Build More Housing

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


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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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