Neighborhood Character in 280 Characters
The story of how housing discourse has disintegrated is not just a story about debates over housing policy, but also how the platforms we use often stoke needless division.
A growing number of urban policy wonks and tenant activists are finding a home on Twitter, comprising a subculture now known as “housing Twitter.” Like most homes, this digital one isn’t without its petty domestic quarrels. The fight, broadly speaking, is between those who don’t think we need more housing (“Not in my backyard” or NIMBYs), and those who think we do (“Yes in my backyard,” or YIMBYs).
But it’s not that simple. As anti-gentrification activists and market-friendly urbanists fight tooth and nail over whether development is a vice or a virtue, housing has become one of many issues dividing left-leaning folks online. Crucially, just as Twitter enables dialogue, the platform’s features have enabled a seemingly never-ending battle among users who might otherwise be politically aligned.
I’ve experienced this battle firsthand. I was in the middle of dinner on April 14th when my phone erupted in a series of quick vibrations. Twitter was calling, and I answered. “Here’s yet another example of YIMBYs’ horrible reputation as a bullying, pro-gentrification group used by corporate America,” tweeted ‘Housing Is A Human Right’ (@HousingHumanRt).
Their thread had already earned 34 Quote Tweets — activists defending themselves against what was clearly an unfair characterization of their housing policy platform. The two camps hurled insults and vitriol back and forth. Within just a few hours, this peculiar, housing-obsessed corner of Twitter had descended into chaos. But why? In one of the few spaces on the Internet where one can meaningfully engage in housing policy discourse, how did things get so intolerable?
Housing Discourse Gone Digital: How Twitter Changed Everything
The main reason why Twitter emerged as the platform of choice for housing enthusiasts is timing.
People started talking about housing when it started becoming unaffordable. Growing unaffordability coincided with the advent of new urbanism in the early 1990s. The first new urbanists championed dense, walkable neighborhoods, preaching that sprawl destroyed the urban fabric, and that prevailing development patterns had caused the burgeoning housing crisis. These new urbanists were mostly professionals — architects, urban planners, and academics. Housing policy was a topic reserved for the intellectual and professional elite.
The global financial crisis of 2008 thrust housing out of the ivory tower and into the minds of the lay public. The housing crisis became very real and very apparent, very quickly. Minimal government oversight, predatory mortgage lending, and widespread fraud created a perfect storm — and the housing market collapsed. Over the course of the crisis and the subsequent recession, a quarter of American households lost over 75% of their wealth. Americans quickly realized how much they depended on the housing market for economic survival, and began to ask how to make the market work better for everyone. Housing policy became a hot topic.
Crucially, the recession coincided with the introduction of Twitter’s current model of user engagement. In July 2009, Twitter hyperlinked hashtags, allowing users to explore trending topics. Then, in November, Twitter added the retweet feature, allowing users to amplify existing content with the click of a button. Put together, these features allowed Twitter users to create communities concerned with niche topics, including housing policy.
Yet nothing brought housing policy wonks and activists to housing Twitter quite like the debate over SB 50, a controversial bill first proposed to the California legislature in 2018 that promised to densify the state’s single-family neighborhoods and loosen land use restrictions around public transit stations. The bill divided housing Twitter along both new and familiar lines. The NIMBYs (“Not in My Back Yard”) argued that allowing more development in single-family neighborhoods would disrupt neighborhood character and “usurp local democracy.” Inspired by the principles of new urbanism, YIMBYs (“Yes in My Backyard”) lauded the bill as a solution to the state’s crippling affordability and climate crises. Yet a new faction, progressive tenants’ rights activists, warned that densifying neighborhoods could displace vulnerable renters.
Over the course of two years, legislators took three votes on SB 50, each to no avail. The bill’s prospects fizzled out, yet on Twitter, the damage was already done.
Progressives painted YIMBYs as corporate sellouts who patronized tenant advocates by arguing their positions were justified “because Econ 101.” YIMBYs clapped back at progressives for sacrificing their core values to preserve the status quo. The left-wing anti-NIMBY alliance dissolved.
This political cleavage makes housing policy discourse unique. In other areas of policy, left-leaning individuals mostly coalesce around one solution. When it comes to healthcare, single-payer is the agreed-upon solution. Criminal justice? Defund the police. Climate change? Green New Deal. What makes housing any different? Answering this question requires a bit more context as to why housing policy folk chose Twitter in the first place.
Something for Everyone: What Made Twitter the Obvious Choice
If you’re new to Twitter, it might seem that the platform’s goal is to amplify what is “trending.” In fact, there’s a landing page on Twitter’s platform that exists specifically for this purpose: to list trending topics, with brief highlights from the day’s news. But at its core, Twitter is a place for folks with diverse viewpoints and backgrounds to say practically whatever they want, about whichever topic they choose. Twitter’s mission statement makes explicit their goal to “give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers.”
However, since it’s impossible for a single user to process all 500 million tweets shared every day, the platform structures what each user is exposed to by whom they follow. Moreover, users follow other users because they are interested in seeing and interacting with their tweets. As a result, it’s very easy for a user to cater their Twitter feed to a certain subtopic or range of subtopics — just follow the right people. In this sense, housing Twitter is nothing more than a web of users who follow one another, and retweet and like housing-related content.
But Twitter is also a highly politicized space — something that almost goes without saying for anyone who has used Twitter for more than a few hours. In fact, researchers have measured political polarization by analyzing the tweets of elected officials. Even though a 280-character tweet can hardly encompass the breadth and complexity of users’ views, tweets are readily digestible snippets of information, a convenient proxy for folks trying to gauge others’ political views. Housing discourse is no different. Local tenant groups like the LA Tenants Union take advantage of Twitter’s political ethos to share information about upcoming protests, raise awareness about tenants’ issues, and amplify the work of other local groups.
While progressive groups find Twitter ideal for furthering their political goals, journalists and policy researchers like Twitter’s platform because it enables “micro-reporting.” As Eillie Anzilotti explained in her 2019 report on housing Twitter, researchers often source crucial insights about housing policy and land use from niche accounts on Twitter, such as YIMBY Tehran (@TehranYimby), an account that highlights new residential developments in Iran (their tweets often draw praise from Americans on housing Twitter).
Thus, it’s easy to understand why Twitter is the platform of choice for the diverse array of users interested in housing — from academics to progressive activists. Twitter’s platform enables users to tailor the content they are exposed to, allowing topical niches like housing Twitter to emerge in the first place. Users interested in the politics of housing can share and receive information about advocacy efforts and learn about struggles for housing justice across the U.S. and around the world. Through Twitter, researchers and journalists gain access to interesting factoids about housing policy and planning via micro-reporting. Clearly, if it weren’t for these unique features of Twitter’s platform, housing Twitter might not exist. However, this is not to say that Twitter is infallible. In fact, many of the platform’s key features are behind housing Twitter’s decline into vitriol and toxicity.
Discourse Goes Downhill: Limitations of the Platform (and its Users)
A lot of what makes Twitter an attractive platform for housing enthusiasts is also the reason why housing Twitter is so toxic, why tenants’ rights groups can get away with calling YIMBYs “density Bolsheviks” and why YIMBYs feel empowered to liken NIMBYism to “puke-tastic Trumpism.”
Namely, the platform prevents nuance, and disincentivizes caution and critical thinking. While the 280-character limit is important for streamlining content and enhancing the user experience, it also structurally inhibits users from introducing caveats or acknowledging counter-arguments when they tweet what’s on their minds. Pressing the retweet button requires little to no effort; users are empowered to thoughtlessly and uncritically amplify others’ content, without verifying whether this information they are sharing is factually correct.
Meanwhile, housing is a highly nuanced issue requiring an in-depth understanding of unique policy structures. Zoning controls what can be built on a given plot of land, and inherently restricts where and how much housing is supplied in U.S. cities. Tenant protections vary across different cities and states and are notoriously misleading. The development process is lengthy and convoluted, and housing justice advocates often conflate landlords and developers. Lastly, gentrification (a term often decried as meaningless) is difficult to measure and trace back to a root cause. If it’s not clear already, producing an educated and refined analysis of housing policy in 280 characters is basically impossible.
So, Twitter doesn’t handle complexity well. But housing policy isn’t just complicated; it’s also deeply personal.
Users of housing Twitter recognize that housing is about home — something to which we all share a profoundly emotional connection — and everyone experiences home differently. This plays out very visibly on housing Twitter, where YIMBYs and NIMBYs (especially when class differences are involved) often talk past one another. As Twitter allows its users to exercise their natural in-group bias and follow/retweet users they agree with, polarization is the natural result. The discourse goes downhill.
The rise of housing Twitter is both fascinating and deeply disturbing. It is both a testament to Twitter’s ability to bring together and facilitate dialogue among users with common interests, and also an indictment of the platform’s structural limits on intelligent and productive dialogue.
Housing Twitter came about largely because housing became a common topic of discussion at the same time that Twitter enabled discussion in its current form. The Great Recession made housing an issue that extended far beyond the academy, and the debate over SB 50 separated housing enthusiasts into three camps — YIMBYs, NIMBYs, and anti-displacement progressives.
Despite their varied perspectives, Twitter offered everyone something different. For academics, researchers, and journalists hungry for insights about the housing market and land use policies, they could take advantage of micro-reporting and follow relevant users to learn more. For grassroots activists, Twitter promised a politically active audience and the chance to network and support other groups working to actualize a similar vision of housing justice.
While the origins of housing Twitter are pretty intuitive, the voracity of dialogue in this strange corner of the Internet can’t be explained away so easily. It is in part a result of the intense emotions associated with home, but it also stems from how users interact with Twitter as a platform. Housing policy is complicated and messy, but Twitter doesn’t allow for nuance, nor does it discourage mindless analysis of limited information. Armed with the power to retweet without a second thought, users tend to amplify this mindless analysis if it so happens to correspond to their worldview.
Housing policy is an esoteric and widely misunderstood field of interest, and Twitter has lent its devotees a cherished platform. But this platform deserves scrutiny. Housing Twitter is not toxic just because housing is a contentious issue, but also because of how Twitter facilitates dialogue. It is incumbent on all of us, housing enthusiast or not, to understand how the platforms we use influence the ways in which we communicate, or else we risk intractable online chaos.