There’s more to this year’s blockbuster June 5 election than just choosing a new mayor: District 8 will vote in a new supervisor, tenants facing eviction might get a right to counsel, and the SFMTA could be split in two. One additional measure currently gathering signatures is a pro-density, deregulatory proposal. For its authors, the answer to San Francisco’s housing crisis is to build more, quicker, and with less oversight from City Hall. It’s called the Affordable and Teacher Housing Now Initiative.
“We need affordable and teacher housing now,” Sonja Trauss, candidate for supervisor in District 6 and a volunteer on that ballot effort, tells SF Weekly. “Not three weeks from now, not three years from now.”
The measure would grant automatic approval to any housing project built entirely for low- or moderate-income renters (or teachers) and would remove the hurdles of public feedback and Planning Commission review. More than 50 volunteers from a group called YIMBY Action support the measure. They’re recognizable in their matching, bright yellow “Yes to Affordable Housing” T-shirts, as they campaign to collect the tens of thousands of required signatures to make the ballot.
You may have heard the term “YIMBY” bandied about in San Francisco politics, but starkly different groups have used the acronym for “Yes in My Back Yard.” For example, YIMBY Action is not affiliated with 2015 mayoral candidate Amy Farah Weiss, who used “YIMBY” as the slogan in a campaign that got nearly 25,000 votes.
“It was confusing people. People in the activist community started shunning me because they were associating me with it right away,” Farah Weiss, who is running for mayor this June, tells SF Weekly. “That changed my whole campaign.”
She’s quick to point out that she’s sided with YIMBY Action on a number of issues — the need for a vacancy tax, loosening restrictions on accessory dwelling units or “in-law apartments,” and the legal support they’ve given to her advocacy effort the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge. But the national, well-funded YIMBY organizations were a different YIMBY party than her own, and they’re aggressively pro-development.
“All of a sudden, this national movement started to pop up, in New York and L.A.,” Farah Weiss says. “My activism began with a ‘righteous no’ against inequity and displacement, but I quickly realized that we must also organize for our ‘strategic yes.’ I didn’t know about [YIMBY Action] until I had already decided to put this focus on YIMBY for Mayor. There hadn’t been a group before that was proposing increased density, build up, build, build, build.”
YIMBY Action is certainly better-funded than previous YIMBY incarnations, like SF BARF (or the Bay Area Renters Federation). San Francisco campaign contribution disclosures are not yet available for the June 2018 ballot, but we do know YIMBY Action has previously scored separate $10,000 donations from Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, Twitch CEO Emmett Shear, and the San Francisco Moderates group. Trauss has reportedly even hit up pro-Trump venture capitalist Peter Thiel for contributions.
Still, YIMBY Action insists it takes less than a quarter of its funding from real estate developers; the advocacy group says they just want to remove burdensome public complaint hurdles from housing development projects, like the height concerns currently halting the conversion of the Haight Street McDonald’s into affordable units.
“This McDonald’s project is being converted to affordable housing, and even before the ink is dry, the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council is trying to scale it back and saying it should be shorter and have fewer units,” Laura Foote Clark, executive director of YIMBY Action, tells SF Weekly. “They say, ‘We support affordable housing, but…’ And it’s always whatever comes next that they really care about.
“Because [developers] knew they were going to have to deal with people like the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, they pre-negotiate with themselves and propose smaller projects,” Foote Clark adds. “That’s the most damaging thing.”
Critics charge that the YIMBY measure’s automatic, by-right affordable housing approval already went into effect with the passage of State Sen. Scott Wiener’s statewide housing bill SB 35, rendering this measure a YIMBY publicity stunt. But even Wiener himself argues otherwise, and does support this proposal.
“We need more affordable housing yesterday, so anything we can do to accelerate the approval process for affordable housing we should absolutely do that,” Wiener tells SF Weekly. “Unfortunately, under our current process, the approval process can add an additional one to even three years to getting that affordable housing built. That’s not the right direction for San Francisco.”
SB 35 only applies to “cities that are not meeting their state-mandated housing goals.” San Francisco is not meeting those goals, but YIMBY Action’s version of the bill would stay in effect even if we do.
“Just because we’re meeting our goals doesn’t mean we should slow down affordable housing,” Foote Clark says.
Wiener kickstarted this proposed measure while still a San Francisco supervisor, passing a less sweeping version in his final year on that job. “I authored legislation exempting 100-percent affordable housing from any conditional-use requirement,” Wiener says. “This bill takes the next step and eliminates all discretionary review and makes it a truly streamlined process.”
‘Discretionary review’ refers to those public comment periods at Planning Commission or Board of Supervisors meetings when anyone can stand up and challenge aspects of a project’s height, blocking of views, parking concerns, or whatever issues they have with the project. Developers end up paying for those hearings’ costs, notifications, and legal fees.
“It costs affordable housing money to try and jump through these loopholes,” Foote Clark says. “It gets projects scaled back.”
Of course, developers often stand to make a fortune once they’ve navigated those hurdles. If development weren’t profitable, developers would be in a different line of work. And many progressives argue that YIMBY Action fast-tracks developer profits at the expense of tenant cost controls and advocacy.
“San Francisco YIMBYs vehemently oppose progressive organizations and politicians and prefer alliances with realtors and moderate politicians,” Nato Green wrote in a San Francisco Examiner op-ed. “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.”
But YIMBY Action argues their proposed June measure specifically addresses below market-rate housing, and teacher housing too.
“This is mostly going to be projects that are about 55 percent area median income,” Foote Clark insists. “You have to qualify for this subsidized affordable housing. It’s the stuff that people are waiting 10 years in line for.”
The Census Bureau estimates the San Francisco metropolitan area median income at $96,677. Fifty-five percent of that would be an annual income of $53,172. Progressives contend that the needs of the $50,000-salary crowd are less urgent than, say, people in homeless encampments, or one late paycheck away from losing their housing.
“With every housing policy, the number one criticism is always, ‘Why didn’t you go further?’ ” Foote Clark says. “This is the biggest thing we can pass right now.”
Passing this measure may enable condos that tower over the rest of their neighborhoods. It might result in apartment buildings that bring hundreds of new cars into neighborhoods without adequate parking accommodations. It could rubber-stamp some of the most obnoxiously designed, ugliest condos this city has ever seen.
“But you want to know what’s really ugly?” Foote Clark counters. “Homelessness.”