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Inside the Yimby conference

Inside the Yimby conference

Nice civil discussion on the surface -- and some nastiness behind the scenes

Last weekend about 120 attendees from 17 cities gathered in downtown Oakland for the Yimbytown 2017 conference. Organized by East Bay Forward, the event was bankrolled by a $40,000 grant from Open Philanthropy, a project of Cari Tuna and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz that also funded the initial Yimbytown conference in Boulder. Chicago Cityscape also funded scholarships for a quarter of the conferees. Admission was $75.

The event featured 20 sessions and three keynote speakers, including State Senator Scott Wiener. For this reporter, the most memorable aspect of the proceedings was the contrast between the participants’ civility and collegiality at the event proper and the organizers’ incivility and paranoia behind the scenes. A close second was Wiener’s disingenuous put-down of his and other Yimbys’ San Francisco opponents.

In an unusual gesture, Open Philanthropy posts the applications of its would-be grantees online. The Yimbytown application describes the conference as the “annual…catalyst for unifying housing organizers, funders, builders, and thought leaders on a national scale.” This year’s grant went to CaRLA (California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund), the legal affiliate of SFBARF (Bay Area Renters Foundation) that sues suburban cities for purported violations of the state’s Housing Accountability Act.

Housing for all — or just market-rate housing for the rich?

The application lists four goals for Yimby 2017:

  • Unite the North American Yimby Movement
  • Facilitate Peer to Peer Learning
  • Construct a National Yimby Framework to “further create a national visual brand, platform and chapter structure”
  • Amplify Yimby Research, Opportunities, Concerns and Solutions


A Yimbyism Primer

Missing from the application’s anodyne language is the actual content of Yimby ideology. Its basic assumptions: growth is good; limiting growth is bad. But sprawl is also bad. Hence, Yimbys push for the “densification” of existing, urbanized areas (upzoning)—the denser, the better—and fight those who seek to limit the construction of compact new housing. In the Yimby playbook, that means fighting current residents, especially owners of single-family homes, and the elected local officials who respond to such constituencies by passing or maintaining low-density zoning.

Yimbys also hold that growth constraints, particularly “exclusionary zoning,” harm disadvantaged populations by limiting supply and thereby driving up the price of housing.

I find this curious: To begin, all zoning is in some way exclusionary; that’s the point of zoning. Moreover, what’s primarily boosting the price of housing in the Bay Area is a factor that went unmentioned at Yimbytown 2017, tech-industry-driven demand. I also find curious the Yimby conviction that building market-rate housing will generate ample housing for people who can’t get into the market.

To my pleasant surprise, at the conference a few speakers voiced support for rent control and inclusionary housing, requirements that market-rate development include a certain percentage of officially affordable housing. However, I did not hear any references to the fierce battles being waged in San Francisco and Berkeley over the percentages, with Yimbys at times arguing for lower numbers and their adversaries arguing for higher ones.


Four Sessions at the Conference

The Yimby precepts were variously elaborated by the presenters at the four sessions I attended on Friday. Alan Durning, founder and executive director of the Sightline Institute in Seattle, spoke about that city’s Housing Affordability and Living Agenda, the ambitious program initiated by Mayor Ed Murray—a program that, in Durning’s words, came “straight out of the Yimby imagination.” He identified four HALA principles: upzoning combined with developer incentives for affordable housing; loosensed single-family zoning (in HALA-speak, Mandatory Housing Affordability or MHA) —“by far the most controversial”—55% of Seattle’s buildable land is zoned for single-family homes; reduced parking quotas; and re-legalized micro-apartments.

Yimby messaging: Downzoning hurts affordable housing

According to the city’s website, the mayor has set a goal of 50,000 new homes, including the preservation and production of 30,000 new homes in ten years. One of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., Seattle has a population of around 700,000.

Durning didn’t simply cheerlead for HALA; rather, he offered a nuanced evaluation of its progress so far: “too early to judge.” In downtown and the South Lake Union districts, he said, they city “got upzoning right.” In the University district, the “math is bad:” The upzoning is not high enough to motivate developers to build. The result will be “higher prices” and “fewer affordable homes.” He commended the idea of a “parking benefit district,” whereby revenues from parking meters funds local improvements, a concept that Seattle is testing via a pilot project.

He also credited the HALA campaign with having “scrambled….normal urban politics.” Ordinarily, people he dubbed Housers—nonprofit housing developers, housing advocates, and social justice groups—align with Incumbents—“anti-change” parties, including business interests—in a “Nimby-Trotsky coalition” that opposes Urbanists—private developers, transit advocates, environmentalists, and urban planners. HALA has united the Housers and the Urbanists in “a new coalition that doesn’t have a cute name.” Durning compared its members to two prison escapees who are handcuffed to each other—a metaphor worth pondering.

For 48 hills readers, HALA itself is worth pondering, because it’s being touted as a model for the Bay Area by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, who, by virture of its hostile takeover of the Association of Bay Area Governments, has effectively morphed into a formidable one-stop regional planning agency.

My second session featured Issi Romem on “The Expansion and Densification of U.S. Cities.” Romem is an economist who works at BuildZoom, a company that helps people find contractors, and an adjunct lecturer at UC Berkeley. Displaying a quick succession of charts and maps, Romem set out three alternatives: Cities can 1) Not expand and not densify; 2) Densify but not expand; or 3) Expand. (Note: When Romem says “cities,” he means Combined Statistical Areas, defined by the U.S Census as “two or more adjacent metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas that have substantial employment interchange.” His “San Francisco” stretches from Santa Rosa to Gilroy.) He then set out three outcomes: A) Avoid sprawl; B) Pursue affordability and social character; C) Preserve the physical character of the built environment.

Romem said that a city “facing growth pressures” can achieve any two of these alternatives, but not all three, and that each alternative involves sacrificing one outcome. In the U.S., new housing is now “overwhelmingly built in low-density areas.” The much-vaunted urban revival is just “an itch.” Densification has slowed down across the country. “Metropolitan America is becoming more and more suburban.” In the Bay Area, “outward expansion has ground to a halt.” Meanwhile, restrictive zoning has limited densification. The upshot is the sacrifice of affordability and social character.

In session three, Brent Gaisford, Mark Vallianatos, and Ezra Gale told how Yimbys helped defeat last March’s hotly contested slow growth ballot measure in Los Angeles, Measure S. Baisford and Vallianatos sit on the steering committee of Abundant Housing LA. Baisford is also the co-founder and COO of Upwell Real Estate Group. Vallianatos is an author and an adjunct faculty member at Occidental College. Gale is a senior planner in the office of LA Councilmember Mike Bonin.

Vallianatos began by noting that in 1986, Los Angeles voters approved slow growth Measure U by 70%. Since then, LA’s permitting process has been “highly discretionary.

“Any project,” he said, “is a fight.”

Measure S would have limited reductions in parking requirements; enacted a two-year moratorium on General Plan amendments; and banned spot zoning for specific projects. According to the three presenters (I came in a bit late and didn’t get the names straight until midway in the session), the problem is that “the city has chronically underfunded long-term planning,” leaving the its zoning code in dire need of a “clean-up.” One-half to one-third of housing projects require zoning changes—some of them extensive. Prohibiting amendments to the General Plan would have stalled the creation of new housing.

The trio also described the contending campaigns. The Yes side was funded by $5.3 million from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation—a commitment that, according to the Abundant Housing representatives, was motivated by the desire of Foundation President Michael Weinstein to avoid a new high-rise that would block the view from his own high-rise office. Yes on S paid former LA Weekly editor Jill Stewart $50,000 to direct the campaign. They ran ads on TV and billboards. They also did a mass mailing of a mocked-up eviction notice.

“We were pretty freaked out.” Abundant Housing LA mobilized. “Given the money that was being spent by the other side, we had to have volunteers.” They recruited student leaders at UCLA. The No campaign got some “good” endorsements, and the Los Angeles Times “got pissed” and started running anti-S editorials almost every day. Organized labor joined the measure’s opponents. Measure S was crushed, losing by 70% to 29%, an exact reversal of the vote for Measure U thirty-one years earlier.

Having followed the fight, I found the Abundant Housing account selective. Only after someone in the room asked about the funding for the No campaign, did the speakers note that “a few big developers”—there were ten—kicked in $6 million to defeat the measure, and that Mayor Garcetti personally raised $1 million. Only after someone observed that the measure addressed “bad government”—specifically rampant backroom deals and spot-zoning—did they acknowledge that development in Los Angeles is plagued by “crony capitalism.”

And it can’t be true that every project is a fight, because, as Vallianatos told me in a post-session email, “Developments with 50+ units or 50,000+ square feet require site plan review which makes them discretionary. Smaller developments are by right, though due to outdated community plans we mentioned, some smaller projects seek variances or zone changes, pushing them out of the by right category.” At the end of Q & A, Gale conceded that “parts of Measure S weren’t so bad,” for example, forbidding developers to choose their own Environmental Impact Report consultants and requiring community plans to be updated.

Vallianatos presented the fourth session I attended. His subject: “Unhousing the Golden State: who did it, and how to fix it.” He marked three California booms. The first, in the 1920s, unleashed “uncontrolled” subdivisions and sprawl. The second, after World War II, spurred “environmental laws.” The third, occurring from the1960s to the 1980s, was an apartment and office boom, leading to community planning and project review.

He then surveyed eight layers of slow growth sentiment and activism in the state:

  • “exclusionary” suburbanism
  • good planning
  • counter-culture romanticism of the Sixties and Seventies
  • historic preservation
  • the New Right
  • the New Left
  • quality of life/urbanism
  • anti-displacement

Quite a mix. Its upshot, Vallianatos submitted, is the state’s housing crisis, and its affordable housing crisis in particular.

Vallianatos offered a host of recommendations, started with “reforming California’s regulatory framework” so as to strengthen Sacramento’s authority over local housing policy: bolster by-right approval, strengthen the Housing Accountability Act and the enforcement of the Regional Housing Needs Assessments. He also advocated stronger regional planning: have regional entities do the “big-picture density zoning,” and let local jurisdictions “fill in the details.”

He called for changes to the California Environmental Quality Act, including stronger infill exemptions and sectoral environmental review, instead of just new project scrutiny. Turning to the Coastal Commission, he favored allowing density bonuses for housing projects on the coast, averring that “high-rises are fine in some areas….[T]he visual thing should be somewhat downgraded.” In his view, we need “more residences in cooler coastal zones,” where people don’t need energy-sucking air conditioners. He recommended land value taxes, limiting development impact fees, and eliminating inheritable assessed valuations under Prop. 13. Finally, he pondered strengthening rent control and working for more “non-distortive” state and local funding for affordable housing.


Laura Loe’s Intersectional Urbanism

At all four sessions, the general tone of discourse was engaging and respectful. The precedent for that tone was set on Friday morning by the keynote speaker, Laura Loe, an educator, author, activist, and self-described Yioby (Yes in Our Backyard) from Seattle. Loe prefers Yioby to Yimby, because, she said, the latter tag defines “you against what you’re against.” Say you’re a Yioby, and people’s curiosity is pricked: what does that stand for? You have an opening into a conversation and possibly a relationship that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

That position encapsulates the major theme of Loe’s talk: how to do “intersectional” organizing. She dispensed a lot of advice: try to let people have the last word; to make your case, use stories, not statistics (“expecting statistics…to change minds” is “nonsense;”) send “unconventional messages” (she sends paper thank you notes); disarm people; do lots of one-on-one meetings; be funny; lead with kindness; be charming; but also, “be relentless”—“keep showing up at meetings.”

Walking her talk, she told her own story. A resident of Seattle since 2009, she got involved in local politics in 2015 by managing a “slow growth” council campaign in northeast Seattle. She liked the unnamed candidate’s support for historic preservation and more voices in government. But as she went door-to-door, she “got troubled” by the “individualistic” concerns she was hearing. People talked about their street, their path to the grocery store, and seemed oblivious to collective issues. “I thought Seattle was progressive;” this experience shook that belief. She was drawn to two other candidates, whom she dubbed “the urbanists,” Rob Johnson and Michael Maddux. Johnson won and now serves on the Seattle council. Loe, who volunteered to me that she’s 41, subsequently quit school and, in January 2016, started tweeting about “intersectional urbanism.” She now works as a pro-density, “independent activist” supported by donations from like-minded individuals. In 2016 she was elected to the Sierra Club’s Seattle Group, where she focuses on housing.

Sen. Scott Wiener tweeted this photo of him at the Yimby conference

Loe’s politics are quirky. A tenant herself, she was one of the conferees who endorsed renter protections, including move-in fee reforms. She also inveighed against patriarchy and “systemic racism.” A good chunk of her presentation was devoted to deploring “Yimby dudes” who mansplain. She “considers [herself] a socialist,” but thinks that “by taxing developers, we’re not going to get to socialism.” What will get us there is “taking things away from people” who “feel threatened” by the Yimby agenda. Intersectionality, in other words, is a style, not a political agenda.

In a brief, post-session chat, I noted her socialist identification and observed that she hadn’t mentioned Amazon. She replied that “Amazon participates in a system—capitalism; they’re not the system. People need jobs, and it provides them. Seattle is a company town. Think Boeing.” What “we need to change,” is the for-profit “financial system.”

Loe was the most intriguing person I encountered at Yimbytown 2017. Some time I’d like to sit down with her and hash out the tensions in her pronouncements, as well as our political agreements and disagreements. I’d also like to ask some people on the other side of the political divide—for example, my occasional correspondent John Fox of the Seattle Anti-Displacement Movement—how well her on-the-ground activism jibes with her avowed intersectionality.

But right now, I want to document the stark contrast between Loe’s recommended disarm-and-charm approach to politics and the censor-and-censure tactics of the local conference organizers.


Bay Area Yimby Style: Censor and Censure

When I go to conferences, I usually prepare some tough questions (see my story about the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in St. Louis last February). But not this time. That’s because in order to get a press pass, members of the media had to agree to follow this amazing set of rules:

Media Guidelines

We want to make sure that YIMBYtown is a safe and welcoming place where real and difficult conversations can take place. As such, we want to make sure that all attendees feel that they can talk openly and freely to explore ideas, learn, share, and grow.

The following rules are set in place for members of the press:

 Everything is off-the-record by default, and explicit verbal or written consent is required for anything that can identify individuals or organizations

  • The press is free to write about overarching themes or sentiments of the conference without permission, but shall refrain from specific details that identify people and organization affiliations without explicit written or verbal consent.
  • Conference attendees will be wearing identifying markers on their name badges indicating whether they grant permission to be photographed.

Members of the press shall be observers and refrain from participating in or influencing discussions

  • The press is free to ask clarifying questions to individual participants outside of group talks and discussions so long as they follow other press guidelines.

  • To attend the conference, members of the press must acknowledge that they agree to these guidelines. 


Reluctantly, I agreed and then entertained the possibility of writing a self-redacted story, in which all names and details would be blacked out. Fortunately, I was spared that absurdity, because in the late afternoon of July 13, just before the conference began, the conference organizers sent out a corrected version of the media guidelines. Now only (?) “Everything OUTSIDE OF PANEL CONTENT would be off-the record by default.” The rest of the rules were the same.

Even with the revision, members of the press were still forbidden to ask questions or participate in or influence discussions. I confess that I broke that rule but did so very carefully (an East Bay Forward monitor attended every session): I asked only for clarification or for information that, I thought, would not put presenters or conferees on the defensive. Apparently I passed muster, because nobody called me out.

But the bizarreness of the media guidelines was mild, compared with the outlandish verbal offensives that followed. On July 12, 48 hills editor Tim Redmond posted his story “Listen, Yimby!” Billing his piece as “an open letter from someone who is not a Nimby,” Redmond asked, “What if your market-based model is destined to fail?”

On the morning of July 13, SFBARF founder and recently declared candidate for San Francisco District 6 Supervisor seat Sonja Trauss emailed Redmond. In the interest of illuminating the discursive style Trauss would likely bring to the Board of Supervisors, I am reprinting their entire exchange.

She wrote:

1 – we do listen to you, we hear you say that new housing is bad for SF and new people should not come here. We disagree with that, and we let you know. 

I definitely think dialogue is the only path forward. There are a few questions in your alerts on twitter now. In the interest of the dialogue you claim to want to have, I encourage you to go answer the questions that are being posed to you. 

2 – I appreciate the idea that you “don’t want to dismiss us as shills.” Luckily for you, there is nothing stopping you from not doing that! At any time you can start engaging in dialogue (see point one), and start taking our points seriously. 

While it’s great that you have come to this point, it’s also a bit late. I’ve been doing this for three years, and the entire time has been an experience of relentless personal attacks and claims that I’m insincere. I’m looking forward to you being an advocate of more balanced, civil coverage of our activities and goals.  


Redmond replied:

Thanks Sonja. My point is not that you are corrupt or evil or in anyone’s pocket (any more than all of us who disagree with you are motivated by greed and wanting high property values). I just don’t think your approach will work, and it instead will make things worse. But happy to keep talking.

Late that afternoon, Trauss emailed back an invitation: “People are reading what you wrote and engaging with it—can you come on and do your half of the convo?” She closed with specifics: “If you want to address the conference, please come tomorrow [Friday] and propose a session for Saturday.” Very intersectional.

But sandwiched between the bifurcated invitation, was a non-intersectional—what is the proper antonym here?—how about, insulting?—message:

Also you should prepare yourself for the possibility that you might be wrong. People who have wrong beliefs often believe that people who disagree with them don’t understand or aren’t listening. That’s not the case. I understand what Flat Earthers are saying, and I think they’re wrong.

There are also just different goals. I understand perfectly well that pro-lifers don’t want women to have abortions. The conflict between them and me won’t be solved by more listening. We disagree. That’s what I think is happening here.

I think life would be better for hundreds of thousands of people, and would be better for me, if a million or more people lived in San Francisco. You think life would be worse for yourself and others like you if a million people lived in SF. I understand your position, I understand that if we achieve our political goals you will feel sad. I just don’t care. Politics arises out of conflicts.

No disrespect, but the fact that you think our strategy will fail is irrelevant to me because you have a bad track record of participating in strategies that succeed. Ostensibly, for over 30 years, you have been trying to make SF “affordable.” In that time SF has become more expensive than it has ever been and the most expensive city in the U.S. So how could a person with even half a brain look at your track record and think, “that’s a guy that knows what he’s doing! He sure picked a winning strategy!”

For someone who thinks “dialogue is the only way forward,” Trauss is pursuing a mighty strange path.

What’s particularly odd is her self-pity. Her claim that “I’ve been doing this for three years, and the entire time has been an experience of relentless personal attacks and claims that I’m insincere” is ludicrous. True, she’s also been assailed by opponents; as Randy Shaw has written, “she is deeply despised by some progressives.” But opposition comes with the territory, and whatever criticism Trauss has encountered from progressives has been greatly outweighed by the acclaim that’s been showered on her by the power elite in the Bay Area and beyond.

Trauss has been featured in a full-color spread in The New York Times and lionized by the media at large. Last February she was the featured speaker at USC’s Price School of Public Policy. In March the San Francisco Business Times named her as one of the Bay Area’s 40 outstanding business professionals under 40. In April she participated in the Real Estate Development Talks series in Vancouver, B.C. On Monday State Senator Scott Wiener endorsed her candidacy. She’s told the Biz Times that SFBARF’s current budget is $500K, and that the organization now has five staff “and a policy arm in Sacramento.”

I was planning to absolve Trauss of the insincerity charge, but then I saw her July 12 Twitter exchange with African-American planner, consultant and author Pete Saunders. Saunders had posted a Chicago story that illustrated his “anti-upzoning argument”:

Where upzoning succeeds, it creates more housing in the place where the demand is greatest.  Upzoning gives license to the development community to do just that.  It also gives license to others — us — to forget about the underutilized parts of our cities, and wait until other neighborhoods are “emptied” so they can be “leveraged” to address the overcrowding in other areas. 

This is repugnant.

Trauss tweeted in response: “Yeah – this is similar to/a version of the only scruple I have with my life’s work: gentrification is what we call the revaluation of black land to its correct price.”

This is no small scruple.

Redmond was booked for Friday and Saturday and couldn’t attend the conference. But I did, and there I had an even less intersectional encounter with another prominent Bay Area Yimby, Laura Foote Clark, the Executive Director of Yimby Action. Our run-in occurred on Friday afternoon in the hall between sessions. I was talking to Sam Moss, who directs the Mission Housing Development Corporation. Earlier in the day, he and other Yimby conferees had posted some snarky tweets about me. I’d never met Moss, and I decided to introduce myself and ask him why he and his colleagues were so mean. At first, he demurred; then, he apologized. Meanwhile, Foote Clark had come up to the Yimby merchandise table where we talking. She’d initiated the earlier Twitter exchange. I’d never met her either, and so introduced myself and told her what Moss and I were discussing.

Foote Clark did not apologize. On the contrary, she accused me of having muttered nasty things at a SPUR [Bay Area pro-growth think tank] forum. The charge was partially plausible—I’ve never been good at keeping a poker face—but how is that like posting taunts online?

Then came a tirade. Foote Clark cited the subhead—“did anyone ask you?”—that Redmond had written for a 48 hills piece of mine posted last November. The headline had begun: “More than a million people in San Francisco.”

“Don’t you think people should have a say over who lives in their city?” I asked, obviously meaning, in the context of our discussion, how many people. “No!” she replied. “That’s what got into the situation we’re in now.” By which she meant, not just the affordability crisis, but the displacement of poor people, especially poor people of color.

She also accused me of wanting to keep the South Bay just the way it is, i.e., a place of mostly single-family homes; of opposing Home-SF; and of never having “reached out to her.” This last accusation was weird; I’ve never written about Yimby Action; why should I have reached out to her? I observed that when I did a story about her fellow Yimby, former Palo Alto Planning Commissioner Kate Downing, I’d asked for an interview and never heard back. Also that I’d never written about Home-SF.

All to no avail. Referring to 48 hills’ regular contributors, Foote Clark shot back: “I think you’re all fricking like that.” She used a term unfamiliar to both me and Moss: “hate-reading:” “Eighty percent of 48 hills readers,” she said, “are hate-reading.” Later I Googled it. The Urban Dictionary defines hate-reading as “an online activity in which one visits a website, Twitter feed, or Facebook page for the express purpose of ridiculing—or indulging one’s disdain for—the author and/or the content on the site.” When she declared, “I’m wasting my time,” our row ended.

Or so I thought. On Saturday, instead of doing a speech for his keynote, Wiener sat for an interview with Foote Clark. On Sunday morning, I sent her a short email asking her to confirm (or not) my notes from that exchange. That evening, she replied.

Her letter took the same form as Trauss’s invitation-cum-denunciation to Redmond. It began politely. First she confirmed my notes. Then she apologized for “losing my temper with you this weekend,” though she diluted that apology with an accusation:

When I found you yelling at my friend Sam, I was a bit incensed and defensive of him. He has been a tireless advocate for Affordable Housing and I have a lot of loyalty to him. I do not apologize for what I said, but I do apologize for the intensity and volume at which I said it.


Then Foote Clark launched into a diatribe that, to be fully appreciated, has to be read in its entirety. She wrote:

It is very hard for me not to hear a defense of single family home only zoning and exclusionary policies when you defend local control, because that is the end result of hyper-local control when communities are allowed to segregate and keep people out. When cities and towns are allowed to continue to think of themselves as fragmented communities, rather than part of a larger Bay Area community with regional – and even national – obligations, when we allow exclusionary policies, this is the result: exacerbating inequality, unaffordable housing, and an entire generation stunted by a chronic housing shortage. That you can see this much suffering and react with a selfish attitude of “why can’t they just go elsewhere?” is a level of cruelty that honestly shocks me.

You ask “Are there limits to growth?” and I will answer you: maybe, but California is nowhere near them. Japan has barely come close. And though that may “frighten” you, it is not “unlivable.” That is like saying “No one goes to that bar anymore; it’s too crowded.”

I see you repeatedly asking only the most selfish questions. Variations of: Did anyone ask us? Is CA the only place people can live? These questions demonstrate a surprisingly selfish attitude for someone who identifies herself as a progressive. Why can’t you open your heart to more neighbors? Why do you believe your life will be so negatively effected by urbanization?

In your piece on Kate Downing your overall argument involved stating that prices in Palo Alto aren’t inflated, and Kate should just settle on getting something worse for the money she had in her pocket. Rather than being outraged that families are being ripped off by this entire system, you point the finger back at a struggling mother and basically say “Why don’t you just settle for less than my generation got?” This is why there is a stereotype about entitled boomers. This is the selfish sentiment that I find so outrageous throughout your writing.

Just because you don’t straightforwardly defend single-family home only exclusionary zoning (rooting in segregation), doesn’t mean that isn’t the end result of the policies of hyper-local control you advocate for. You have the opportunity now to educate yourself about the history of segregation and zoning.



This demands a reply. First, let’s set the record straight on Kate Downing. In fact, I wrote that housing prices in Palo Alto are “insane.” It’s impossible for me to regard Downing, a tech attorney who repeatedly cited her personal success, and who, with her husband, an employee of Peter Thiel’s Palantir, bought a four-bedroom home in Santa Cruz for $1.5 million, as “struggling.” Laura, I have no idea what you mean by “getting something worse for the money she had in her pocket.” By the way, I don’t know anyone in my generation—though there must have been some—who at the age of 31 owned a four-bedroom house. At that age, I was renting an old house in Berkeley with two other young people, and most of my acquaintances were living in similar circumstances.

As for regional loyalties: I look at who’s calling the shots at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, and I see representatives of Big Capital, starting with the Bay Area Council, which since the 1970s has been lobbying to disenfranchise local governments. I don’t think the needs of big business should dictate public policy. Do you? 

I challenge you to show me the hard evidence—not just anti-Nimby rhetoric—that local growth controls are a major factor in the Bay Area’s current housing crisis.

Long term, the demonstrable sources of that crisis are Prop. 13 and the withdrawal of federal and state funding from affordable housing. Why aren’t California Yimbys crusading to reform Prop. 13—starting with a split roll that annually reassesses non-residential commercial property (see the Evolve campaign)—and lobbying Jerry Brown to show the same glad hand to affordable housing that he displays to his high-speed rail vanity project?

Short-term, the culprits are the flood of highly-paid tech workers who’ve flooded into the region and bid up property values. Not to be crass, but could Bay Area Yimbys’ silence about the tech tsunami’s pivotal role in the housing affordability crunch have something to do with the largesse that tech entrepreneurs have lavished on Yimby endeavors? The $40K grant for YIMBYtown 2017 was peanuts. Open Philanthropy has also given CaRLA $300K. And now Trauss’s business partner at CaRLA, Brian Hanlon, has raised $500K from tech executives to fund a political action committee, California YIMBY, that will push pro-growth policies in Sacramento. As the old saying goes, follow the money.

Sen. Scott Wiener thinks people who fear displacement from market-rate housing are “quacks.”

Scott Wiener calls us ‘quacks’

At noon on Saturday, Foote Clark and Scott Wiener perched on side-by-side stools and had a conversation before the adulatory Yimbytown crowd. After declaring that “he’s done everything he can to power this movement from Day One,” Foote Clark tossed the rookie state senator a series of predictably softball questions.

His responses projected the same sense of courage in the face of adversity conveyed by Trauss’s self-presentation. In 2011, he said, it was “pretty lonely on the Board of Supervisors,” what with “all these people opposing housing….Only the Planning Department and developers” were on his side.

Likewise, he “thought [SB 35, his controversial by-right approval of housing bill] was going to die in thirty seconds.” Instead “pro-housing sentiment” among his fellow state legislators turned out to be “impressive.” In the Senate, to his professed surprise, SB 35 was supported “by very conservative Republicans and very lefty Democrats.” It also garnered the support of the “legislative leadership” of both houses. Colleagues approached him and confided: “’I can’t say this publicly, but thank you for doing a streamlining bill. We get all this opposition [at home].”

These remarks were enlightening, though perhaps not in the way Wiener intended. When it comes to boosting the real estate industry, the party divide is a mirage. Republican or Democrat, it’s the rare elected official who doesn’t side with the growth machine. And as their private thanks suggests, in supporting an aggressive pro-growth agenda, most elected officials are representing their own views (and the views of their major campaign donors), not the views of their constituents.

Indeed, the vast majority of California voters have no idea that SB 35, which, once the building trades unions withdrew their opposition in return for goodies that Wiener traded for their support, sailed through the Senate and is now sailing through the Assembly, will drastically curtail local voice in local development decisions and foster gentrification and displacement of economically vulnerable communities. It mandates no environmental review, no public notice, no hearings, no negotiations for community benefits for market-rate projects with as little as ten percent officially affordable housing. That most Californians are in the dark about this looming calamity doesn’t jibe with the tribute to “transparency” that Wiener also voiced at Yimbytown.

Neither does the attack on local critics of the Yimby “pro-housing” agenda that Wiener issued during Q & A. In a seemingly conciliatory gesture, the Senator credited those opponents as having “correctly identified the problem: rising housing costs and evictions.” The trouble, he averred, is that they think “shutting down development” will solve them. “You can reach some” of dissenters, he said, but with others, the “ideology that “development is the enemy is so deep that you will never reach them. I will not name any names, but San Franciscans know who I’m talking about [laughter in the room].” These “quacks … put out theories that are just false, like the theory that supply and demand don’t apply to housing, the theory that building more housing makes housing more expensive, in a very sophisticated way….I’m shaming them, so they’ll say it less.” But they persist, “manipulat[ing] people” who “see new development and don’t like it,” because of the traffic, less sunlight, or because “wealthier people are living there and changing the fabric of who’s in the neighborhood….These quacks come in and give [these resentments] the sheen of academic [authority],” thereby “confirming…internal biases” against growth.

This was a moment that I wanted to raise my hand and query Wiener, but given the ban on questions from the media, plus the strong likelihood that Foote Clark wouldn’t call on me, I refrained. Here’s what I would have said:

Senator Wiener, Please tell me who argues that building new housing makes housing more expensive. I’ve never heard anyone make such a moronic claim. The argument I’ve heard from the people you’ve declined to name—surely you mean Tim Redmond, veteran affordable housing advocate Calvin Welch, and the co-directors of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, Peter Cohen, and Fernando Martí—is that building more market-rate housing makes housing more expensive. Moreover, far from dismissing the laws of supply and demand, they point to the demand side of the equation, which you and the rest of the Nimbys ignore, as a major factor in the Bay Area’s housing affordability crisis. Please respond.


I’d still like to hear the Senator’s response. Better yet, I’d like see a face-to-face debate—a “convo,” if you will—between Yimby representatives and Yimby critics—the sort of “real and difficult conversation” that the media guidelines at Yimbytown 2017 presumed to foster but actually precluded. Yimbys: can you handle it?

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