Since Sonja Trauss appeared a couple of years ago with $10,000 in startup cash from SF Moderates and an unnamed construction union, her YIMBY/BARF posse has received an avalanche of news coverage. Article upon article profiled the “former prep school math teacher” turned apostle of market-rate housing. Trauss told me she left teaching because it was “boring” and other teachers at the Tilden Prep School (where tuition starts at $2,200 per course) in Albany “had been giving the same speech for 20 years.”
Reporting on Trauss, her trusty sidekick Brian Hanlon and their organizations is remarkably devoid of content. It focuses on moxie and novelty rather than their achievements — because there aren’t any. Never before have so few gotten so much publicity by accomplishing so little.
YIMBYs are a compelling man-bites-dog story for lazy reporters who treat San Francisco as metaphor and, as one local reporter told me, “Trauss is a beguiling figure to cover because she doesn’t seem reined in by the bounds of common decency.” She’s like followers of Bob Avakian or Lyndon LaRouche at a rally hawking sectarian newspapers.
No longer. They faked it ’til they made it. Pinocchio became a real boy. Trauss is running for supervisor in District 6; Hanlon got $500,000 from Silicon Valley for his Big Ideas.
Trauss and local YIMBYs claim their market-based housing solutions benefit working-class communities of color, but they treat progressives and existing organizations with a base in those very communities as their sworn enemies. Fortunately, #NotAllYIMBYs are Trauss.
San Francisco YIMBYs vehemently oppose progressive organizations and politicians and prefer alliances with Realtors and moderate politicians. There is a confusing gap between their rhetoric and their practice.
From what they’ve told me, we agree on a lot. Speaking for 100 percent of progressives, as I do, progressives and many YIMBYs both support rent control, eviction protections, Airbnb regulations, public transit, homeless services, the repeal of Proposition 13, high-density 100 percent affordable housing, accessory dwelling units (in-laws and backyard cottages) and higher density housing in affluent single-family home residential neighborhoods and suburbs.
These areas of consensus resemble a left agenda that could be, should be and has been championed by progressive organizations and politicians.
Progressives and YIMBYs have a huge philosophical disagreement about the causes of the housing crisis and the market. We could agree to disagree on philosophy. If YIMBYs chose to focus on the indisputable game-changers in the housing crisis — specifically, repealing Prop. 13 and promoting density in middle-class, single-family home areas — there would be NO CONFLICT AT ALL. The entire tension flows from their support for market-rate housing in poor communities, which is clearly not the main antidote to the housing problem. They could easily opt for an alliance with progressives, tenants, immigrants and working-class people by focusing their call for market-rate housing away from the poor.
This is not about policy, but pure transactional realpolitik. We could gang up on Palo Alto. Instead, we are at each other’s throats over 10 measly BMR units.
(Clearly, progressives can also be jerks.)
YIMBYs say they, like Kissinger, have no permanent friends or permanent enemies — that they work with people when they agree and oppose them when they don’t — but their practice doesn’t reflect that claim. If it did, they wouldn’t denounce the Tenants Union. YIMBYs never seem to disagree with moderate politicians or Realtors enough to criticize them. They don’t seek coalitions around anything except promoting market-rate housing. They don’t show up meaningfully for tenants or homelessness.
Repealing Prop. 13 and building housing in the suburbs would be politically tough, but not necessarily more than stuffing San Francisco with high-rises. Trauss either thinks she can win alone, is more invested in defeating the left than winning or is confused. If some YIMBYs would prefer to align with the communities they profess to want to benefit, they should find a better standard-bearer.
Nato Green is a San Francisco native, comedian, writer, union organizer and landlord. See him live at Verdi Wild Things Are at the Verdi Club on Thursday, Aug. 10.