Yes-In-My-Back-Yard Party seeks new housing developments in the Bay Area
on October 27, 2016
If you’ve attended any kind of community meeting in San Francisco, then you’ve met a few NIMBY’s–the Not-In-My-Back-Yard homeowners, who oppose new developments. But these days, they have some competition from a new political start-up, the San Francisco Yes-In-My-Back-Yard YIMBY Party.
The YIMBY’s are a coalition group whose sole mission is to advocate for all new housing developments—and their influence is spreading to the East Bay and to Oakland, where they are supporting the construction of a controversial new apartment tower near the MacArthur BART stop.
“I love suing sanctimonious limousine-liberals. That’s my favorite part of what we do,” said Laura Foote Clark, one of the founders of the YIMBY Party, referring to a lawsuit they filed against the city of Lafayette last year.
The suit alleges that the City of Lafayette violated the California Housing Accountability Act, which prevents city governments from rejecting housing developments without thorough analysis. The YIMBY lawsuit alleges that Lafayette did this by scrapping a plan to build a high density apartment building.
Clark said that the lawsuit was intended to send a message to city governments that opposing housing developments may open them up to legal action. This sort of brazen political statement is what the YIMBY’s are becoming known for. The group of some 1,000 supporters is still struggling to make their mark in San Francisco politics, but the members are passionate, and they’re hoping to introduce a ballot measure in the next election aimed at removing density restrictions in San Francisco.
Getting from here to there will take time.
One Monday afternoon in mid-October, YIMBY staff members set up tables in front of an open garage door at their office in Natoma Street. Their space is typical start-up chic—vast and mostly empty, with bare concrete floors and un-finished walls.
A passing guy peeked into the open garage door, and asked about the YIMBY literature on the tables out front. Clark explained that the pamphlets contained voting information for people who support more housing in San Francisco.
“You trying to tell me who to vote for?” asked the guy, defensively.
Clark explained that the pamphlet was just informational, and the guy could take it or leave it. He left it—and their recommendation to vote for Scott Weiner for State Senate.
Clark shrugged off the odd interaction as just the sort of thing that one has to expect in San Francisco.
The YIMBY’s themselves are another uniquely San Francisco phenomenon. Their members mostly identify as politically progressive, just like many of the NIMBY’s who they oppose. Each side believes itself to be progressive—that their development philosophy will decrease displacement and gentrification.
To Clark, the ideas proposed by the NIMBY’s—that new housing developments cause displacement—is a regressive notion, anathema to a progressive ideology.
Sonja Trauss agrees. Trauss was the originator of the YIMBY movement. She started the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation in 2011, which evolved into the YIMBY Party. Trauss, who lives in West Oakland, was inspired to create the movement after watching friends get evicted from the Mission and move to Oakland.
“It’s irresponsible for all these social justice warriors to fight against building in the Mission when it only leads to more displacement in West Oakland,” said Trauss.
Trauss believes the NIMBY’s don’t do anything to address the underlying housing problem in the Bay Area, which is essentially a supply and demand issue. She wants to see a surplus of new housing in the Bay Area, which would create a renter’s market, in which landlords would need to offer competitive pricing to attract tenants.
Originally, Trauss’ Bay Area Renters Federation was not much more than a mailing list, with little in the way of legitimacy. It was Clark who provided the formal non-profit status through GrowSF, a housing advocacy organization she founded in 2015. A partnership grew organically between the two women.
In 2016, Trauss and Clark formed a coalition, formalized their political action committee, and the YIMBY Party was born. They thought that by joining forces they could focus on fundraising for a few months and then switch entirely to campaigning for the 2016 election. It didn’t work out that way.
Trauss and Clark were surprised at the amount of fundraising necessary to keep their operation going. They hired four organizers for the election season who coordinate canvasing and phone bank volunteers.
It all looks very impressive, the paid staff, the office space in SoMa, but Clark often worries about how they are going to keep the lights on
“I haven’t taken a paycheck in two months,” said Clark, explaining that she’s getting by on savings until after the election.
Trauss estimates that by election day they’ll be better off. She’s hoping to raise about $100,000 in donations for the YIMBY Party by November, but Clark is still frustrated by how little support they’re getting from Bay Area developers.
According to financial statements filed with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, between July 1 and September 24, the YIMBY Party received $43,445 in donations, mostly from allied political action committees and tech workers. They did receive one large donation in the amount of $2500 from Helen Han, the director of marketing for Boston Properties, a major property developer in San Francisco.
Boston Properties is currently planning a 24 story residential tower development in North Oakland next to the MacArthur BART station. The YIMBY Party fully supports the tower, but some Oakland residents do not.
Eden Brukman is a resident of North Oakland who formed an organization to oppose the Boston Properties tower. She doesn’t like the idea of being labeled as a NIMBY, especially since she’s an architectural consultant, and development is her bread and butter.
“We’re not against buildings. We want more buildings, but let’s see it done in a thoughtful way,” said Brukman.
Brukman believes that a 24-story building in a neighborhood of two-story houses makes for an incongruous combination, and she’s frustrated by some YIMBY Party supporters. She says they’ve hassled her in person and online because of her opposition to the tower, and she doesn’t appreciate their confrontational style.
“None of them live in this neighborhood. They just support the project because it’s a skyscraper and they think adding height somehow decreases displacement.” said Brukman.
Clark and Trauss admit that some of their supporters have engaged in trolling. Though they don’t support these trolling activities, they do believe that a confrontational style may be necessary to address the anti-development culture of the Bay Area.
“The scale of the problem is so huge and these ballot propositions have nothing to do with actually solving the problem. They’re just what we’re going to bicker about this year,” said Clark.
Clark and Trauss are planning to introduce a proposition in the next election cycle aimed at removing neighborhood density restrictions in San Francisco. To do that, they’ll need to demonstrate that they can mobilize votes.
“People would not give us money because they did not believe that we had the capacity to affect the vote,” said Trauss.
They use some traditional strategies, like mobilizing their 1,000 supporters to canvas neighborhoods and speak at planning meetings. But, they’re also making more provocative actions, like attempting to take over the local Sierra Club.
The San Francisco Chapter of the Sierra Club is an influential group in San Francisco politics, and it often finds itself on the opposite side of the YIMBY Party on many issues—the YIMBY Party endorses Scott Weiner for State Senate, while the Sierra Club endorses Jane Kim.
Trauss and Clark believe that the full slate of Sierra Club endorsements amount to an anti-development agenda, and they’re encouraging all YIMBY Party supporters to join the Sierra Club and vote for their hand-picked candidates in the Sierra Club executive committee election.
A test for the YIMBY Party will come on November 11 when Sierra Club members vote for new representatives for the 9-seat executive committee.
Clark is also hoping for more tech support in the coming year.
“The vast majority of people who work in the tech sector are not engineers and don’t make 100K, and they are struggling to get by. They spend 60 to 70 percent of their income on the rent.” said Clark.
Clark said that one of the reasons she continues with her work—often without a paycheck—is to help people who work in the tech industry in sales or customer service. In the minds of many local residents, these workers often get lumped in with the highly-paid software engineers, even though they might be making less than half the money.
“I do see it as a social justice issue. If we don’t fix this problem, this city is going to continue to be in crisis for the next generation,” said Clark.
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