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YIMBYs: The Darlings of the Real Estate Industry

The Yes In My Back Yard redevelopment movement centers the real estate industry, not the poor and middle class.

In San Francisco’s Mission District, flyers pasted on mailboxes and light poles warn longtime residents of the new “conquistadores,” the hordes of wealthy tech industrialists who’ve descended on the neighborhood en masse over the past few years, displacing many in the Latinx-heavy neighborhood to the outer reaches of the Bay Area.

But it’s not just lower-income people who are feeling set upon. Rich newcomers also see themselves as an interest group in need of a voice. “Someone needs to represent people who haven’t yet moved into a neighborhood,” said pro-development activist Sonja Trauss, who moved to Oakland in 2011, at an April real estate industry soiree in Vancouver. In San Francisco, “the people who haven’t yet moved in” most often means the tech industrialists, lured by high salaries, stock options and in-office employee benefits like massage therapists and handcrafted kombucha.

But these new tech “immigrants,” as Trauss refers to her kinfolk, spell disaster for current San Franciscans. In 2015, the city-funded homeless count found 71 percent of homeless San Franciscans were housed in San Francisco before being pushed onto the streets.

Some have given up, leaving the Bay altogether. Others are funneled into modern-day debtor’s prisons as regulations against homeless encampments, new jail expansion across the region and increased militarized policing through Urban Shield and other social control projects have coincided with new incubators of this quickly replicating tech invasion, such as Uber’s new anchor headquarters in downtown Oakland.

A Campaign to Legitimize the Luxury Condo Boom

A founder of the web empire, Jeremy Stoppelman, bequeathed $100,000 upon new Oakland resident Trauss in 2015, with the stated goal of clearing the way for more housing units, even if those units were only accessible to the richest of the rich. That investment helped to spark a libertarian, anti-poor campaign to turn longtime sites of progressive organizing into rich-people-only zones.

YIMBYs [Yes in My Back Yard] accuse anti-gentrification activists — those calling for affordable units instead of luxury ones — of preventing the construction of new housing development, thus reducing the new housing supply and driving up rents. But while YIMBYism is championed as progressive urban policy, critics like activist Tory Becker of the anti-gentrification direct action group LAGAI, believe it’s actually rooted in the same classist, racist ideologies it supposedly seeks to disrupt.

If simple supply and demand were a universal solution to rising housing inequality, then building new housing units in cities where the costs of living are high would indeed be a route to cheaper, better housing for all. However, the real world doesn’t work that way, and the YIMBYs’ “build, build, build” platform only stands to benefit a fortunate few.

The reality is that a low-income family of color who has lived in an area for years does not have the economic or cultural capital of the tech-moneyed arrivals who’ve got the local police station saved in their frequent contacts list.

The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, a project tracking displacement and evictions in the Bay Area, recently joined with the Eviction Defense Collaborative and San Mateo Legal Aid to conduct research on who is being evicted and why. The results were revealing.

“We found evictions are severely impacting poor and working-class Black and Latinx residents, seniors, female-headed households, non-English-speaking residents and households with children,” Erin McElroy, founder and researcher for the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, told Truthout. “Disproportionately, those in [YIMBY movement] leadership roles are in tech and are young, white men.”

High-income earners, like the tech workers who can afford market-rate housing, are effectively displacing communities and small businesses that depend on lower-income inclusionary housing and land-use policies, such as rent control that offer protection from unregulated market forces; protections won because of decades of grassroots activism by working class communities of color. For example, the famous 1977 International Hotel anti-eviction campaign led by Asian American leftists and Filipino elders in San Francisco’s then-sanctuary for Filipinos known as Manilatown, sparked both community development and tenants’ rights movements against the onset of neoliberal racial capitalism.

YIMBYs brand the activists continuing the tenant’s rights legacy as “NIMBYs” who are aligning themselves with wealthy homeowners. However, activists like Becker and McElroy, who have been in the game for much longer than Trauss and company, foresee a new wave of redevelopment like that of the 1960s and 1970s, when “urban renewal” made a few people rich, while leaving large swathes of city dwellers homeless or forced to migrate out of the areas where their families had lived for generations. In the 1960s writer James Baldwin remarked that San Francisco’s “urban renewal” of its then-Black-majority Fillmore district was “negro removal.” Under the YIMBY flag, the same is happening today with low-income Black, Latinx and transgender people of color being the core targets of displacement. The YIMBY movement’s developer allies and tech-employed urbanites stand to profit off this disruption of communities.

Just a couple years later, Trauss is now leading an army with soldiers around the world, from Boulder to Bratislava, while dominating the dialogue on how to deal with the very real problem of housing inequality. Entrenched online in the libertarian strongholds of Reddit and TechCrunch, and in the real world through real estate- and tech-sponsored nonprofits like SPUR and YIMBY Action, Trauss’s followers live by the neoliberal belief that deregulation and building more housing, even if it’s only affordable to the richest of the rich, will trickle down and eventually make housing affordable for all. Her vision is Reagonomics “dressed up in a progressive sheep’s costume,” according to Becker. But Trauss’s “fresh approach” to the dilemma of exploding housing costs has got conservative libertarians and lefty media outlets alike foaming at the mouth for more.

A Grassroots Facade

In its recent portrait of Trauss and the movement she helped to spark, The New Yorker noted that Trauss breakfasted last fall with PayPal cofounder and Trump advisor Peter Thiel. Trauss explained to Truthout in an email on April 26 that she “got an introduction to him from a mutual acquaintance,” and had met with him with the goal of raising money for her cause.

Trauss “had the oatmeal,” The New Yorker reported, while Thiel ate quiche. Details like these represent the media’s overwhelming depiction of the queen of YIMBY, which paints her as an in-the-trenches upstart who’s disrupting the affordable housing movement, without digging into the question of whom YIMBY ideals really benefit. Using tactics and lingo adapted from progressive movements, YIMBY is gaining traction in places where tenants’ rights groups have managed to push back against the gentrification of cities that have historically been socially and economically welcoming to low-income people, immigrants and people of color, like the Bay Area, New York City, and Toronto.

“YIMBY brings together community groups, advocates, and grassroots organizations,” reads the Toronto YIMBY Party’s website. But North America’s first YIMBY convening, YIMBY2016, was funded by groups, such as the National Association of Realtors and the Boulder Area Realtor Association.

With President Trump experiencing a massive drop in popularity, Trauss later participated in a protest outside top Trump-ally Thiel’s house. “What was Trauss doing aligning herself with a rightwing conservative like Thiel in the first place?” asks Becker, who believes Trauss espouses “social fabric-ripping” beliefs that are, in effect, “white supremacist.”

Are the people-of-color-led community groups like Causa Justa that supported a moratorium on luxury condo construction “just as bad” as anti-immigrant Trump supporters? Trauss thinks so, calling people who didn’t support new market-rate condo projects in central San Francisco “nativists” because they don’t welcome with open arms the construction cranes building lavish condos with butterfly gardens and valet parking in traditionally working-class neighborhoods.

McElroy says Trauss’s allegations disregard the anti-racist organizing by Latinx groups in the Mission District. “This YIMBY tactic [of calling Latinx organizers ‘anti-immigrant’] depends upon both ‘All Lives Matter’ and free-market logics, not to mention the idea that the knowledge produced by housing justice groups is inferior, outmoded and irrelevant.”

However, with a combination of supporters with fat wallets — real estate speculators, development corporations and homeowners concerned with increasing their own property values — and a smart public relations game, YIMBY has mounted a formidably destructive campaign in barely three years. It is steamrolling the traditional housing movement concept of centering the most vulnerable populations: the homeless, the poor people living paycheck-to-paycheck and the ever-dwindling middle class. “Now Hiring” signs are gathering dust in the windows of restaurants and retail shops across the city as lower-income people who serve the wealthy their $6 pieces of toast on carb-free cheat days can’t afford to live in the city anymore.

Deadly Neoliberal Policies

Infill, with its self-aware, geek-chic name, is the podcast that Trauss co-hosts with another YIMBY-to-watch, Laura Foote Clark. When Truthout asked for evidence that the YIMBY trickle-down model would benefit people who aren’t making tech salaries, Foote Clark was quick to send a dozen papers that claim to show how neoliberal deregulation will end the housing crisis, and that rich NIMBYs are the main benefactors of further regulation.

But tell that to people like Iris Canada, the 100-year-old Black woman who had used local regulations to stay in her home of six decades, only to be evicted in February. “This eviction killed her,” Iris’s niece, also named Iris, said at a March 29 vigil for her aunt, who died from a stroke just a month after her eviction.

What Foote Clark sells as objective economics are neoliberal policies that Truthout and others have widely debunked — policies which are set up to kill anyone without lots of money. The experiences of dozens of tenants like Canada, those who have died because of the crisis of neoliberal urbanism, are utterly disappeared from such studies. As McElroy cautions, YIMBY policies are “divorced from longstanding on-the-ground organizing and analytics produced by those whose lives are most impacted by hyper-gentrification.”

Foote Clark’s Oakland-based counterpart, Victoria Fierce, is a former techie who was bestowed enough cash by wealthy benefactors to work “as an activist full-time.” Fierce moved to the Bay Area three and a half years ago, and describes her YIMBY organization East Bay Forward as an “anarchist” group that wants to see market-rate housing built now so that in 30 years, low-income people might be able to afford to move here.

San Francisco Ethics office filings make contributions to political organizations like Trauss-ally SPUR available on its website; the names of the country’s largest development companies like Boston Properties, Lennar and Shorenstein consistently show up on these contribution filings. These corporations are hardly the allies of “true anarchists that work around anti-capitalist principles,” says Becker. When asked about her organization’s alliance with SPUR and realtors, Trauss responds that the groups have “a shared goal … so we work together.”

YIMBYs are engaging in — and sometimes winning — other battles. In Southern California, AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) head Michael Weinstein led a campaign for a moratorium on luxury condos in quickly gentrifying downtown LA. He was attacked by YIMBYs who characterized Weinstein as a zillionaire who “didn’t like another building blocking the view from his office.”

Weinstein wrote in response: “We have witnessed how San Francisco, where AHF has clinics for testing and treatment, has become a rich ghetto. Low-income people by the tens of thousands have been displaced, and diversity is harder and harder to find. The same thing is unfolding in Los Angeles.” Up the coast, in 2015, a reported 20 percent of HIV-positive people left San Francisco. “The reason is displacement,” said Brian Basinger, head of the HIV housing nonprofit Q Foundation (formerly the AIDS Housing Alliance).

San Francisco’s Latinx-heavy Mission District and the Bayview neighborhood, one of the last bastions of Black life in the city, have been targets of the free-market “build, build, build” ideology.

So have progressive nonprofits like the Sierra Club, which faced two attempted takeovers by YIMBY politicos, attempting to control the Sierra Club’s stamp of approval (important in cities with progressive-leaning voters like San Francisco or Toronto) on development projects.

Decades-long progressive organizing — in communities actively fighting YIMBYs — around environmental and climate justice concerns are being “co-opted and rearranged” according to McElroy, who believes demands for social and economic justice “can’t be tethered to capitalist libertarian fantasies of disruption.” These campaigns include fighting a toxic power plant in the Hunters Point neighborhood and building new community agricultural projects in the Excelsior district.

The “deep contradictions within YIMBY logic can’t be ignored,” says Becker. In 2016, billionaire Stoppelman, whose pockets had helped Trauss out with her initial startup cash — what Trauss calls her “self-actualization funding” — famously fired an employee who publicly wrote that she couldn’t afford to live off the wages Yelp’s subsidiary Eat24 was paying her. “We are expanding our Eat24 customer support team into our Phoenix office,” he responded.

In the wake of other “alt-right” successes, the real estate industry is learning the art of dressing down, community activist-style. Under YIMBYnomics, more luxury condos will be built and people like Stoppelman will become richer, as the less wealthy are forcibly removed under a so-called “pro-housing” banner.

Editor’s note: This story’s original headline, “YIMBYs: The ‘Alt-Right’ Darlings of the Real Estate Industry,” has been amended upon further review to be more accurate and representative of the story’s contents.

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