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YIMBY Conference Debrief

The Oakland YIMBY Conference participants. Photo: Scott Wiener’s Twitter

Last week Oakland hosted the YIMBYtown conference, described as a "... three-day gathering for grassroots community organizers, political leaders, educators, housing developers, and everyday people to identify problems, create solutions, share resources on the issues that impact housing on local, state, and national levels." YIMBY, or "Yes in My Back Yard," is an association of pro-housing development groups.

Now that the conference has wrapped and the YIMBYs have had a chance to collect their thoughts, Streetsblog sat down with Kieryn Darkwater with East Bay Forward and one of the event's organizers, to find out what was learned about solving the Bay Area housing crisis.


Streetsblog: Tell me about the complexities of organizing a conference like this.

Darkwater: You have to figure out how you’re going to hold a bunch of people in one place, in one city, and make sure most of them don’t get lost, so there’s lots of manpower logistics in making sure people know where things are and how they get there.

SB: What's the farthest anyone came?

DW: All over the US plus London, Europe, Vancouver.

SB: Any speakers who stood out to you?

DW: Sasha Marshall, a Houston City Planner.

SB: They do city planning in Houston?

DW: They do apparently. She did a lot of work getting affordable housing built, and she talked about their approach.

SB: How does it differ?

DW: They spend lots of time framing the narrative and talking to people in the neighborhoods. They talk about opportunities for people ... They also do comparisons on what subsidized housing looks like and what non-subsidized housing looks like and they showed it to people in Houston.

SB: And how do they look?

DW: They looked identical; you couldn’t tell the difference. That really helped with the stigma of subsidized housing, which is what she was combating. These are nice places to live.

SB: So people who object to subsidized housing are working from a false impression?

DW: Right. And that’s something YIMBYs in general are talking about--how to convince people that sharing the city is a good idea.

SB: That's a big part of the YIMBY approach though, isn't it? That it's not okay to say "I've got mine, so now I don't want you to have yours?"

DW: Sometimes people have valid concerns about development and displacement. There's a history of under-served communities--low income communities--that tend to get the worst of displacement. People's distrust is valid and that’s something we talked about. Not everyone who is against displacement is against sharing the city, but we still need to share it.

SB: So what did you learn about bridging those two opposing concerns?

DW: We have to talk with more people living here that development isn’t a danger to you. It’s good for the community as a whole. That’s what we mean about sharing the city. It’s not us against them. It’s all of us in it together. That’s where they want to be, but they have to be shown that path. If you talk to people, most will say 'people should live where they want to live,' but when it comes to their neighborhood, they’re like 'no, not mine.' But that’s the only way sharing works.

SB: You mentioned an interesting talk with State Senator Scott Wiener.

DW: He did a Q&A with Laura Clark. He talked about the challenges that he’s faced in politics. But while he was giving his Q&A, Gay Shame, this group showed up banging pots and pans ... I didn’t realize that’s something that people actually did. They were protesting very loudly while he was speaking, but he used that as a really good example that the opposition we face is emotionally charged. People are angry. And sometimes people’s anger is valid, even if they’re wrong, and their ideas and approach is wrong.

SB: I heard this got pretty ugly.

DW: One of the things they chanted is Sonja Trauss’s white baby is going to die. That was a chant.

SB: Seriously?

DW: Scott did a good job of explaining how to deal with protesters ... he calmed everyone down ... we brought the protesters food and water, and every bit of kindness that we were able to. They didn’t accept it, but we tried. And Scott was able to use it to really kind of frame it that just because people are wrong, the anger is legit and you can’t ignore it.

SB: Wow... so what else did he get to talk about in the midst of all that? For example, what about legislation?

DW: He talked about where SB35, the Housing Accountability Act. About the compromises. And that progress is incremental.

SB: That's attempting to get all regions to build, but how did we get to this point that we have to take legislative action to compel people to build housing that people need?

DW: For decades people have been organizing against housing. We have decades of organizing against housing to counteract. It hasn’t been built, obviously, so there’s just not enough. So that’s why it’s expensive, and people are still organizing against housing which just perpetuates into the future.

SB: Right, but that's not new to this conference--

DW: We talked lots about being inclusive. We need to broaden our minds in the ways we approach things in to be more intersectional. We need to build coalitions with groups that already exist and work together to make cities better for all of us. We have a tendency to be like 'we want housing built' and everyone who doesn’t is terrible, but our society has a disgraceful history--red lining, or like when West Oakland BART came through and destroyed a lot of neighborhoods.

SB: So racism is intertwined with development and development fears?

DW: Racism is everywhere. It’s ingrained in our zoning code.

SB: In other words, the distrust of development is warranted?

DW: People are rightly jumpy about the idea of building. I understand that fear.

SB: What else about intersectionality was discussed?

DW: Intersectionality is not just on race and gender, but disability access as well. That is extremely overlooked and we need to be collectively better about it.

SB: I like the saying that there's no such thing as "abled," just "temporarily abled."

DW: Right. There are also invisible disabilities--a lot of people have PTSD and CPTSD.


DW: Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

SB: Meaning long term, ongoing stressers, such as child abuse?

DW: Right. And trauma has triggers--we need to be aware that mental health matters and you shouldn’t push people beyond what they’re capable of. There are obvious things where PTSD intersects with physical development. Loud noises--

SB: Right. So someone who was in Afghanistan for years suddenly is across the street from a heavy construction site, the noise may be intolerable.

DW: These are things we need to think about.

SB: So maybe you temporarily relocate some people, or provide better windows for sound proofing?

DW: Or really good air filtering for people with allergies. There are things we can do if people just talked about disability more. Laura Loe [a Seattle YIMBY] talked about that.

SB: So how did the conference move the ball forward? Or did it?

DW: It moved the ball forward. It gave everybody a lot of energy and it gave people a deeper, better understanding of how all of the pieces in housing fit together and how it intersects with racism and class and things like that. People got a more nuanced view on how to approaching housing and more energy to do it.

SB: I have to mention the piece in the Examiner today today saying that the YIMBY movement is all wrong and building market-rate housing doesn’t help. It compares private development to private health insurance.

DW: It's a basic misunderstanding of economics. The privatization of healthcare is an entirely different beast than housing. I am also for social housing. I want housing to be for everybody. But now it's privately done, and the reality is that’s how it gets done. We have to work with that system until we get a new one. All of the places where I’ve lived where they build more housing have cheaper rents. Atlanta, Seattle--it’s still expensive to live in cities due to the nature of people wanting to live in cities. But building more housing has lowered prices. When it comes to housing, we now have a really terrible idea of 'normal.' Our idea of ‘normal’ is so different from 20 years ago. My parents built and owned a three bedroom home when they were younger than I am now. And I can’t fathom having enough savings for a down payment.

SB: And that's exactly what the YIMBY movement hopes to fix.

DW: Right.

This interview was edited. For more coverage, check out The New York Times or Curbed.

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