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California's “Yimbys” - The Growth Machine’s Shock Troops - Part I

Zoning used to be a total snooze. Arguments about building heights and density were the eye-glazing preserve of planning wonks and people whose next-door neighbors were contemplating two-story additions.

In 2018, zoning got sexy.

The catalyst for the makeover was the fight over Senate Bill 827, introduced in the California legislature by San Francisco’s state senator, Scott Wiener, and drafted by Brian Hanlon, president of California YIMBY, an arm of the upstart pro-housing, market-friendly, millennial-led Yimby movement.

“Yimby” stands for “yes in my backyard,” a play on the better-known term “Nimby,” the “not in my backyard” tag applied to local opponents of development. Yimbys first appeared in the United States around 2014. They now have an international following. But it is in California and above all the Bay Area where they’re arguably most influential. YIMBY Action, a self-described “hub of membership” headquartered in San Francisco, claims nearly 2,000 members.

SB 827 drastically curtailed local authority over land use by restricting limitations on the height of residential development near major transit stops and suspending local parking minimums and density caps for such projects. The bill was endorsed by stalwarts of the state’s growth machine: the California Association of Realtors; the California Chamber of Commerce; the California Building Industry Association; the Silicon Valley Leadership Group; the Bay Area Council, which represents the region’s largest businesses; and more than 120 tech executives, including Nat Friedman (Microsoft), Dustin Moskovitz (Facebook cofounder), Marc Benioff (Salesforce), Logan Green (Lyft), Jeremy Stoppelman (Yelp), Alexis Ohanian (Reddit), Jack Dorsey (Twitter), and Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn cofounder).

Opponents included the Black Community, Clergy, and Labor Alliance; 96 cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles; and the Sierra Club; along with advocates for social equity, tenants’ rights, and local control. Though it died in its first committee hearing, SB 827 sparked a national debate over urban housing policy, transit-oriented development, democratic governance, and the neoclassical take on housing markets.

SB 827 incorporated the tenets of Yimbyism: To ensure maximum opportunity and economic growth, everyone who wants to live in a place should be accommodated. Housing prices are determined by supply. Cities like San Francisco face a crisis of housing affordability because of onerous local regulations passed by elected officials kowtowing to Nimby constituents, who are primarily the owners of single-family homes. Local resistance to “densification” in the name of quality of life, aesthetics, fiscal constraints, or the environment is a sham; the real motives are the protection of homeowner property values and the exclusion of poor people of color from affluent single-family neighborhoods.

The list goes on. To house everyone, the state must set residential building quotas for local jurisdictions and penalize localities that fail to meet their allocations. Otherwise, in hot markets, affluent consumers will buy homes in poor neighborhoods, bidding up real estate values, displacing existing residents, and sabotaging shared prosperity.

Yimbys present themselves as insurgents; in fact, their position accords with the housing policies espoused by the American Planning Association. And SB 827 embodies another dominant paradigm in U.S. city and regional planning: smart growth, or transit-oriented development. The idea is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by getting people out of their private autos and onto buses, trains, bikes, and their own two feet. To be financially viable, mass transit needs ample patronage. As the theory has it, building denser development near transit hubs spurs greater transit use—hence the call to raise heights and densities, known as “upzoning.”

Yimby support of smart growth is opportunistic. When the model facilitates more housing, as in SB 827, Yimbys push it. But in keeping with their “build baby build” agenda, they’re happy to pursue residential development whose accessibility to transit is minimal. In 2015, the Yimby legal affiliate CaRLA, short for California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, sued the city of Lafayette over a housing project at a site 1.7 miles from the nearest light rail station and on a bus route with hourly service.

Darlings of Big Media and Big Tech

Like other political activists, Yimbys form political clubs, endorse candidates and ballot measures, raise money, run for office—CaRLA co-director Sonja Trauss is a candidate this November for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors—canvass voters, lobby, demonstrate, cultivate an online presence, and seek influence within established organizations, most notably so far, the Sierra Club.

But Yimby politicking has also taken sensational turns. Start with the movement’s dizzying ascent, fueled by copious financial support from tech executives. Since its founding in summer 2017, California YIMBY has received $500,000 raised by Nat Friedman and Zack Rosen (Pantheon); $500,000 from the Open Philanthropy Project, mainly funded by Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna; and a million dollars from the online payment company Stripe. Equally impressive is the attention lavished on the young activists by the mainstream media, epitomized by the encomia churned out by New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty.

These tributes ignore another distinctive aspect of Yimbyism: an aggressive political style that includes doxxing—online posting of private information about opponents—and in-your-face confrontation. In April, Yimby disruption of an anti–SB 827 rally provoked a near-riot on the steps of San Francisco City Hall. Amply documented by the local alternative press, the incident went unreported in the Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

By contrast, the major media showcase the Yimby claim that market-friendly re-regulation of land use is inclusive. For more than a decade, the gospel of market-guided inclusivity has been preached by neoclassical economists and their acolytes in universities, think tanks, planning consultancies, and public agencies. The Yimbys have given that doctrine unprecedented currency in the area of housing policy. What they haven’t provided is solid evidence of its validity, and for good reason: such evidence doesn’t exist.

The primary cause of the Bay Area’s stratospheric housing prices isn’t regulation-constrained supply; it’s prodigious demand. The price of residential real estate has been bid up by a flood of wealthy tech employees and by international investors looking for high yields in a world of ultra-low interest rates. Between 1990 and 2015, households with an income greater than $150,000 constituted 80% of household growth in the Bay Area. In June, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defined households of four people in San Francisco, Marin, and San Mateo counties with an annual income of $117,400 as “low-income.”

The Trouble with Trickle-down Housing

Yimbys assert that the provision of new market-rate housing allows less expensive residences to “filter” down to people of modest means. But researchers at UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project say that such dispersion can take generations. Meanwhile, communities are being destroyed and lives shattered, as the most economically vulnerable residents are forced out of their homes. SB 827’s upzoning would have inflated property values and encouraged speculation, inviting private investors to buy relatively cheap land in poor “transit-rich” neighborhoods, typically populated by communities of color, and to redevelop it at prices and rents far beyond the reach of existing residents. Working with data generated by Zillow, Jeff Stein reported in the Washington Post in August that the luxury construction boom has coincided with rising rents for poorer city residents.

The promotion of high-end housing in the name of inclusivity has rankled some rank-and-file Yimbys. In November 2017, CaRLA sued Sausalito for denying a homeowner’s application to replace the existing two-unit residence on his property with three condominiums. The litigation prompted an internal debate over the organization’s commitment to social equity.

On an online discussion list, “Sterling” wrote:

I thought the point was to cut red tape to build more units for renters and more affordable housing. If this home were rented, it would be about $10k/month....Seems completely contrary to [CaRLA’s] stated objectives...

Sonja Trauss replied:

The point is to build everywhere....I’d love to sue on behalf of an apartment project in Sausalito, but for now, apartments in Sausalito are illegal almost everywhere....The point is to make sure that wherever new housing is proposed, especially in the most exclusive communities, it can be built. What this means is that the resulting housing is going to be expensive sometimes.

Sterling demurred:

But no one said this property owner couldn’t build—it was simply about scale of the unit being built. The City denied a large home and said it needed to be smaller...The owner got pissed because he didn’t get everything he wanted. He brought you in to simply get his way with a much larger home so he could generate much higher profit—which he clearly stated in the hearings...

After other Yimbys echoed Sterling’s objections, Robert Tillman, a developer, Sausalito resident, and plaintiff in the lawsuit, ended the exchange by laying out the “strategic purpose” of the litigation:

to put all Marin [County] cities on notice that they are subject to the Housing Accountability Act, and can no longer ignore the law. The particular project was unimportant....

California’s Housing Accountability Act forbids a local agency from conditioning approval of a housing project on reducing the density of that project to less than proposed and otherwise permitted by law, unless the agency determines that, absent the reduced density, the project would have “a specific adverse impact on public health or safety.” Under the HAA, such an impact must be based on standards that are quantifiable, objective, and written.

Enacted in 1982, the law was rarely used until the Yimbys seized on it. In September 2017, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law another bill drafted by Hanlon, SB 167, which strengthened the HAA by raising the evidentiary standard for disapproving a project, increasing the fines for an agency found guilty of violating the law, and entitling “a housing organization,” e.g., CaRLA, to reasonable attorney’s fees if it prevailed in a lawsuit.

Sausalito’s disapproval rested on the grounds that “the project’s maximum build out of the site is out of scale with the village like character of Sausalito and not in harmony with neighboring structures.” Neighborhood character is a subjective matter.

CaRLA won. That was a victory for property capital, not “housing for everyone.”