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.
“There’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.”
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.