Build More Housing

San Francisco's YIMBY movement is pushing the city to build its way out of the housing crisis.


San Francisco is one of the most expensive places to live in the country and has become the symbol of the nation's housing crisis.

A booming jobs market and years of underdevelopment have led to skyrocketing real estate prices and rents in the region. In 2015, the Bay area added 64,000 jobs but built less than 5,000 housing units. The median home price is now over the million dollar mark and an average one-bedroom apartment rents for more than $3,500 a month.

The high cost has made it difficult for many residents to find affordable housing within the city. The problem represents a classic case of supply and demand—with more people moving to the region, more housing needs to be built. The California Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO), a non-partisan office that provides policy and budget analyses to lawmakers, agrees that the state needs to boost its housing supply to the tune of 100,000 units a year in coastal cities to meet current demand. It's an idea that both free-market libertarians and regulation-friendly progressives agree on. So why can't San Francisco get it done?

The answer lies in the city's unique culture of permissions and regulations. NIMBYs ("not in my backyard") have successfully organized against development in the region for decades by blocking new construction they deem to be a nuisance.

"We have so much neighborhood input here. More than anywhere else in the country," says housing activist Sonja Trauss. "This public policy of whatever you do on your property being everybody's business—how has that gone for us? What has that produced? Well, it's produced a horrible housing shortage."

Some of the recent developments delayed by NIMBY opponents include a 36-story residential building at 1481 Post Street that was first proposed over 10 years ago; a 17-acre space at Balboa Reservoir that is currently an empty parking lot; and a 10-story condo development at 1979 Mission Street that residents have dubbed the "monster in the Mission."

The Bay area's propensity for NIMBYism has bordered on the absurd in some instances. In 2010, residents banded together to block the addition of high speed internet equipment around the city, with some neighborhoods claiming a broadband antenna could "accidentally zap residents with concentrated radio waves" in the event of an earthquake. This year Palo Alto residents in Royal Manor, a neighborhood of 200 homes, proposed a zoning law that would ban two-story homes and second-story add-ons to maintain the aesthetic of their community.

The stubbornness of the NIMBYs has sparked a counter-YIMBY movement ("yes in my backyard") among activists who believe the way out of the housing crisis is to build.

Trauss, the founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation (SF BARF), is one of the more visible members of the growing YIMBY movement in the city. She began her activism shortly after moving to the city from Philadelphia.

"Cities are incredible things," says Trauss. "They're just places where freedom is possible in a way that is just not as a possible in a small town. So I feel like San Francisco and the Bay area should be taking advantage of its opportunity to build a big city. Now is the time."

BARF's mission is to support laws that make it easier to build—and to take on the political structure of a city where any small group of people can derail any private project they don't like.

"We are we are embarking on a public conversation about property rights and where they should be situated," says Trauss. "Currently, the way property rights are is you can't do that much to your property, but you have a lot of control over everyone else's around you."

The YIMBY movement is attracting a diverse group of people from all political persuasions. They're mostly young professionals who are advocating for development.

Andrew Benson, a graduate of who is pursuing his PhD in economics at the University of California, Irvine, first became of aware of BARF through Twitter. "I realize the political economy of the situation is extremely tilted towards landowners and current homeowners," says Benson. "There needs to be recognition that this is a big problem that is not being adequately addressed at the local level."

And while good old-fashioned NIMBYism plays a role in the current crisis, developers face another major opposition force in San Francisco: well-intentioned progressives who want to help the poor by only allowing certain kinds of housing to be built.

This is especially true in San Francisco's Mission District, a historically Latino neighborhood in the city's northwest area. Residents there are worried that new luxury developments will mean higher rents and displacement. Last year, neighborhood activists unsuccessfully pushed for a 45-day moratorium on luxury development but recently approved Proposition C, a measure that sets affordable housing rates on new development.

But many analysts, including those at LAO, are skeptical to this approach on affordability restrictions. In their report Perspectives on Helping Low-Income Californians Afford Housing, LAO concludes that "considerable evidence suggests that construction of market–rate housing reduces housing costs for low–income households and, consequently, helps to mitigate displacement in many cases."

The severity of the housing crisis is swinging public policy in favor of the YIMBYs. In May, Trauss and housing activists from around the state went to Sacramento to walk the halls and meet with legislators in the capitol to lobby support of Governor Jerry Brown's latest "as of right" proposal that would streamline the permitting process for new development that meets affordable housing requirements to prevent NIMBYs from stalling proposed residential projects.

Laura Clark, president of Grow San Francisco, says the legislation will help cut down on powers of abuse.

"[I]nstead of you follow the rules you get your permits, we have a system where you follow the rules and then you go through multiple bureaucratic hurdles," says Clark. "If you have anyone who opposes your project, they can pull multiple roadblocks in front of it that can hold your project hostage."

The growing organization of the YIMBYs was evidenced at their first national conference in Boulder, Colorado last weekend. The gathering included representatives from Austin, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York, Oakland, San Francisco, Seattle, and several other cities, according to The Atlantic CityLab. An international conference is planned for August in Helsinki, Finland.

Trauss, who was a keynote at the Boulder event, says her goal is to export the YIMBY platform to other cities and to create a property rights regime that leans in favor of the landowner.

"Whether your city is shrinking or whether your city is growing, what is the property rights regime that protects people and helps people protect themselves?" Trauss says.

Produced by Alexis Garcia. Camera by Garcia and Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Joshua Swain. Music by Kevin MacLeod, Silent Partner, Riot, and MK2. Additional housing footage from the San Francisco Department of Planning. Berkeley City Council audio courtesy Eric Panzer. Images by Brooke Anderson / Flickr and San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation Facebook.

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55 responses to “Build More Housing

  1. “Cities are incredible things,” says Trauss. “They’re just places where freedom is possible in a way that is just not as a possible in a small town.

    What year is it? Citation fucking needed.

    1. caught my eye, too. I mean, who doesn’t think “freedom” when they move to present-day SF.

      1. They are using the consumerist meaning of “freedom” which relates to increased variety of available experience.

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  2. “…well-intentioned progressives who want to help the poor…”
    Claim not supported by evidence.

    BTW, the Mission was largely Irish until after WWII AFAIK, and it’s in the south-east quadrant, not the north-west

    1. Even if they are idiots, as long as they are pushing back against the nanny state…

      I think the future of liberty involves micro-alliances with people pushing back against anything. One of our local prog activists found some irregularities with the city’s utility billing and is all over that because it “hurts the poor most.” While I will not join his Kumbaya sing-alongs for more tax dollars, I will work with him to eliminate this charge.

      1. I think the future of liberty involves micro-alliances with people pushing back against anything.

        Just be careful. Helping proggies do anything runs a serious risk of useful idiocy.

        1. I am being extemely careful because I know this person’s history. Without mentioning him or his other causes I’ve been talking about the utility charge.

          1. “extremely careful,” unlike my editing of late.

            And I always seize the teachable moment to talk about the unjustness of taxes and fees.

        2. every time I read “…micro…” I throw up in my mouth a little.

          1. A little microvomit?

      2. “Even if they are idiots, as long as they are pushing back against the nanny state…”
        The supposed ‘well intentioned proggies’ are doing nothing of the sort; they’re using the power of the state to dictate what the price of housing will be, which, of course means it won’t be built.
        I have no problem with the YIMBYs. It’d be nice if they applied the same reasoning to ‘rent control’, but I’ll take what I can get.

      3. I think that’s an excellent idea. Despite what liberty-minded people want to believe, the vast majority of the public are not interested in the libertarian program. So the way to win as a small force is to be nimble, pop up to lend strength where needed regardless of who we’re lending it to, and snatch victories one at a time.

        It may seem counter-intuitive, but it may be the only way for a small, strategically-minded org to get anything accomplished. As a bonus, it will mean people actually courting the libertarian block on issues, rather than just assuming we’ll vote R regardless and ignoring us.

        1. So the way to win as a small force is to be nimble, pop up to lend strength where needed…and snatch victories one at a time.

          So, float like a butterfly, sting like a bee? [ducks]

        2. Also, thanks.

          I think more people are interested in the libertarian program in general; where we lose people is on their pet issues. I try to convince people just to get the government out of this one thing, then use that to lever the next issue – see, we could do without that utility fee, now let’s get the local ball team build their own stadium.

          1. That combined with our awful tendency to run people out for not agreeing with each and every one of OUR pet issues.

            Bleating on endlessly about our love of “Messicans, weed and buttsecks” right off the bat (i.e. prior to establishing a foundational agreement with potential supporters of an individual liberty movement as a foundation for discussing these issues) does little good for our cause.

            Exhibit A: Gary Johnson, who never explains WHY from a theoretical standpoint that marijuana should be legal (i.e. because individual liberty) but instead justcomplains that it’s not and ends up coming off like a petulant stoner child butthurt over his parents not allowing him to light up.

  3. That’s a spit-take, that is.

    People have weird definitions of freedom, I guess.

    “I can’t do anything without getting permission from the government, but my neighbors don’t know me, so I’m free!”

    1. From the various stories I read here, it sounds like people in small towns can’t do anything without getting permission from the government either.

  4. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), a non-partisan office that provides policy and budget analyses to lawmakers

    Oh, come on. You expect us to believe that any part of the CA legislature, any part at all, is “non-partisan”?

    1. In California, everyone can vote! They can vote for a D candidate, or possibly the other D candidate!

  5. How about the state and federal governments giving back the houses they confiscated under George Dubya’s asset-forfeiture prohibitionism crusade? If excess population growth is part of the problem, how about not letting mystical terrorists blow up real estate and riddle Planned Parenthood clinics with gunfire?
    SF is the town whose gummint forced the Jefferson Airplane to paint their house–so they painted it black. Then they cancelled the license for a peaceful hippie concert in the park–so the concert had to move to the Altamont speedway…

    1. What….?

  6. Ah yes, the “progressive” city of San Francisco, where black people aren’t welcome, but if you’re a white drug addicted vagrant you’re free to defecate on the sidewalk. What a retarded, fucked up city.

  7. Ok, guys, you’re slipping. Would?

    1. I don’t watch the videos.

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  9. Yeah, sounds like a fantastic idea. Lets build some kick ass sky scraper apartments on top of the San Andreas fault line. What could possibly go wrong?

    1. Uh, the engineering is pretty much worked out. Did you see what failed in the ’89 quake? It wasn’t high-rises.
      And you have the option of not living in them besides.

      1. I’d be curious to see what kinds of costs are added on top of any housing development that goes up 36 stories in an area prone to some of the worst earthquakes in America, but ultimately the option of ‘not living there’ does seem the most efficient path to affordable housing.

        San Francisco is the perfect storm of never being affordable to the types of people that want it to be more affordable.

        Heavy regulation, perfect location, and incredibly wealthy people moving there. Even if they were practicing deregulated free market housing, I don’t think it would ever approach ‘affordable’. I’m not saying they shouldn’t try, but given their political, economic, and geographic issues it seems like a pipe dream. For now, if you want affordable, take the train into the city.

        It’s kind of like asking for a beach front house in Hawaii to be affordable. It just isn’t going to happen. It’s a rare good in high demand. What does that equal?

  10. When did women (did you notice this was an all woman video?) develop the same whiny, nasally, shrill voice. The sing-song tone at the end of each sentence was annoying to the point I couldn’t listen anymore.

    PS Get the fuck off of my lawn!

    1. It seems to be Valley Girl meets 1970’s BBC Newsreader. Monty Python, specifically Eric Idle, parodied the latter brilliantly; the former is inherently self-parodying.

  11. San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SF BARF)

    I think we’re done here.

    1. They stole the abbreviation for the parts of the CPA exam?

  12. Progressives do a great job creating their own dystopian nightmares.

    A city where only rich people can live? Yes, let’s do it: for the children!

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  14. cause we hates the chidrenz?

  15. Live close to the the City and go there a fair amount. I am a libertarian and I believe in private property. But do people have a right to say how much general density they want in the place they live? Like in the City(County) of San Francisco would it be appropriate to say “We don’t want the population to go over x in San Francisco”. Fine you can have more development. But those people then have to get on the roads to go to work, if that’s all been planned that’s fine, but SF has no freeway completely through the city and now it would be impossible to build one, BART goes where it goes and adding more BART is non-trivial.

  16. It sounds good until some developer tries to build a low end apartment complex in your upscale expensive neighborhood. People need to learn to see both sides of the argument.

  17. I do not understand this situation at all.
    If house prices are that high, and there is a limited supply, it would seem that people would be leaving for cheaper digs, or not moving to SF at all. Where does the demand come from?

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