Front yard, back yard, and housing policies

This description of civic discussion and decision-making uses the imagery of front yards and back yards:

Photo by Chris F on

This dynamic—front-yard proclamations contradicted by backyard policies—extends well beyond refugee policy, and helps explain American 21st-century dysfunction.

The front yard is the realm of language. It is the space for messaging and talking to be seen. Social media and the internet are a kind of global front lawn, where we get to know a thousand strangers by their signage, even when we don’t know a thing about their private lives and virtues. The backyard is the seat of private behavior. This is where the real action lives, where the values of the family—and by extension, the nation—make contact with the real world.

Let’s stick with housing for a moment to see the front yard/backyard divide play out. The 2020 Democratic Party platform called housing a “right and not a privilege” and a “basic need … at the center of the American Dream.” Right on. But the U.S. has a severe housing-affordability crisis that is worst in blue states, where lawmakers have erected obstacle courses of zoning rules and regulations to block construction. In an interview with Slate, Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a Democrat, took aim at his own side, saying progressives are “living in the contradiction that they are nominally liberal [but they] do not want other people to live next to them” if their neighbors are low-income workers. The five states with the highest rates of homelessness are New York, Hawaii, California, Oregon, and Washington; all are run by Democrats. Something very strange is going on when the zip codes with the best housing signs have some of the worst housing outcomes.

Housing scarcity pinches other Democratic priorities. Some people convincingly argue that it constricts all of them. High housing costs pervert “just about every facet of American life,” as The Atlantic’s Annie Lowrey has written, including what we eat, how many friends we keep, how many children we bear. “In much of San Francisco, you can’t walk 20 feet without seeing a multicolored sign declaring that Black lives matter, kindness is everything and no human being is illegal,” the New York Times columnist Ezra Klein wrote. But in part because those signs sit in front yards “zoned for single families, in communities that organize against efforts to add the new homes,” the city has built just one home for every eight new jobs in the past decade.

The image here is from a single-family home, a familiar symbol and sight in the United States. The front yard is visible to others. Homeowners put certain things in the front yard and do certain things in the front yards. Meanwhile, the back yard is a more private space, often out of sight from the front and even from others with fencing, plantings, and more blocking possibly blocking views.

Is the front yard just performative? For American homes, people put a lot of effort into a lawn, a facade, signs, and more to present a particular image to the world. It is not necessarily fake or inauthentic; it is just one angle available to the public. It can affect perceptions, interactions, conversations.

Perhaps this is similar to front-stage and back-stage from sociologist Erving Goffman? In public settings, we practice impression management and we play particular roles. We perform in ways that align with or resist social conventions. Back-stage allows for less of this.

In the area of housing, I have seen what is described above: when communities have opportunities to discuss and plan for affordable housing or denser housing or cheaper housing, they often throw up obstacles. They are not necessarily opposed to the need for such housing; they just do not want it near them. Housing as an issue ends up being a hyper-local concern as community by community debates development.

Perhaps it is less about front-yard, back-yard and more about general/national versus local. It is one thing to support policies at a national level or for others to follow. It is another to commit to one’s own actions as well. Could a growing YIMBY movement supersede all the NIMBY activity?

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