Progressive champion Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D–N.Y.) is generating a good deal of buzz among supply-loving housing reformers for supposedly seeing the light on zoning reform after her political action committee (PAC) released a candidate questionnaire endorsing a number of prized YIMBY (yes in my backyard) policies.
The 2022 questionnaire put out by her Courage to Change PAC last week asks candidates vying for its endorsement whether they can get behind eliminating single-family-only zoning, reducing minimum lot sizes, and rezoning wealthy communities to allow for "mixed-income" housing developments.
— Jeff Coltin (@JCColtin) January 12, 2022
All of these policies have been longtime goals of the country's YIMBY movement, a generally left-leaning but politically diverse coalition that's settled on eliminating restrictions on new, denser housing development as the primary cure for America's high rents and home prices.
The YIMBY movement has been scoring some impressive wins in recent years, such as passing legislation in states and cities across the country that allow property owners to build more housing on their own land and to make it more difficult for local governments (and the neighbors) to stop them.
Ocasio-Cortez's latest questionnaire has some thinking that she too has been won over to the YIMBY cause.
Curbed confidently declared as much in an article headlined "AOC Is a YIMBY Now," which got an approving retweet from the congresswoman herself.
AOC just retweeted the Curbed article about her becoming a YIMBY. pic.twitter.com/EnZO9gWKfe
— Aaron Green (@AaronGuhreen) January 15, 2022
Progressive blogger and Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith likewise saw this questionnaire as proof of both Ocasio-Cortez's own YIMBYism and of a broader left-wing shift away from an anti-capitalist politics that also happens to be very anti-development.
Complicating this picture of Ocasio-Cortez as a fervent, sudden YIMBY convert is her own history of supporting zoning reform in general, while simultaneously embracing stridently anti-development talking points about construction in her own backyard.
Ocasio-Cortez has been putting her name on zoning reform proposals since at least 2019. In November of that year, she introduced her A Place to Prosper Act—one of six bills in her A Just Society package.
In addition to creating new tenant protection policies and imposing stricter regulations on corporate landlords, the Place to Prosper Act would also have pulled federal highway funding from localities that had single-family-only zoning laws on the books, required developers to include off-street parking in new construction, mandated large lot sizes, and/or banned manufactured housing parks.
A number of federal legislators have introduced bills that would tie transportation funding to localities loosening up their zoning codes. Ocasio-Cortez's bill, by conditioning federal highway funds on the total elimination of single-family-only zoning and large lot sizes, is perhaps the most radical of these proposals.
That should theoretically earn her a lot of YIMBY credibility.
And yet, just a week after introducing this bill, Ocasio-Cortez also came out swinging against a proposal to develop tens of thousands of new homes, including potentially thousands of affordable homes, in her own district.
The proposal in question would have involved decking over the 180-acre Sunnyside Yard rail yard in Queens, and then letting developers build a mix of residential and commercial space, parks, and community facilities on top of it.
At a minimum, this plan would have added 14,000 new units of housing in a housing-starved New York City. One "residential test case" envisioned adding 24,000 new housing units at the site, including 7,200 below-market-rate units.
Ocasio-Cortez strongly objected to this creation of new homes as an example of "overdevelopment" that would make New York City's affordability problems worse, not better.
"The proposal as it stands reflects a misalignment of priorities: development over reinvestment, commodification of public land over consideration of public good," wrote Ocasio-Cortez and New York City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer in a letter to the city's Economic Development Corporation. "The proposed high-rise and mid-rise residential buildings would further exacerbate a housing crisis that displaces communities of color and parcels off public land to private real estate developers."
In January 2020, Ocasio-Cortez officially resigned from a steering committee that was advising the Sunnyside Yard project.
The Manhattan Institute's Michael Hendrix described Ocasio-Cortez's complaints about Sunnyside Yard as "garden-variety NIMBYism" to Reason at the time.
Indeed, it's hard to see how someone who is sincerely convinced of the merits of new housing supply as a means of making cities more affordable could at the same time object to the creation of thousands of new homes over a railyard because of their potential to cause displacement and gentrification.
To be clear, there are good reasons to oppose the Sunnyside Yard development. The value of the developable land created by decking over the railyard would still be less than the cost of the deck itself, meaning the project would require substantial public subsidies. Ocasio-Cortez doesn't raise that objection, however.
She's also come out against other, even less objectionable projects in Queens. In 2018, she opposed the plans of a local developer to secure a zoning change that would have allowed him to build a 120-unit residential development with a Target store on the ground floor. Thanks to the opposition from Ocasio-Cortez and other local officials, the developer opted to build offices and medical suites instead.
One could argue that Ocasio-Cortez's views have evolved away from this earlier left-wing NIMBYism. The fact that she can introduce zoning reform legislation one week and oppose new apartments the next suggests she can hold both views in her head at the same time.
We've seen other examples of socialist candidates and elected officials endorse YIMBY policies for wealthy areas while still incorporating a heavy dose of left-wing NIMBYism into their plans for their own districts or supporters.
San Francisco politician and socialist activist Jackie Fielder endorsed repealing zoning restrictions in wealthy communities like Cupertino and Beverly Hills during her bid to unseat YIMBY champion state Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco). Fielder also made her opposition to Wiener's "market-based approach" to housing affordability—which involved legalizing apartment buildings near transit stops—a significant issue in her campaign.
The 2020 presidential campaign platform of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) called out the racist legacy of zoning laws, a common, correct YIMBY refrain. Yet Sanders also endorsed Boston activists' opposition to turning a dilapidated race track into 10,000 units of housing in the lead up to the Massachusetts presidential primary. (Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Sanders' presidential bid.)
To be clear, it's not just left-wing politicians that waffle on zoning reform. President Donald Trump's housing secretary, Ben Carson, was happy to describe himself as a YIMBY in favor of eliminating zoning restrictions for a few years. But in 2020 he and Trump did a complete 180 and decided that zoning reform was actually a left-wing plot to destroy the American dream.
That so many politicians can talk out of both sides of their mouths on zoning reform means people should be cautious about handing out the YIMBY label. The risk is that sincere supporters of new housing end up running interference for candidates who continue to dabble in counterproductive NIMBYism. (My own coverage of Carson and his zoning reform work at HUD should be a cautionary tale to all.)
At a minimum, Ocasio-Cortez's views on housing are a mixed bag when viewed in total. When it comes to housing policy in her own backyard, they are explicitly anti-development. That would produce some awkward answers if she had to fill out her own PAC's questionnaire.