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Is there a ‘yes’ coming soon to your backyard?

by Meg White

Is there a ‘yes’ coming soon to your backyard?

For decades, developers have been dealing with NIMBYism, or the idea that current residents will oppose new projects because they don’t want it to drag down property values or impact their quality of life (even if they agree that the development should happen — just somewhere else).

You may have heard of the new kid in town as well. According to the Congress for the New Urbanism, YIMBY is an acronym coined in 2006 in Toronto, when creators flipped the negativity in the phrase “not in my backyard” to denote their support for development, particularly in the form of infill housing and increased density.

And now, there’s a bill in Congress that’s adopted the phrase. In early March, the Yes In My Backyard Act passed in the U.S. House of Representatives with the intention of tracking discriminatory land-use policies. The legislation would require recipients of Community Development Block Grants to tell the Department of Housing and Urban Development about rules they’re implementing that will encourage affordable housing, expand transit-oriented development, and reduce regulations around density, mixed-use zoning, prefabricated housing, short-term rentals, home-based businesses and other initiatives.

Democratic Congressman Mike Quigley — who represents Illinois’ 5th Congressional District, including much of Chicago’s North Side and western suburbs — was an early co-sponsor of the legislation and sees it as an important way to gather more data and draw more attention to the issue. “I think it will shine a light on this,” he told Chicago Agent magazine. “It’s just helping us understand this better and have a little more transparency.”

Such initiatives are often more popular among Democrats, but six of the 13 House co-sponsors of the bill came from the opposite side of the aisle from Quigley, and its sponsor on the other side of Congress is Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.). Because the bill doesn’t require funding, Quigley said he thinks it has a reasonable shot at passing the Republican-controlled Senate. “Money is policy, and people don’t always agree on that,” he said. However, Quigley expects it to be bundled into a larger piece of legislation, such as the transportation appropriations bill. “Included in other larger packages, it’s got a decent chance.”

Still, many of the provisions that the bill proposes tracking do prioritize density, which can be objectionable to suburban and rural communities. Quigley said he does see the need for balance, but that some detractors may be using open space as a red herring. “I think it’s obvious that there are communities that have used larger lot and square footage requirements to exclude,” he said. “They have to recognize that it has been used as a discriminatory tool.”

Chicago may have something of an upper hand in dealing with one common problem identified by many YIMBY activists: the so-called missing middle. Quigley noted that our supply of two- and four-flat buildings, as well as coach houses and other spaces that could be repurposed into accessory dwelling units down the road (more on this on page 20), put the area in a stronger position to fill this growing need. “It’s an advantage we have over a lot of other places in the country,” he said. “There’s a big stock out there in Chicago, [but] we still need help in the middle.”

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