Pro-development activist group SFBARF agitates for more housing

Sonja Trauss is an energetic 33-year-old math teacher from Philadelphia who moved to the Bay Area three years ago.

Like countless others, she found the search for a place to live in San Francisco less than welcoming. In fact, it was impossible.

That still does not sit well with her.

“I was immediately priced out,” the West Oakland resident recently told The San Francisco Examiner.

After much grousing, Trauss did some research and concluded that the cause of this dilemma was too little housing construction, even though such conclusions are hotly debated in San Francisco. Her answer was to found the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, or SFBARF.

“There are a lot of people that are just categorically against building,” said Trauss, who ironically once worked to stop development from happening in Philadelphia. “But there are actually a lot of people that are categorically for building. My notion was to just organize them.”

The ongoing debate over how to best solve San Francisco's housing crisis — how much should be built, where and in what selling-price range — has drawn all corners of The City into the fray. There's the Mayor's Office, which hopes 30,000 new and refurbished units will be added to the citywide stock by 2020. There are downtown business interests pushing for more units, and activist groups arguing that market solutions are not the answer. And now there is SFBARF, an avidly pro-development grass-roots activist group.


Since May, when Trauss started what she calls her “club of weirdos” who support more development, she has built a website and grown her mailing-list-based group from two people — her boyfriend and roommate — to 40.

Trauss can be found at hearings and meetings facing off against anti-growth activists whenever housing projects are on the table.

From Trauss' perspective, a city like San Francisco, where people want to live, does not have serious problems compared to cities like Detroit, St. Louis or Philadelphia.

Those other iconic metropolises are losing residents, whereas San Francisco's problem is the exact opposite. And finding places to put all the new residents is the true challenge.

Trauss' argument is simple: For too long, San Francisco and many other Bay Area cities did not build enough housing, and now there are not enough places for people to live. What's left is either too pricey for most or already occupied.

“Let's do an experiment — let's restrict growth, let's spend 30 years not building to match the incoming residents,” Trauss said of San Francisco's mentality toward development. “What happened? We have a rent crisis.”

Such conclusions are based on her research into city building trends over recent decades, Trauss said. She also cites the real estate website Trulia's conclusions, for instance, on the link between expensive cities and a lack of robust construction.

At least when it comes to the lack of building, few would disagree.

Critics and housing-policy watchers say the problem is only partly about the amount of new housing. It is also about who housing is being built for.

In recent years, The City has had more than enough luxury housing and a less than adequate but still present amount of below-market-rate housing. Middle-income housing has been where the largest shortfall exists.

The conclusion is that any new housing should be built for those who need it — the middle and lower classes — not the rich.

None of this makes a difference to Trauss.

Her solution: Build as much housing as possible, as fast as possible, for all income levels and at heights and densities not currently allowed in many locations.

“People have this ridiculous idea that there's nothing you can do, [that] you can't build up,” Trauss said as she pointed to The City's skyline as if to strengthen her point.

She did not comment on the Bay Area's history of fighting out-of-control development and redevelopment schemes — for example, the Western Addition's redevelopment in the 1950s and '60s, fights against downtown height limits through the decades and failed plans to fill in much of San Francisco Bay. And Trauss does not have ideas about how to change a political culture with baked-in fears of development.


Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the urban-planning think tank SPUR, said culture is hampering efforts to plan for and build a city and region better-equipped for a growing population.

He has never heard of SFBARF, but he said the group's concept makes sense. Newcomers might be upset about the status quo's anti-development position, since it essentially closes off San Francisco to lots of people who want to live here.

“If you've ever lived in another part of the country … it's pretty shocking to see people who have so much privilege … using their privilege to stop other people from moving here,” Metcalf said of the policies that have stopped or slowed development in San Francisco, such as the ballot measure that killed the 8 Washington St. luxury condo project and the long-ago fights against density and height limits in San Francisco.

Metcalf said he does not think all development is good, even though he is a vocal supporter of increasing The City's density and using urban infill to solve the housing crisis.

Voices like Metcalf's, as well as Mayor Ed Lee's, may have large platforms, but they are often confronted by a loud and well-organized opposition.

That opposition argues that building market-rate housing units — already the kind overwhelmingly built in recent years — will not reduce or even stabilize rents, but further make San Francisco a city for the privileged few.

Peter Cohen, a critic of the dogmatic belief in supply and demand, also does not know of SFBARF. But he is wary of such groups and questions whether they are really informed or repeating “superficial arguments on the supply debate.”

The compelling story of one person who could not find a place to live in San Francisco can easily get swept up in larger political agendas beyond their understanding, Cohen said. Well-meaning folks get taken by that agenda, which is that the solution is simply a lack of supply.

“This stuff ain't black-and-white and simple,” said Cohen, pointing to the multifaceted ways, for instance, that a market-rate development ripples across a neighborhood by increasing land value, driving up rents and eventually displacing people.


Trauss contends that she is neither paid nor in the pocket of anyone. But when such arguments block new housing, Trauss takes issue.

“This, like, 'pushed out, not enough room' thing is a red herring,” she said of anti-gentrification arguments and efforts to restrict heights and density. “There's plenty of room. There might be other factors contributing to why people leave, but there's plenty of room.

“If there's an empty lot and someone builds a house there, then there may be a reason why that makes people leave. But how about let the house be built and [then] figure out what those other reasons are.”

Correction: This story was updated Oct. 6 to correct the acronym of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation.

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