America’s cities are changing their tune when it comes to housing.

Last week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (the city’s equivalent of a city council) unanimously approved a staggeringly ambitious new “Housing Element.” The plan requires the city to create more than 82,000 new housing units over the next eight years. That comes out to about 10,000 units a year, which is about three times the number of units that the city builds in a typical year.

That’s no small thing in San Francisco, a city where elected officials have been bitterly divided over housing policy for decades, and which has the slowest and most arduous housing approval process in California. In recent years, the city has received national criticism for rejecting housing proposals on well-known sites and keeping in place bureaucratic red tape to stymy development.

So why, all of a sudden, are the Supervisors coming together over a pro-housing agenda?

They were forced to. A 2018 law required that the city plan for its fair share of units to meet statewide goals, and Governor Gavin Newsom, who beat back a recall effort by promising to combat the state’s housing crisis, put in place new mechanisms for accountability. If San Francisco didn’t approve a state-compliant housing plan outlining the construction of 82,000 units by January 31st, the city risked losing authority over its zoning laws, along with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for affordable units and transportation. The Board passed the new Housing Element days before the deadline.

Newsom’s aggressive posture towards San Francisco is consistent with his longtime war on opponents of new development, or “NIMBYs” (an acronym that stands for “not-in-my-backyard”). Newsom has taken additional steps to reel in NIMBYs, creating a Housing Accountability Unit within the governor’s office and initiating an unprecedented audit into San Francisco’s approval process. He has also sued — or threatened to sue — local governments that don’t play ball.

“NIMBYism is destroying the state,” Newsom told the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle last year. “There’s a crisis. Why the hell are you stopping projects? I mean, we’ve seen it over and over.”

The good news for Newsom and other housing advocates is that the political tide seems to be turning on NIMBYism. That is especially true in New York, where last month, Governor Kathy Hochul called for the construction of 800,000 new units over the next decade — double the amount that the state has built over the last 10 years. Hochul’s “Housing Compact” would require zoning for greater density near transit hubs, and legalize basement apartments in New York City, among other things.

In an op-ed titled, “In New York, NIMBYism Finally Outstays Its Welcome,” Mara Gay of the New York Times wrote, “As rents rise, the anti-development sentiment that once dominated Democratic politics is giving way to calls to build more housing, fast. Lately, even politicians who count themselves among the most skeptical regarding for-profit developers have thrown their support behind building units to ease the crisis.”

The housing debate in California and New York has focused not just on the number of overall units but also the percentage of units allocated for affordable housing. Opponents of new housing have often complained that developers tend to price out working class people. But San Francisco’s new Housing Element, for example, uses an all-the-above approach: there will be plenty of market rate housing, but more than half of the new units — about 46,000 — must be affordable for low and moderate income households. (Eligibility for affordable housing is determined by one’s income as a percentage of the Area Median Income.)

But even if NIMBYism is on the ropes politically, making ambitious housing goals a reality won’t be easy. In San Francisco, for example, the cost of building a single unit of affordable housing can run up to $1.2 million. That’s due to political factors like sluggish approval processes, but it’s also due to broader structural and economic ones, like worker shortages and inflation.

How do you feel about your city’s housing policies? Should the state have more control over housing laws, or should that power remain in the hands of city governments and local legislators? Write to us at