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.’”