Fed up with insane housing costs and the progressives who have stalled development for decades, a small group of activists are marching under a simple slogan: Build, baby, build!
San Francisco magazine
November 30, 2016
It was the evening of September 29, and the Brisbane city hall chamber probably hadn’t seen this many outsiders since the battle to save San Bruno Mountain in the 1970s. Of the several dozen people in attendance, an organized group of about 20 had come down from San Francisco, many caravanning together, to express their strong support for a massive proposed development that calls for building 4,434 units of housing and seven million square feet of commercial space on a 684-acre tract of empty land called the Brisbane Baylands. The city of Brisbane had indicated that it would approve the commercial space but not the housing units. The outsiders were here to try to get Brisbane to change its mind.
During the public comment section, one visitor after another took the microphone and explained to Brisbane officials why it was critically important that they approve the housing units. “The Bay Area operates as one,” said a young woman named Laura Clark, executive director of an organization called GrowSF. “No longer can our communities afford to think of themselves as isolated—and no longer can we afford to chronically under-build housing. Right now, millennials are being priced out of the Bay Area. This is a real tragedy. If you continue down this path of denying housing, there will be none for your children.” A man named Brian Hanlon attacked the city’s “misguided notion of sustainability, where you think excluding people is somehow green.” By rejecting the housing component, Hanlon said, Brisbane was preventing people from living “a carless lifestyle.” Kate Downing, an attorney who resigned from the Palo Alto Planning Commission and left town in disgust after voters rejected a 60-unit housing project for poor seniors, said, “Brisbane is a case study of all the things wrong with local control [of housing development].”
And on and on the outsiders went, laying out the reasons why this little town of 4,700 needed to sign off on a development that would double its population. Failing to build housing would open the city up to lawsuits. Construction workers needed the jobs. Infill development (construction in areas that are already largely built up) would fight sprawl. Building new housing would relieve the pressure on renters facing eviction and preserve diversity.
The Brisbane officials listened, but they weren’t swayed. “My allegiance is to the people of Brisbane,” said city council member Terry O’Connell. “Those are the people I serve.”
The out-of-towners who crowded into Brisbane’s city hall were YIMBYs—members of a nascent movement and lobby, marching under the acronymic banner “yes in my backyard,” who believe that the answer to the Bay Area’s housing crisis is to build, build, and build some more. The YIMBYs believe that creating more housing, of all types and all price tags, is the only way to bring down soaring housing costs throughout the Bay Area, allow non-wealthy newcomers to rent or buy, and ultimately prevent the displacement of middle- and working-class people. And they’re taking their fight to towns and cities from Brisbane to Lafayette, from Mountain View to Marin.
Those who have followed the Bay Area’s ongoing war over growth and gentrification might be forgiven for doing a double take at the notion that a pro-development movement sees itself as fighting to prevent displacement and gentrification. But that’s precisely what makes the YIMBYs so fascinating: They don’t conform to easy political or ideological stereotypes. Although they are often attacked by San Francisco progressives as witting or unwitting shills for developers or the tech industry, most YIMBYs say they’re progressives, too—they just have different ideas about how to solve the Bay Area’s housing crisis. In fact, many of them don’t regard their no-growth or slow-growth adversaries as being progressive except in name. Generally younger than their opponents, mainly renters, many of them employed in the tech industry, they were driven to activism after they found themselves unable even to rent in San Francisco or Berkeley or Oakland, let alone buy. And they regard many of their ostensibly enlightened opponents as a bunch of shortsighted and selfish older white homeowners whose pious declarations of solidarity with the oppressed mask an economically self-interested I’ve-got-mine-Jack attitude that is anything but progressive. Clark, one of the movement’s leaders, told the website Oaklandnorth, “I love suing sanctimonious limousine liberals. That’s my favorite part of what we do.”
As that quote indicates, the YIMBYs are definitely provocateurs. Their best-known figure is a woman who relishes staking out extreme stances and is about as subtle as a bulldozer. But as their lobbying trip to Brisbane demonstrated, the YIMBYs are dead serious about their mission, and frustrated that it hasn’t gotten more traction. As Gabriel Metcalf, the head of the pro-development think tank SPUR, tweeted the morning of the public hearing, “We know what to do to make our expensive cities more affordable. We don’t know how to win the political fight to make the changes.”
If the YIMBY movement has a public face, it belongs to Sonja Trauss. A 35-year-old math teacher who earned a master’s degree in economics from Washington University in St. Louis before moving to the Bay Area in 2011, Trauss wanted to live in San Francisco but could only afford to rent in West Oakland. Frustrated with the out-of-control housing prices—and politicians’ responses—that were forcing her and her friends to leave town, Trauss was galvanized by a 2014 TechCrunch article by Kim-Mai Cutler titled “How Burrowing Owls Lead to Vomiting Anarchists.”
Cutler argued that to blame techies for the Bay Area’s housing crisis—her article appeared when the Google bus protests were raging—was to miss the larger point: The Bay Area has simply not built enough housing to keep up with demand. Over the last 20 years, San Francisco built about 37,000 units, but the city’s population grew by 32,000 people between 2010 and 2013 alone. And San Francisco is actually a YIMBY city compared with much of the Bay Area, which builds even less new housing. The title of Cutler’s piece derived from the fact that Mountain View, home to Google, had rejected a proposed development because it would endanger burrowing owls; this led more Google employees to live in San Francisco or Oakland and take the Google buses that an anarchist vomited on.
Cutler’s widely read article “made organizing pro-density renters easier,” Trauss says. In 2014 she founded the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (BARF). BARF initially was little more than a mailing list with a few names and a handful of committed members, kindred pro-growth spirits Trauss found online. Then Trauss met Clark. Earlier this year, the two women formed the YIMBY Party and got down to serious business. They work to elect pro-growth candidates like state senator–elect Scott Wiener, have filed a lawsuit against the city of Lafayette for rejecting a development, attend public meetings, write op-eds, and get the word out on Twitter.
Today BARF has a mailing list of 600 people, and the YIMBY Party, with about 1,000 loosely defined members, has offices on Natoma Street in SoMa. Trauss and Clark work for two separate nonprofits full-time. The movement is not awash in cash: As of September 24, the YIMBY Party’s PAC had received just $49,445 in donations, mostly from other pro-growth PACs and tech workers, with one $2,500 check from a developer hoping to build a 24-story residential tower next to the MacArthur BART station in North Oakland.
Trauss describes herself as an anarchist, although not the Google-bus-vomiting kind: Some of the progressives who regard her as a tool of big business would be flummoxed to know that she shut down traffic with Occupy Oakland. Profane, quick-witted, and tightly wound, she revels in pushing people’s buttons. This fall, she courted widely reviled libertarian billionaire and Donald Trump supporter Peter Thiel, who she says was on the verge of giving her PAC $35,000 until he changed his mind. In another bomb-throwing tactic, she and Clark backed a slate of YIMBY Party members for the executive committee of the Sierra Club’s Bay Area chapter, arguing that the venerable environmental group’s positions on development were out of step with the mainstream of environmental thought, including that of its own national organization, which is much friendlier to infill development. Ultimately, the coup came up short.
Trauss’s enemies have accused her of being an out-of-towner, a carpetbagger who isn’t in it for the long haul. But it appears they’ll have her to kick around for a while longer. On October 1, she and her boyfriend signed a lease on a $3,000-a-month, 658-square-foot one-bedroom apartment in SoMa.
Clark is less confrontational than Trauss but no less passionate about her cause: She’s a fixed cannon, not a loose one. The 29-year-old, who was a sales account executive at Yelp, was drawn into the movement when she received a letter—“hyperventilating, histrionic, crazy nasty”—from a neighbor in Noe Valley rallying opposition to another neighbor’s remodel that would increase the height of the building. Clark had just finished volunteering for David Chiu’s assembly campaign and was looking for something else to do, so she rang the doorbell of the architect couple who were trying to remodel to ask how she could help. From there, it snowballed.
Being pro-growth in San Francisco often requires having a thick skin. A month before the election, Clark was sipping coffee at a café at the corner of 24th and Mission, surrounded by campaign volunteers, when a member of the San Francisco League of Pissed Off Voters, a progressive advocacy group, came in to drop off his group’s own lit. He was a middle-aged guy who looked like a suburban dad. When Clark described her organization and said she was its “field marshal,” he said, “You mean like a Nazi? The Nazis had field marshals.” Things did not improve when he found out she supported moderate Joshua Arce for the District 9 supervisorial seat.
Him: You support Arce. He’s supported by the racist police union. [In fact, Arce was not endorsed by the POA.] Are you a racist?
Her: No. It’s not racism to want more housing.
Him: Scott Wiener is supported by the racist police, too.
Her: We’re not racists.
Him: I love it when white people explain racism to me.
Her: We’re both white.
She tried to find areas where the two agreed, such as the soda tax or the proposal to allow 16-year-olds to vote, but he kept calling her a racist and finally stormed off.
In spite of such interactions, Clark says she has repeatedly tried to reach across San Francisco’s political aisle—which often feels more like a Grand Canyon. She called Latino activists in the Mission to see if they wanted to caravan to Brisbane. (They didn’t.) Her organization unsuccessfully endorsed a no vote on Measure Q, which will crack down on tent encampments and was the brainchild of moderate supervisor Mark Farrell. And she says that one of her biggest policy goals is to establish a statewide right to legal counsel for renters facing eviction.
The response Clark has gotten from progressives is some variant of the less-than-cordial encounter she had with the guy from the League of Pissed Off Voters. “The middle-aged white leadership of the progressive movement has been unrelentingly personally nasty to me,” she says. To the mostly millennial YIMBYs, the battle over housing policy often divides along generational lines, with YIMBYs accusing their elders of selling them out and vice versa. Greg Magofna, a leader of the YIMBY group East Bay Forward, says the movement is “a rebellion against the corporations and our parents who led us down a path to a landed gentry in the Bay Area.”
The operative word in ‘yes in my backyard’ is my,” Trauss says. “[Developments] don’t only happen outside our backyard—they happen inside it, too. When everything in your body militates against a development, that’s how you know it’s a worthwhile political project. We all have to realize that there will be projects that we hate.”
One proposed project that a lot of residents hate is in the East Bay city of Lafayette. But if the YIMBYs have their way in court, those neighbors will just have to get used to it. The disputed ground is an empty corner of Deer Hill and Pleasant Hill Roads that once housed a granite quarry, across the street from Acalanes High School and near the BART station. The city blanched at a proposal to put 315 apartment units there because, in part, the proposal “[did] not preserve or protect the semi-rural character of the area.” After negotiations, Lafayette agreed on 44 single-family homes—a loss of 271 units.
Backed by a two-year, $300,000 grant from a philanthropic group tied to Facebook’s Dustin Moskovitz, as well as $100,000 from Yelp’s Jeremy Stoppelman and more than $40,000 from other donors, Trauss and other activists organized the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund to sue Lafayette to force the apartments’ approval. Their argument is that the state’s Housing Accountability Act, a little-used law passed in 1982, prevents cities from rejecting or restricting housing unless they have met their “share of the regional housing need allocation.” Lafayette met only 65 percent of its target.
The YIMBYs hope that if they win, the suit may spur other cities to meet their regional housing targets. But the battle over the Lafayette development reveals just how daunting a challenge the YIMBYs face in trying to convince a majority of Bay Area residents to open the political and regulatory floodgates to new building. People feel very strongly about their backyards. Even Lafayette residents who are sympathetic to the YIMBY argument about the need for growth may refuse to pave open space in their town. And for those who don’t believe that increasing supply in a market as demand-driven as the Bay Area’s will cause housing prices to drop significantly, a tough sell becomes an impossible one.
One of those supply-and-demand skeptics, Supervisor Aaron Peskin, says the YIMBYs “aren’t interested in the social implications of development. Who gets to live here? Who does it get built for? Who gets kicked out? They have a very Ayn Rand, bomb-the-village-to-save-it point of view.” For Peskin, the YIMBY belief in simply rolling out the red carpet to developers reflects a lack of understanding of the carrot-stick negotiations and compromises that are required to grow a city intelligently, and of the fact that you can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach to development. “None of that nuance is acknowledged by the YIMBYs,” he says.
Peskin’s vision of housing policy leaves organic, dense neighborhoods like North Beach and Chinatown relatively intact, extracts concessions from developers to subsidize affordable units, and greenlights growth in appropriate sites, such as south of Market and Hunters Point, where he says in his first term as supervisor he “presided actively and enthusiastically” over the approval of tens of thousands of new units. (Peskin also supported the Brisbane development, making him briefly a YIMBY ally.)
For Peskin, the YIMBYs’ belief in the power of the free market blinds them to the potentially negative social consequences of development. “They don’t have any interest in poor people. There’s no acknowledgment that rent control is a good thing, that the Ellis Act is a bad thing,” he says. “They are laissez-faire free marketers.”
So far, the YIMBYs can’t claim any major victories. They can’t point to any buildings that have been erected in the Bay Area that wouldn’t have gone up absent their work. They haven’t changed laws or won many elections.
But even in the notoriously growth-averse Bay Area, there have been YIMBYish success stories. Over the past decade or so, Berkeley has nurtured a tall and dense downtown corridor centered on one of its three BART stations. Despite strong slow-growth voices, Berkeleyans twice voted in favor of plans to allow higher, denser buildings there. The November victory of slow-growth Berkeley mayor-elect Jesse Arreguin represented a YIMBY setback, but overall the election results favored their cause. At press time, pro-growth Scott Wiener was on the verge of defeating slow-growth Jane Kim for the state senate seat representing San Francisco and northern San Mateo Counties, and Palo Alto had elected pro-growthers to its city council.
The movement could be gaining political momentum outside the Bay Area. In June, Trauss and YIMBYs from 13 cities, including Austin and Seattle, held a conference in Boulder, Colorado. Spurred by the near consensus of economists that growth will lower housing costs, pro-growth ideas are being put forward in the corridors of power. In May, Governor Jerry Brown introduced a proposal that would make development easier, one of the YIMBYs’ chief policy aims. It was defeated, but it was one of a raft of policy proposals that the White House recently endorsed in a white paper that came out this fall. In a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January, President Barack Obama exhorted the assembled mayors to “break down rules that stand in the way of building new housing and that keep families from moving to growing, dynamic cities.” Trauss couldn’t have said it better herself.
The YIMBYs remain resolutely upbeat, convinced that time and logic are on their side. Despite her chilly reception from the left, Clark believes that anti-growth and pro-growth progressives will come together in time. “Eventually we are going to be able to work very well with them,” she says. “My end goal is to create an entirely new coalition of people who are urbanists.”