Originally published in 48Hills
Shortened for print in the Street Sheet. Read the full version online here.
This was to be a banner year for San Francisco Yimbys at the polls. The group is the social-media focused, bright young face of the pro-development lobby. At the start of 2018, they were poised to both define the political agenda of the coming campaign and field a slate of candidates for supervisor that would place them and their allies in complete command of City Hall in San Francisco.
Come October, the agenda was set by the left — and instead of fielding a slate of independent candidates, the Yimbys were forced to enter into a ranked-choice marriage of convenience with candidates backed by their supposed allies, which exposed them to what can only be called a slaughter at the polls in November.
Why this happened is critically important in order to understand not only the fundamental flaws in Yimbyism and the electoral incompetence of its leadership, but also to understand what the left did right in November, so that we can repeat it in future.
They had received incredibly positive coverage in the national press, showcasing their Ayn-Rand-lite leader Sonja Trauss. Their politician of choice, State Senator Scott Wiener, had introduced and passed SB 35 in Sacramento, which pre-empted local control over housing approvals, effectively de-regulating the development of market rate housing in California. SB 35 enshrined the central Yimby talking point that the “housing crisis” was caused by over-regulation of housing approvals by local officials dominated by “boomer Nimbys.” They raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from libertarian tech moguls and for-profit housing developers which enabled Yimby Action, their main organizing entity, to bring on five full time staff members. This gave them more full-time staff than the San Francisco branch of the Sierra Club, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, the Council of Community Housing Organizations and 48 Hills — their constant targets — combined. Finally, in November, 2017 Yimby Action filed an initiative petition seeking to amend the City Charter to change the approval process for market-rate housing by eliminating public hearings.
But that didn’t happen. Yimby Action had to “postone” the petition that would have replaced the affordable housing preference in the General Plan with one that included “all income levels,” meaning market-rate housing would be given equal priority. Couched in misleading language calling for 100 percent affordable and teacher housing, the carefully worded measure would have, in fact, given a future Board of Supervisors the power to pass legislation that would have banned public hearings on market-rate housing proposals. It was a local version of SB 32 on steroids.
By January 2018, the petition drive was in deep money trouble, failing to pay a professional signature-gathering company $40,000. Yimby Action’s Laura Clark put the best face on it, saying that “our ballot prop will go on the November ballot…with a greater chance of passing and more time for our volunteers to collect signatures.” Nothing more was heard about the charter amendment, as it never was placed on the November ballot.
But a lot would be heard about the Yimby’s “activism” in favor of SB 827.
Wiener introduced his bill in January, broadening his state pre-emption of local approvals of housing in SB 35. As the San Francisco Planning Department described it, SB 827 “proposes to increase housing development capacity in areas that meet minimum levels of transit service with state-imposed minimum zoning standards…The bill would have its greatest impacts on the State’s core metropolitan regions…In San Francisco, the majority of the city would be affected…SB 827 would remove residential density limits, minimum parking requirements and impose minimum (emphasis in original) height limits.”
In short, SB 827 would have meant the wholesale rezoning of the city, adding tens of thousands of market-rate units with no increase in affordability requirements and no requirement to increase transit capacity. Virtually any housing unit could have been demolished to make way for these high-density developments, even a rent-controlled unit was not categorically protected under the bill.
Moving expenses, three and a half years of unspecified “rental assistance” and “first right of refusal” had to be offered to existing tenants of the demolished units with no affordability requirements placed on the “replacement unit.”
Most astoundingly, SB 827 would have basically exempted lily-white suburbs from the new density rules, since they have little or no transit, and would instead have targeted communities of color in existing, dense urban areas served by cash-strapped urban transit systems. Wiener’s legislation required no developer contribution to increase transit capacity to enable the transit systems to carry all the new residents Wiener would cram onto them.
In April, a major press conference in opposition to SB 827 was organized featuring tenant, community, neighborhood, affordable housing, and environmental representatives for the eastern steps of City Hall urging the Board of Supervisors to oppose the legislation. Confronting the attendees were about 30 overwhelmingly white counter demonstrators from Yimby Action.
Attempting to shout down various speakers, the Yimbys were confronted with counter chants of “shame. shame, shame” and “white power, white power” from the press conference attendees. At one point, Trauss pushed through a crowd of elderly Chinese tenants from the Community Tenants Association to yell insults at speakers at the podium. In a truly unhinged moment, she got into a pushing and shoving match with a woman downstream from her on the steps. A deputy sheriff grabbed Trauss and moved her off the steps.
Two weeks later SB 827 was voted down in committee 5-4, with four members not voting. Wiener and his Yimby allies had failed to persuade one new vote for the bill after three months of effort.
With the failure of both the petition drive and SB 827 the hopes to set the agenda for a slate of pro-market rate housing Yimby candidates for Supervisor in November came to an end. But the June Special Election for mayor offered the Yimby’s a new opportunity, and they leaped for it.
The June election: Yimby’s ‘Win’ and Lose
Proposition D called for a small increase in the business gross receipts tax -1.7 percent – to raise some $70 million a year. The largest amount- about $31 million — would go for homeless services provided by the City. The second largest amount — about $25 million — would go for “middle-income housing” for households earning between $75,000 and $150,000 a year. The remainder, about $14 million a year, would go for adding new permanent affordable housing for low income seniors and people facing homelessness.
Prop. D had additional language that would knock out any other business gross receipts tax increase measure on the same ballot if D got more votes than that measure. This “poison pill” was meant to “kill” Proposition C, a much larger business tax increase-some 3.5 percent increase- that would have yielded some $146 million a year for a program of early education and childcare for San Francisco families.
Pitting child care against affordable housing and service for homeless people was a City Hall insider game driven by political cynics interested in the mayoral race, not every day San Franciscans needs for both.
Yimby Action chose to support D as after all D was consistent with the Yimby’s failed charter amendment effort which called for “housing for all income groups” in this case meaning households earning 150 percent of Area median Income. For a group fielding two candidates for district supervisor it was a particularly tone deaf decision.
The Yimby straddle on C and D was less than persuasive to the voters. C won and D did not even get 50 percent of the vote, let alone the required 66.7 percent. Four days before the June 5th election, Sonja Trauss filed her papers to run for Supervisor in District 6, and 13 days after the election Trevor McNeil filed to run in District 4.
November 2018: Yimbys lose big
Twelve minutes after the 5pm, June 12th filing deadline, Supervisor Katy Tang surprised her allies by announcing that she would not seek re-election in D4. She announced that she would support Jessica Ho, her legislative aide, to replace her. Ho had quietly filed on the 12th and the late Tang announcement was timed to ensure no opposition. Tang’s insider move did not work. Because of her late announcement the filing deadline for Supervisor was extended in D4 from June 12th to June 18th by the Department of Elections.
The Yimbys seemed to be taken by surprise by Tangs move and were unwilling to accept her choice of Ho. Instead they backed Trevor McNeil, a native San Franciscan, a school teacher and Yimby activist who filed on June 18th. Five others also filed for D4 Supervisor.
Shortly after the Trauss melt down at City Hall in April, D6 community leaders began getting phone calls from SPUR staffer and former Planning Commissioner Christine Johnson sounding them out on the possibility of her running. It seemed that the folks at SPUR were less than enthusiastic at the possibility of having Trauss being the only pro-development candidate in the race. Eleven days after Trauss announced, Johnson filed her papers the same day Haney filed his. it would be a three-candidate race in D6.
A major difference between the June and November elections was that left/progressive issues helped focus interest in the local election. Proposition 10 and Proposition C, two initiatives placed on the ballot by massive and successful signature gathering campaigns — something the Yimby’s could not master in San Francisco — gave voters something to go to the polls for in the media hyped “Blue Wave” election that Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the two leading national Democrats on the local ballot, simply did not do. The whopping 75 percent turnout in November swamped June’s 53 percent.
Prop 10 would allow San Francisco to strengthen rent control and Proposition C would raise some $300 million a year for services for homeless people and the construction of new housing for very low income people at-risk of becoming homeless. Those were two damn good reason to go to the polls. Both Mar and Haney took full advantage of those issues and deeply embraced both. Haney’s embrace was both principled and smart for both measures appealed to key constituencies in D6 and Mar’s embrace was courageous as both were far less popular in moderate voting D4.
Finally, thousands of San Franciscan voters knew who the Yimby’s were and what they stood. Nobody really cared about where Trauss and Mc Neil grew up, but they cared and knew about their positions and that, it seemed, doomed them.
District election of supervisors was at the heart of left/progressive politics in San Francisco since the 1970’s . It had been voted on 10 times between 1972 and 1996, being established, repealed and re-established. Over those 24 years a total of 1.5 million votes were cast by San Franciscans for or against the election of supervisors “by neighborhood districts.” San Franciscans know that a district Supervisor must first and foremost BELIEVE in neighborhoods, understand their needs and be committed to them. For thousand of voters that what is wrong with district supervisors: they are too narrow, too focused on neighborhoods. Those folks voted “no” 10 times on district election and lost. Those that voted “yes” for district election see the value of neighborhoods, see the need to protect residents and small businesses from being forced out in the endless zero-sum game of real estate development that dominates San Francisco politics and demand that their neighborhood Supervisor represent them and their neighbors, not faceless developers and international real estate investors.
Clark and Trauss have been endlessly quoted in the national press attacking neighborhoods and their organizations. They have supported legislation and policies that actually scapegoat existing neighborhood residents as the “cause” of the housing crisis, which they define as the lack of endless supply of high-density market-rate condo towers placed anywhere developers want to build them. They ridicule the very notion of “neighborhood character” and, oblivious of the reality of San Francisco, call single family home owners “racists” when the highest percentages of home ownership are in African American and Chinese American neighborhoods.
In case voters did not remember that about them their clueless ally, the San Francisco Chronicle, made sure to remind voters, just before the election, of the Yimbys aversion to existing neighborhoodsand their residents.
What lead to the slaughter at the polls of the Yimby candidates was the large-scale rejection of their phony narrative which ridiculed and disrespected the very neighborhoods they were seeking to represent.
Prop 10, it was argued, was critical because controlling rents was a far more effective way of dealing with the real housing crisis which is the reduced supply of affordable housing, not market rate condos as claimed by the Yimbys. A poll by the LA Times published in late October found that 52 percent of those surveyed believed that California’s housing was unaffordable because of the lack of rent control (28 percent) and the lack of funding for low-income housing (24 percent). Only 13 percent believed it was because of “too little home building” and 9 percent because of “restrictive zoning rules.”
Mar used SB 827 as an issue to contrast his position in favor of a neighborhood-based planning process to address the housing crisis. Haney hammered away at the crucial importance of Prop. 10 for the people of the Tenderloin and South of Market while Trauss spun in circles on the issue, first supporting it, then opposing it and then supporting it again. Ho attacked Mar for his support of 10.
While Trauss and Johnson ran a well funded ranked-choice campaign in D6 their poor showing in first place votes — Johnson, 6,237 and Trauss, 4,759 — rendered it pointless. Haney’s massive first place vote total- 14,378- was truly historic.
McNeil ended up with 5,055 ranked choice total votes. But of those 2,540 were determined (by the RCV algorithm) to be ” exhausted ballots” and were not transferred to the remaining two candidates, Ho and Mar. Of the 2,504 ballot that were transferred, Ho got 1,052 of McNeil’s votes and Mar got 1,452!
So why the slaughter of the Yimbys?
First, Yimby Action political leadership was both inept and arrogant, a fatal combination. Their inability to mobilize their own base to get signatures for the Charter amendment that could have potentially helped their candidates; Clark’s admission that they “failed to anticipate the composition” of the April 3rd press conference — a standard, SF politics 101 coalition. When coupled with the fact that they seemed to actually believe their own (self-generated) press that they were innovative and dynamic and their reliance on communicating through the isolating and self-referential world of social media kept them from seeing the political reality they were facing. Hubris leads to inattention an inattention to political defeat.
Second, their basic message that the housing crisis is one of insufficient supply of market rate housing caused by self-serving neighborhood residents is not only factually incorrect in San Francisco, but is KNOWN to be incorrect by tens of thousands of voters. Seeking to represent neighborhoods by attacking them is a very tough sell and coupled with their political ineptness doomed them at the polls.
But finally, they were beaten because the left/ progressive political forces of San Francisco were fully mobilized and united for this campaign. They concentrated on two issues- C and 10 — and fielded united candidate campaigns in D4 and D6. C and 10 offered a narrative about the nature of the housing crisis we face that is grounded in fact and was embraced by the voters. Mar and Haney built their campaigns around these issues, amplifying and broadening their appeal to voters.
The Yimby’s still don’t know what hit ’em.
Lessons Learned ?
The November General Election ended with blow out numbers, critical and strategic wins in C , 10 (locally) Mar and Haney victories and the slaughter of the Yimby’s. An emerging coalition of select labor union locals, tenant and low income affordable housing advocates, neighborhood and environmental organization leaders, various democratic socialist political entities and, perhaps, certain elements of a civic spirited business/tech sector willing to work without being brokered by Ron Conway, revealed itself.
If elections are to work for the people, they must contain meaningful measures and candidates committed to carry them out. Neither occur on their own. It takes political leadership to make that happen as this election showed. That leadership did not come from our current elected officials. People designed and wrote C and got it on the ballot on their own. No state legislator drafted 10 nor put it on the ballot, the people did. No sitting office holder campaigned harder for Prop 10 than did Haney and Mar. C, 10, Haney and Mar won because of the coalition mentioned above. It was that coalition that slew the Yimbys with smarter politics, better policy and candidates eager to implement it.
But it’s not over. Scott Wiener has announced that he will introduce “son of SB 827” and the fight over displacement and true housing affordability will be on again. It will be very interesting to see if the State legislature, because of the “Blue Wave” election we helped make, has elected a Democratic Party super majority that responds to us or real estate developers.