Blog Spotlight: Black Leaders in the YIMBY Movement

YIMBY Action is proud to celebrate and uplift the voices of Black leaders in our movement.

Feb. 28, 2024

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It’s no secret that housing policy in the United States has historically disenfranchised Black residents and communities. As YIMBYs, we are working to dismantle systemic inequality that segregates our neighborhoods, pushes marginalized folks into housing instability, and continues to further the class divide in our country.

Black Civil Rights Leaders were at the forefront of the movement for housing equality, particularly during the fight for the passage of the National Fair Housing Act. Despite the passage of that legislation, the home-buying process for Black Americans is still entrenched in racism and rental costs still have disproportionate effects on Black people.

Today, many Black housing leaders are still fighting for fair housing. Ernest Brown is one of these leaders. He joined the YIMBY movement back in 2018 to help transform a group of local advocates speaking out in small numbers into a national movement of grassroots activists with 54 chapters in more than 20 states. We spoke to Ernest about his experience being a YIMBY leader, how to encourage more Black folks to join the YIMBY movement, and what he hopes to see in the future.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What’s your personal housing story?

A: I'm from Atlanta, but I moved out to Oakland back in 2016 for a work opportunity. I’d had a great time in Atlanta because I had a job close to Midtown where I could walk to work, which is very unusual in Atlanta. When I was getting ready to move to the Bay area, I knew housing would be expensive. I didn’t know I would pay twice as much as what I was paying in Atlanta. That initial price difference was the first shock that made me think something else may be going on.

Around the time that I moved, Laura and Sonja were beginning their activism in San Francisco. I could see they were building not just a movement but also an idea of how they could get people to engage in activism with them. I remember thinking, “These two are on to something.” So, I was in Oakland doing something kind of similar there and then up ended up joining the YIMBY Action Board at the end of 2018 after a big election cycle. I wanted to see how I could help them turn their work into an organization, which I think we've done.

Atlanta skyline

Q: Why do you think that grassroots organizing is so important in the YIMBY movement?

A: Unlike most other advocacy projects, a very unique benefit that underlies the tactics we use in the YIMBY world is that our ideas are popular. Most people want affordable, accessible neighborhoods. And so, the conclusion of that trend of agreement is, “Well, why don't we get what we all want?”

YIMBYs understand that changing anything is hard, but some people have a particularly strong fear about changing any simple thing that they like about their neighborhood or bringing people they don't like to their neighborhood. Unfortunately, our current political system highly prioritizes the voice of those people.

In that kind of backdrop of knowing we’re broadly popular and increasingly seeing a luminous amount of research that supports our position that you should build more housing— it’s jarring to see the ability of a small minority of voices to have so much influence that they can slow down or even completely stop change from occurring. So, the challenge we’re trying to solve is how do we overcome that.

Much of our work goes back to figuring out how we remind people in power, be it elected leaders or appointed commissioners or whomever, that we're the popular ones. To get the people in power to be responsive to us, YIMBYs have to mimic what the other people do. We have to go to meetings. We have to send letters. We have to talk with council members about how a project that will add 20 homes to an empty lot is not going to destroy the neighborhood. That’s what much of our grassroots organizing looks like.

ATL Event

Q: You’ve lived in two cities, Oakland and Atlanta, that have high Black populations and where Black residents have a good amount of economic and political power. What has been your experience seeing the Black community in those cities engage on housing topics, and what similarities and differences did you see?

A: One of the biggest commonalities and drivers for participation in housing topics is that Black folks know we are at the front of the line to be harmed by the housing crisis because we tend not to have the most financial resources. That challenge is common across both cities. In Oakland, Black folks are overrepresented in the homeless population of the city, and I believe similar dynamics are going on here in Atlanta.

A big contrast that I'll note is in Atlanta, there seems to be a stronger tradition of Black economic integration in the corporate sector and other parts of the economy. Whereas in Oakland, development is often done by someone else in Black communities. In Atlanta, there are a lot of local Black developers who grew up here and are trying to redevelop their own neighborhoods. Those are the developers who ask why only the other side of town should get all the investment. Or why can’t Black communities get these new, nice things?

So why aren’t Black neighborhoods getting new, nice things? Because builders want to see how many people live in an area before they build those new things. Builders want to know if they put a grocery store somewhere that they won’t have to rely on people driving across town to come shop. They want to know if people in the neighborhood will come out. If no one is willing to put their time and energy into building homes in Black communities, we don’t get new grocery stores, or breweries, or even critical services.

Q: That rolls right into our next question. We know that Black folks disproportionately experience the consequences of the housing shortage. Yet we don’t see Black communities being widely represented in the YIMBY movement. Where do you think that gap in representation might be stemming from, and do you have any thoughts on how you think the movement can bridge that gap?

A: My own experience is that the movement largely has its origin in San Francisco. I think the culture of San Francisco and the broader Bay Area mainly influences those who it is designed around. There were specific channels of communication like excessive use of Twitter, particularly in the early days, that made it so that the only people engaged in these conversations were folks on “housing Twitter.” There are lots of other examples too of the YIMBY conversation happening amongst a particular set of people in a particular place with a particular language. I think that kind of limited method of communication dictates access to who can join in on the conversation.

We’ve had some success here in Atlanta by saying, “Look, let's run some paid ads in a Black part of town, and have ads at the library in that part of town so we’re having conversations in a familiar location for Black folks.” I think that goes far for folks to show that we want to have the pro-housing conversation where people are. Then there’s a question of making our activism relevant to residents in their daily lives.

There's this meme in Atlanta that basically says, “We’re full.” But what people mean by that is our transportation systems cannot handle more cars on the road, and that’s true.

So, we have to show people that even though it feels full now, our population was actually higher in the 1950s. Our grandparents were able to accommodate more people in the city than we can today even though they had more kids and more people per household.

We remind people what was possible in the past when they used streetcars or other forms of transportation. That helps newer folks think about how we can meet the demand of new people who want to live here without creating more traffic. In our city’s local context, if we only build in ways that drive traffic, then we start hating building. Then we get in a negative feedback loop rather than figuring out how to build our communities in ways that prioritize the bus and rapid transit.

This approach of meeting people where they are comes up a lot for us. We have to help people understand how something like an ADU can help them. It all really comes down to figuring out how to make YIMBYism relevant. The work we do is super applicable to everyone, but if it doesn't feel relevant, people aren't going to give you the time of day.

ATL Event 2

Q: How do you move people from beginning to understand that the YIMBY movement is relevant to them to then getting them to take action in the movement?

A: In the past few years, our country’s democracy has become a huge topic of conversation. People don’t always know where they can get in and make their community a better place. A core piece of our grassroots organizing is seizing the opportunity to teach people that they have a role to play in their local politics. We go out and tell people about meetings going on in their neighborhoods. Maybe more importantly, we make sure that people know they have as much standing as anyone else to have an opinion about housing that will either be built or not be built within a couple of mile radius from them and that they should voice that opinion because it matters.

What makes YIMBYism special is that our activism is not as abstract as other movements. If you are someone who wishes the world were a better place but don’t know what to do about it, there are people like me and the other Abundant Housing Atlanta chapter members who can provide political education so that you know what’s possible. Maybe you need to talk to a zoning chair. Maybe you need to talk to a planning commissioner chair, a developer, or a neighborhood planning leader. All of those people have names, and we need to learn them. We need to build relationships with them. We need to get press around them. That’s how we hold the leaders who are democratically and morally responsible to us accountable. It is through those relationships that we both build and exert power.

YIMBYism is also so different from some national political topics because elected officials who represent large swaths of people are hard to keep accountable. In local politics, it’s a different landscape. There are only 500,000 people in Atlanta and only about 100,000 of them vote. What’s even more is that probably only about 2,000 voters pressure leaders like the Mayor the way I do. That makes me one of 2,000 people trying to have a real conversation with the Mayor about housing. That's a totally different setup than being one of 300 million Americans who are kind of shouting into the void about it. When people know that the decision-makers may be only two streets over from where they live, it’s much easier to energize new folks to speak out a little more than they normally do. That close proximity is very motivating for folks who want to achieve tangible results.

ATL Event 3

Q: What do you hope to see in the future of the YIMBY movement?

A: I think we're set for a pretty big conceptual victory because it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make intellectual arguments that building housing is not going to help us given the mountain of research building and coming out. Now, we can focus on the real work which is building the political will to actually make changes.

I understand the difficulty with it. I’ve gone back to Oakland since moving and noticed that I remember things that used to be there when I was a resident are not there anymore. During those times, I too feel some sense of loss over things that were and are no longer. But change is part of life, and coming and going is the human experience. It’s necessary for the future.

I think getting to that more emotional argument is going to create the true wave of breakthroughs. That shift in people’s minds is going to allow us to have a different set of conversations about not if we should build more housing, but how we should build more housing.

Want to learn more about what Ernest and the rest of our Abundant Housing Atlanta Chapter is up to? Keep up with their work by visiting their website here.