It is what he sees as the glacial pace of development in Dublin that made Matthew Johnston start what might be Dublin’s first YIMBY group.
“A lot of general frustration that I had with a few different things,” says the former Facebook worker on a recent Friday at Love Supreme, a coffee shop in Stoneybatter.
He would spend a lot of time on the SkyscraperCity forums, an online meeting place for architecture nerds, following the developments that were posted, tracking what happened to them, noticing buildings being capped a few storeys below what he would consider optimum height.
He grew frustrated with criticisms of student-housing schemes that have appeared in the city, thinking people didn’t appreciate that they’d serve as a relief valve for the lower end of the private-rented sector.
Most recently, there was the widely reported thumbs-down given by planners to the 22-storey Tara Street tower put forward by real-estate developer Johnny Ronan. That would be office space, but it still played into his general sense of stagnation.
“Coming from working in a company that needed loads of office space,” he says. “[And] I knew that lots of workers were struggling to find accommodation, even somewhere like Facebook.”
From his home in Cabra, where he cares for his blue-eyed one-year-old son, he wanted to do something constructive.
In July, he launched the YIMBY Dublin Facebook page, aimed at “fighting for increased density in Dublin city for residential and commercial developments”, and showing “how the authorities are contributing to impossibly escalating property and rental values”.
The Rise of YIMBYism
Johnston might be one of the first to fly the YIMBY colours in Dublin – “It’s just me at the minute,” he says – but in other cities in Europe, and in the United States, groups have emerged that see the solution to a crisis of affordable housing and a shortage of office space in pushing governments to allow denser building.
Rather than seeing developers as foes, intent on cleansing neighbourhoods and racking up house prices, YIMBYs often see them as friends, collaborators, those to be worked with, rather than against.
Johnston says he is still working out his opinions on a lot of issues; he comes across as more of a proto-YIMBY than a full-on evangelist. The Facebook group is way of teasing out the issues.
It’s not for preaching to the choir. “I’m trying to attract people who aren’t necessarily won over by the arguments that I’m making,” he says.
“People who care about homelessness problems, generally making housing more affordable for everyone,” he says.
He says that he sees his mission as putting up posts that better elucidate the benefits of developments that Dubliners might not be aware of.
As he sees it, YIMBYism (spread out as Yes-In-My-Back-Yardism) is not the exact opposite of the more familiar NIMBYism (Not-In-My-Back-Yardism).
“It’s about understanding what NIMBYs are saying and balancing that with other needs,” he says.
At the moment, he thinks the planning process is tilted towards the small number of objectors to projects.
“Basically, the problem with NIMBYism isn’t the complaints themselves, it’s the decision-makers not being able to make the decision with those in mind and the other needs,” he says, echoing urbanist Brent Toderian.
Johnston isn’t the first in Dublin to say that he feels the voices of those who are in favour of development in a neighbourhood are eclipsed by the naysayers.
When workers on a building site for social housing in Cherry Orchard last year were blocked by residents – some of whom wanted to keep a park they had tended there – Danni Ryan decided she had had enough.
“I’m from Cherry Orchard, I’d like to live there, nearby mum, nearby family,” she says. Ryan has been on the social-housing list for 13 years.
So she organised. “I just got up, got a petition together, got the girls,” she said. Six of them wheeled out buggies and took their kids and a banner to stand in support of the site.
“I was worried that I was making a show of myself,” she said. But “we couldn’t take being told the houses weren’t being built”. Gradually, others in the community came out to join them. Some brought sandwiches.
It is rare for people to come out with a public display of support for social housing in a neighbourhood, though. “I think they’re afraid they won’t be heard,” says Ryan.
Daithí Doolan, a Sinn Féin councillor and head of Dublin City Council’s housing committee, said that is probably also because those who might benefit most from a development going ahead – those on the social-housing list, or living in hotels – also have the least energy to come out and vocally back them.
“If you’re living in a hotel, running with kids from bully to jack […] It’s difficult to do this and then go out on the street and protest for social housing,” he says.
“The ones who are well-heeled, they are organised and have a voice that they use to speak against social housing,” he said. As he sees it, that’s where councillors come in.
Others agree that there are voices often missing from debates over planning. Councillors are elected by the public, but generally the public who vote are homeowners and older, says Andrew Montague, a Labour councillor and head of the council’s planning committee.
“You’re delighted if house prices go up,” he says. “They don’t want anything built near them. They don’t like permeability, they don’t like height.”
Younger Dubliners on the other hand, the much-maligned millennials or resigned renters don’t get heard. “Younger people need to see new developments,” Montague says.
That might be one reason why there is sometimes an emphasis on the need for family homes, rather than one-bed apartments – which the city doesn’t have enough of, either.
“Even if they are just making these arguments,” he says, of the proto-YIMBY movement. “Young people who aren’t voting aren’t even aware that they are missing out at all. I absolutely think this is needed in the planning process.”
The Density Question
At the heart of Johnston’s YIMBY campaign is a belief in the need for more density in the city. He wondered at the size of the buildings in the plan for the large vacant site at Poolbeg West, questioning whether more couldn’t be higher. “We seem to be kind of adverse to high-density,” he says.
Others in the group are on the same wavelength. “The problem is, it’s the development plans that are restrictive,” said David Donnelly, who hadn’t heard of the term YIMBY before Facebook suggested he might like the page.
The city development plan shouldn’t cap buildings where they do, and the Docklands is lower-rise than it should be, he says. (In most of the city, buildings can be up to nine storeys or 28 metres tall; some areas allow for up to 22 storeys.)
“Despite the fact that we have an accommodation crisis,” says Donnelly, who calls himself an “average joe” with a keen interest in how the city grows.
It’s not that he wants skyscrapers in Dublin’s historic core, he says. “Nobody wants to do that.” But he does think they could go higher.
In its crudest form, underlying the assumption that just building will solve the housing crisis, is the idea that just rezoning for greater density will lead to more supply and increase affordability.
But there are issues with that assumption – the assumption that we can just add more supply, any supply and it will lead to cheaper housing.
A recent research brief from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute found that over there, “while increasing house supply is important (as it serves to stop house prices shooting up astronomically), it doesn’t cause house prices to drop to levels that are affordable to lower income households.”
For a start, if you rezone for greater density, land values increase, which leads to more costly housing, not helping the city’s lack of affordable housing.
You might expect an argument for greater density in a city where there is a lack of land to build on, but some don’t think that there is a lack of development land in Dublin.
“Some would say that the problem is that the developers are sitting on landbanks,” said Doolan of Sinn Féin. At the moment, land prices are going up at 15 percent a year so there’s little incentive to sell them on, or use them.
Says Montague: “Landowners are seeing their land go up at such large rates. They can just sit and wait.”
Johnston muses on the affordability conundrum. “I imagine the problem is just building loads of houses isn’t the answer because developers want to build houses that make them money,” he says.
Johnston is well-acquainted with the other criticisms that some level against pro-development YIMBYs, that hell-for-leather building can ignore the real impacts of development on those on lower incomes: displacement, higher rents, broken-up communities.
“I understand that. I think gentrification is one of the most difficult things to figure out. Not how to fix it, because certain parts of it are beneficial, but how to improve areas without actually pushing people out,” he says.
He has red lines. If the new Newmarket in the south inner-city had no space for the Dublin Flea Market or the Green Door Market after the planned redevelopment that would be a no-go for him, he says.
He and his partner bought a home in Cabra not long back, on the edge of Phibsboro, in the north of the city. “When we moved in, we might have been considered the first signs of gentrification.”
Now there are skips outside houses, a chain-reaction of renovation and higher house prices and rising rents. On the one hand, he hopes that will lead to a better public realm, more places for kids to play – but is aware of what would likely happen then.
“It’s all interconnected in a way. You improve the public realm in order to attract higher-paying renters, or higher-paying property buyers,” he says.
He feels a clear sense of urgency about the need to build. “I hate to be, like, kind of build and solve it later, but we’re way, way behind where we need to be,” he said. But those in need of affordable housing and social housing are underserved, he says.
He laughs. “I guess that’s where the problems start is when someone just says build it, and we’ll figure it out later. It feels so urgent to solve … How many people are homeless?”
Donnelly says the same, that he sees the pro-development stance as supportive of the idea that there should all types of people able to live in the city centre, that the motivation is affordability for all.
“People who work as cleaners need to live near their work,” he says. “I don’t think being pro-development is right-wing, or anti-communities.”
At the moment, the YIMBY Dublin group has 439 followers and Johnston is unclear what direction he might take the group in next. He’s thinking it all over.
It’s early days, he says. “At the moment, it’s all about raising awareness.”