San Francisco’s Civil War

YIMBYs! Socialists! The only thing the Bay Area’s tenant activists hate more than high rent is each other.

A view of homes in San Francisco.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Local politics is always, in one way or another, about housing. In San Francisco, a deep blue city whose fault lines long ago ceased to resemble America’s, that politics is a vitriolic civic scrimmage, where people who agree about almost every national issue make sworn enemies over zoning, demolition, and development. It’s like a circular firing squad at a co-op meeting.

On June 1, members of a group that advocates for housing growth to lower rents called San Francisco YIMBY (for “Yes, In My Back Yard”) helped organize a panel in downtown San Francisco: “The Political Dynamics of Housing.” Over food and drink, a group of local experts and activists tried to talk through why, despite widespread local consensus that something must change, San Francisco continues to be the country’s most expensive city for renting an apartment.

The day before the event, the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America—an organization founded in 1982 whose membership more than tripled, in the 12 months ending in March 2017, to 19,000 dues-paying members—included a note in their regular membership letter. “The SF YIMBY Party is a pro-development, pro-gentrification, pro-landlord organization,” it read. “DSA SF is seeking folks to come up with materials and a plan for challenging this narrative and the disinformation they will undoubtedly be spreading regarding housing at this meeting.”

That call, and an ensuing shouting match at the panel, was the most overt skirmish in a feud between the DSA and the YIMBYs, two groups that have more in common than you might expect. Each has harnessed the political energy of young people in West Coast cities. Each considers entrenched wealthy homeowners an enemy. They have a good number of members in common. And the goal, of course, is the same: more affordable housing.

San Francisco’s left—tenants and homeowners both—has long been hostile to new development, and the YIMBYs, as a group that claims tenants’ interests broadly align with developers’ and, therefore, that cities should do everything they can to increase the housing stock, have received particular opprobrium. In a vicious article in TruthOut and the San Francisco Examiner published last month, writers Toshio Meronek and Andrew Szeto called YIMBYism a “libertarian, anti-poor campaign to turn longtime sites of progressive organizing into rich-people-only zones” and compared pro-growth advocates to the white nationalists of the alt-right. (That second charge was later deleted.) San Francisco supervisor Aaron Peskin compared YIMBYism to the U.S. military’s destruction of the Vietnamese village of Ben Tre: “They have a very Ayn Rand, bomb-the-village-to-save-it point of view,” he told San Francisco magazine in December.* (San Francisco, population 850,000, being the village.)

But the specific relationship between YIMBYs and Socialists is more complicated—and potentially more promising. “We’re still developing our perspective as a chapter,” Darby Thomas, a San Francisco DSA co-chair who works on homelessness, wrote me in an email.* The chapter had diverse perspectives, including YIMBYs, she noted, and would hold a rigorous debate before taking an official position. Unlike the city’s older leftist organizations, the DSA has seen a big influx of new members who have new ideas about how the American city can fairly accommodate newcomers, and insist that socialism and skyscraperism aren’t irreconcilable philosophies.

What if they could all just get along?

YIMBY groups, which have also sprung up in cities like Boulder, Colorado, and Seattle, are especially vocal in the Bay Area, which has the highest rents in the country thanks to a housing shortage stoked by decades of development restrictions. The YIMBY doctrine is more housing, all the time, everywhere. “The thing that’s been frustrating about fighting with leftists is that our goal, which is building a lot of housing, is completely distribution-neutral,” explains Sonja Trauss, the head of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, a pro-growth counterpart to the storied San Francisco Tenants Union. “I do not care who builds the housing. The goal is 5,000 units a year in S.F., every single year. I think the market is the institution that’s in the position to deliver that for us right now.” Trauss and her peers have become a fixture at community meetings not just in San Francisco but in neighboring cities too, like Brisbane and Berkeley, where they travel to stand up for housing growth.

More traditional tenant activists, by contrast, believe that new luxury housing can drive up rents locally, especially if it comes with amenities that serve as a catalyst—the theory of “induced demand.” Most insist that the housing market is segmented, if not structurally, then at least for the foreseeable future—meaning that new high-rent units do not change price points at the bottom and certainly do nothing to help the city’s stubbornly high homeless population. Practically all of them believe that developers should be required to provide large numbers of affordable units with new construction. Such policies have the effect of reducing the total number of units built and driving up the costs of those that are completed. But they do create some new apartments that rent for under market rate, which in San Francisco right now is $2,400 for a one-bedroom according to ApartmentList, an online brokerage.

As is often the case in politics, each side sincerely thinks the other has already got its way and has therefore been discredited by the city’s continuing rent crisis. Democratic Socialists see a city where towers and rents keep rising, offering housing mostly for newcomers and little respite to longtime San Franciscans. (Newcomers is a flexible term, but 84 percent of residents of new units inhabited an older unit in the city the previous year.) YIMBY activists see a city of low-slung outer neighborhoods, endless permitting processes, and underbuilt transit corridors adding up to a sluggish pace of housing growth. The San Francisco metropolitan area, which also includes Oakland and a raft of wildly expensive suburbs, has added 373,000 jobs over the past five years, but only built 58,000 units of housing. That job-to-home ratio of 6.4 is the highest in the country.

And if it wasn’t for developers building those new units, YIMBYs say, the crisis would be far, far worse. “They don’t think through where the people who would have lived in the market-rate housing are going to live instead,” says Trauss. “You’d think they were selling cigarettes. It’s housing!”

The shouting between Socialists and YIMBYs has mostly occurred on the internet, as most shouting does these days. But like earlier left-on-left conflicts, it’s spilled into real life, stranding people caught between the causes like Victoria Fierce, a self-described “YIMBY Socialist” who sat on the June 1 panel. “It has really soured relationships between me and my DSA comrades,” she says. “I’ve been confronted at parties, pushed into the corner, and had my commitment to socialism questioned.”

“A lot of the leadership of the DSAs have the old Bay Area mentality that large corporate developers are evil and awful and we need to stop them—although they’re the only ones building housing,” Fierce told me. “That benefits the idea of socialism, though it doesn’t necessarily benefit the people that are supposed to benefit from socialism.”

In addition to political disagreements about the best way to achieve the goal, each side suspects the other is acting in bad faith. Why aren’t Socialists lobbying for a $3 billion affordable housing bond? How could YIMBY groups oppose a bill to mandate high wages for construction workers?

In March, a note of hope sounded from Los Angeles. On an off-cycle ballot was a measure called the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, which would have instituted one of the country’s strictest anti-development policies in a city with some of the nation’s highest rents relative to incomes. The prospect of passage panicked growth advocates, who worried a freeze on new construction would worsen the rent crisis. In fact that was the stated reason: Michael Weinstein, the president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, sponsored the legislation as an anti-gentrification measure. He wanted to make sure L.A. didn’t turn out like San Francisco, which he called “a rich ghetto.” His bill won the support of the L.A. Tenants Union, an active tenant advocacy group.

But not the local chapter of the DSA, which produced a strongly worded statement explaining its opposition—a template for common ground between YIMBYs and Socialists. The bill failed by a wide margin, in the end. (It was also opposed by labor unions, among other interest groups.) Denser development is better for the environment, the DSA noted, and its promises of “local control” were spurious. “True democratic control requires that the people have the ability to afford housing,” the statement read. The referendum “restricts development to homes that few people live in and allows property owners to rent or sell for an increasing profit.”

Anne Orchier and Kristina Meshelski, two members of L.A.’s DSA Housing and Homelessness Committee who helped write that statement, told me they resented the YIMBY rhetoric that painted tenants’ groups as reactionary. There was a lot of daylight between the two groups, they said. And yet, the statement signaled that even anti-capitalist tenants and pro-growth tenants had more in common than the homeowners who still retain such immense power in both cities.

In San Francisco, the alliance between liberal landed homeowners and vulnerable tenants is stronger. The Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods—a group that advocates mostly against development—was started by the same guy who founded the Council of Community Housing Organizations, an umbrella group for affordable housing advocacy.

“These two groups have diametrically opposed interests on paper, but were started by the same people and end up being in coalition all the time,” says Laura Foote Clark, the executive director of S.F. YIMBY. Affordable housing developers want to advance each individual project, not reform the system as a whole, she says, and the resulting piecemeal strategy has yielded little. People tell her, “ ‘It’s the long game, you just don’t understand the long game, we’ve been here 50 years.’ How is you having been here a long time a mark in your favor? I get told all the time, especially by people I disparagingly refer to as fauxgressive, that we need to move slower, that we don’t want to piss off the [homeowners’ associations]. But—we do want to piss off the HOAs.” Homeowners tend to resist change in all circumstances, whether it comes in the form of affordable housing or tall buildings with expensive rental apartments.

“NIMBY people have coopted this leftist rhetoric that we can’t have giveaways to housing developers,” says Fierce. “Leftists who don’t really have a critical eye for this pick it up and they run with it.”

Everyone is resistant to demographic change. But the pre-eminent problem, demonstrated by the Harvard Ph.D. candidate Michael Hankinson in surveys of San Francisco renters, is that tenants believe new housing will raise their rents, and when it comes to development, behave like homeowners. There’s little evidence to show that this is true on a citywide level: On the contrary, it looks like San Francisco’s post-recession boom actually caused a small rent drop. But anecdotally, and in absence of the alternate history where San Francisco does not build, the connection looks clear: Expensive rentals were built, rents rose.

There is also, Trauss suggested, an element of realpolitik. Tenants have little power despite their numbers. So they work with homeowners to achieve their aims. The Mission Moratorium—San Francisco’s version of Measure S, a prohibition on new building that failed in 2015—started as a moratorium on evictions before it expanded to include new buildings. Trauss asked Erick Arguello, the founder of Calle 24, a group that supports Latino culture in the Mission District, how one became the other. He told her they thought a moratorium on buildings would be more likely to win, she recalls.

Even where YIMBYs and Socialists have found common ground on housing growth, like Los Angeles, there are substantive policy disagreements. DSA L.A., for example, is strongly in favor of a linkage fee on new construction to support affordable housing—a policy that Mayor Eric Garcetti also supports. Opponents say it will constrain new development and create just a handful of subsidized units, driving up the price of market-rate apartments but adding little to the subsidized stock. “Everyone wants more affordable housing,” Michael Manville, a professor of urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles, who says the fee is a bad idea, told the Los Angeles Times. “On this policy issue, there just isn’t a clear consensus on whether this is the way to get there.”

In Seattle, which has built more new housing than any of its peers, the DSA endorsed City Council candidate Jon Grant, a former tenants’ union director who is promising a 25 percent affordability mandate. Developers insist that level of cross-subsidy will grind construction to a halt, and drive up the price of market-rate units on which most tenants of all income levels depend. “If the capitalist system cannot provide housing for everyone who wants and needs to live in the city, then we should be sending a signal: This system cannot accommodate everyone who needs to live in the city,” Andrej Markovčič, the chair of the Seattle DSA, explained. “If developers cannot provide this 25 percent, that’s a sign we need to be looking at other solutions.” (Requiring private developers to construct affordable housing also drives up the cost of nonsubsidized units, and I suspect many YIMBYs would agree with Markovčič that the system is not ideal.)

But it’s also, unfortunately, all we’ve got right now. Within the YIMBY community, there’s disagreement about affordability requirements—what policy is right, if any policy is right at all. Mandatory inclusionary zoning, a popular urban policy that requires developers to build affordable units in every project of a certain size, has produced a paltry number of new units. Still, for many Socialists, the drip of affordable housing is more direly needed than the flood of market-rate.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, City Councillor Nadeem Mazen explained his opposition to YIMBY groups to a conference of housing journalists in March. “The housing advocates and especially young urban planners, like this organization here A Better Cambridge, say ‘Build it now,’ ” Mazen said, referring to the local YIMBY group. “The problem with ‘Build it now’ is what we’re building is luxury housing with a small modicum of affordable required. They say there’s a 30-year wait, wait 30 years and luxury income will become middle-income housing. We have to understand that the free market isn’t going to solve this problem. Twelve or 20 percent isn’t enough.”

That is a common refrain among Socialists, too. “We are in favor of increased urban housing density,” says Robbie Nelson, a member of the East Bay DSA who serves on its housing caucus. “It’s dishonest for people to claim that the left doesn’t want those things. The point is, if that program of densification is controlled by capitalist developers and landlords, only the rich have access to those conditions, and the working class and poor get pushed out to car-dependent suburbs.” When the long-term goal is the “decommodification” of housing, bowing to developers’ expectations of return-on-investment does not feel like a step in the right direction.

But people keep coming to cities like Cambridge and San Francisco. Those newcomers tend to have steady incomes but no arrangement with existing social housing. They feel stigmatized by what they perceive as hypocrisy on the anti-growth left: a theoretical embrace of migrants, but in reality a social and political rejection of their interests. They see the signs that say “immigrants are welcome here” next to signs rejecting new local development.

Those people find a political home in groups like S.F. YIMBY, Clark’s organization. She rejects the implication that increasing supply is a 30-year project and is optimistic about the complex problem of regional responsibility wherein (thanks in part to the California tax code) suburbs want new businesses but not the housing that comes with it. “We went to the moon,” she said. “We are capable of large structural change.”

But she has also largely stopped trying to change the minds of tenants’ rights activists who think market-rate development can make rents rise. “What they get confused is the difference between landlord interest and developer interest,” Clark says. But she gets it, too.

“There’s this level where things are shitty, rich people are coming in, and you see those condos and you think: ‘Fuck those condos, if I can stop the condos I can stop the change.’ But the rich people are coming anyway, and if there aren’t condos, they’re coming for your apartment.”

*Correction, June 28, 2017: This article originally misstated that San Francisco supervisor Aaron Peskin used a colorful metaphor to describe YIMBYs in an interview with Modern Luxury. The interview was with San Francisco magazine. It also misspelled Darby Thomas’ last name. (Return.)