Pro-hous­ing force gains power, foes

YIMBY move­ment will face big test of its agenda Tues­day across Bay Area

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By J.K. Di­neen

Just hours af­ter Mayor Lon­don Breed was sworn into of­fice ear­lier this year, about 50 mem­bers of YIMBY Ac­tion crammed into a cafe at Ninth and Mis­sion streets for their monthly mem­ber­ship happy hour.

They drank com­pli­men­tary beer and wine, pro­vided by the build­ing’s owner, de­vel­oper Pa­trick Kennedy. The group’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, Laura Foote Clark, asked the crowd how many had at­tended Breed’s in­au­gu­ra­tion. About a dozen hands shot up.

“It has been an in­cred­i­bly amaz­ing day,” Foote Clark said. “I want ev­ery­one to think about to­day — about this mo­ment in time — as a ma­jor shift. We are fi­nally see­ing our gov­ern­ment treat­ing the hous­ing short­age as an emer­gency. We are go­ing to start see­ing some real changes.”

The el­e­va­tion of Breed — a pow­er­ful ally in San Fran­cisco City Hall — was a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for the YIMBYs, the San Fran­cisco-bred “yes in my back­yard” move­ment that in less than four years has pro­gressed from a few peo­ple plas­ter­ing tele­phone poles with pro-hous­ing fliers to an or­ga­ni­za­tion with 2,100 lo­cal dues-pay­ing mem­bers. It has lo­cal chap-

ters in a dozen San Fran­cisco neigh­bor­hoods, 140 chap­ters around the coun­try and world and lob­by­ists in Sacra­mento.

This week, the YIMBYs’ pro-hous­ing rev­o­lu­tion is fac­ing per­haps its big­gest test. Its agenda is all over the Nov. 6 bal­lot. YIMBY-bred can­di­dates are run­ning for of­fice in San Diego, Moun­tain View, Palo Alto, Oak­land and other cities. YIMBY-sup­ported mea­sures will be voted on in dozens of cities across the state.

In San Fran­cisco, four Board of Su­per­vi­sors can­di­dates are card-car­ry­ing YIMBYs: move­ment pi­o­neer Sonja Trauss in Dis­trict Six, Theo Elling­ton in Dis­trict 10, Trevor McNeil in Dis­trict Four and Nick Jose­fowitz in Dis­trict Two.

“Politi­cians are tak­ing the YIMBYs’ en­ergy and run­ning with it,” said Ja­son McDaniels, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at San Fran­cisco State Univer­sity.

Some of the YIMBYs’ big­gest Bay Area bat­tles will be de­cided in this elec­tion. Bris­bane vot­ers will de­cide whether to al­low up to 2,200 units of hous­ing on the 665-acre Bay­lands prop­erty just south of the San Fran­cisco border. The group made the de­vel­op­ment a pet cause, show­ing up en masse at City Coun­cil meet­ings and draw­ing cru­cial sup­port from sym­pa­thetic state law­mak­ers.

Matt Re­gan, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of pol­icy for the Bay Area Coun­cil, a re­gional busi­ness as­so­ci­a­tion, said YIMBY ad­vo­cacy also played a key role in an­other bat­tle over hous­ing den­sity, pres­sur­ing Cu­per­tino City Coun­cil in Septem­ber to al­low 2,900 hous­ing units on the site of the failed Vallco shop­ping mall.

“I’ve been do­ing hous­ing ad­vo­cacy for 12 years, and for nine of those 12 years it was me, the de­vel­oper and a bunch of an­gry old NIMBYs show­ing up at hear­ings,” said Re­gan. “Since the growth of the YIMBYs, it’s me, the de­vel­oper, a bunch of an­gry old peo­ple and a bunch of an­gry young peo­ple.”

In Bris­bane and Cu­per­tino, he said, the YIMBYs “opened the eyes of lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials that there is a large com­mu­nity out there that is not ben­e­fit­ing from the sta­tus quo.

“They feel the Bay Area is not a place they have a fu­ture,” Re­gan said. “They are mad as hell and do­ing some­thing about it.”

The heart of the YIMBY San Fran­cisco op­er­a­tion is a messy store­front on Mis­sion Street near Ninth. For the past six months, the of­fice has been home to YIMBY Ac­tion, Trauss’ cam­paign and CaRLA — Cal­i­for­nia Renters Le­gal Ad­vo­cacy and Ed­u­ca­tion Fund — a YIMBY af­fil­i­ate that sues com­mu­ni­ties, of­ten in the sub­urbs, for block­ing hous­ing in vi­o­la­tion of state law.

It shares the build­ing with a cannabis dis­pen­sary, and fre­quently some­one will wan­der in look­ing to make a pot pur­chase.

“I give them the hous­ing pitch and they look con­fused,” Foote Clark said. “I don’t let them out of here with­out some lit­er­a­ture. The new flier has a smil­ing Muni bus on it — weed peo­ple should like that!”

On a Fri­day evening last month, about a dozen YIMBYs were sprawled on beat-up couches, lap­tops in front of them. Cam­paign signs were stacked against the wall. Piled on a front desk were stick­ers, but­tons and posters with say­ings like “Le­gal­ize Hous­ing” and “Neigh­bors for More Neigh­bors.”

Trauss, ex­hausted from hours of can­vass­ing apart­ment build­ings, flopped on a couch. Other vol­un­teers were co­or­di­nat­ing cam­paign work over the Slack mes­sag­ing net­work. YIMBY Ac­tion or­ga­nizes pri­mar­ily on­line: It over­sees 85 pub­lic Slack channels, on which an av­er­age of 875 mes­sages are shared each day. On Twit­ter, there are at least that many YIMBY-re­lated post­ings in a given day.

All this ac­tiv­ity came about be­cause of the blos­som­ing of jobs, mostly in tech­nol­ogy, that grew out of the wreck­age of the Great Re­ces­sion. Be­fore the eco­nomic down­turn in 2008, the city had al­ready shown signs of be­com­ing an ur­ban al­ter­na­tive to Sil­i­con Val­ley, not just for star­tups but for es­tab­lished busi­nesses like Google, which found that a San Fran­cisco ad­dress helped with re­cruit­ing.

The city saw a 71 per­cent in­crease in tech jobs be­tween 2010 and 2015. Sales­force de­cided to fo­cus growth in the city. The new crop of tech com­pa­nies — Twit­ter, Yelp, Drop­box, Square, Red­dit, Airbnb, Lyft, Uber and oth­ers — all lo­cated in the city.

These com­pa­nies found plenty of of­fice space. But the new work­ers were less for­tu­nate when it came to hous­ing. Be­tween 2010 and 2015, San Fran­cisco pro­duced one new hous­ing unit for ev­ery 8.2 new jobs. The Bay Area as a whole was only slightly bet­ter, cre­at­ing one unit for about ev­ery six jobs. The im­bal­ance helped drive up hous­ing costs in a re­gion al­ready among the most ex­pen­sive in the coun­try:

 The me­dian house in the city now costs $1.62 mil­lion, dou­ble what it did five years ago.

 The av­er­age sale price of a house in San Fran­cisco rose by $205,000 in the first half of 2018, the largest six-month in­crease in his­tory, ac­cord­ing to real es­tate agency Paragon.

 About 66 per­cent of homes in the city are val­ued at more than $1 mil­lion.

 Only 18 per­cent of Bay Area res­i­dents can af­ford a me­di­an­priced home.

To YIMBYs, the rea­son for the hous­ing cri­sis is sim­ple: Decades of re­stric­tive zon­ing laws and po­lit­i­cal ob­sta­cles have led to a dra­matic un­der­pro­duc­tion of hous­ing.

Mul­ti­fam­ily de­vel­op­ment is es­sen­tially il­le­gal on 90 per­cent of the land in many Bay Area sub­urbs. Even in dense San Fran­cisco, 72 per­cent of the land where hous­ing is al­lowed is re­stricted to sin­gle-fam­ily homes. The down-zon­ing of city neigh­bor­hoods — much of it in the early 1980s on the west side

of San Fran­cisco — has left a new gen­er­a­tion of ur­ban dwellers with scant af­ford­able rental or home-buy­ing op­tions.

YIMBYs ad­vo­cate for re­lax­ing zon­ing to al­low for taller, denser build­ings, and for elim­i­nat­ing com­mu­nity plan­ning pro­cesses that al­low res­i­dents to block, de­lay or re­duce the size of de­vel­op­ments. They bris­tle at most of the rea­sons long­time res­i­dents cite for op­pos­ing new hous­ing: neigh­bor­hood charm and char­ac­ter, in­creases in traf­fic or lack of park­ing.

On the cam­paign trail in his de­vel­op­ment-averse Sun­set Dis­trict neigh­bor­hood, McNeil, a pub­lic school teacher with three small chil­dren, il­lus­trates his YIMBY phi­los­o­phy by pulling up an early 1930s pic­ture of rolling sand dunes on his iPhone. It’s an image of 28th Av­enue, at ex­actly the spot the home he rents now stands.

“When that house was built it added to the con­ges­tion and den­sity and traf­fic, and I as­sume it dis­rupted the char­ac­ter of the neigh­bor­hood,” he says. “Now it’s a clas­sic Sun­set house. I live there with my fam­ily. I’m grate­ful that some­one had the au­dac­ity to build it.”

Crit­ics say the YIMBYs’ “build, baby, build” ap­proach is ham-fisted and sim­plis­tic. Some char­ac­ter­ize them as pawns of gen­tri­fy­ing de­vel­op­ers, preach­ing an ur­ban­ist ide­ol­ogy that gives po­lit­i­cal cover to prof­it­driven builders whose tow­ers at­tract high-earn­ing res­i­dents and fuel the dis­place­ment of ex­ist­ing com­mu­ni­ties.

Oth­ers say YIMBYs are dis­dain­ful of the his­tory and char­ac­ter that make San Fran­cisco unique. YIMBYs, they charge, are per­fectly willing to kill the city’s spirit to pro­vide hous­ing for high-in­come tech work­ers. Trauss has called neigh­bor­hood char­ac­ter “a can­cer.”

“All the things we cher­ish as San Fran­cis­cans, they never men­tion,” San Fran­cisco Plan­ning Com­mis­sioner Den­nis Richards said. “They ... don’t seem to ap­pre­ci­ate what it is about San Fran­cisco that makes it spe­cial and how we might grow while main­tain­ing that.”

At pub­lic meet­ings, Trauss and Foote Clark and sup­port­ers reg­u­larly show up to speak in fa­vor of pro­jects. They also have dis­par­aged neigh­bors op­posed to de­vel­op­ment: On Twit­ter, YIMBYs have called Coali­tion of San Fran­cisco Neigh­bor­hoods Pres­i­dent Ge­orge Wood­ing a “wealthy, west side home­owner with too much time on his hands.”

“Rather than ex­tend­ing an olive branch and sit­ting down to talk about how we can achieve more den­sity, the YIMBYs’ ap­proach has al­ways been about con­fronta­tion,” said Wood­ing, a Mid­town Ter­race res­i­dent. “The west side is al­ways get­ting punched in the mouth by YIMBY. We are sup­posed to be pil­lo­ried be­cause we don’t want to have a 60-foot (tall) build­ing be­sides a 26-foot home?”

This con­fronta­tional style has alien­ated even some res­i­dents who con­sider them­selves pro-hous­ing.

In 2015, Jim Wor­shell, pres­i­dent of the Hayes Val­ley Neigh­bor­hood As­so­ci­a­tion and the San Fran­cisco Vic­to­rian Al­liance, in­vited sev­eral YIMBYs to a meet­ing. He said YIMBY or­ga­nizer Brian Han­lon told the as­sem­bled neigh­bors: “We can’t wait for you to die and rip those pretty Vic­to­ri­ans down.”

“That was their mes­sage: ‘I don’t care about preser­va­tion or you peo­ple with those old Vic­to­ri­ans. It’s our time now and you should die. You are in the way,’ ” Wor­shell said.

Han­lon, now the head of Cal­i­for­nia YIMBY, said he doesn’t re­mem­ber the meet­ing or say­ing such a thing.

“I’ve said some dumb things, but I doubt I said that,” he wrote in a text. “I ac­tu­ally like lots of the old Vic­to­ri­ans.”

S.F. State pro­fes­sor McDaniels said though the move­ment has ma­tured, it re­mains “dis­rup­tive.”

“They don’t do things to make friends with the estab­lish­ment,” he said. “They can be abra­sive. They don’t apol­o­gize.”

Trauss, a Philadel­phia na­tive and self-de­scribed an­ar­chist, came to the Bay Area in 2011 to help care for a sick rel­a­tive. Hav­ing re­cently left the eco­nom­ics Ph.D. pro­gram at Wash­ing­ton Univer­sity in St. Louis, she found work teach­ing high school and col­lege math. She bounced from rental to rental, liv­ing in El Cer­rito, West Oak­land and then SoMa in San Fran­cisco.

As the new tech boom be­gan to take shape, Trauss strug­gled to find an af­ford­able place to live. Open houses for apart­ments were mobbed; rent and trans­porta­tion costs were eat­ing up more than 50 per­cent of her in­come.

Trauss saw the prob­lem as a deficit of new hous­ing, so she started pay­ing at­ten­tion to things like zon­ing, height lim­its and land-use pol­i­tics. She at­tended marathon Plan­ning Com­mis­sion meet­ings where res­i­dents lined up to op­pose new hous­ing units for seem­ingly ev­ery rea­son imag­in­able — shad­ows, neigh­bor­hood char­ac­ter, park­ing, traf­fic, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, his­toric preser­va­tion, dis­place­ment.

The re­sult, she found, was al­ways the same: “Which is the build­ing doesn’t get built,” Trauss said. “And if the build­ing doesn’t get built, where are those peo­ple go­ing to live? They are go­ing to live in West Oak­land.

“They are go­ing to force out lower-in­come peo­ple, whether that’s in the Mis­sion, Potrero or

West Oak­land,” she said. “Or the Ten­der­loin. Or North Beach.”

Trauss felt there was an un­tapped con­stituency of frus­trated, pro-hous­ing renters in the city. She thought if she could con­vince those peo­ple to speak out, the de­bate over hous­ing pro­duc­tion would be­come more bal­anced.

She started re­cruit­ing like­minded com­menters from real es­tate-fo­cused web­sites like Sock­et­site and Curbed and bad­ger­ing them to at­tend pub­lic hear­ings. She cre­ated a mail­ing list and even­tu­ally founded the San Fran­cisco Bay Area Renters Fed­er­a­tion — SFBARF.

SFBARF started putting posters up around the city. The first were fo­cused on Bal­boa Reser­voir, a 17-acre, pub­licly owned park­ing lot next to City Col­lege. The posters read: “Hous­ing Cri­sis? San Fran­cisco needs all 6,000 units at the Bal­boa Reser­voir. Tell the Plan­ning De­part­ment In Per­son.”

A poster about the “Mon­ster In the Mis­sion” de­vel­op­ment at 16th and Mis­sion streets said: “When we were promised 40: what’s the point in 10 sto­ries?” An­other, about a pro­posed project at 75 Howard St., read: “Go Big Or I Can’t Go home.”

Al­most im­me­di­ately, Trauss and her sup­port­ers be­came pari­ahs in some San Fran­cisco pro­gres­sive camps. The group Gay Shame put out its own poster, pro­claim­ing “S.F. barfs on Sonja Trauss” and call­ing her the “grand mar­shal ... of a big de­vel­op­ment-backed hit squad.”

That was news to de­vel­op­ers, who were ini­tially skep­ti­cal of the group, said Ja­son Check, whose Rain­tree Part­ners has built sev­eral hous­ing pro­jects in the city. Check re­called re­ceiv­ing a voice mail from Trauss of­fer­ing sup­port of a 93-unit project he was try­ing to get ap­proved in Dog­patch.

“I re­mem­ber say­ing, ‘I’m not sure if I should call this per­son back,’ ” he said. “We def­i­nitely felt a lit­tle cau­tious meet­ing with her be­cause it was such a for­eign con­cept.”

But af­ter meet­ing with Trauss, he was con­vinced there was no ul­te­rior mo­tive.

“We didn’t so­licit Sonja in any way or ask for her sup­port, but she showed up to ev­ery hear­ing and brought some of her fel­low YIMBYs with her.”

While they helped Check get his Dog­patch project ap­proved, sev­eral of the YIMBYs’ most cham­pi­oned San Fran­cisco pro­jects con­tinue to face strong op­po­si­tion.

The 330-unit Mon­ster in the Mis­sion project has been stalled for more than five years. The Bal­boa Reser­voir is mov­ing for­ward slowly, but with many fewer hous­ing units than most YIMBYs had hoped. An af­ford­able hous­ing project near the For­est Hills Muni Sta­tion was with­drawn in the face of op­po­si­tion. The Plan­ning Com­mis­sion re­cently re­jected a YIMBY pet project at a laun­dro­mat on Mis­sion Street.

At the state level, the YIMBYs have been far more suc­cess­ful.

In 2017, the group backed state Sen. Scott Wiener’s SB35, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed. It ex­pe­dites ap­proval of hous­ing pro­jects with be­tween 10 and 50 per­cent af­ford­able units.

On Sept. 30, Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 2923, which gives BART the power to re­zone its park­ing lots for hous­ing, even if lo­cal res­i­dents or elected of­fi­cials op­pose it. Assem­bly­man David Chiu of San Fran­cisco, who wrote the bill with Assem­bly­man Tim Grayson of Con­cord, has aligned him­self with the YIMBY move­ment, as have Wiener and state Sen. Nancy Skin­ner of Berke­ley.

Chiu said that some an­tide­vel­op­ment home­own­ers, par­tic­u­larly in the East Bay, fought hard against the bill and that the YIMBYs were an im­por­tant part of the coali­tion that pushed it through.

“The YIMBYs have brought a new en­ergy to the state hous­ing dis­cus­sion,” Chiu said. “Many of us pro-hous­ing leg­is­la­tors have be­lieved that ad­dress­ing our hous­ing short­age must be a part of al­le­vi­at­ing our hous­ing cri­sis, and YIMBYs have cre­ated a real con­stituency around that idea.”

Amie Fish­man, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Non-Profit Hous­ing As­so­ci­a­tion of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, said the YIMBY move­ment has evolved some­what from its early days, and now sup­ports pro­tec­tions for ex­ist­ing low-in­come res­i­dents so they don’t get priced out of the Bay Area.

She also said the move­ment didn’t seem to re­al­ize that hous­ing de­vel­op­ment ad­vo­cacy was noth­ing new, that groups like hers had been do­ing it for decades.

“In the be­gin­ning, it was a pretty lib­er­tar­ian mes­sage — that dereg­u­lat­ing the mar­ket would solve all of the prob­lem,” Fish­man said. “There was a huge push­back around that — the mar­ket will never on its own serve the low­est-in­come, high­est-need com­mu­ni­ties. They have lis­tened and have been more re­spon­sive.”

Richards, the plan­ning com­mis­sioner, said he be­lieves the YIMBY move­ment will con­tinue to have have more suc­cess on the state level than lo­cally.

“Their game is now in Sacra­mento,” he said.

Mar­jan Phil­hour, se­nior ad­viser to Mayor Breed, said that the move­ment, and the hous­ing cri­sis gen­er­ally, would con­tinue to politi­cize a younger gen­er­a­tion.

“They have an in­clu­sive ap­proach and reached a lot of peo­ple who might not have been in­clined to vote, who were not en­gaged,” she said.

Tues­day’s elec­tion should pro­vide an in­di­ca­tion of how far the YIMBY move­ment has come — and how far it has to go. All four of the San Fran­cisco su­per­vi­sor can­di­dates the group is back­ing are un­der­dogs, in­clud­ing Trauss.

If she wins, Trauss said, she will fight to re­zone the city’s west side. If she loses, she plans to fo­cus on an­other part of the YIMBY agenda: us­ing state laws to try to force other Bay Area towns to ac­cept new de­vel­op­ment.

“I’ll just go back to su­ing the sub­urbs,” she said.

Pho­tos by Jes­sica Chris­tian / The Chron­i­cle

The Bal­boa Reser­voir site is cur­rently used as City Col­lege of San Fran­cisco's stu­dent park­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the city, plan­ning is un­der way to de­velop the site with mixed-in­come hous­ing, open space and com­mu­nity ameni­ties.

YIMBY ac­tivists such as Haight-Ash­bury Neigh­bors for Den­sity founder and or­ga­nizer Phillip Kober­nick have var­i­ous hous­ing ar­range­ments but a com­mon thread. See pro­files on Pages A19-20.

Pho­tos by Jes­sica Chris­tian / The Chron­i­cle

YIMBY Ac­tion Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Laura Clark (left) chats with the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s Laura Fin­gal-Surma and Theo Gor­don as they work on their com­put­ers dur­ing a YIMBY Ac­tion Leads meet­ing at the group’s head­quar­ters in San Fran­cisco.

But­tons that read “In­fill” and “Le­gal­ize Hous­ing” sit on the main ta­ble of the YIMBY Ac­tion head­quar­ters.

The high-den­sity SoMa Square Com­plex in San Fran­cisco is the type of hous­ing sup­ported by YIMBY Ac­tion.

Jes­sica Chris­tian / The Chron­i­cle

Haight-Ash­bury Neigh­bors for Den­sity founder and or­ga­nizer Phillip Kober­nick passes a row of garages as he walks to­ward his home in the neigh­bor­hood.

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chron­i­cle

Dis­trict Four can­di­date Trevor McNeil plays with his son, Ni­ca­sio, 1, at Play­land in the Sun­set Dis­trict. McNeil says he’s grate­ful “some­one had the au­dac­ity” to build his house.

Jes­sica Chris­tian / The Chron­i­cle

Board of Su­per­vi­sors Dis­trict Six can­di­date Sonja Trauss pre­pares to can­vass with her 10-month-old son An­ton, her hus­band, Ethan Ash­ley, and vol­un­teer Marielou Pas­cua.

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