SAN FRANCISCO — Sonja Trauss has taken one of society’s more toxic labels – NIMBY, or Not In My Back Yard – and flipped it on its head.
Trauss, 34, is the leader of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation, or SF BARF. (Humor is an intentional part of the group’s strategy, Trauss said.) She’s also the identity behind the @SFyimby Twitter account, for Yes In My Back Yard.
It started in late 2013, when Trauss, frustrated with skyrocketing rents in the Bay Area, began attending planning hearings and unequivocally supporting any new development projects. Her logic: Rents are high in San Francisco because there is not enough housing, so the solution is to build more of it. In her crosshairs are neighborhood groups that try to stop new housing from being built near them.
Trauss ended up gaining so much attention that in December 2014, she was able to quit her job as a math teacher and take on the movement full-time. SF BARF has raised money from tech workers – often vilified as the cause of surging home prices – the real estate industry and others.
The group’s political actions have included running a slate of candidates in an unsuccessful effort to take over San Francisco’s chapter of the Sierra Club (SF BARF accused the club of opposing new infill development) and even suing a suburban city for allegedly not building its fair share of housing.
Since rents are rising fast in Portland, as well, The Oregonian/OregonLive recently caught up with Trauss in San Francisco. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, edited for length and clarity.
How did you get involved in the movement for affordable housing?
I had worked for my neighborhood association in Philadelphia, so I knew my way around a little bit, like the planning process. And here, there were all these articles, like the Kim-Mai Cutler article, and Matthew Yglesias had been writing some pro-density stuff. And so when we were sharing this on our Facebook pages and complaining to each other at the bar and stuff, everybody agreed with each other.
Sonja Trauss tweets from @SFyimby and leads the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation, a pro-development group of renters that wants cities to build more housing. Photo courtesy of Sonja Trauss
I wanted to make a club of crazy people fordevelopment. I didn’t even know if it was a dumb idea. So I did. And that was the first time we actually went to a hearing, like there were two or three of us. And we testified in favor of this building, these 97 apartments. There was a tree that was going to have to get cut down that was really beautiful. And this one lady was like, “The hummingbirds live in it, and they’re living jewels, so please protect us.” So we went up there and were like, “What about the 150 people that are going to live here just when it opens? That doesn’t even count the 70 years that it’s going to exist. Please think of them, and screw this tree.” And it was so novel, that a million coffee dates later, I was able to quit my job. The message has resonated with a lot of people.
To a lot of people, it probably seems like a strange alliance – renters and developers.
It does seem like a strange alliance. One reason why it’s a strange alliance, sometimes people say, “developer.” What they mean is, “landlord.” I don’t consider landlords to be developers. They don’t make anything new. They just manage something that exists. So yeah, if when you hear the word, “developer,” you think of landlords, then it doesn’t make sense.
The same people who were fighting to save low-rent apartment buildings and SROs [single-room occupancy units] are still in the pro-tenant movement. And they’ve just spent decades fighting development, and I think they just got confused. Like, they lost sight of the point of it all.
Tell me about the effort to sue the suburbs.
Zoning was practically invented to protect it from apartment buildings. And people are still jealously guarding it. Now, it turns out that the state of California actually has some pretty strong state housing laws that are designed to try to force cities to zone for growth. Every seven years, you have to submit a housing element, and you have to show in the housing element that you have plots of land that are zoned to accommodate growth. And cities screw around with that process, but every now and then, they do actually zone a piece of land for high density. It’s an attractive piece of land, and a developer shows up, and they say, “Great. I see you’re zoned for an 80-unit apartment building. That’s what I want to build. Let’s do it.” And if you propose something within the zoning, the city is not allowed to turn it down. They don’t have the discretion. That’s the Housing Accountability Act.
Well, a lot of times they do anyway, because the Housing Accountability Act has to be enforced by lawsuit. The attorney general of the state of California – like, they could enforce it, but they don’t. So it goes unused and underused.
There was a bold developer in Lafayette [on eastern edge of the Bay Area] who proposed a 315-unit apartment building 100 percent within the zoning. No variances, nothing. Four years later, what they got approved was 44 single-family homes. … So we sued them. I wrote the initial petition. It took a little time to find a lawyer and get money together. And we’ll see what happens.
How do you feel about the fact that all the new development tends to cater to higher-income tenants?
I think that’s normal. New stuff is always expensive. I’ve never had new furniture. I’ve never had a new car. I’ve never lived in a new house. I didn’t get the iPhone when it first came out. It’s completely natural and obvious that new housing would be more expensive than existing housing. Now, luckily, in basically every city, like 98 or 99 percent of all your housing is old housing. So if you’re looking at your housing situation, new housing is actually kind of negligible. And what you have to ask about is, what are the rent levels in your existing housing?
If your town, like San Francisco, has a lot of new high-income residents, it’s appropriate to build expensive housing for them to live in. High income and expensive housing – it’s a match. The problem, what San Francisco’s done is really wasted the opportunity to take advantage of high wages. You want high-wage workers to be paying off the construction loans on new, expensive buildings. If they don’t do that, because you don’t allow the new building, you miss the opportunity to get new housing built, and housing is infrastructure. Cities need it.
High-wage workers are still paying a lot of money, but they’re paying to existing landlords. And they’re paying it on properties that have long been paid off. So it’s literally just a bonanza for landlords.
Do you feel like your movement is catching on? Or do you feel like you’re up against an unwinnable battle?
Those are both true. We are definitely up against really strong, entrenched forces. This is a real political fight. It’s not going to be easy at all.
On the other hand, the message has been super popular. There’s a lot of people with the experience of trying to find a place to live and realizing that they’re competing with hundreds of other people. And so it’s a thing that people feel in their bones. And it’s a super simple message. The message is, “We have a lot of people. We ran out of room. We gotta make more room.” I mean, there are political fights where both sides are complicated, but this is not one of them.
Do you feel like you’ve re-cast the role of renters, or re-cast renters as a political group and what they do or should stand for?
Absolutely. Because up until now, the renters’ movement just didn’t have room for the idea that maybe we should add capacity unless that capacity is fully subsidized.
But middle- and high-wage renters exist. And we’re in this insane place right now, at least in San Francisco, where we don’t need a subsidy from the government. We just need permission to build. We have people with incomes, good incomes. They can more than pay the costs associated with building housing. There are people who want to build that housing. This isn’t the ’30s, where there’s no financing. It’s not the ’40s, where there’s no materials because we’re at war. We have everything. But the law is in the way.
What is the next item on the agenda right now?
In San Francisco, it’s organizing and showing our strength. I mean yes, there’s a list of laws that we want to see enacted. Our mayor’s really trying. He really wants part of his legacy to be successfully upzoning the west side. So far, no one has been able to do that. All the changes in zoning on the west side since the ’70s have been downzonings. So we’re really working hard to support him on that, because we do have political support. But we’re really also just fighting to get organized, fighting to show that we exist.
Last question. If you could tell the people of Portland, Oregon, one thing, what would you tell them?
Please allow development without displacement. Allow single-family homeowners to tear their houses down and build fourplexes. That is the gold standard for adding capacity without kicking anyone out. It’s good for the homeowner, because that person winds up being richer than they would’ve beforehand. It’s good for the four or six or eight people who wind up living in that lot.
The only downside is that it changes neighborhood character, which is aesthetic and subjective and not nearly as important as things like preventing sprawl, keeping people from having to have two-hour commutes, keeping people from having to spend their retirement savings today on rent. It’s all that, versus, “Oh, but I like the way this neighborhood looks. It’s cute to me.” Don’t fall for it.
— Luke Hammill