SF Mission YIMBY movement wants to speed up affordable housing

The empty lot at 490 South Van Ness Ave was proposed for affordable housing in 2015 and will break ground in 2018.

Steven Buss is a self-described “gentrifier,” and he’s on a mission to soothe his conscience.

Look, I am a gentrifier. I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not. I’m white, I’m relatively wealthy, I work in tech,” he said. “I know my presence in the neighborhood exacerbates gentrification, which is also why I want to help mitigate it.”

Buss is the founder of Mission YIMBY, a nascent offshoot of the fast-growing YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) movement that argues that San Francisco’s displacement problem is fueled by a lack of housing — market-rate housing, affordable housing, all of it. So, just build more housing, they say.

Buss and Mission YIMBY, on the other hand, call for something slightly different: more affordable housing in the Mission, and much more market-rate housing everywhere else. He sees opportunity for market-rate housing in neighborhoods like Noe Valley that, Buss asserts, have historically limited higher-density developments by zoning its land for single-family homes.

“The Mission is already doing its part — it’s doing more than its part — but what I really care about is forcing the other neighborhoods to build more,” he said, sipping a beer at El Rio last week, where he and some 15 other like-minded YIMBYs, most from the tech industry, were holding a Friendsgiving.

Buss moved to San Francisco to work for Google in February 2016. He initially moved into a friend’s house in Bernal Heights because he couldn’t find an affordable place in the city. He was naturally drawn to the YIMBY movement and its promises that more housing supply, via market forces, will bring more affordability to the Bay Area.

Yet, somewhere along the line, Buss had an epiphany. “I realized there are actually people the market will never serve,” he said.

“It’s totally true that the Mission has faced a lot of displacement and gentrification, and those are objectively bad things,” he added. “And so I wanted to start Mission YIMBY to make sure that existing voices in the Mission are represented in YIMBY.”

So far, Buss’s efforts to work with Mission activists have been touch-and-go. He’s attended several meetings of the activist group United To Save the Mission, but quickly became frustrated.

“There was a lot of anger about changes in the neighborhood, and I wanted to be a voice of YIMBY saying we agree with you — we want more affordable housing,” he said. “But the things they settled on were protesting a wine bar, protesting the red lanes on Mission Street.”

“None of that actually helps stop displacement,” he said.

Going around the table at the YIMBY Thanksgiving, a common theme emerged: many there had recently moved into the neighborhood to work in tech, but felt guilty for their part in changing the neighborhood.

“They think there’s no place to build or they blame themselves that they, as tech employees, have ruined the city,” Amrit Pal, who works at the electronic payment startup Square, said at the party. “There’s a lot of guilt in the tech community about this.”

Tom Hirschfeld, who works at a large startup, moved to the city in 2014 and joined YIMBY after housing policy discussions in comments sections and on Twitter weren’t enough. He was also troubled by his newcomer lifestyle compared to that of long-time residents.

“If me as an engineer at a tech company is struggling to pay rent and secure a financial future here, then people who are less well off than me are, by definition, struggling harder than I am — and that is an issue,” he said.

Hirschfeld believes there are two communities the Mission: people like him who are “wealthier and whiter,” work in tech, and have moved to the neighborhood in the last ten years; and longer-time residents. The groups, Hirschfeld has noticed, only interact at places like taquerias and laundromats.

“So what I would like to do as an organizer is bridge the gaps between the underserved communities in the Mission, who have serious concerns with gentrification and their changing role in the community,” he said.

But, like Buss, Hirschfeld’s efforts to bring long-term residents into the YIMBY fold have so far come up short. He’s volunteered at Mission Graduates, which for him was personally “eye-opening,” but failed to bring in any new members. He’s also attended community meetings focused on the 2000-2070 Bryant Street project’s affordable component, but he left frustrated by the “five- or six-year” completion timeline.  

YIMBY Action, in fact, recently sponsored a ballot measure that would streamline affordable housing projects if they have the proper zoning — a measure many of the YIMBYs I spoke to were poised to canvas for.

Scott Feeney, a tech worker who moved to San Francisco in 2014, was so “depressed” by the housing situation he considered washing his hands of San Francisco entirely. But he found the YIMBY movement and felt empowered.  

Asked about the notion of guilt among Mission YIMBYs, Feeney said, “I don’t think anyone should feel guilty for to moving to place with good jobs. … [But] I think there’s a recognition that we need to be sensitive because there’s a difference in privilege — and not come in and say, ‘I want to make Mission in my own vision.’”

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27 Comments

  1. Grant Campbell

    I for one (and this opinion is shared amongst other friends and neighbors residing in the Mission district) applaud YIMBY and Mission YIMBY for their attempts to find a way forward that meets the ENTIRE population of the Mission as well as other areas of the city. Frankly for me guilt has very little to do with it … its now morphed into grave concern. I have seen this trend of ‘opposition at all costs’ reach what I consider to be alarming levels. Two groups in particular MEDA and United to Save the Mission have appointed themselves as the arbiters of all things local and have in essence co-opted the Mission purporting to speak for all Mission residents.

    While I support their goal of ensuring the legacy of the Mission is protected (including housing) their NO stance to virtually everything that does not fit their cultural standard now needs to be checked. As a property owner and tax payer I want to see the Mission thrive which means protecting the legacy (culture and residents) but also supporting appropriate growth and change.

    Instead of ongoing opposition and rejection I would like to see these groups come together and provide the residents with a business development plan that is scalable, sustainable, and support the needs of ALL who reside in this neighborhood.

    Frankly if they spent more time advocating for much needed infrastructure changes along 24th and Mission street I for one would be grateful. Instead I get to look at filthy BART stations, garbage on every block, broken sidewalks, urine/feces, and empty storefronts. Perhaps we need to start a Progress Mission group (similar to Progress Noe Valley) to ensure that the voice of everyone is represented and support for both existing business owners (i.e. Foreign Cinema) and new are heard by local (read neighborhood) and city leaders.

    If you are of the same opinion … and tired of no instead of how … message me at MissionProjectYes@sonic.net and lets see what we can do to change this situation?

  2. Migrants to San Francisco looking for economic opportunity should not feel guilty — that’s what cities are for.
    Free movement within throughout the country is a fundamental American right.

    The housing crisis in San Francisco and the greater Bay Area — and throughout coastal California — is a housing shortage that is 4 decades in the making (ever since the 70’s). It is due to failed housing policy — effectively anfi-housing policy — during this period.

    It is the fault of government at both the State as well as local levels. Fortunately, due to the positive influence of the nascent YIMBY movement, things are turning around at the State level as evidenced by the recent passage of Scott Weiner’s SB-35 law requiring all cities to do their fare share of housing creation as well as the strengthening of both the State Density Bonus and Accessory Dwelling Unit laws.

    Yet local jurisdictions such as San Francisco continue to be beholden to the political sway of NIMBY homeowners and those blinded by outdated ideological preoccupations that thwart housing creation.

    Accordingly, local YIMBY initiatives such as this one are essential.

    If a proposed 100% affordable housing development is consistent with all Planning regulations, it should be approved expeditiously “:by-right” — that is to say within months rather the more typical 2 to 4 years as is the current ridiculous practice.

    • Agree verbatim. In my observation, tech workers feel guilty because that’s the narrative they are exposed to. They are not aware of decades of underbuilding and flawed policy in San Francisco. We need housing at all levels in San Francisco — affordable and market rate.

      • sfgate.dcommunity

        You don’t _really_ need “market rate” housing– ever. Not only is SF’s market rate absurd, owners don’t actually need those extra profits. SF needs stronger rent control policy, not something where kicking your tenant out or burning your building down gives you a blank slate to charge whatever the hell you want. That’s a great incentive for eviction and… burning buildings down. It’s not a safe or sane policy. Instead, rent control should carry over for the property that was initially built and rented as long as it remains on the market or has been on the market in the last 5 years (to avoid people pulling a building off the market for ~1year). This disincentivizes landlords selling perfectly fine and affordable properties in order to cash in with developers building high end units. Exceptions can be made (by some inspection process) for major renovations, but those should be the exceptions, not the rule.

        Basically there are easy rent control fixes to avoid price gouging while still allowing developers to profit over time. New YIMBY developments are fine, but as long as you have housing policies that incentivize building 400sqft units and leasing at $4000+/month rates, you will have developers who will be crawling over each other to take affordable units off the market.

  3. John Thompson

    “There was a lot of anger about changes in the neighborhood, and I wanted to be a voice of YIMBY saying we agree with you – we want more affordable housing,” he said. “But the things they settled on was protesting a wine bar, protesting the red lanes on Mission Street.”

    “None of that actually helps stop displacement,” he said.

    This is the difference between rational and emotional people. This guy is very rational and wants to come up with proposals and ideas that actually do something. Many of the Mission activists are extremely emotional. Their protests are often just to please the protestors so they can say they did something when actually, nothing gets done.

    • Grant Campbell

      Couldn’t agree with you more … activist groups do not seem to understand the concept of unintended consequences and their aggressive stance is likely going to ignite a backlash of activism that forces them to be accountable for their behavior and may in fact begin to mobilize grass roots mechanism to check their ‘no on everything’ stance.

  4. marc salomon

    “United to Save the Mission” is like the “Plaza 16 Coalition,” a group comprised of groups most of whom get money from the City. Mission residents, both poor and Latino as well as better off and white, are held in contempt because the purpose of their exercise is not to change conditions on the ground, rather to charge a toll for development that funds their agencies.

    Tonight there is a meeting at the Impact Hub for the Plaza 16 Coalition. The coalition has been organizing for four years now, meeting mid days in the Mission when working people cannot attend. Perhaps that insular anti-organizing is why there are 10 people RSVP’ed for tonight’s meeting if facebook is correct.

  5. Great article, but one correction: I wouldn’t say I’m on a mission to soothe my conscience; I’m doing this because I believe it’s the right thing to do. We have to end displacement by building more affordable housing because it destroys communities and neighborhoods. And we have to stop letting the exclusionary rich neighborhoods push all the development into historically working class and POC neighborhoods like the mission. We need more market rate construction in rich neighborhoods that don’t face displacement, and more affordable construction in the neighborhoods that do.

    By the way, if you want to get involved and help speed up affordable development in the mission, we’re having an open general meeting tonight: https://www.facebook.com/events/771212863081381/

    • Grant Campbell

      Your interview has clearly touched a nerve … in a good way! I’m convinced these grass roots groups do not yet understand that they may in fact have touched off a backlash of activism that will question their stance and call upon them to be accountable for the development and deployment of an bona fide community development plan. Actions have consequences both intended and unintended.

    • Jane Crawford

      Hmmm. Sort of confused by your proposal. You say you don’t want to see exclusionary zoning, but by pushing all market rate development into higher income neighborhoods and only allowing affordable housing in lower income neighborhoods like the Mission, you have proposed an exclusionary policy that will likely deepen inequality among SF neighborhoods where we already see pretty stark contrasts. I agree that speeding up development in SF is extremely important, but there is no reason for the Mission not to build BOTH affordable and market rate housing as long as it get built quickly. Also, imperative that ALL neighborhoods in SF build affordable housing.

      • I want all levels of housing everywhere, but i also need to balance these two truths:
        1) the Mission has faced a lot of gentrification and displacement and lower income residents are being actively hurt
        2) wealthy neighborhoods have refused to do their part and build more

        To me, the solution should focus on speeding up affordable housing construction city wide (but especially inside the Mission), and changing the laws to force the rich exclusionary neighborhoods to build both affordable and market rate housing. I’m not opposed to market rate housing in the Mission (after all, that’s my housing situation), but it’s not as pressing of a need as low income housing and doesn’t need my help to get built. It will get built, and it should get built, but we must make it easier, faster, and cheaper to build more subsidized affordable housing to help those the market won’t serve.

        More market rate and more subsidized affordable housing must be built everywhere.

        • marc salomon

          The deal in 2008 was that upzonings would take place in districts 6, 9 and 10 and that the rest of the City would be preserved. Divisadero/Castro was the dividing line. I would love to see you young fresh faced (predominantly) newcomer white people go up against the “Conservative C” parts of San Francisco to upzone citywide.

          To try to lead anything politically after living in a city that is already 85% built out for less than two years is a stunningly tone deaf performance of hubris and entitlement. I waited ten years before I opened my mouth politically on local issues to gain context of the real conditions in the diverse neighborhoods.

          What is needed for the Mission is not new construction affordable housing. Those units are available to most anyone anywhere on the planet who applies to the lottery and wins. New construction does little to mitigate displacement.

          It took London Breed to pry off 40% for locals, that never occurred to the progressives and when she moved that, they said she was doing it all wrong.

          What we need is to expand the small sites acquisition program so that rent controlled units at risk of eviction and conversion can be purchased by the City and conserved as permanently affordable housing through a community land trust.

          The SF CLT pried money for small sites. facing much resistance from the CCHO who viewed MOH $ as their private property. Once that happened, MEDA joined CCHO and made plays for CLT $ only they’re not a CLT, rather a politically connected ineffective nonprofit with city contracts.

          Displacement might be preferable to having MEDA as a landlord.

          • Grant Campbell

            Don’t use the words such as tone deaf, hubris, and entitlement to describe a group of individuals who see a need, have come together, and are trying to do something about it … that just makes you sound petty and angry. As a legacy resident of SF and someone who is clearly informed why not try to offer support and guidance to address the political issues you’ve identified. Maybe even consider joining their group?

            Why can’t we have both new development as well as small sites acquisition but frankly the number of small sites is still grossly inadequate compared to the need. Let one balance the other perhaps not in scale but at least in importance.

            I would also appreciate a citation that justifies your claim that affordable housing is available to anyone who applies to the lottery?

            Lastly help this of us who are trying to understand the complexity of this issue by not using acronyms alone and adding more context to your statements. That would go a long way to increasing our collective knowledge.

  6. Erick Arguello

    One thing that’s important to see is the big picture and how things are connected and what the ripple effects are. Its not just a wine bar or a red lane. Its the number of high end wine bars that are expanding or moving into the neighborhood because of gentrification. The redlanes have a much deeper effect in neighborhoods like the Mission. Many of our merchants have been weakened already because of the displacement of 10 thousand residents from the Mission 8 thousand were Latinos. These were their customers. Its a march that sends out a much bigger message. Much more were discussed then just a winebar and redlanes. Affordability, housing, services, safety and culture were also discussed. Gentrification dismantles entire communities.

    • Yes, we discussed more than wine bars and red lanes, but the majority of attendees voted to make those issues the ones to focus on. I had hoped we could focus on building affordable housing, providing safe injection sites, and pushing for cultural training for police officers, but the votes came up a bit short.

      Mission YIMBY will keep focusing on these things, I hope we can join forces on these important issues some day.

    • Grant Campbell

      We need evidence Erick … evidence … repeatedly I see claims made and yet cannot find any credible information to back up said claims. Anecdotally I’ve seen absolutely no discernible change on Mission Street between 16th and 24th Streets secondary to the implementation of the red lanes. And in all honesty how many wine bars are there actually on Mission? I did a quick search on yelp admittedly not the best source of information and I can find three so I guess I’m just not getting this onslaught of ‘wine bars’ that you’re worried about.

      Your groups intentions are laudable AND relevant AND important but you’ve simply got to begin to offer residents (and by that I mean all) of the Mission a community development plan addressing environment, social, economic, and residential needs even in its most basic form that supports a myriad of mechanisms to meet a preponderance of needs. This does not need to be a zero sum game, we can all win here but if you keep saying no instead of how you’re going to find yourself facing community onslaught from property owners and as they say ‘that genie is going to be hard to put back in the bottle’.

    • John Thompson

      Eric, sounds like you are saying the loss of 8000 latino residents is the cause of businesses struggling and not the red lanes of Mission street. 8000 residents did not leave the Mission because of bad parking and colored streets, or a fancy wine bar.

      They left the city because they could not afford to live here anymore. The reason is their rents are too high and there jobs don’t pay enough. Why don’t you focus on these latter two things?

      • marc salomon

        Those 5000 units were by and large flipped from rent control to tenancy in common between the 2000 and 2010 census by speculators and downsized from families to DINKs. The red lanes were city policy to prioritize moving people THROUGH our neighborhood at the expense of people moving IN our neighborhood.

        The City upzoned the Mission in 2008. The only part of that plan that has proven accurate are the luxury condos. Transportation, affordable housing, tenant and merchant stabilization are afterthoughts. That plan needs to be shelved and we need to start over.

        The problem is that it was MEDA’s mission to stabilize Mission businesses and they get city funding for this. To say they have failed at that mission is charitable. MEDA remains at the table for the Mission 2020 process. The affordable housing nonprofits have produced a pittance of affordable housing over that same time period. Yet the City relies on them to help set policy and they receive city funding.

        Why do institutions that have failed keep getting seats at the table? Can we really expect for these agencies to change their stripes and suddenly put their city funding at risk to stand up for the communities they purport to represent?

  7. Scott William

    I guess the author joined these YIMBYS at their Friendsgiving?

    Mitigating gentrification to protect people of color isn’t convincing when the YIMBYS default groupthink is racism.

    • Grant Campbell

      What does that even mean? How are the YIMBY’s engaged in a groupthink of racism when all they purport to want and clearly have a very cogent argument for is to advance the ability to build affordable housing in a timely fashion? Care to suggest a workable alternative?

      • Scott William

        No cogent arguments about housing start with hate. and trigger language

        The workable alternative is to stop propping up a YIMBY organization full of racists.

        • Grant Campbell

          You need to do better than bating us with that two line reply … what in their online presence or statements to date, including various and sundry community activities would suggest hate and/or trigger language? The fact that you’re calling them racists is a clear indication that you know nothing about them. Perhaps your energy would be better spent trying to understand what they are trying to accomplish? Conversely we have yet again another individual (you) calling out their so called agenda yet offering no meaningful solution.

  8. Jeremy Ruiz

    Think Erick Arguello Calle 24 / MEDA / and Plaza 16 Coalition are more concerned about the legacy businesses and their clientele (note Many of our merchants) rather than the actual housing crisis and thus their singular focus to eliminate redlanes and share bikes and new wine bars. Follow the money and you will find where the incentives are placed. Calle 24, Plaza 16 and United to Save the Mission are morphing into Gay Shame.

  9. marc salomon

    “We” don’t build housing. Developers build housing contingent on financing. Banks are conservative in this regard. Developers will not be able to obtain financing if there is a threat of added supply pushing down the sales price. When demand collapsed after Loma Prieta, in 2001 and in 2008, housing prices fell and development screeched to a halt.

  10. Robert

    Affordable housing? For who? Lottery? What’s the catch? Gotta’ know someone downtown as the saying goes? Friends of who? Rentals or for purchase? Regardless, housing can go up on every corner but it’s still nothing but a drop in the bucket. Statistically meaningless. Said it once, I’ll say it again: in San Francisco it’s over for working class people or those below above average means unless you want to live two or three families to a house or three or four room mates to a unit. Enjoy sharing that bathroom. Maybe one for men and one for women? Hiding out in a rent controlled apartment? That’s called living on pins and needles. Does it feel good inside? Your landlord or owner will most likely never spend a penny inside your unit because of logistics if nothing else. Better learn how to paint and lay carpet. It will end at some point most likely and that little one bedroom or studio will get smaller and smaller as the years go by. I’ve seen it happen. Subletting? Enjoy it while you can but who wants to live like that? And if you think this is a race issue drive on but it’s more likely economics. I just came back from New Orleans: in the Metro area a condo can be had for five figures. A house in the low-mid sixes. I neither know nor met anyone packing for the Bay Area, much less Frisco. The upshot is I’ve been here decades and ain’t going anywhere but San Fran is hardly the end-all, be-all…hate to break it. If it’s “like-minded” people that hold such a draw, more power to you but that’s about as narrow minded as it comes, sorry. If I had a young family, had skills but no family wealth to rely on I’d be outa’ here so fast. By the way, I wonder if Original McCarthy’s would still be here if they had access to the legacy business handout, or whatever it’s called. Another ultimately meaningless gesture meant to assuage the easily convinced. Otherwise, by my account thank god for tech.

  11. backtotheburbs

    Underbuilt? The second densest major city in the country … interesting.

    Sure, other SF neighborhoods could build. But this is a historic problem directly tied to people’s view of their property value. Plus you can’t just drop lots of housing — that needs to come with various infrastructure. In the end there are physical limits to development, some of them natural and others created by humans in their built environment. Not even mentioning that planning and building take time and are subject to market forces.

    Clearly the single problem here are the silly wages and stock options paid by local companies. Otherwise no sane person would buy into this poor quality lifestyle, not without statistically achievable dreams of riches. At this point enough has been paid out to tip the scales irreversibly across the Bay Area and well beyond, too much change in very little time. If you moved here X years ago to commute to Google and live in SF, then you are the problem — from the vantage point of all those much lower income people who have called this place home possibly longer than you have been alive. SF is the poster child for inequality and given all the variables — it is here to stay and likely to get worse. The exodus of families and non-silly salary people making logical decisions continues. The influx of high wage earners continues. And the ranks of destitute and ill swell, supported by greater and greater city funds.

    Ironically, the new federal tax plan actually has strong impacts for the Bay Area regarding property tax and mortgage deductions, as well as stock options and corporate offshoring, and upper middle tax increases. Already SF has ceased to be the focus of property investors… but in the mean time the majority of what made this place really great has evaporated. Functionally it is now little different from many other major US metros and in many respects worse. What a shame … boxy condos and glass towers simply mark the decline …

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