Housing Policy

Is 2021 the YIMBY Movement's Time to Shine on Capitol Hill?

A crop of bipartisan bills in Congress aims to reduce local and state regulations on new housing.


The YIMBY movement isn't quite a high-density household name yet. But its focus on peeling back government regulations on new development is starting to make a bipartisan splash on Capitol Hill.

Last week, Sens. Todd Young (R–Indiana) and Brian Schatz (D–Hawaii) reintroduced the Yes In My Backyard (YIMBY) Act, a law aimed at pruning back red tape in states and localities that receive certain federal housing grants. "Discriminatory local zoning and land use policies drive up housing costs in communities across America," said Young in a press release. "My legislation will require cities, towns, and rural areas across America to face this reality under a new level of transparency and encourage them to cut these harmful regulations."

To induce that transparency, the YIMBY Act would have any jurisdictions receiving funding under the $3.4 billion Community Development Block Grant program to file reports every five years with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Those reports would detail whether they've adopted any of a list of 22 land use policies spelled out in the bill—and, if not, what are their plans to adopt them.

The policies on the list include expanding "by-right" multifamily zoning (meaning individual projects are not subject to the discretionary approval of bureaucrats), reducing minimum lot sizes, eliminating minimum parking requirements, ditching single-family-only zoning, allowing the conversion of offices to apartments, and permitting pre-fabricated construction. With one exception—donating vacant land for affordable housing construction—they all entail easing or eliminating government-imposed barriers to development.

The bill would not strip funding from jurisdictions that do not adopt particular policies. But proponents hope it will generate useful data—and kickstart discussions about rolling back barriers to building homes.

"This bill is not a stick. It's not a carrot. It lives somewhere in the middle," says Mike Kingsella, executive director of Up for Growth Action. "We believe that local leaders will be able to start conversations in their community because these questions are being asked by HUD."

The YIMBY Act was first introduced in Congress in 2019. It managed to pass with unanimous consent in the House in March 2020, but it stalled in the Senate as lawmakers turned their attention to COVID-19.

That same year, the Trump administration proposed a similarly themed executive rewrite of Obama-era federal fair housing regulations. The original idea was to require HUD grant recipients to report on obstacles to fair housing, such as lengthy permitting processes and burdensome environmental reviews, and then propose three concrete steps to eliminating those barriers. Unlike the YIMBY Act, that rule offered the possibility of extra grant money or regulatory relief to jurisdictions that saw housing affordability improve.

President Donald Trump yanked his own rule in the summer of 2020 in favor of one that matched his campaign-trail rhetoric about saving the suburbs from multifamily housing development. (The Biden administration is now in the process of bringing back the repealed Obama-era fair housing rule.)

Kingsella says he's optimistic about the YIMBY Act's passage this year, partly because of that easy journey through the House last time and partly because the bill's backers are increasingly bipartisan.

In the House, the bill has the sponsorship of six Democrats and five Republicans, including Reps. Derek Kilmer (D–Wash.) and Trey Hollingsworth (R–Ind.). It also has the support of a diverse set of advocacy groups, from Americans for Prosperity and the National Taxpayers Union to the National Low-Income Housing Coalition and the National Fair Housing Alliance.

For much of the past few decades, federal efforts to grow the supply of affordable housing have mostly involved funneling money to affordable housing developers.

Legislation targeting local and state restrictions on development is increasingly part of the mix, says Kingsella. Unlike the YIMBY Act, many of these other bills come with plenty of carrots and sticks.

On the stick side, there's the Housing, Opportunity, Mobility, and Equity (HOME) Act, introduced by Sen. Cory Booker (D–N.J.) and Rep. Jim Clyburn (D–S.C.) in 2019. It would require recipients of federal housing and transportation dollars to implement strategies for making housing more affordable and "inclusive." Those strategies are a more mixed back of deregulatory reforms and more interventionist changes, such as taxes on vacant land and bans on landlords vetting tenants for their criminal history.

As to carrots, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D–Minn.), Time Kaine (D–Va.) and Rob Portman (R–Ohio) introduced a bill in March that would create an annual $300 million grant program to award states and localities that drafted housing plans aimed at increasing the supply of housing, improving housing affordability, and reducing barriers to housing development.

President Joe Biden's American Jobs Plan also calls for a competitive grant program to reward jurisdictions that "take concrete steps to eliminate such needless barriers."

All these bills show that the idea of government regulation as the enemy of housing affordability is sinking in among federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. But their indirect approaches to tackling those regulations demonstrate that the real action will still have to come from state and local officials.