“Yes in my back yard”: The YIMBY movement fights for renters in stupidly expensive cities like San Francisco

Building a movement.
Building a movement.
Image: AP/Eric Risberg
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The San Francisco Bay Area has a serious housing shortage. It also has a daunting displacement problem. For Sonja Trauss, director of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, the two are connected.

Low-cost housing advocates have traditionally focused on fixing prices, via rent control or subsidies, to keep cities affordable. Trauss, 35, is one of the leaders of a new movement dubbed YIMBY, for “yes in my back yard”, that thinks differently. They embrace the laws of supply and demand.

Trauss and fellow San Francisco YIMBY Party members, a group that now includes more than 500 people, believe that the only way to solve San Francisco’s housing problem is by building a hell of a lot more houses. To advocate for this, YIMBYs, many of whom are millennials tired of skyrocketing rents, have aligned themselves with private developers and against long-settled locals who see new housing as an intrusion on their lifestyle and, more importantly, a threat to the value of their homes. YIMBY groups have also emerged in New York, Seattle, and Boston, among other places, challenging the much more prevalent NIMBYs (“not in my back yarders”) who favor keeping things as they are.

Quartz met Trauss at her office in downtown San Francisco to discuss the YIMBY movement, and how she got involved with it. The conversation has been edited and condensed. (For a more technical version of Trauss’s arguments for YIMBYism, read this.)

What exactly does it mean to be a YIMBY?

It means you are an advocate for housing. It means you believe that not having enough housing to accommodate newcomers is terrible public policy that leads to displacement.

Sonja Trauss at work.
Sonja Trauss at work.

YIMBYs want there to be neighborhoods of all varying levels of affordability close to job centers, so people can participate in the city’s economy. What ever your your situation is, we think you should be able to live in the city center if you want to.

The thing about housing is that, in many places, decisions about it are made in a distributed way. In California, no city can just decide to build 10,000 houses, though sometimes mayors will say that. The reality is that the decision is made almost building by building.

If you are in a growing metro area, like San Francisco, there will be times when housing development is proposed in your neighborhood. Being a YIMBY means piping up and supporting that development at neighborhood meetings, or by emails to the government.

But if you build more houses, will that simply attract more rich people into San Francisco, making the city even less affordable and causing more displacement?

That it is just manifestly not true. I bet every single person that makes that claim probably has specific knowledge of an apartment or house that used to be occupied by a low-income person that is now occupied by a high-income person. High-income people move into existing housing all the time. That’s what happens when you don’t build high-income housing.

The reason I think that it is such a popular to say that new buildings are promoting gentrification, or they are bad, is because people don’t like new buildings for other, emotional reasons. I can speculate about what they are, but I am trying to get out of the habit of armchair psychologizing.

Who are you up against, exactly? What stops new housing from getting built?

Our opponents are primarily the people who actively oppose construction in their neighborhood. People who are worried that a new building will be ugly, or will put shade on their yard, or make traffic or parking worse. If you actually listen to what people are saying at planning commission hearings, those are overwhelmingly the issues—in low- and high-income neighborhoods.

Of course, neighbors should have input. But what neighbors have done with their input is not make better projects, but to shut down projects altogether. I’ve had lots of conversations where I ask these people about where they think the people who would have lived in the building are going to go. They mostly say, “Who cares? What does that matter for anything?” For YIMBYs, it’s the number-one thing.

Our understanding is that the people who would have lived in that building will either still move into the neighborhood, pushing someone else out, or they will move farther out and be commuters, which is bad for different reasons. Many people are YIMBYs not because they are motivated by anti-displacement, but because they are concerned about climate change. They realize that we can’t reach our climate-change goals without having less commuting, which means more dense housing near business districts.

Are you guys in favor of charging the market rate for housing? Or do you believe it should be subsidized?

We definitely support market-rate housing. There is no real downside to it.

A lot of people argue that subsidized housing stops displacement faster than market-rate housing. And that’s true! One research study shows subsidized housing is twice as effective as market-rate housing for fighting displacement. So, of course, we should build subsidized housing, and part of our political program is explicitly trying to get more subsidy.

But there is only so much we can build because there is only so much subsidy. So yeah, subsidized housing is better, but market rate also helps, so we should build that too. Fighting over whether housing should be 9% or 7% affordable misses the point.

What got you interested in housing policy?

I was just so mad. I had moved to West Oakland, and rent was still pretty cheap. But it was it was getting more expensive every year because all of these people were coming from San Francisco who could no longer afford it. What was happening in San Francisco? You had both social-justice advocates and old yuppies both opposing new building. They had different reasons, but it didn’t matter, the outcome was the same. 

I didn’t understand the hostility to newcomers. You would hear a lot of people saying, “Gentrifiers and tech bros are ruining our city.” That made me really uncomfortable. I don’t know how somebody could look back at the history of the 20th century and think it’s okay to say that X person doesn’t deserve to live here.

How did you find the community of YIMBYs?

There wasn’t one. I helped make it. I knew a lot of people who agreed with me, and would hear them complaining about it in bars and on Facebook, but there wasn’t really a movement. The journalists Kim Mai Cutler and Matthew Yglesias were writing a lot about the issue, and I think that primed some people to get mobilized.

In early 2014, three other people and I just started writing letters in favor of every project before the planning commission in San Francisco. We would write something like “Hi, this is the Bay Area Renters Federation and we think you should build this.” A developer found out about what we were doing and contacted me. They had us come out to testify to the commission.

Everybody involved told us they had never seen anything like this before. For people to come from different neighborhoods to say that the decision you make here is going to affect me over there was really novel. We just believed it was bullshit that we shouldn’t have some say in something that affected us so much.

From there, we started a Meetup, a Google group, and some people joined us from a housing Reddit group that already existed. We got some local media coverage, and it just kept growing. Now, the San Francisco YIMBY action network has over 2,000 people on our mailing list, and over 500 members, most of whom pay dues.

Many observers believe that homeowners in major cities have too much political power for change to be possible. How are you going to overcome that?

One of my political mentors, who is 65, told me she about how she started out her political career trying to get single-payer healthcare. She has been working on it for 40 years, and she has made a lot of slow, incremental progress. It might be the case that solving the housing shortage may take 40 or 50 years, but people have to fight for this kind of thing.

Also, the demographics are changing. In San Francisco, 30% of the city moved here in the past five years, and 20% of the city going to be dead in the next 20 years. Newcomers are way more pro-building than long-time San Franciscans, but the long-time San Franciscans are way more likely to vote. The reality is that our movement’s entire success depends on whether we can get renters voting in a significant way.