Talking Yimby, acting Nimby in District 5

Unpacking the failed news media narrative of Nimbys in SF -- and how it applies to the D5 supervisor race.

A story is unfolding in the District Five supervisor race, ignored by the news media, that illustrates the contradiction between narrative and fact that underlies so much of current politics in San Francisco.

The media, both local and national, is fixed on a discussion of San Francisco that has as it center an explanation of our outrageous housing costs that might be called “The Narrative:” A titanic struggle between Nimbys (Not in My Back Yard), usually defined as residents in existing neighborhoods who oppose new housing development and thus reduce “supply” resulting in high housing costs and Yimbys (Yes In My Backyard), pro-development “market urbanists” who want to remove all regulations by eliminating local approval requirements of major developments — thus, goes the narrative, increasing supply and lower housing costs.

Plans for an old McDonald’s site at Haight and Stanyan show the divisions in D5

According to this narrative, Nimby’s have prevailed at the local level with the resultant lack of supply of housing (and, most recently, office buildings) which, it is asserted, is solely responsible for high housing prices in San Francisco.

48 Hills has been almost alone in the media countering this factually bogus narrative by publishing pieces that show a huge “housing development pipeline” of some 73,000 housing units existing in San Francisco (pipeline snapshot), that transit investment lags far behind currently approved housing development — making the assertion that these high density market priced developments are “transit friendly” dangerously wrong (transit funding deficit) — and that over-production of tech office space is far more responsible for the housing crisis than concerns of current residents (jobs housing linkage).

All these facts are ignored by the major media in favor of pushing neoliberal, development de-regulation policies built on the myth of all- powerful resident opposition.

Actually, market-rate housing developers themselves are far more effective in delaying the construction of approved projects than are residents as they seek to manipulate the market by avoiding over production, engage in internal suites between partners that delay constriction (Park Merced), struggle with toxics (the Naval Shipyard), or simply seek the entitlement of a housing project with the intention of not building the housing but selling the entitlement.

Both state and city development advocates refuse to require developers to actually build the approved housing through the imposition of a “use-it-or-lose-it” clause pushed by affordable housing advocates that would require actual construction within a reasonable time frame or have the permit voided. State Sen. Scott Wiener refused to include such a requirement in SB 35 or his stalled SB 50.

What kind of a “housing crisis” is it that will be resolved with legislation that offers density bonuses and mandatory “by right” approvals to developers but never requires them to actually build the housing?

What Nimbyism really looks like in San Francisco

Yet, there is such a thing as Nimbyism in San Francisco – and it’s both powerful and persistent. But it’s not centered on opposition to high-end market rate housing; instead, it’s focused on housing and services than address the needs of low-income San Franciscans.

While community opposition has sometimes prevailed against market-rate housing proposals, it’s far more common that resident appeals and lawsuits are more often directed at residential treatment facilities for folks with developmental and mental health issues and permanent affordable housing for transition aged youth and even senior housing. This is especially true if the proposed development is in an upper income neighborhood. Well-heeled opponents to a navigation center in Mission Bay are simply following the lead of other well-off San Franciscans seeking to protect their “safety” and “property values.”

While these neighborhoods usually support-pro development ballot measures and candidates, they uniformly oppose the location of affordable and supportive housing and services next door to them. This is the dirty secret of San Francisco politics that forces “moderate” candidates to demand solutions to homeless camping, open drug use, and the “mentally ill” while, after being elected, voting against the actual projects and programs that will solve the problem.

Perhaps the clearest example of this phenomenon can be seen in District 2 in the opposition to a TAY housing proposal mounted by residents of the district and supported by its pro-development Supervisor Mark Farrell.

In 2010 Community Housing Partnership, a community based non-profit housing developer created by the Coalition on Homelessness and the Council of Community Housing Organizations to provide permanently affordable housing to homeless people and provide employment and training opportunities in the building development and management process, bought the vacant 29-room Edward II Inn on Scott Street in the Marina District in the heart of D2. CHP’s proposal was to address the growing and persistent problem of 18 to 24-year-olds that had aged out of foster care — “transition aged youth” — and were ending up on the streets of Polk Gulch and the Tenderloin in distressing numbers. CHP proposed to rehab the existing building for 24 affordable group housing units with shared cooking and common spaces and one resident manager unit for a total of 25 units in the existing building.

CHP did its political due diligence and sought out the support and advice of Mayor Gavin Newsom, then engaged in his run for Lt. Governor. Newsom was the former supervisor from the district and promoted himself as an innovate, urban homelessness “expert.” CHP wanted his active advocacy for the project and his advice on who to talk to in the neighborhood. His advice was to hire a former staffer as a consultant as he was too busy advancing his political career. He avoided public support of the proposed project.

In November, 201, as Newsom was elected Lt. Governor a new supervisor was elected for District 2, Mark Farrell.

Farrell immediately joined the “moderate” caucus of the board — then led by Supervisor Scott Wiener — and joined with Wiener in proposing various measures to “protect the middle class,” such as unlimited conversions of rent controlled apartments to condos even through rent control, with no means testing, is perhaps the city’s most effective middle-class housing program.

With no help from Newsom, CHP began neighborhood meetings in 2011. It soon became clear that Marina residents, true to their voting history of supporting Newsoms Care Not Cash and Sit/Lie ballot measures and opposing the first three affordable housing bonds placed on the ballot, were adamantly opposed to the proposed housing for the TAY population. It also became clear that while Farrell supported “market based” solutions for “middle income” residents he was not supportive of publicly financed housing for low-income youth at risk of becoming homeless.

The Planning Commission, on a vote of 6-1, with then Commissioner Michael Antonini in opposition, (he was an outspoken pro-market rate development advocate and Republican County Committee member), approved the project in July, 2011. The neighbors appealed the measure to the supervisors, and on a vote of 10 to 1 in August, with Farrell casting the lone vote against the project, the appeal was denied. Another three years were taken up with court suits and challenges, but in 2014 the 25 units were finally open.

As supervisor, Scott Wiener demanded and got the transfer of a surplus city-owned property from being a site for housing for homeless people to a gated “community” garden — which he argued better served the needs of its neighbors. He stood aloof from a nasty fight in the Castro to provide TAY housing in the neighborhood once local Nimbys raised a fuss over a proposal for such housing. Yet, according to The Narrative, Wiener is on the side of the angels. Go figure.

The folks opposed to the Embarcadero Navigation Center have been made to be the face of San Francisco Nimbyism on the pages of The New York Times. But as is usual in Times reporting on San Francisco it never lets the facts get in the way of The Narrative. In a recent opinion piece, the writer citing various recent events in SF including the opposition to the Nav Center, states boldly that Wiener’s SB 50 is the salvation to what he calls ” …nakedly exclusionary urban restrictionism is a particular shame of the left”! (exclamation point added , see NYT’s uninformed slur).

The opponents to the Nav Center never objected to the thousands of new market-rate units that have been added to their neighborhood, just the temporary beds for poor people, a distinction that escapes The New York Times. SB50, of course, has nothing to do with Nav Centers and everything to do with more market-rate housing to which the good folks have no objection. Again, go figure.

 Talking Yimby, acting nimby

For moderate politicians in San Francisco, especially if running in left liberal or progressive areas of the city, there is a new political play book — talk like a Yimby, but quietly act as a Nimby because Nimby votes get you elected but developer money funds your campaign. This is especially true in the case of Sup. Vallie Brown running against Dean Preston in D5

Brown is a political moderate, appointed by a political moderate and running with the support of developers and the Yimby party (see Browns Real Estate Money). Her problem is that she is running in D5, one of, if not the most, left-liberal voting area of the City. She is well known in the district having served as an aide to Ross Mirkirimi when he was D5 supervisor.

Dean Preston is a tenant advocate lawyer. He ran the most effective statewide pro tenant organization in Sacramento. He drafted and led the successful effort two years ago to require legal representation for tenants facing eviction. He has joined with neighbors and merchants in placing restrictions on chain stores along Divisadero. He helped lead a community effort to amend a “stealth rezoning” of Divisadero Street done by then-Supervisor Breed, which massively increased allowed density in the area but did not increase the affordability level required of the new high-density development.

In her first major act as supervisor, Brown attacked the effort of requiring maximum affordability from market rate developers who received a density bonanza on Divisadero Street, parroting the Yimby argument that requiring maximum affordability would stop development of “much needed” housing even if no one in the community could afford such housing (go here for all the details). She introduced legislation that rejected the community proposal and required developers of pipeline projects that received well over 100 percent density increases the same affordability level – 20 percent — as is required citywide where no density bonus was granted.

She supported the mayor’s proposed charter amendment, strongly advocated by Yimbys, that would have allowed market-rate development on public land, a measure rejected by a majority of the board.

But being the supervisor from District 5, arguably the most consistent left/liberal voting area of the city, she has had to draw at least some differences between her and the Breed/Wiener axis. Significantly, she supported Proposition C last year while Breed/Wiener opposed it.

Haight and Stanyan: Ground Zero in the Nimby war in the Haight-Ashbury

One of the funding targets of Prop C was building extremely-low-income housing for transition aged youth, a population long targeted for removal by Haight-Ashbury Nimbys. The epicenter of the decades-long debate in the neighborhood was the corner of Haight and Stanyan, both the Golden Gate Park side at Alvord Lake and the eastern side at the McDonalds.

As far back as the days of the Diggers and the Summer of Love, neighborhood Nimbys, then led by a group called the Haight Ashbury Improvement Association, demanded police sweeps of Haight Street and health department inspections of communes and the Diggers free food program in order to drive out the hippies.

Led by Republican County Committee member residents and some Haight Street merchants, the Nimbys created a lasting set of relationships between certain city departments (the SFPD and the Recreation and Parks department) which shared their aversion to the hippies. Rec-Park repeatedly opposed both free concerts in Golden Gate Park and denied performance space for the Mime Troop, because both gave “aid and comfort” to hippies.

During the summer of 1988, the administration of Mayor Art Agnos became involved in a fierce battle at Alvord Lake over the free food give-away done daily by a group called Food Not Bombs.

Food Not Bomb is a loosely organized group from Cambridge, Massachusetts made up of volunteers dedicated to providing free vegan food to poor and homeless people with the clear aim of embarrassing local officials into action needed to address urban poverty and homelessness. Its leader and chief spokesperson, Keith McHenry, was an adept organizer and press agent. Alvord Lake was a great visual backdrop for McHenry’s message and he got a lot of coverage — much to Agnos’s embarrassment.

A new set of Nimbys, made up of the newly arrived yuppies who were moving into the rapidly gentrifying Haight-Ashbury, found the Haight and Stanyan scene simply unacceptable. Citing the now discredited mass incarceration theory of “broken windows” in which the police were urged to go after petty infractions such as handing out free food in the park or sitting on sidewalks and make arrests thus averting escalation to more series crimes by “undesirables,” the Cole Valley Improvement Association demanded that the food distributions be ended. The Health Department was enlisted to inspect Food Not Bombs food preparation practices — but with the help of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council and other neighborhood based social service agencies, the requirements of the Health Department were met and Food Not Bombs continued to offer free food.

But the police captain of Park Station took the issue on as a personal crusade, much to the delight of CVIA — and citing Rec and Park department complaints about the food give away started arresting Food Not Bombers.

McHenry soon made a media issue of the arrests. In August, 1988, the issue escalated well beyond Agnos’s control with the police mobilizing more than 150 officers to make mass arrests after a rally called by McHenry. Ultimately, some 1,000 arrests were made and the Food Not Bombs operation was suppressed and Amnesty International was involved in the defense of what they called “prisoners of conscience.” It was a major embarrassment for Agnos and was a contributing reason he was defeated in 1992 by a former chief of police.

For the next 30 years, the struggle was joined between street youth and the services that were established to deal with them and neighborhood Nimby assisted at key times by the SFPD and Rec-Park. That battle spilled over to seemingly unrelated issues and at times became the source of hotly contested city-wide ballot measures.

In 2008, a proposed mixed-use development of 62 units of market-rate housing, a 34,000 square-foot Whole Foods and a massive three-floor, 180-space underground parking garage at the north east corner of Haight and Stanyan was drawn into the battle when the developer, seeking the support of both the HAIA and CVIA, included an “observation deck” overlooking Alvord Lake to allow for “monitoring” of the area.

A major talking point for the development was that the market-rate housing and up-scale Whole Foods would displace the existing street occupants. Neighborhood Nimbys had no problem supporting the project. The refusal of the developer to adequately address the impacts of the garage on public transit — both Haight and Stanyan are transit preferred streets — stalled the project until the Great Recession killed its financing.

In 2010, HAIA and CVIA and their allies in the SFPD (namely then-Chief George Gascon) put the Sit-Lie Ordinance on the ballot, namely to control the street population at Haight and Stanyan. The measure was a direct slap at then Mayor Newsoms “Care Not Cash,” as it was a full admission of its failure. Never able to resist slapping homeless San Franciscans, Newsom fell in line and campaigned for the measure. Sit Lie passed, becoming the third or fourth local law that prevented people from hanging out on public streets. Within five years it was obvious that, as predicted by its opponents, it was a failure.

In August, 2017, Mayor Lee’s office announced that the city was close to concluding a deal to buy the troubled McDonald’s site at Haight and Stanyan for the development of affordable housing. McDonald’s had been under increasing fire from both city officials and neighborhood residents over its operations. The new managers response had been to seek more car-oriented customers by building a drive through check-out lane, a proposal tried a decade earlier that created widespread community opposition and was turned down by the City. HANC and others made clear in 2015 when the new proposal was made that it was still a non-starter. The idea was dropped, and sometime later discussions begun for the sale of the 38,000-square-foot site to the city.

At a October 2017 monthly meeting of HANC (the only neighborhood organization in the Haight-Ashbury that holds regular meetings open to all) dedicated to a general discussion of the situation it was agreed to form a community planning committee to devise a plan for the site. Within weeks the first community planning meetings were held for what was to be later named the Coalition for a Complete Community. In November, the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development held the first official meeting on the site announcing a mandatory environmental analysis of the site required to use federal funds for its purchase. MOHCD also announced that the entire development process would take some seven years, and they would seek some sort of “interim use” of the site until funding would be available for its permanent development.  In January, 2018, the supervisors passed a resolution authorizing some $15.5 million for the acquisition of the site “for permanently affordable housing.”

By April the CCC had completed a “vision statement” (see https://www.hanc-sf.org/the-voice-and-docs/730-Stanyan/for full text and the CCC Interim Use proposal) for the permanent use of the site. It called for:

  • Community-based planning for 730 Stanyan
  • Housing for youth, seniors and families that’s affordable for households earning up to 80 percent of area median income
  • Services for residents and the community
  • Locally owned retailers who employ residents at 730 Stanyan
  • Making transit-first development a reality with no auto parking on site
  • Active interim use with services and activities for all our community

Surprisingly, both CVIA and HAIA members, in attendance at the two well attended CCC neighbored meeting in April and May of 2018 called to amend and endorse both the “vision statement” and the interim use proposal, raised no objections.

But the old war for Haight and Stanyan was not over, as Vallie Brown was soon to learn.

Before the first neighborhood meeting was held by MOHCD in November, 2017 the captain of Park Station warned readers of her weekly newsletter that they should attend the meeting in order to learn what kind of homeless program was being planned for the site! It got CVIA and HAIA members attention and much talk at that first city sponsored meeting centered on their opposition to a navigation center for the site.

This was an odd argument, since no homeless service provider was proposing a navigation center for the site, preferring service space and permanent housing for homeless people. Breed had made herself very clear in her re-election campaign for supervisor in 2016, supported by members of both CVIA and HAIA, that she did not support a nav center for the Haight-Ashbury. Moreover, as supervisor, she had supported a program, “Take It To the Streets,” which provided housing outside the neighborhood for Haight Street youth doing clean up in and around Haight Street. In short, she had a proven record of not seeking housing for homeless youth in the Haight Ashbury.

For most of the homeless youth providers and other observers of the navigation center program, the real concern was not for more beds in navigation centers, but for more bedrooms in permanent affordable housing. Under the Lee administration, the affordable housing program administered by MOHCD and supported by Supervisor Breed had changed its emphasis from producing affordable housing for extremely low-income San Franciscans to producing housing for “moderate income” households earning 100 percent to 120 percent of the Area Median Income. Between 2014 and 2018 only 120 units of housing was produced at 30 percent of AMI or below

Meanwhile some 900 beds had been created in Navigation Centers between 2017 and 2019 raising the real question of just where folks were to find exits to these supposed temporary centers.

On August 27th ,2018, a month after she was appointed supervisor, Brown met with the Steering Committee of the CCC to discuss the 730 Stanyan site. While she had not attended any of the neighborhood meetings on the project, she claimed responsibility for the city’s purchase. She was strongly supportive of the CCC’s concept of three populations being housed at the site — “it’s how we live in neighborhoods”– and stated her support for supportive services to be incorporated in the final development. Specifically, she told the CCC she was in support of TAY housing and services to be included in the development and thought providing services to TAY and seniors as part of an interim use also made sense to her. She took the opportunity to announce that because of her commitment to TAY housing and services she would be supporting Proposition C, the business tax for housing and services for homeless San Franciscans that included specific set-asides for TAY housing and services.

Having achieved what appeared to be broad neighborhood support for a conceptual plan for the interim and final use of the site, the CCC proceeded to submit an interim use proposal to MOHCD that was centered on the provision of services and recreational activates for families, seniors, and youth.

It then appeared that a competing proposal for an interim use was being made by Street Soccer, a national program in 17 cities seeking to, according to its mission statement, “fight poverty and empower underserved communities through soccer.” Its Bay Area Board, however, was very long on corporate and tech types and very short on poor people (see www.streetsoccerusa.org/our-boards/) . None of the youth service providers in the neighborhood had ever heard of them and all were in support of the CCC proposal.

But Street Soccer did have friends in the neighborhood: Rec and Park and the captain at Park Station. The captain, again using her weekly newsletter, argued that youth soccer would be a great interim use for the McDonalds’ site. Rec and Park, who had “partnered” with it at Civic Center to “make Civic Center public spaces safe, welcoming and fun” see Street Soccer San Francisco) and routinely promoted its events on its ENews posting, did the captain one better and got a staffer made part of the RFP selection committee that would pick the winner.

The Street Soccer proposal got two other supporters: CVIA and HAIA. In a letter sent to MOHCD in April, CVIA and HAIA attacked the CCC’s proposal as being from “obstructionists and a vocal minority that no longer represents the demographics of the neighborhood” that would put the Homeless Youth Alliance in charge of the TAY service portion of the proposed interim use while “HYA has historically shown themselves incapable of managing crime, drug and quality of life issues that arises from the congregation of people near their services…” The old MAGNET argument back in play!

The letter concluded with asserting that “collecting so many service providers in a single location, especially one buttressed by large parks, can prove challenging. For example, the combination of Larkin Street Youth, Lava Mae mobile showers and the Pit Stop…at…Buena Vista Park has proven increasingly difficult,”

The CCC proposal was supported by the Haight-Ashbury Merchants Association, Affordable Divisadero, District 5 Action, the Haight-Ashbury Neighborhood Council, AcroSports, Safe and Sound, UCSF Health, Haight Ashbury Neighbors for Density (HAND is our astroturf Yimby group!), Larkin Street, Huckleberry Youth Programs, the Institute on Aging, the Homeless Youth Alliance, Urban Sprouts and some 180 individuals who live and/or work in the neighborhood. The Street Soccer proposal was supported by CVIA, HAIA, the Buena Vista Neighborhood Association, HELP USA from New York, and The Shared Schoolyard Project of the SFUSD.

Preston supports the CCC plan.

Then, after the city had conducted interviews and weighed both proposals for almost three months, Kate Hartley the Director of MOHCD announced in May that the “entire interim use was on pause” and the RFP was cancelled. The reasons given were that the bond measure on the ballot in November (planned for well over a year) would mean faster funding of the site and “the impact of the DPW work on Haight Street has been worse than expected. Merchants have been vocal about their needs for more parking and Supervisor Brown is sensitive to that.”

She simply failed to acknowledge that the CCC proposal was endorsed by the merchants and that it included parking for Haight Street shoppers.

Two months later, Vallie Brown, in full campaign mode, spoke at a HAND meeting at which a member of the CCC steering committee attended. At the August 16th meeting, Brown stated that she wants to find housing for homeless youth but does not want them to live in the Haight because “it causes recidivism.” She spoke approvingly of a Human Service Agency program that housed homeless youth in Merced “completely away from this area.”

And thus the full circle of the Yimby/Nimby dance. In August, 2018, Brown loved the idea of permanent housing and services for homeless youth at Stanyan and Haight; “its how we live in neighborhoods” she said then. In August, 2019 before a Yimby groups, she said she opposes permanent housing for homeless youth in the Haight-Ashbury because she fears they will fall upon bad habits and embraces housing for homeless youth somewhere else in California.

There are Nimby’s in San Francisco. That’s a fact. But they are the exact opposite of the fictitious folks of The Narrative. They oppose only housing and services for poor people, willing to support market rate housing if it shifts the “demography.” Time and again, these Nimbys are assisted by city departments, especially the SFPD.

Now the voters of D5 have a chance to weigh in.