Wake County

Yes, in your backyard? Amid debates about growth, a collective YIMBY voice emerges.

Dennis Gugger uses his computer after work on Aug. 11, 2014, in Raleigh. Gugger and his roommate used the app Airbnb to rent their house to travelers.
Dennis Gugger uses his computer after work on Aug. 11, 2014, in Raleigh. Gugger and his roommate used the app Airbnb to rent their house to travelers. newsobserver.com

You’ve probably heard the word NIMBY, short for “not in my backyard,” to describe people who oppose new development near their homes. But another movement is growing – YIMBY, or “yes, in my backyard.”

YIMBY has been gaining traction across the country, and Raleigh no exception. Two local groups are pushing for the approval of backyard cottages, short-term rental services such as Airbnb and new affordable housing projects.

Raleigh YIMBY, which hosted open meetings when it began in 2013, now mostly serves as an email listserv to spark conversations about progressive urban design.

Raleigh attorney Brent Woodcox started a second group, YIMBY Raleigh, in October in the midst of a divisive City Council election season. His group directly addresses development issues in Wake County, often through tweets and blog posts.

Most recently, Woodcox criticized Wake commissioners for agreeing to spend $23 million for land in Fuquay-Varina to build a park. Some had hoped the site would be used for affordable housing.

Ted Van Dyk, a member of Raleigh YIMBY and owner of New City Design Group, said the YIMBY philosophy is defined by optimism and excitement about Raleigh’s future as a major city. That’s important, he said, because reluctant voices – including those considered NIMBYs – are often the loudest.

“The people who think everything is fine don’t get motivated to come out and protest in the streets,” Van Dyk said. “YIMBYs have created a little body that says, ‘You know what, we might not be banging on the doors or wearing matching T-shirts, but there are people in Raleigh who do want thoughtful development and are OK with us becoming more of a city.”

Raleigh leaders have been debating for years about whether to allow property owners to rent their homes on a short-term basis. There has also been a lengthy debate about backyard cottages, which some say can increase the stock of affordable housing.

Earlier this year, some Cary residents were accused of being NIMBYs when they fought against a Habitat for Humanity project in their neighborhood. The project was ultimately approved, but the number of homes went from 23 to seven.

A memorable case in Raleigh involved neighbors who successfully rejected a Publix grocery store planned for their neighborhood on Falls of Neuse Road.

Michael Stevenson, an architect and one of Raleigh YIMBY’s founding members, said the city’s relative affluence and stability might have dulled its appetite for density and urbanization. But as Raleigh continues to grow, he said, demand will only increase for the amenities that define big cities, including, transit, density and taller buildings.

“I think Raleigh has been rather cautious compared to other cities, even Durham, that seem to be a little further along in that evolution,” Stevenson said. “We’ve been fortunate. People might think that things are working very well the way they are, so why make any changes?”

YIMBY vs. NIMBY doesn’t seem to be aligned with political affiliation. But Raleigh City Council member Russ Stephenson, a target of criticism from YIMBY groups, said the increasing prominence of pro-growth and anti-growth narratives was “unfortunate,” “overblown,” and not representative of how decisions are made.

“I’m actually more in agreement with (YIMBY groups) than they might think,” Stephenson said. “But there are extreme views that take to social media and tend to polarize the debate. So the question I always ask is, ‘What would a compromise look like?’ 

Stef Mendell, who was elected to the City Council this fall, has also taken issue with being labeled a “slow-growth” advocate, saying her positions are more nuanced. She unseated Bonner Gaylord, partly by saying he was too friendly with developers.

Woodcox said he thought Mendell had given one of the most thorough and balanced responses to YIMBY Raleigh’s candidate questionnaire.

“She said we need to create regulations that respond to real problems, not just hypothetical ones,” Woodcox said. “We’ve been encouraged.”

Van Dyk said the YIMBY agenda is more complex than simply being “pro-growth.”

“Here we are about to widen the (Interstate 440) Beltline, and a lot of cities are taking their highways out,” he said. “I bet you could find a lot of NIMBYs who say, ‘Of course we need that Beltline, I don’t want to be in traffic.’ They have that 20th-century mindset, where you can drive anywhere you want and there will be a parking spot waiting for you.

“That world had a nice long run,” Van Dyke said, “but it’s not going to be the future.”

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan