At the recent Vancouver Urban Forum on creating affordable housing, San Francisco’s Sonja Trauss instructed the mostly millennial audience to go forward and fight for more supply. Support any development that brings in more housing, even if it’s not your neighbourhood, she told them.
Ms. Trauss is the face of the YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) party, an advocacy group she launched in opposition to the concept of NIMBY (Not In My Backyard), a pejorative term for a person who opposes a development in their neighbourhood. The relatively new movement, which has a strong millennial following, aggressively supports density and uses every process available to them to push development proposals through the system. Their biggest critics are anti-gentrification groups looking out for the interests of vulnerable low-income communities.
As YIMBY leader, Ms. Trauss – who is funded by private interests, including tech industry companies and property developers – walks the walk.
Although she lives in San Francisco, she attended a Vancouver city council hearing the day before her talk, to support 21 luxury rental townhouse units on Granville Street in Shaughnessy. The society that operates a hospice for terminally ill patients next door opposed the proposal, which would have required the rezoning of a single-family home into 3 1/2 stories of stacked townhouses. (The project was subsequently rejected by Vancouver city council.) For Ms. Trauss, it’s another sign that there’s a war going on, particularly between renters and homeowners, even hospice patients.
“You have a job now,” she instructed her audience, urging them to get organized and get out and support the Shaughnessy proposal. “When you make these decisions about whether we should build an apartment building, who do we go to? We go to the people who are most mad about it. We go to the neighbours and say, ‘What do you think?’ We already know what they think! They hate it.
"We all need to make sure we get involved in the decision-making process – because otherwise we are not going to get the outcomes that we need.”
In an interview during a break, Ms. Trauss, a former high school math teacher, explained that she is now a full-time YIMBY activist. She is founder of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation (SFBARF), a group that has filed lawsuits against cities for voting down developments.
When she ran for San Francisco’s board of supervisors (similar to a city council), she says the bulk of her funding came from the tech industry and a lesser amount from developers. In a blow to the movement, Ms. Trauss suffered a loss, winning only 18% of the votes. But she’s just getting started.
She was in Vancouver to spread the gospel of build, build and build more, and she is unapologetic about the industry backing that she receives. In fact, she maintains that developers should be giving her more funding. Ms. Trauss wants to rally her troops outside of the Bay Area because the development of a broad network is necessary for political influence, she says, in order to achieve their goal for greater density in cities and the affordable rents they believe will follow.
Her message is a simple one that can be easily understood, she told her Vancouver audience. Two years ago, it landed her on Politico Magazine’s Top 50 Ideas Blowing Up American Politics. But Ms. Trauss is a polarizing figure in San Francisco. She’s had to defend a three-year-old tweet in which she said, “gentrification is what we call the revaluation of black land to its correct price.” In interviews, she explained that she saw it as unfair that areas with high African-American populations had low real estate values.
Steering committee member for San Francisco non-profit YAH! Bay Area (Yes to Affordable Housing), Erin Reeves, has criticized the movement for encouraging the hyper-commodification of housing, which has caused displacement of people in low-income neighbourhoods, such as the historic Mission District. She says people shouldn’t underestimate the movement, which is only a few years old. "This is part of a longer term building of power,” Ms. Reeves said.
Ms. Trauss acknowledges she’s faced a lot of backlash for her views that all development is necessary development. The movement takes a hardline approach, bereft of nuance, particularly on topics around protecting existing communities. Although she favours housing subsidies, she says she would support luxury developments in poor and middle-class neighbourhoods.
The solution to displacement, she says, is to ensure that existing renters are offered payouts and the opportunity to return to the new building at the same rent. For example, if a six-unit building were redeveloped, the developer would have to include six units in the new bigger development at the same rents for those displaced residents.
Ms. Trauss got a favourable mention for her activism by condo marketer Bob Rennie, as part of his Urban Development Institute speech in 2016. “Ms. Trauss,” Mr. Rennie said, “supports all of it so long as it’s built tall and built soon.”
People who fight density are nostalgic for the way things were, according to Ms. Trauss. “It’s a hard political fight because everybody hates the passage of time. The place that we were happiest is the most beautiful place to us. But a community changes; it gets bigger.”
She says her own mother became nostalgic for an apartment building in her neighbourhood that was at risk. She became a Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) person, when she knew better, Ms. Trauss says.
“She’s been exposed to all the rhetoric, always been on my side all the time and then it happened to her and everything went out the window.
“It wound up not mattering anyway – but if it had mattered, it would have been a serious family problem.”
As for Vancouver, Ms. Trauss says the city should embrace its condo-producing “industry.”
“The city has the potential of having all these condos and they are basically vacation rentals. There are a lot of towns that are vacation towns and people own those things, they pay property taxes, but you don’t have to educate their kids. They aren’t really taking up water and sewer.”
In exchange, she says it’s right that the government collect higher property taxes from the wealthy vacationers.
An antidote to speculation, she says, is more supply.
“Part of making sure that you are not an attractive place for speculation is making sure that you are producing.”
Josh Gordon, assistant professor at Simon Fraser University’s School of Public Policy, disagrees that supply has played a major factor in the affordability crisis. Prof. Gordon used recently-released data from a Statistics Canada report to conclude that municipalities with the greatest disconnect between home prices and incomes are also areas with the highest rates of non-resident ownership.
In wealthy neighbourhoods where house prices are extremely high, people’s incomes aren’t high enough to afford the houses, resulting in unusually high price-to-income ratios. The only way so many high-priced houses could have been purchased was with the benefit of foreign money that had not been declared, he says.
Local income earners benefited by selling their homes at high prices to those with foreign money, Mr. Gordon says. They then shared the wealth with their grown children who purchased homes. In this way, foreign money has worked its way through the market as an inter-generational wealth transfer, pushing home prices up as the money moved outward.
After years of failing to address the situation with effective government policy, the region has found itself with a serious affordability crisis. “The YIMBY trick is to pretend that the market will produce abundance in the face of strong demand,” Prof. Gordon says.
“The only time that might happen, and it will be temporary, is during the after effects of a housing bubble. Otherwise, the market will never produce abundance. If prices start to fall significantly, the development industry throttles back production. So the idea of producing abundance to create affordability and to reduce speculation and so on is just a ruse to justify the production of more and more housing.
“That’s why YIMBYs like Trauss are usually backed by developers. YIMBY ideology is developer ideology wrapped in sheep’s clothing.”
San Francisco’s affordable housing advocate Ms. Reeves says her goal is to produce permanently affordable decommodified housing.
“Unfortunately right now, with the YIMBY movement, we are seeing things shift in the opposite direction. People are thinking we just need to deregulate, open up the market more, let it do its work and somehow that will solve the problem that’s been created.
“Right now we are in a battle zone of understanding, a narrative battle. The way we operate right now, seeing housing as a commodity, is not working for people.”
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