Sonja Trauss is no stranger to controversy.
Since the former District 6 Supervisor candidate began attending Bay Area planning commission meetings in 2015 to say “yes in my backyard,” Trauss’ advocacy has earned her national headlines and her fair share of enemies.
Trauss found herself wrapped up in controversy again last week when she split from California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA) to found YIMBY Law.
(Editor’s note: This reporter was involved with YIMBY Action in a volunteer capacity in 2018).
The breakup touches on fundamental questions about the future of the housing justice movement in San Francisco.
Trauss founded CaRLA in 2015 with current Executive Director of CA YIMBY Brian Hanlon to sue suburbs that denied housing on exclusionary grounds. Trauss filed CaRLA’s first lawsuit against Lafayette herself, when the city with a median income of over $150,000 denied a permit to build 315 new units.
Since then, CaRLA has sued a variety of wealthy suburbs including Sausalito, Calabasas, and Los Altos. Last year, CaRLA’s work touched San Francisco directly when the organization sued to remove barriers to the construction of accessory dwelling units.
Of the nine lawsuits CaRLA has started, it won one, three have settled out of court, and five are ongoing, according to its website. The organization’s success stories have resulted in over 500 more homes being permitted in these areas. Regardless of legal outcomes, advocates in Sacramento say that CaRLA’s work has scared suburbs away from opposing housing in the first place lest they’re sued under the Housing Accountability Act. For the first time, an organization is enforcing housing law.
“A big part of my vision for CaRLA and now for YIMBY Law is to serve as a resource for other YIMBYs who want to be able to access the law to supplement their organizing efforts,” Trauss tells SF Weekly.
While lawsuits unfolded, internal strife at CaRLA over the direction of the organization strained the relationship between Trauss and Co-Director Victoria Fierce.
This summer, the CaRLA board decided it was time for a change in leadership. Trauss and Fierce stepped down from their co-director positions, and Dylan Casey took over as executive director. Today Fierce is CaRLA’s chief finance officer and operations director.
Trauss declined to comment on her relationship with the CaRLA team, telling SF Weekly: “We will continue to work together to ensure that the important pro-housing laws that YIMBYs pass are followed by California localities.”
All parties hope that the breakup will allow them to continue their work unhampered by interpersonal drama, though the two organizations have differing visions.
In her statement titled “Why are there two orgs?” released on Twitter, Trauss cites two key differences between CaRLA and YIMBY Law. With YIMBY Law, Trauss will continue suing exclusionary suburbs, but she will expand into working on tenant protections. The organization will also work more closely with San Francisco-based YIMBY Action through a 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 partnership.
CaRLA has a different approach to partnership with local YIMBY organizations, according to CaRLA Boardmember Stephen Menendian. “CaRLA is part of the housing movement, and that’s broader than just the YIMBY movement,” he says.
Major players in the San Francisco tenants rights movement are skeptical that Trauss’ stated goal of working on tenant protections can coexist with her partnership with YIMBY Action.
“I do not believe that [the YIMBY movement] can be seen as a viable future location of tenant organizing in S.F.,” says Deepa Varma of the San Francisco Tenants Union. “One need not look any further than [YIMBY Action]’s failure to support Prop 10 … Unlike true tenant organizations, [YIMBY Action]’s positions are not informed by the experience of counseling tenants or fighting evictions.”
Sarah Sherburn-Zimmer, director of Housing Rights Coalition San Francisco, says tenants advocates in San Francisco have extended YIMBY Action lots of olive branches to no avail.
“If you want to fight for tenants, come on down!” Sherburn-Zimmer says. “If [Sonja] wants to build trust … she should do something to support rent control and the repeal of Costa Hawkins.”
Despite the skeptics, Trauss’ supporters are excited about the partnership with YIMBY Action.
“Get ready for more lawsuits, new publications, renewed focus on tenant protections, and closer alignment with @yimbyaction!” said YIMBY Action Boardmember and founder of ideological group YIMBY Neoliberal Steven Buss on Twitter.
“Sonja did good work in establishing CaRLA,” says CaRLA’s Casey. “We wish her the best with her new organization.”