Twitter is rife with subcultures and loose associations of people who gravitate toward one another on the basis of similar interests. There’s transportation Twitter, there’s New York City Media Twitter, there’s Mueller Report Twitter, and a Twitter for pretty much any subject you can think of. But if you’ve ever seen a discussion of a new development in your neighborhood, or a new state law offering protections to tenants, you may have felt the collective blood pressure rising as you scroll through endless, increasingly vitriolic and personal replies. Welcome, you’ve just discovered housing Twitter.
One user who Tweets under the name @reedm recently summed it up: “Housing Twitter drives me nuts because everyone is always angry, everyone thinks they know everything, everyone is hypocritical, and everyone thinks anyone who disagrees with them on any aspect is the dumbest person alive.”
Hyperbole aside, he has a point. The one thing the vast majority of housing Twitter agrees upon is that there is a crisis: The cost of renting and owning property in the U.S. is eating up more and more of people’s paychecks, and homelessness and evictions are on the rise. (It may not surprise you to learn that, as the epicenter of many of these issues, San Francisco—and California on the whole—is disproportionately represented on housing Twitter). What’s less agreed upon is what to do about it. On housing Twitter, people strongly identify with what they believe will best solve the housing crisis, whether that be sweeping rent control, building many more units, some combination of the two, or something else entirely. Discord among people in these different camps is frequent and often aggressive.
It’s a good microcosm for examining Twitter as a platform for any debate: In no other online arena can opinions transmit and be amplified or shut down so freely or so quickly. Even as its participants themselves question their involvement in the conversation, they stay engaged out of the hope of reaching what feels like an elusive consensus, or at the very least educating someone who might step into the fray. But one thing’s for certain: As the housing crisis continues to intensify in many cities, without one simple solution in sight, housing Twitter is a more contentious place than ever.
Why is housing Twitter like this?
There’s a simple explanation, and then a more complicated one.
The simple one is this: Fundamentally, the debate on housing Twitter is about places people call home, and that’s always going to be emotional and contentious. “It’s very challenging,” says Alex Baca, the housing program coordinator at Greater Greater Washington, a blog and nonprofit in D.C., who describes herself as “extremely online.” Housing is an area, she says, in which “people’s lived experience is policy.” It’s about where people live—both the physical structures and the communities in which they sit—and how they live there. Nearly everyone’s own experience of the two informs the perspective they bring to the debate.
The more complicated reason has to do with who is participating in the debate, and the complicated ways in which people’s personal and emotional views and alliances overlap and, in many cases, clash.
“In housing, there are very different views about what should be done among people on the left,” says Yonah Freemark, a doctoral candidate in city planning at MIT. Scan through housing Twitter, and you’ll notice quite a bit of overlap on people’s bios: Most define themselves as some category of liberal or leftist, and many state their interest in housing and urbanism issues up front.
What's interesting about Twitter — or at least whomever interacts with me on Twitter — is the degree of absolute fury with which people interact on one topic (housing) and the seeming complete absence of disagreement on another (transportation).
— Yonah Freemark (@yfreemark) July 25, 2019
But under that broad alignment, the core of the debate among housing Twitter participants, Freemark says, “is between people who you might call NIMBYs and people you might call YIMBYs.” The acronyms, respectively, stand for “not in my backyard” and “yes in my backyard”; they indicate people who are broadly against new construction, and people who are broadly in favor of it.
“But if you start drilling down into the micro-level stuff in these categories, there’s some more tension,” adds Michael Sweeney, a film and TV editor based in San Diego who’s very active on housing Twitter, and who got interested in the debate after having to navigate tenant protection laws in New York City to settle a dispute with a landlord while he was living there. The categories of YIMBY and NIMBY contain several subcategories that are often in conflict, making for a complicated intersection of priorities and points of disagreement.
Unpacking Yes In My Backyard
In the YIMBY camp, for instance, there’s a faction of generally more left-wing participants who are in favor of building more housing overall but also focusing on adding publicly funded or permanently affordable housing (they’re sometimes called PHIMBY, for “public housing in my backyard). Their argument is that new construction, if set at a price point existing residents can afford, can help combat gentrification. Sasha Perigo, a writer who is very active in housing Twitter (she describes herself as “Very Online,” capital letters included), considers herself in this camp. Perigo, who’s involved with the housing and homelessness issues in the Democratic Socialists of America’s San Francisco chapter, says she sees the need for new construction in crowded cities like San Francisco, but also the need to ensure that new construction is accessible to people with a range of incomes and that it takes into account the needs and rights of the current residents who it might affect. In her mind, it’s possible to marry the need for tenant protections like rent control with the need for new housing.
On the other end of the YIMBY camp, though, Sweeney says there’s “a small but very influential group of people,” who are often referred to as “market urbanists” as they advocate for adding new market-rate housing supply through private development. While a handful of policy analysts and planners fall in this camp independently, the greatest force on housing Twitter is the Market Urbanism account, which counts nearly 30,000 followers and very frequently weighs in on housing discussions on the site. To them, housing affordability does not need to be legislated or mandated; it can be created by manipulating the supply side of the market so that housing costs overall level off. In housing-strapped cities like San Francisco, the YIMBY movement holds particular sway because of just how little progress has been made in accommodating the influx of new people: Since 2010, San Francisco has added eight times more jobs than new housing. Sonja Trauss was one of the originators of the YIMBY movement. She now serves as the co-executive director of the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, which takes legal action against cities aiming to block new housing projects that comply with zoning codes. To Trauss, the YIMBY ethos “is about showing that it’s possible to build new housing.”
Before they started organizing, Trauss says, “there was this pessimistic sense that San Francisco was built out—demand was more than the housing we had, but we were not able to do anything about it.” Trauss says that for her, the market urbanist approach is designed to rattle the system and wake people up to the fact that it’s both necessary and possible to materially alter the landscape of the city to make more units. For this camp, who the units go to and how affordable they are is a far secondary priority to the need to get them built at all. It’s a stance that tends to inflame the already contentious debate around gentrification and housing in cities like San Francisco: In 2017, for instance, Trauss drew condemnation for comparing opponents to a proposed luxury development in San Francisco’s Mission District to anti-immigrant Trump supporters, saying both are “unwelcoming to newcomers,” which needless to say did not go over well with the neighborhood’s majority Latinx advocates.
"By preventing new housing, activists were being as unwelcoming of newcomers as Trump, Trauss said."
Newcomers in this case being techies ????
— crime hobbyist (@tarintowers) November 16, 2016
The different sides of Not In My Backyard
While there’s plenty of debate within the YIMBY camp, they’re united by the broad goal of building more housing—a goal that their counterparts, NIMBYs, oppose. Generally made up of wealthier and whiter single-family homeowners, who often come out against any new construction (but especially multiunit or apartment buildings), arguing that it will disrupt the character of their neighborhoods. “There’s often a generational divide at work here,” Freemark says. “A lot of people who own property in cities now were moving in when these cities were places nobody wanted to invest in. So the idea that they should simply open up the land around them to property developers is anathema.” This version of NIMBYism is exemplified in the organization Livable California, which was founded last year by Marin County resident Susan Kirsch, recently profiled extensively in CityLab, which noted that “She may drive a Prius and support the Sierra Club, but a future where people are smushed into denser neighborhoods and deprived of personal vehicles sounds to Kirsch like the stuff of a developing nation.” Kirsch herself does not Tweet, but her organization’s account amplifies people who oppose new development and upzoning—allowing multifamily buildings in neighborhoods that were once designated for only single-family homes. (Minneapolis, for instance, recently authorized adding triplexes in single-family neighborhoods across the city, leading to much rejoicing in certain corners of housing Twitter, and despair in others.)
Another kind of group that falls under the broad NIMBY umbrella (though with far different motivations and goals) are tenants rights and neighborhood protection groups, expressing very legitimate concerns that the “market urbanist” approach of adding new luxury housing will result in the displacement of long-term residents and the fragmenting of communities. These groups, like Plaza 16 in San Francisco and the Crown Heights Tenant Union in Brooklyn, often are led by people of color whose neighborhoods are starting to feel tension over interest from private developers and an influx of new residents in search of cheaper housing. They often do not unilaterally oppose the idea of new construction, but they object to projects (often luxury developments) that don’t meet standards for affordability. They often advocate for overarching rent control measures so that when new developments that could potentially raise prices in a neighborhood go in, existing tenants will be protected. Sometimes, because of inflammatory comments like the one Trauss made equating anti-gentrification advocates to Trump supporters and because of a general belief in the priority of the market over people’s well-being, tenants rights groups on Twitter often clash with market urbanists.
We can choose to build housing at 16th and Mission that causes evictions, houselessness, family stress and a massive shadow on an elementary school, or choose to build the housing that is needed and that uplifts a community. (2/3)
— Plaza 16 Coalition (@PlazaSixteen) February 8, 2019
Esteban Girón, who runs both a personal Twitter account and the online presence for the Crown Heights Tenant Union, says that discussions around rezoning and new development often bring them into conflict with the market urbanist YIMBYs. “The market urbanist types might make sense theoretically, but they usually don’t take into consideration the effect their policy proposals have on low-income and working class tenants of color, which is the demographic that generally sees the most impact from development,” he says. “When those folks do engage with us on Twitter, our snark levels rise accordingly.”
The headline should be, "@cmlauriecumbo's Dreams Finally Coming True." Such a tone-deaf article! The gaudy brick color doesn't "elevate" the neighborhood. Also funny that buyers will get free @BrooklynBotanic membership, so they can see all the plants their shadows will kill!
— CrwnHghtsTenantUnion (@CHTenantUnion) August 11, 2019
A discourse minefield
On housing Twitter, the arguments between the factions and sub-factions often play out on repeat, bad faith criticisms run rampant and threads often devolve into ad hominem attacks. People like Perigo who frequently participate in the discourse also identify troubling patterns of abuse directed at people in opposing factions. She’s had people running accounts with opposing viewpoints mock her mental health struggles (which she’s been open about) in arguments. Hyperbole is common: A frequent trope is people in the pro-development and density camps criticizing those who oppose density by saying they’re contributing to the climate crisis, for instance.
But whoever is reading this for Livable California tell Susan that I’m really happy that she doesn’t have to be bothered by bicycles or fourplexes, her personal comfort is so much more important than the climate crisis
— (((Matthew Lewis))) (@mateosfo) July 29, 2019
The phrase “ruining the character of the neighborhood” has become a flashpoint, too: A typical response of the homeowner-NIMBY camp to new development, it’s now been sarcastically co-opted by YIMBYs, to the extent that a parody account called SFNIMBY tweets it in response to pretty much anything about density or new development.
— SFNIMBY (@SF_NIMBYs) February 20, 2016
Others report having their intelligence insulted over their views. Kate Wagner, an architecture critic and the brains behind McMansion Hell, noted recently on Twitter that she, as a left-leaning YIMBY who supports affordable housing, has had acrimonious conversations with market urbanists who lean more on supply-and-demand economics. “Most of Twitter urbanism is so smug and condescending and downright elitist. Maybe if folks didn’t treat me and the people whose work I respect like we’re some kind of insipid morons for demanding better on a scale larger than the incremental, I’d keep being tuned in,” she wrote.
But Wagner’s experience is neither unique nor wholly representative of the scope of tense discourse on housing Twitter. Between any factions in the conversation, the discourse can swiftly turn toxic. People like Sweeney, who have been immersed in the debate for a while, believes that the extremes on both the YIMBY and NIMBY side—the “market urbanists” and the typically single-family-homeowners who object to any new development, respectively—are never going to reach agreement. “But there’s a possibility for consensus on the left that makes a ton of sense, which is you pair tenant protections with increased supply,” he says. “And if you can get people to stop shouting at each other, it could be pretty easy to get everyone into that boat.”
But the issue is, says Juliet Eldred, who runs the popular Facebook group New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens and is also active on Twitter, is that unlike healthcare, for which there’s a commonly accepted solution on the left, this consensus that Sweeney describes is still fairly theoretical. “So many bridges have been burned based on who people are associated with that it’s almost like people won’t consider perspectives just based on who is saying them,” Perigo adds. “So much of it is personal.”
Baca feels similarly. She is frequently frustrated by how many ideas are out there, but how impossible it often feels to thread the needle between them. “My feeling is that the right to shelter is something big and messy and complex, and you need 90 million people working on a whole bunch of different things, which means tenant protections, which means new construction, which means better financing, which means vouchers, which means wraparound services.” She echoes something Freemark says, which is that “a willingness to accept nuance and complexity doesn’t work that well on Twitter.” It’s a platform that gives people 280 characters at a time to hammer home a point, and as Baca points out, housing is a topic that doesn’t (or shouldn’t) boil down to a single point, but rather many.
Eldred describes a painstaking process for trying to convey an opinion on housing Twitter. “When I do a thread, I have to carefully write it such that no single Tweet I write could be pulled out of context to make me look bad, which of course is an interesting creative writing exercise given how little space you have.” Often, she says, what happens is she’ll try to compose a thread on Twitter linking together some of the opposing factions in housing Twitter—the need for tenant protections along with increased housing supply, for instance—only to have just one Tweet in the thread be pulled out of context and rendered “with the least charitable possible interpretation of what I said.” There have been some instances, Eldred says, “where I’ve made a comment that in the thread makes sense, but taken out of context just makes me sound callous and flippant, because if there’s no context, it just sounds like I’m saying tenants just need to deal with neighborhood change.”
“We put ourselves into this artificial scarcity corner, where I feel all the time that I have to mention everything in one space on Twitter,” Baca says. But that’s something that she’s trying to push back against. “I have to tell myself that sometimes it’s ok to write and share a blog post about why we should build more housing, and then write another about why we need rent control,” she says. “Housing is big and vast, and there are many facets to it, so you don’t need to legitimize your argument by saying everything in one breath.”
Messy . . . but necessary?
What many people who participate in housing Twitter say is that it is unlike any other corner of the internet. The conversation is much more divisive and toxic, participants say, than other subtopics that they engage with on Twitter.
But the participants keep coming back. Because so many people not involved in housing professionally have personal experiences that pull them into the debate, housing Twitter has become something of a public education forum and a means for people to better understand what’s happening in their cities. There are many instances of people thoroughly explaining policies and proposals around housing (Perigo says she often tries to do this), and participants often use it as a forum to ask for information or people to talk to for insight—and housing Twitter can deliver on that. For all the toxicity she’s experienced, Perigo says that “because it’s such a big topic online, people who aren’t politicos or don’t have any housing expertise are able to become very informed about housing politics.” In general, she says, “even if people don’t engage because they think it’s toxic, there are a lot of people reading and learning.”
As @alfred_twu has written extensively, rent control has a modest impact on supply in the face of the enormous, demonstrated benefits for tenants in terms of housing stability.
Let's see the forest through the trees and fight exclusionary zoning, not oppose rent control! pic.twitter.com/JqGsotFSoU
— internet princess (@sashaperigo) August 16, 2018
Even Devin Michelle Bunten, a professor of urban economics and housing at MIT, says that she gets something out of the housing Twitter discourse. If one cuts past the political clamor, “some of the most interesting accounts on here are almost doing micro-reporting on components of housing markets or policy that are not well understood, or not well publicized,” she says. She points to accounts like @everylotnyc, which simply shows a photograph of every single parcel of land in the city, and @densifyinghou, which shows before-and-after photos of how Houston is changing and developing. “I think in highlighting this market-oriented transition of housing it absolutely has a political perspective—but for me, I enjoy it because you get a picture of something that would be very hard to appreciate otherwise,” she says.
For Girón from the Crown Heights Tenant Union, housing Twitter has been a way to help advance the nationwide movement around tenants rights. The CHTU, founded in 2014, is one of the older pro-tenant groups in the housing Twitter space. Through managing its account, Girón says he works to amplify other tenant organizing groups in cities across the country, and he often offers advice to other movement leaders through Twitter. “There’s a lot of solidarity that goes on,” he says. “There’s a sense of the conversation that’s happening and collaboration with other groups, and I find it really useful for housing organizing.”
Tenant Unions go hard! We can't wait to see y'all win ETPA expansion, and if ever you want some fellow rabble-rousing city folks to stand in solidarity with you, we'd be honored to do so! #UniversalRentControl https://t.co/2tR0R1SQVg
— CrwnHghtsTenantUnion (@CHTenantUnion) August 11, 2019
YIMBY Action’s Trauss also says that participating in the housing discourse on Twitter opened her eyes to how complicated housing issues are across the country. Though this is not true in her hometown of San Francisco, she learned that some cities require that existing buildings be torn down for new construction to be built. “So I was hearing this talking point that new housing displaces people and didn’t understand where it was coming from, but when you’re in contact with advocates in other places and that’s what they say, you learn that perspective,” she says. And people like Eldred and Perigo say that they’ve made personal connections with people across the country through housing Twitter, and they’ve had experiences where they’ve come across new information and perspectives through the site. Perigo says she followed one thread about upzoning in New York City that remained remarkably civil and information-filled, and others have used it as a way to crowdsource tips and sources for learning more about complex housing issues.
Fundamentally, that is the tension of housing Twitter. It’s filled with information and diverse perspectives and opinions, but also an overarching acrimony. Participants who have worked to cultivate nuanced views on housing might be able to forge some consensus. But the structure of the platform itself—the short bursts of thought, the retweet button—tends to fence people into distinct categories. What people like Eldred have observed is that many people on housing Twitter share the same aim, which is to make cities more livable, affordable, and inclusive for a wide range of people. But many people have different ways of prioritizing the steps needed to get there. People working on tenant organizing and rent control issues prioritize them and may want them secured before issuing a call for new construction that can support those aims. YIMBYs who want to see more building are likely to lead with that, then get into the need for the same renter protections that tenant advocates are pushing for. But on Twitter, what people’s first priority is often all others see—and the shouting often obscures the nuance and the possibility of a “both and” approach.
But if you’re realizing that housing is one of the defining issues of our time, and you’re willing to arm yourself with the stamina to wade past the noise and acrimony (and have a hands-off relationship to the Retweet button, which people like Eldred say is a discourse killer), you might learn something about how housing does or does not get built in your city. Or, at the very least, come away with an understanding of why it may be much more complicated than you think.