It was a rough electio for everyone in this photograph. But there are ways to move forward. Photo by Julian Mark.

Laura Foote sat alone in “the clubhouse,” the YIMBY movement’s inner sanctum on Mission Street. Streamers of Pepto Bismol-pink Sonja Trauss fliers, emblazoned with the candidate photogenically staring into the middle distance, still dangled from the ceiling like Christmas decorations. Literature, paraphernalia and window signs for perhaps half-a-dozen San Francisco candidates were stacked on every table.

This is a place built for action. The worn, L-shaped sectional is exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to see half a dozen whiz kids with laptops perched upon in any Aaron Sorkin campaign movie and, up to Election Day, that’s what was happening here. There’s a refrigerator marked “drinks only” and a whiteboard and folding tables and chairs and baby toys so the kids can play while their young parents make big plans.

And now it’s just Foote, the executive director of YIMBY (Yes in My Backyard) Action, staring out the window at this city’s smoky yellow air and an adjacent vacant lot that well and truly ought to have something built atop it, if only it would pencil.

“There is this larger question of,” Foote begins, “’What do elections mean?’” This is always a relevant query, and never more so than the present. It’s doubtful that voters intentionally spurned the wishes of either Mayor London Breed or the YIMBYs — but things largely worked out that way. Virtually all of the YIMBYs’ endorsed candidates — the folks whose literature is suspended from the rafters or plastered in the windows — lost. Handily, in some cases. Trauss, a foundational figure in the YIMBY universe, couldn’t crack 20 percent in the race for District 6 supervisor.

“One of the things about these groups,” says a longtime city power broker, “is that there is politics and there is politics. And you always want to come from a position of strength. For their person to get smoked so bad in her own backyard, in a district they were claiming they were going to win? That looks pretty weak.”  

An organization attempting to transform the way our dysfunctional city does business fritters away its clout when it backs all the wrong horses and antagonizes people. An organization known for the fervency of its volunteers gives pause to even ostensible allies when it gets out-hustled on the ground.

Any inchoate outfit that has grown as rapidly as the YIMBYs and is facing internal strife and leadership defections and weighty questions about what it stands for would be facing big decisions, regardless of a rough election cycle. This is a time for soul-searching, and Foote is definitely up for that. But when you’re the San Francisco YIMBYs, there are plenty of people willing to soul-search on your behalf. That’s because, while this organization isn’t as old as the kiddies who, until recently, were playing with the toys strewn about the floor here at the clubhouse, it has garnered a truly orgiastic level of media exposure.

“I have never seen a group get as much coverage as they have gotten,” says a longtime City Hall player and YIMBY sympathizer. “The media really thinks we’re crazy here in San Francisco. The YIMBYs feed that narrative. It confirms an existing bias. That goes for the Chronicle. That really goes for the national media. People love conflict and here’s this new group of millennials taking on the boomer-led power structure.”

A cadre of youthful, high-energy pro-development activists espousing a blessedly simple build-it mantra provides an evergreen man-bites-dog story.

It’s not entirely fair to use this election to harshly judge the progress of a fledgling organization. It’s altogether too early for a valediction; this city’s housing crisis is severe enough that, unlike so many long-forgotten political groups currently relegated to San Francisco’s political septic tank, YIMBYism will continue to have relevance here, in some form, espoused by someone.

But wall-to-wall coverage coupled with a kick-in-the-teeth San Francisco election should prompt serious questions about what, exactly, the YIMBYs have accomplished here. And what they might accomplish in the near and far future.

Laura Foote helms a growing and tumultuous YIMBY club. They’ve changed the discussion in San Francisco, but can they change San Francisco?

[dropcap]“T[/dropcap]here’s a reason I can get an op-ed accepted, or get on the radio. There’s a reason I get calls from The Atlantic, from NPR, from Grist — or from you,” says Laura Loe, of Share the Cities, a Seattle YIMBY group. “And that reason is San Francisco YIMBY created so much ‘earned media’ that it trickled down to the rest of us. It’s because of all the energy generated in San Francisco.”

“Earned media,” in Loe’s definition, is “Where I don’t have to do anything! I don’t have to generate news for someone to listen to me.” Well, that’s happening. So are tangible things of the sort not being accomplished in San Francisco  — re-zonings, municipal ordinances, a raft of statewide legislation — thanks, in part, to the attention generated here and money and support emanating from here.

But tangible achievements have, by and large, remained elusive here, even as our city’s brand of YIMBYism has come to define the movement. And this is a double-edged sword; YIMBYs elsewhere welcome the exposure (and attention from well-heeled allies), but only to a point. Some eschew the word “YIMBY” because of the connotations of bellicose behavior, confrontational relationships with tenant groups and gentrifying communities of color, and aggressively condescending libertarian dudes on social media with avocado avatars.

What have YIMBYs tangibly done in San Francisco? “I am very confident,” Foote says, “that we have changed the conversation. Nobody would be talking about housing in the way they are if we hadn’t dramatically moved the discourse. And that’s great.”

She’s probably right, and it is great. Or, more accurately, it has the potential for greatness; it is very difficult to measure culture shift. In the short-term, however, the legislators in the moderate-leaning districts that turned out for the YIMBY-endorsed London Breed haven’t done all that much to make their neighborhoods more amenable to development. Meanwhile, YIMBY favorites Breed, Assemblyman David Chiu, and Sen. Scott Wiener abused their YIMBY base supporters by opposing homeless measure Proposition C, which may yet provide for 4,000 units of San Francisco housing.

Vanquished mayoral candidates Mark Leno and Jane Kim, whom YIMBYs claimed would be calamitous for San Francisco housing production, supported Prop. C.

Housing is complicated. Politics is complicated. San Francisco is complicated.

As such, when asked what Breed has done so far for the YIMBYs, a City Hall source’s answer was quick and terse: “Nothing, yet.”

Things can end happily. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez

But that’s not entirely true. YIMBY lexicon dots Breed’s proposals and speeches. Like progressive politicians of a generation ago — who bequeathed San Francisco a number of concepts now interwoven into the city’s DNA, yet found themselves quickly unelectable — YIMBYs may find their ideas are more popular than their membership.

Foote says she can live with this: “If all we do as YIMBYs is inspire a group of people to say ‘I agree with them but I think they’re obnoxious so I’m going to do it the right way and achieve the goal of abundant housing and reduction of human misery,’ that’ll be enough for me.”

So, sublimating into the city like a dying Jedi becoming one with The Force is one way things could go. But it’s not the only way.

The brash, bridge-burning, nose-bloodying ethos of the YIMBYs’ first few years put the group on the map. There were benefits to this (see: media, earned). But, truth be told, some of those bridges would be useful right about now. The ill will engendered by clashing with Mission anti-displacement activists — and casting them as NIMBYs or mindless tools of rich white homeowners — has obscured the fact that these groups have common cause in pushing for development elsewhere, in more affluent parts of the city.

Those discussions are, belatedly, taking place, and that partnership could yet bear fruit. Coalition-building doesn’t get you national media coverage — that would be a dog-bites-man story — but, in San Francisco, it does produce tangible results.

It may surprise you to learn that the YIMBYs were, in fact, closely aligned with the Coalition on Homelessness in the campaign to pass Prop. C. Coalition on Homelessness executive director Jennifer Friedenbach confirms that it was the YIMBYs who helped to win an endorsement from downtown-friendly think-tank SPUR. “They were good allies,” Friedenbach says.

Foote’s query of what this election means is a deep one. There is a crisis here. But also an opportunity.  

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Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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23 Comments

  1. I’m glad for this group’s commitment to the housing crisis. Beware of aiming at a specific group who you are taking on. There are plenty of boomers who are renters and never got on the material bandwagon. These boomers are as prone as anyone to eviction games and are with you.

    1. Many Boomer renters are not receptive to YIMBY, though. When the housing crisis was starting, the previous generation passed laws establishing rent control, that now benefits incumbent Boomers but does nothing for Millennials who need more space for their growing families.

      1. But instead of reaching out to us boomer renters we were tossed in with YIMBYs enemies, which seemed to be all boomers. So why on earth would we associate with t he YIMBYs who seem to hate us?

      2. If the renting Millennials want to stay in the city, send their kids to high school here, they’ll back rent control. But for the tech Bros who want to move fast and break things, rent control is an enemy..

        1. A few YIMBYs are Millennials who hate Boomers and won’t reach out. A few Boomers are allying with the YIMBYs. The most prominent person calling it generational warfare right now is a YIMBY Boomer tenant rights advocate, and he’s with the Millennials.

          Rent control was put into law when Dianne Feinstein was entering middle age, when the electorate was a combination of Greatest and Silent and some precocious Boomer. To me, it makes the most sense as a temporary measure during a crisis. A crisis is supposed to end. That the crisis never ended is a major policy failure.

          It’s funny to mention high school. By high school, most families are long gone; but maybe still commuting to the city for work. I hear about some Millennials having kids while living in SROs and studios, but growing families tend to want an increasing amount of space. But if the space is tolerable and the family made it all the way to high school, then rent control does help to stay in San Francisco.

          I think it is better to end the crisis. The best market condition is to have competition, so whether you want more space (or even less space!) or you are dissatisfied with your landlord, you have credible options. We don’t have 50 varieties of bread in the supermarket, including many affordable, because the laws required bakers to produce so many varieties. We have options because the market was designed to allow bakers to produce an abundance of bread, and to subsidize families who still can’t afford it. Because we have an abundance of bread, nobody is speculating on it and driving its price up. Ending the crisis does not mean getting rid of regulations, but replacing regulations with better regulations.

  2. I think they are a disaster — a kind of death cult. Their basic premises sound laughable when you lay them out:

    1. Ever so many of the crises of society (environment, equity, etc.) are basically crises of housing in urban US cities.

    2. With loosened land-use standards, private developers will rush to devalue their own assets and thereby save the planet.

    3. The only reason that doesn’t happen is because generation of the parents of millennials are mean and selfish.

    4. The equitable, sustainable future is economic growth, great jobs at great pay, and lots of places to shop near where you live.

    5. The widespread unpopularity of YIMBY policies is proof of their correctness.

    6. If you don’t agree, there is probably something in your biography that explains why you are a Bad Person who should be publicly defamed and shouted down.

    1. Great outline of arguments why YIMBY will survive in the long run, thanks!

      Only one that I take issue with is #2, which is that the government could really be doing more to convert public lands into affordable housing units in more upscale neighborhoods since there seems to be enough luxury housing/mansions there already. This is something you’re willing to vouch for, I presume?

  3. A death cult. Yes, exactly. They want to kill all those poverty stricken seniors and families that they’re trying to get affordable housing built for in Hayes Valley. Yes. A death cult.

  4. How can a voter trust a group that thrives on disinformation? The Yimby m.o. is to control the narrative through their oversimplified talking points.

    Sonja and Laura have been exacting on the press, attacking their detractors and stroking their supporters. The NYTimes has had consistently bias Yimby coverage, mostly from a young east-bay writer they have made pals with. It was not an anomaly when they went after Eskenazi last month, it was a power grab.

    Think of Randy Shaw, who they’ve reeled in hook, line, and sinker over the past year. Shaw knows politics and housing backwards and forwards, but he couldn’t see the forest for the trees once he aligned with Sonja. He gave her even odds at a win. It was hype.

    The Yimby clubhouse is now reminiscent of the Overlook hotel. Pretty soon Laura will be pondering her philosophical questions over a Bourbon Advocaat and the desks will be moving on their own.

    Be careful Laura! That advocaat does tend to stain.

  5. My experience with Yimby’s are that they are age-shamers. They have stated to our community that they wish We’d just die already.

    1. YIMBYs don’t want old people to die — some of them do get frustrated and say things that they probably shouldn’t (a lot of them are just kids if you just look at them) but that’s really not what they’re after. They want the Boomers to acknowledge what they’ve been doing to young people (all the while scolding them for being “entitled”) and make amends. If you look at the policies in place right now with an honest eye, you’ll see how stacked the odds are against them right now.

      Randy Shaw is a boomer homeowner and they love him. Why? Because he’s honest about what’s going on. It’s very simple.

      Don’t know where you stand on specific issues but please do the right thing — it’s going to be bleak for everyone if this is the way the Boomers are going to be remembered — Trump, NIMBYism, and record-high economic inequality. Don’t make them fight for it.

  6. Yes, housing is complicated. The thing that irks me with YIMBYs is that they claim to have a simple answer to it that doesn’t seem to hold up under scrutiny. There are credible arguments that more housing of ALL kinds doesn’t necessarily work out in the long run and could have a net negative effect on affordability. I’m not going to rehash the arguments, and I’m not an expert, but the refusal to even acknowledge this makes me think they’re more about populism than actual results.

    1. The experts all agree that building more housing during a housing shortage helps to lower prices on all levels. This should also be common sense, as cities that do this have much lower rents and a much lower homelessness rate. Read any of the reports that have been coming out of SPUR or other housing groups recently — they all basically say the same thing. It’s actually the homeowner groups that tend to be the most misinformed on these matters because these arguments from expert groups do come up during planning meetings but they are immediately dismissed by them as being “biased”.

      This isn’t a matter of homeowners blocking developments that are just thrown together at the last minute — the planning process takes YEARS to get through and has to go through a rigorous overview process. What they’re doing is blocking developments AFTER getting the greenlight from expert opinions then dismissing them for petty reasons like “I don’t like the way that looks” or “I don’t want that thing blocking my view”. We’re in a crisis here and we need everyone to at least make some concessions for the greater good. I don’t think that’s asking for too much.

      https://www.spur.org/news/2018-11-08/how-has-san-francisco-run-out-money-affordable-housing

  7. Nobody has been able to convey any material difference between Haney’s housing policy and Trauss’ YIMBY housing policy. The ED of Mission Housing which is a member of the “progressive” Council of Community Housing Organizations is a board member of SF YIMBY. The nonprofits support luxury market rate housing development so long as they pay their toll into the “community benefits” slush funds and in-lieu fees.

    Market rate housing will never be produced in quantities sufficient to address high housing prices by adding supply to meet demand. Lenders will never lend to finance developer projects into a down market, where price at sales time will be less than price at approvals time. The greed inherent in the market is the achilles heel of the assertion that good public policy seeking to lower housing prices can do so via massive market rate housing approvals.

    The only daylight between YIMBY and CCHO housing policy is a few crumbs in token tolls.

  8. This group, whether all of them know it are not, are Wall Street AstroTurf. Fig leaves for smarter, richer, slicker operators. Their “victories” are bought and paid for by WaSt developers and corporate Simon Legrees. They recently got a million dollars from that source. Signed, sealed and delivered. They are not grassroots and they have a tiny constituency. They are loud and they work social media like bots. They are a curiosity since they espouse mostly espouse their own – and those they claim to represent’s worst interest – so they get the attention our voracious and indiscriminate media accorde a curiosity. They the Ann Couters of their time. Some of them just don’t understand and others are making a name and a buck (okay – million bucks – chump change the WaSt real estate game). Anyone remember Phylis Shafly – look her up.

  9. Face it. San Francisco is still a city with a heart that is inclusive, not exclusive and in need of a unifying force not a divisive one to get through this rough spot that has suddenly become largely devoid of leadership as most department heads are leaving. The Mayor has a lot to do without picking a fighting with the Board of Supervisors. Playing to the media is becoming a wasteful exercise. We need real improvements today, not promises for a perfect future.

  10. Yet another technodrone spouting twaddle. The YIMBY movement is intent upon completely remaking San Francisco, and any other city in which its pods sprout a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in its own narrow, hyper-consumerist, tech-centric and quite frankly tedious image, and it galls its activists that the overwhelming majority of us don’t share this aspiration. If anything, the most recent election was a mass repudiation of them. Kudos to the people of San Francisco for standing up to them!

    1. Wait a sec, the major upzonings, Eastern Neighborhoods and Market Octavia passed with unanimous progressive votes in the late 2000s. The most recent land grab, Central SOMA, passed without an objection from progressives.

      YIMBY versus progressive is a distinction without much of a difference.

  11. The unfortunate part of this article is that the author never clearly states what the YIMBYs want or stand for. He shouldn’t assume that everyone is already aware of what their goal is. Lots and lots of editing needed here. Completely convoluted writing.

    1. Thanks for the comment Paul. We strive to be accessible, but sometimes we don’t do remedial. Maybe you’ll like the next story better.

      Best,

      JE

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