Opinion: Is Biden a YIMBY? He certainly has good reason to embrace a pro-housing agenda

President Biden’s recent pro-housing pivot didn’t come a moment too soon. Even though the housing shortage is long-standing, well-known and worse in blue cities, high housing costs somehow sneaked up on Democrats.

By facing the crisis head on, Biden and his fellow Democrats can show voters they’re committed to expanding and strengthening the middle class and dealing with its most serious concerns. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

The housing shortage has generated deep economic resentment. Meanwhile, wealthy communities from Cupertino, Calif., to Milburn, N.J., have done everything they can to stifle construction, driving up the cost of renting or owning a home. These high prices chip away at paychecks and morale, pushing people into ever longer commutes as well as crowded and substandard housing.

The housing shortage is a dark cloud over America’s otherwise sunny economic forecast, generating dissatisfaction and endangering Democrats in the coming election.

By all the usual measures, the economy is rebounding. Inflation has fallen from the highs of the past few years to near 3%. Wages are growing, and unemployment is low. The pandemic’s worst economic consequences are over.

And yet anyone trying to afford a home is stuck in the mud of high costs. Experts think inflated housing prices are part of the reason 8 in 10 Americans in key swing states see the economy as just “fair” or “poor.” The restricted housing supply keeps workers from feeling the benefits of higher wages and moving to places where incomes are even higher.

When people are struggling, they blame those they perceive to be in charge. That helps explain the discrepancy between economic indicators and Biden’s polling.

Instead of trying to convince people that the way they’re feeling about the economy is wrong, Democrats must address the pain that working- and middle-class people are feeling. Injecting positivity into the online conversation — as Biden’s team has tried to do by countering economic doomsayers on TikTok and other platforms — will only go so far.

To his credit, the president has been quietly working on housing affordability throughout his term. The administration’s Housing Supply Action Plan, released in July, provided funding to municipalities that have made it easier to build housing, among other pro-growth measures. The administration has also promoted commercial-to-residential conversion and financed affordable housing designed to be resilient to climate change. All of this will help bring housing costs down.

But in the last few months, Biden has finally grown louder about making housing affordable by increasing supply. As Neera Tanden, the director of his Domestic Policy Council, put it: “We know we need to increase housing supply to ensure that we can bring down rents and the cost of homeownership.”

Democrats are beginning to understand the need for a rallying cry that speaks to economic anxieties and signals that the administration is focused on bringing housing costs down. It’s a message that resonates with members of an eroding middle class, many of whom believe the Democratic Party isn’t fighting for them. It’s a message that appeals to young people, minorities and every other demographic being locked out of prosperity in America. It’s a message that puts Democrats back in the conversation about the economy, an area where voters still trust Republicans more.

Is Biden a YIMBY, a “Yes in My Backyard” advocate for increasing housing supply? Whether or not he calls himself one, his work and rhetoric on the issue suggest he is.

By publicly embracing YIMBYism as an ideology and an agenda, Biden can align himself with a bipartisan majority of Americans who believe in easing zoning restrictions to allow more housing to be built. And he can signal to those struggling with housing costs that he has their backs.

Housing offers Democrats a chance to talk about rebuilding an America that works for everyone, one with a thriving, growing, expanding middle class. The administration has to show voters it understands that current housing prices are unacceptable and that it will do what it takes to bring them down. Until more people believe they will one day be able to buy a home, pessimism about access to opportunity will persist, and so will the risk to Biden’s reelection effort.

Laura Foote is the executive director of YIMBY Action and a member of the board of Up for Growth.

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