Is PHIMBY Realistic?

Government-subsidized housing is a useful complement to market-rate housing, but an affordability strategy that relies solely on low-income housing may be impractical.

Read Time: 3 minutes

December 19, 2018, 9:00 AM PST

By Michael Lewyn @mlewyn

Hope VI Housing

Brett VA / Wikimedia Commons

As NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) activists have become more successful in using zoning codes to block new housing, housing supply in many metro areas has lagged behind demand, causing housing prices to rise. In response, a YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) movement has arisen in a few high-cost metros; YIMBYs seek to fight for new housing, taking on NIMBYs and (usually) allying with residential developers. YIMBYs focus heavily on zoning reform; they seek to reduce or eliminate government regulations that restrain housing supply.

But YIMBYism as well is controversial—and not just among NIMBYs. Some progressives agree that more housing is necessary, but emphasize that even reduced citywide rents will be inadequate to house the neediest. The most extreme progressives oppose new market-rate housing, and argue that the primary solution to high rents should be government spending on low-income housing. For example, a recent article in Jacobin magazine suggests that municipalities should build 10 million new units* over the next decade. A new acronym has arisen to describe progressives who emphasize such strategies—PHIMBY, or Public Housing In My Back Yard.

A PHIMBY platform, if implemented, would be an improvement upon the status quo in some ways. Housing supply added by government is still housing supply, and thus would reduce rents for everyone. And because government-subsidized housing is likely to be directly targeted to the needy, such housing will directly benefit low-income renters. By contrast, new market-rate housing eventually benefits the poor by holding down rents, but this process may take years if not decades.

But there are two major political obstacles to PHIMBYism. The first is of course NIMBYism; the same NIMBYs who object to private housing for the middle and upper classes are likely to object even more vociferously to public housing for poor people. Even in poor neighborhoods, low-income housing is controversial. For example, Boyle Heights is a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood famous for anti-gentrification agitationbut even in Boyle Heights, low-income housing has been stalled for years due to NIMBYism. While residents of affluent aresa may see low-income housing as a threat to their way of life, residents of poor areas may believe that they have been a dumping ground for poverty for far too long, and may thus resist new homeless shelters and public housing.

The second major obstacle is cost. Subsidized housing in urban areas often costs about $700,000 per unit. So if the United States added a million such units per year,* the taxpayer bill would run to about $700 billion per year—roughly 15 times the current budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, or about 15 percent of all federal spending. In recent years, the federal government has been too ideologically divided to support major new domestic spending programs, thus it is hard to imagine Congress approving such a large project. State support for such an expansion seems even more unlikely, because states are usually constitutionally required to balance their budgets and cannot spend as much on new programs on the federal government.  In theory, government could fund such programs through large-scale tax increases- but this seems unlikely, not just because of public taxophobia but also because the same progressives who favor public spending on subsidized housing also favor public spending on a wide variety of other priorities. 

So even though a PHIMBY program may be substantively desirable, it may be even more politically infeasible than an aggressive program of zoning deregulation.  

*I note that according to Freddie Mac, 1.62 million units per year will be necessary to meet future housing demand. 

Michael Lewyn

Michael Lewyn is an associate professor at Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, in Long Island. His scholarship can be found at

The  Rue Sainte-Catherine in Bordeaux is crowded with pedestrians in a lively European scene.

European Cities Act on Density

The sprawling mass of suburbia has been a disaster for the environment. But now smaller, denser cities herald a renaissance in city living.

November 20, 2022 - Wired Magazine

Victorian two-story buildings with retail shops in downtown Nashvile, Tennessee

Nashville Sets Downtown Parking Maximums

Nashville is the latest city to enact a substantive change to the parking requirements set by the city’s zoning code—doing away with parking minimums and setting parking maximums in the city’s Urban Zoning Overlay.

November 20, 2022 - The Tennessean

Musician playing guitar in front of outdoor seating and sidewalk vendors in Houston, Texas

Houston Development Aims to Create Hyper-Walkable, Micro-Living Neighborhood

The 17-acre Second Ward project has spurred both optimism for a more walkable city and concerns about displacement and gentrification.

November 21, 2022 - Houston Chronicle

The downtown high rises of Hamilton, Ontario are surrounded by greenery and the blue of Lake Ontario on a sunny day.

In Reversal, Ontario Government Could Open Toronto Greenbelt to Development

The Toronto Greenbelt was an urban growth boundary created in 2005 as one of the most obvious political victories for the Smart Growth movement in North America. A new bill would reverse course on the region’s growth policies.

23 minutes ago - The Narwhal

Three Lyft electric scooters parked on a sidewalk in West Los Angeles

Lyft Pulls Micromobility From Los Angeles Area

The company will no longer provide shared bikes and scooters in the L.A. region, citing a ‘lack of longterm commitment’ from cities.

November 25 - Santa Monica Daily Press

View of Duwamish River with Seattle and Mount Rainier in background

King County Water Treatment Station Set to Open

The facility is part of a plan to protect the Duwamish River from polluted runoff from overflowing sewer pipes.

November 25 - The Center Square

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.