Guest Editorial: San Francisco Housing Advocates Need to Control the Infighting

Image: BART.
Image: BART.

Over the summer, YIMBY–shorthand for ‘Yes-In-My Backyard’–organizers from all over the nation gathered in Oakland to share strategies on how to advance their brand of pro-development urbanism. The ‘YIMBYtown’ conference brought over 200 attendees and an impressive roster of guest speakers.

YIMBY is a national movement and its Bay Area disciples are prominent. The organization is flush with corporate and philanthropic funding and boasts newfound clout in city halls and in Sacramento, where the legislature is on the verge of passing a YIMBY-backed omnibus bill to spur housing construction.

But YIMBYs are viewed with suspicion by San Francisco’s prominent leftist organizations, including the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America and, ironically, the San Francisco Tenants Union. These factions have gone to war for the hearts and minds of San Francisco’s rent-burdened electorate. The City’s Board of Supervisors mirrors this divide; housing development policy splits the body between so-called moderates and progressives.

You can read Slate’s colorful article for a full backstory, but at its core the divide is over a simple question: is more market rate housing a good thing for San Francisco?

This came to the forefront in 2015, when San Francisco tenant organizations proposed a moratorium on new market rate construction in the Mission district. Appalled by the idea of a moratorium in the midst of a housing crisis, YIMBYs fought the proposal. It was voted down by the Board of Supervisors and later by the voters when it was floated again as a referendum.

The proposal’s supporters argued that market rate housing in San Francisco is by definition luxury housing and out of reach for lower and middle income families. The proposal’s chief sponsor, former Supervisor David Campos, argued that San Francisco would have to build an entire city on top of itself before the market rate came down to a reasonable price.

YIMBYs and tenant unions disagree on the virtues of market rate development, but they agree it can be useful for creating subsidized housing for low-income households. Like many American cities, San Francisco uses inclusionary zoning (IZ). IZ is a mandate that developers of projects over a certain size must set aside a percentage of the new building’s units as below market rate (developers can also opt to build these units off-site or pay a fee which is used by the City to build affordable housing).

In 2016, San Francisco voters passed the socialist-backed Proposition C, which boosted the IZ mandate to 25 percent. YIMBYs argued that this policy has been disastrous, as the number of projects proposed significantly dropped after Proposition C became law. This summer, the Board of Supervisors reached a compromise on inclusionary zoning which lowers the mandate down to 18 percent, although some YIMBY groups would like to see the mandate scrapped.

But there’s another angle here, noted by Kristy Wang of SPUR, a smart growth planning group: San Francisco is arguing about a policy that has only produced 3,000 new housing units since 1992. In reality, many of the policies affecting affordability come from Washington D.C., Sacramento, or sometimes just down the 101 in Brisbane, which may kill a proposal to build 4,440 units.

It’s a dictum (or used to be) in American foreign policy that partisan politics stopped at the water’s edge. A similar sentiment should apply to San Francisco’s housing activists, who, whether YIMBY or hard left, both want to make San Francisco’s housing affordable.

Unfortunately, acknowledgement of this common cause is hard to come by. For example, Sonja Traus, a prominent YIMBY and founder of the SF Bay Area Renters Federation, sided with the Democratic Socialists and asked Nancy Pelosi to support a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives to significantly reduce the mortgage interest deduction. She was then attacked by local democratic socialists as “dishonest” and “Machiavellian” in her support. To housing policy makers in Washington D.C., San Francisco’s YIMBYs and Socialists are indiscernible. So what good does this infighting do?

Closer to home, YIMBYs and Socialists should be united in pushing neighboring communities, especially those with significant office space, to approve more housing.

YIMBYs and Socialists have significant differences. However, given how dire the housing crisis has become, YIMBYs and leftists should leave their disagreements at the water’s edge.

Max Heninger is Special Assistant to the President at the Boston Foundation. He has written op-eds about housing policy in the San Francisco Chronicle and Real Clear Policy.

  • Victoria Fierce

    YIMBY socialist here.

    Good wedge piece that will certainly serve to further drive factions further apart and encourage more leftist infighting. Maybe less of this and more focusing on the vastness of our common ground next time?

  • Kevin Withers

    In the meantime, you can resume your efforts to abolish land ownership. That’s some choice common ground.

  • eean

    We want to build more equitable society by building infill housing and should leave our “disagreements on the water’s edge” with anyone who shares that vision. That’s how policy-oriented advocacy should function. But we also shouldn’t spend time building alliances with people who aren’t interested in our policy goals (both SFDSA & EBDSA are more focused on healthcare & like fighting nazis; all good stuff) or who actively disagree with it (like the SF Tenants Union).

  • Eric

    As a (somewhat) casual observer it really does seem odd when self described leftist organizations like SF Tenants Union and others stress their being “in the game” for 40+ years as if its supposed to lend them credibility, as opposed to being an admission of utter ineffectiveness…

  • jonobate

    There’s a lot of entrenchment going on here regarding who gets to call themselves “progressive” or “radical”. That label is being claimed by groups founded back when being progressive meant resisting changes to the city; resisting the redevelopment of Western Addition and the Mission, resisting the Freeway Plan, etc. Such a strategy of resistance was the correct thing to do at the time but is now hurting the city, as progressive changes such as infill development get lumped in with the sweeping heavy handed changes that government tried to enact in the fifties and sixties. Groups like the tenants union haven’t come around to that fact largely because the negative impact of resisting development has accumulated slowly over the last 40 years and has only recently reached crisis point.

    Additionally there’s an element of people’s personal situation in this. If you’ve been living in rent controlled accommodation for 5+ years, your biggest threat is your landlord trying to evict you and replace you with a tenant who can pay rent at market rates; and your second biggest concern is the availability of subsidized housing in case you do have to move, because if you have a low rent you’re probably (though not always) going to be low income as well. If you live in non-rent controlled accommodation (or you recently moved within the city, or you’re trying to move to the city, or you just had a relationship change and don’t want to be living with your ex, or you just want a bigger place… etc) your biggest concern is the high cost of market rate rents.

    By nature of their work, people who work for the tenants union largely deal with the former constituency of people (and likely are in that constituency themselves) so place less importance on the needs of the latter group, who they tend to generalize as soulless techies who have come to the city simply to extract wealth and not to contribute to the life of the city. At best, they see market rate housing as an irrelevance to their constituency, and at worst they mix up cause and effect and see new market rate housing as the cause of high rents rather than an effect.

    YIMBY groups have come about to represent the needs of the latter group, which is a group far more diverse than newcomers who work in tech. (I myself have been here for 8 years, but I had to move less than a year ago, so I’m now struggling to pay market rate rent.) Of course, YIMBY groups also advocate for tenants rights and subsidized housing, they just recognize that these are not the only things required to help solve the housing crisis, as there are many people who have to deal with the reality of renting at market rates.

    Interestingly, the third constituency of people in the city – homeowners – tend to side with the “progressives” in resisting new development, because it provides no benefit to them, their house value increase may even slow down if there is too much new construction, and often they simply don’t want new people sullying their neighborhood. So we end up with this weird lash-up of “progressives”, merchants, and property owners fighting change, as exemplified by neighborhood groups like Calle 24.

    My own view is that YIMBYs should avoid getting into fights with groups like the tenants union and seek to win the argument with the wider public that building new market rate housing is a progressive thing to do. Once popular consciousness is aligned on that, the “progressives” in the city will either get on board with the new political reality or become increasingly irrelevant.

    Really what we’re seeing here is the political establishment that was forged in the battles of the sixties and seventies starting to fracture due to their failure to update their positions to take into account the new economic and social conditions that are in place.

  • eean

    Also just a observer, but from what i can tell the best thing about EBDSA is that it is all newbs to politics. SFDSA looks like the same old same old SF progs with a new hat on.

  • Wanderer

    What vast common ground is that? I consider myself both pro-housing and socialist, but I’m having trouble seeing much commonality.

  • eean

    The Venn diagram intersection of socialism and pro-housing is easy to imagine: Plattenbau.

  • Kraus

    Excellent analysis.


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

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