local councils have a limited toolset, and they’re not a great toolset. Overlays aren’t a good tool for actually encouraging good growth, and encouraging kind of livable cities. And so, when you have bad tools, you see bad outcomes.

And so, seeing higher levels of government, which have access to, like you said, Joey, more teeth, we will hopefully see better outcomes, given that those tools are employed well. And that’s really what I am keen on seeing. I think we’re seeing this win. You know, we had in Maribyrnong, in Melbourne, the Maribyrnong Council recognized that they shouldn’t go ahead with a heritage overlay.

because of the costs it imposes on those homeowners and those landowners. It was a recognition that there are financial trade offs to these overlays. We’re certainly not anti heritage overall, but the reality is that when you lock up 900 properties in perpetuity and make it impossible to densify in a city that is going to grow enormously, and should grow enormously, the fact that trade offs are being recognized at a local level.

I hope signals to the upper levels of government that have way more at their disposal, way more money, way more triggers, way more levers way more sort of carrots and sticks that they can then, you know, use to enforce kind of good work from lower levels of government. I’m optimistic. I am optimistic because I think everyone is in lockstep.

It’s just a question of is there going to be political will from federal and state governments? To really, sort of, get going and ensure that everyone’s given good tools, and with those good tools, they’re able to do good work.

Joey Moloney: Mel, what about you? Are you feeling optimistic?

Melissa Neighbour: I’m feeling optimistic after the Sydney YIMBY launch last week, where we had 200 people turn out on a Thursday night to our event there were people lined up down the street to get in.

So yeah, in terms of the YIMBY movement, I am very optimistic and we have also had some small wins ourself. We’ve only been up and running since April, but we have already two. Managed to get the inner west council heated back down on heritage, the steam, 15 electricity substations and we’ve had some other wins, small wins like that as well, which is really great.

But. We are at the start of this journey. We have a long way to go till not only everyone in this country has a roof over their head, but also can afford to live where they want to, you know going back to that housing abundance point that we’ve been talking about. So we are at the start of this journey and what we’re planning to do here in Sydney, YIMBY is.

Build a network of organizers that means we can sort of have captains for each local area so that we can stay on top of where policy is changing and actually get people to, to put in support, submissions of support for upzoning in those local areas.

Joey Moloney: Well, let’s finish by telling any listeners that may also be feeling optimistic and inspired by today’s conversation, how they can get involved in the movement.

Jono O’Brien: Yeah, I mean, the number one way to support us, you know, given where you might be geographically is by becoming involved with one of the YIMBY groups. So there’s us, YIMBY Melbourne. You can Google it of course by YIMBYmelbourne. org. au. Mel is, of course, at sydneyYIMBY, sydney. YIMBY. au, a much sexier domain, I will say.

And if you’re in Canberra, Greater Canberra are also well worth, well worth getting involved with. You know, they’ve been leading this charge for years and we follow in their enormous footsteps. Additionally, if you’re in another city but want to get involved please reach out to one of us via our websites we are keen to sort of start getting the ball rolling in some other cities particularly in, in Brisbane for me kind of running a bit of a ground game there, trying to get some people together, hoping to kind of run some sort of meeting in September, so please reach out there if you are in Brisbane and keen to get involved in the YIMBY movement.

Mel, do you have anything to, to add?

Melissa Neighbour: No, I think that’s fantastic. That’s a great call out. And yeah, we welcome you with open arms to join our movement.

Joey Moloney: Thank you, Jono and Mel for joining us today on the Grattan Pod. Grattan, like I said at the start, Grattan has done lots and lots of work on housing, and if you’re interested in having a look at that, that’s all up on our website.

And while you’re there, we also are not for profit, which means that we rely on donations, so if you can spare a donation while you’re on our website, that would also be much appreciated. Thank you, and goodbye.

Joey Moloney

Economic Policy Deputy Program Director
Joey Moloney the Deputy Program Director of Grattan Institute’s Economic Policy program. He has worked at the Productivity Commission and the Commonwealth Treasury, with a focus on the superannuation system and retirement income policy.

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