With socialist Matthew Mitnick and urbanist Ron Davis in the race to replace outgoing Council Member Alex Pedersen as the representative from Seattle's District 4—which covers the U-District, Wallingford, Windermere, and Sand Point—voters will have an opportunity to increase the pro-density power on the council ahead of next year’s critical vote on the comprehensive plan, a document that guides the city’s growth for the next decade. 

Of course, District 4 homeowners will likely find an anti-density champion or two to run on preserving the property values of their Laurelhurst bungalows, housing crisis be damned. The man behind the failure of the Legislature’s “missing middle” housing abundance bill, Rep. Gerry Pollet, is considering a run. The NIMBY who Seattle City Council Member Teresa Mosqueda crushed in 2021, Kenneth Wilson, is already in.

But the strong housing advocates who might face-off against the protectors of landed wealth bring slightly different flavors of “In My Back Yard” housing politics to the council. One leans more YIMBY ("Yes In My Back Yard"). One leans more PHIMBY ("Public Housing In My Back Yard"). Both reject NIMBYs ("Not In My Back Yard"). Though it's way early in the campaign, you'll need to know a little about all these acronyms to make a choice in this race.

What's the Difference?

The strictest YIMBYs diagnose the housing crisis as a supply issue and argue that building more apartments, condos, and townhomes in areas currently reserved for single-family houses would solve the problem. Some Republicans and progressive city-dwellers find common cause here, from conservative developer lobbyist Roger Valdez to Sierra Club members to “in some cases, academics who have too much time on their hands,” said Share The Cities Founder Laura Loe. (She said she’s got a foot in both the YIMBY and PHIMBY camps, so she can make fun of them. Chill out.) 

The strictest PHIMBYs reject the notion that governments can solve market problems with market solutions, and they emphasize affordability, public housing, and renters’ rights. They are more wary of corporate developers, even to the detriment of market-rate growth, and they tend to argue that the market will never produce housing needed for the poorest residents and would never build itself out of an affordability crisis anyway. Loe characterized Seattle PHIMBYs as a mix of on-the-ground housing justice advocates and “virtue-signaling, lefty blowhards.”

YIMBY and PHIMBY are loose terms that sit on a spectrum. In other parts of the country, like in San Francisco, YIMBYs and PHIMBYs are bitterly divided. But in Seattle, these “-IMBYs” find a lot of common ground, agreeing that a supply problem and an affordability problem drive the housing crisis. 

But a core question shows the subtle difference between YIMBYs and PHIMBYs: Do you think adding any kind of multifamily housing is a net good?

In a phone interview with The Stranger, Davis didn’t go full YIMBY. He acknowledged that the housing crisis is not just a supply issue. But, he also said, as a general rule, adding any housing–market-rate, affordable, or social–is a net good. He hedged his statement, saying there may be some edge-case exceptions.

Mitnick’s answer leaned more PHIMBY, arguing that adding any kind of multifamily housing everywhere wouldn't be a net good. For example, he said adding luxury apartments in the U-District would not be good because it would not help make communities more affordable.

"I don't believe that housing markets operate on these laws of supply and demand that YIMBYs keep pushing forth," he said. To support his point, he cited the number of vacant units in Seattle and he called for the City to levy "a very high fee" on landlords who "allow rentals to sit vacant."

According to one estimate, Seattle had approximately 33,100 vacant units in 2021. Around 70% of those units were vacant for six months or fewer, and the rest sat empty for more than six months. Darrell Owens, the California YIMBY policy analyst who collected that census data, reads the numbers this way: "Beyond popular theories that these homes are vacant due to rent control dodging landlords, derelict and uninhabitable conditions, or real estate speculators laundering money, more realistic possibilities include the common duplex or backyard granny unit simply out of use by the current occupants."

Ultimately, Mitnick thinks the profit motive that drives developers and landlords will never lead them to deliver enough housing for all. However, like Davis, Mitnick didn’t advocate for the furthest extreme of his relative “-IMBY” ideology, saying he sees merit in some supply-side arguments. 

YIMBY vs PHIMBY Nitty Gritty

While neither candidate came out swinging as a die-hard YIMBY or PHIMBY, Loe said Seattle’s pro-density left divides at the granular level over how high to set the Mandatory Housing Affordability (MHA) requirements. 

In 2019, the MHA set rules in more than two dozen newly zoned “urban villages” requiring developers to set aside a certain number of affordable units in their new housing projects or else pay a fee the City would use to fund affordable housing on a different site. The requirements vary throughout the city, but, as it stands, developers have to include between 2% and 11% affordable units, or pay a fee of between $5 to $39 per square foot. Most developers pay the fee

Both candidates want to increase the share of affordable housing the MHA mandates and also increase the cost of the fees, but they want to do so to different degrees and with different levels of confidence.

Neither candidate gave a firm number on fee increases, but Mitnick said he wants to force developers to make “well over 50%” of their new units affordable or else stomach the fee. He also specified that these units should be accessible for tenants with disabilities.

Davis did not give a hard number for MHA, but he threw out 25%, which New York City requires in its own version of MHA. He would consider an increase to that level if the “numbers people” convince him the requirements wouldn't scare off developers altogether. “We need to get the public benefit from developers, but we need to not get so aggressive that the benefit never gets created,” he said. 

But Mitnick said he’s not worried about scaring away developers. And if the policy did scare them away, then he’d see an opportunity to pivot to social housing and community land trusts. 

Bloodbath or BFFs?

Given their similarities, these progressive candidates will have to pitch themselves to largely the same demographic: renters. In the 2019 primary, NIMBY Pedersen won over Laurelhurst, Windermere, and other neighborhoods dominated by house-owners. The left-leaning candidates split the denser, more renter-heavy areas of the district.

Former chair of the 43rd Legislative District Democrats and current board member of the 46th LD Democrats, Scott Alspach, feels confident about only one of these progressives making it through the primary, and he urges voters to pick someone who can beat a strong NIMBY with high name recognition. 

Alspach argued that Davis was the right guy for the job.

“[Davis] is a candidate who understands we need an all-of-the-above approach to our housing crisis,” Alspach said in a phone interview. “I think he has done the work in the community and among neighborhood groups and associations to win and get that done.”

Loe said that organizers at Share The Cities will likely be split directly down the middle–half knocking doors for the socialist and half knocking doors for the urbanist. She’ll be supporting Mitnick because he’s an “on-the-ground fighter against power structures.” 

“[Mitnick] shows up in very deep ways—and not for neoliberal change but deep, transformative change,” she said. 

Mitnick also receives support for his run from the Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, the UW chapter for Students for a Democratic Society, the UW chapter for Institutional Climate Action, community organizer Violet Lavatai, and Washington State Director and Trade Justice organizer Julie Bouanna. 

It’s not unheard of for two progressive housing advocates to both advance to the general. It happened in 2017 when Teresa Mosqueda faced off against the more PHIMBY Jon Grant for a citywide seat. Before that, pro-housing candidates Rob Johnson and Michael Maddux competed in the 2015 general in D4. Those candidates even approached “BFF” status, according to KUOW. Loe hopes Mitnick and Davis will emulate that camaraderie. “We should all take the bus together before the forums,” she said. 

“Just imagine two candidates on stage in front of the Laurelhurst Community Club, and they’re debating different flavors of ending exclusionary zoning or rent control or social housing,” Loe said. “As a housing movement, we have the opportunity for a really substantive debate. I don’t want to see it get petty.”