Planners who tend to keep their heads down politically might have missed the firestorm that erupted a few weeks ago over a column about the “YIMBY” movement on the left-wing site Truthout. The grassroots, pro-development movement got savaged in a quasi-article by Toshio Meronek and Andrew Szeto originally entitled "YIMBYs: The 'Alt-Right' Darlings of the Real Estate Industry.”
The headline was eventually changed to omit “alt-right” to seem less inflammatory, if still inaccurate. When “alt-right” gets thrown around in land-use circles, you know something is up.
For the uninitiated, the “Y” stands for “yes,” and the “yes” refers to development — mainly to housing. By filing comments, testifying at hearings, and otherwise inserting themselves into public discourse, YIMBYs try to provide a counterweight to anti-development forces. They generally support market-rate and affordable housing developments alike.
The unofficial leader of the YIMBY movement – and prime target of Meronek and Szeto – is Oakland-based Sonja Trauss, who founded the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, delightfully abbreviated SF-BARF. They accuse her of being the powerful leader of "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.” I think any planner would be surprised to find that pro-development activists are “dominating” much of anything.
In reality, Trauss considers SF-BARF an open-source grassroots organization, replete with a wiki website that irreverently uses Comic Sans font. ULI it is not. Trauss provides information and does her own rabble-rousing, but any concerned citizen can take up the cause at any time.
Trauss describes herself as an anarchist, with no love for political ideologies. Short of burning the whole place down, she has contented herself with supporting The Man (real estate developers) so as to stick it to The (other) Man (homeowners associations and other anti-development forces). It’s a compromise, to be sure. But even anarchists need someplace to live.
Meronek and Szeto have decided that Trauss and her colleagues are “pro-gentrification,” in league with “greedy” real estate developers. They equate support for market-rate housing with support for “luxury” housing. They also equate it with not just tolerance for but, it seems, approval of displacement. YIMBYism, they claim, is "rooted in the same classist, racist ideologies it supposedly seeks to disrupt,” in line with redlining, slum clearance, urban renewal, and other explicitly discriminatory practices of decades past.
What Meronek and Szeto don’t seem to understand that there’s a difference between intention and consequences.
As a factual matter their accusations are nonsense for all sorts of reasons. SF-BARF has routinely lobbied for projects with affordable units, with just as much enthusiasm as it has for projects with all market-rate units. Trauss famously “sued the suburbs” — or rather a suburb, Lafayette — for alleged violation of the Housing Accountability Act. The SFBARF mission statement reads, in part, “without an increase in overall yearly production of housing in the Bay Area, we will continue to suffer from displacement, crowding and exploitation from landlords.” See, they don't like displacement, or exploitation.
Meronek and Szeto can't quite believe that anyone would want more housing, so they accuse Trauss of being in the pocket of just about everyone. This includes Jeremy Stoppelman, CEO of Yelp, and, presumably, an uncaring fan of “luxury” housing. Never mind the fact that no capitalist — other than a real estate developer — would ever want his or her employees to live in expensive housing.
Meronek and Szeto write of collaboration: "When asked about her organization's alliance with SPUR and realtors, she responds that the groups have 'a shared goal ... so we work together.’” And they accuse Trauss of “aligning” with tech billionaire (and Trump supporter) Peter Thiel simply for having breakfast with him – at his invitation.
Come on. They had breakfast. It’s not like they shared a room at Davos.
Even after their story roused a slew of thoughtful, and frustrated, online chatter, Meronek and Szeto doubled down on many of their claims in an opinion piece in the San Francisco Examiner. They write that YIMBYs have
co-opted social justice movements against gentrification toward a capitalist, pro-gentrification agenda. YIMBYism’s long standing affiliation with right-wing free-market, or neoclassical/neoliberal, economics is precisely what our article illuminated....their politics are rooted in racist and anti-poor conservative neoliberal ideologies.
Notwithstanding the fact that it's pretty hard for a three-year-old movement to be "long standing," tirades like this make it almost impossible to assign much credibility to the radical left. That’s a shame. Many progressive mainstream planners and, I reckon, the majority of YIMBYs share 90 percent of the values of people like Meronek and Szeto. They might have different priorities and favor different tactics, but I think we’re all on the same team.
(That team is scoring points. Last year, San Francisco voted for all sorts of funding for affordable housing, and the city is developing complementary ordinances.)
And yet, like children who’ve been so badly bullied that they won’t let anyone be their friend, Meronek and Szeto make no attempt to persuade and instead seem like they’re spouting off only for personal satisfaction. They support social justice and yet call fellow progressives “alt-right.” If that’s not otherization – which is, rightly, one of progressives’ major bugbears -- I don’t know what is.
I get it. I get resentment. I get fear. I get the fraught history surrounding the urban poor. But I don’t get the vitriol, and I don’t respect the dishonesty.
I submit that honesty and compromise remain admirable values and effective political tools — especially on the local level where policymakers, community members, and activists are literally rubbing elbows with each other.
Does YIMBYism have problems? Sure. No movement is perfect. But slander and willful misrepresentations are bigger problems. They create bitterness and fragmentation when there ought to be unity, cooperation, and respectful disagreement.
They may treat mainstream housing advocates like enemies, but, fortunately, we don't have to treat them in kind.
My best advice for YIMBYs and anyone else interested in building prosperous, inclusive cities is to embrace their causes – of social justice and affordable housing – more enthusiastically than ever. The equitable city depends on protections from displacement, social justice, and affordable (subsidized) housing just as much as it depends on market-rate development, place-making, and urban amenities. YIMBYs can wage those battles whether the far left likes it or not.
As for the planners quietly slaving over applications and zoning code rewrites: this debate is coming your way whether you like it or not. There’s never been a better time to get fired up about housing, equity, density, and all the other fundamental challenges that make good planning — and good mediation — so important. I can’t fathom who benefits from getting worked up over the 10 percent of disagreement rather than excited about the 90 percent of common ground.
That’s not alt-right. That’s just right.
This piece has been updated to clarify the nature of SF-BARF's lawsuit against the City of Lafayette.