To Endorse Prop. 10 or No? SF YIMBY Faces Soul-Defining Choice

Thursday, August 16, 2018
Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez
San Francisco Examiner

San Francisco’s YIMBY Action is facing a difficult choice, one that may define the group for years to come.

Will the champions of “build, build, build” endorse Proposition 10, the state ballot prop that would repeal rent control advocate’s most pernicious roadblock, Costa Hawkins?

The 1995 Costa Hawkins Rental Housing Act is the white whale of California tenants organizations, and essentially prevents cities from establishing their own rent control policies, exempts single family homes from rent control and allows landlords to hike the rent once a tenant moves out. If successful this November, Prop. 10 could allow the expansion of rent control policies across the state.

“This would be huge, this would be a game changer,” Deepa Varma, executive director of the San Francisco Tenants Union, told me.

Game changer it may be, but for the Yes In My Back Yard group, it’s also an existential decision that its nearly 2,000 members will begin voting on at the end of this week.

SF YIMBY is the local arm of the national YIMBY movement, pro-housing development agitators who push our city officials to build more housing, faster, to alleviate our rental crisis. While folks will expect the Usual Suspects to support or oppose this measure, as a group whose principles straddle both a “yes” or “no” endorsement on Costa Hawkins repeal, SF YIMBY’s voice would be uniquely persuasive. Their voice matters, for all of us.

But it matters for YIMBY, too. Their collective choice may also once and for all signal if tenants groups can begin to mend relationships from years of bad blood, those groups told me, or, well … not.

This is the, capital T, The, litmus test,” Dennis Richards, a planning commissioner, said.

“People are suspicious of their motives,” he noted. Tenants groups, frequently in public opposition with YIMBY, point to the group’s tech funding, and the way its advocacy for the construction of more luxury housing dovetails with the interests of developers, as signs that YIMBYs are in the pockets of anti-tenant interests.

Fred Sherbun-Zimmer, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco and a proponent of Prop. 10, noted the YIMBY folks still often try to reach out in ally-ship.

“We’re waiting for them to do more than lip service,” Sherbun-Zimmer said. If YIMBY endorsed Prop. 10, “it would be a really important start to beginning to have a conversation.”

In YIMBY’s ranks, however, a conversation is already raging. At a Tuesday night endorsement meeting of a few dozen of its members, the housing activists found themselves effectively split on backing the issue.

Sitting in a circle at their HQ at 1260 Mission Street, the members jovially passed around cans of beer, snacks, and smartly debated the future of San Francisco. Everyday members presented pro/con arguments for each of the propositions, even if they personally did not believe in endorsing it.

Bobak Esfandiari, a volunteer YIMBY-ite, moderated the discussions. He knew Prop. 10 was gonna turn up the heat.

“I urge you all to respect presenters,” he said.

The would-be TED-talkers wove through many complex arguments, the likes of which could fill an entire voter’s pamphlet. YIMBY-ite Max Ghenis stumped against Prop. 10, framing the issue as one defining the organization’s soul.

“I want to start by talking about the values we espouse,” he said. YIMBY, he argued, is unique among tenants organizations for defending newcomers. “We give a voice to people who are not even here yet.” Repealing Costa Hawkins in favor of rent control, he argued, would help people already here at the expense of those to come.

Sasha Perigo, from the “YIMBY Socialists” wing of the group, said existing rent control laws reward landlords who kick out their tenants by allowing them to hike rents afterward. San Francisco also “loses affordable housing as soon as we build it,” she said.

While expanding rent control may not align with all of YIMBY’s views, she argued, it aligns with enough of them. “It’s basically this or nothing,” she said. And if Prop. 10 fails, she warned, Costa Hawkins may not be repealed “for decades.”

Last but far from least, YIMBY Action Executive Director Laura Clark opted to place her thumb on the scale to argue for a “no endorsement.”

Clark told her members they have much to lose.

“I think if we try to mount a campaign one way or the other it will be extremely divisive within the organization,” she said. She also warned that repealing Costa Hawkins may see San Francisco “descend into madness” as it debates new rent control laws.

“I don’t want to go to that dark place,” she said.

Though I have no doubt Clark was arguing from a good-faith position, the rules of her organization were also in her favor. The threshold for YIMBY to choose “no endorsement” is far lower than to take action for, or against it.

Yet it wasn’t clashing I saw Tuesday night — it was a group passionately debating its morals, its mission, and how best to save San Francisco. Members spoke their piece, one by one: “reform would’ve been the best way to do this, but it’s basically politically unfeasible” one said, while another voiced that “I had a hard time making up my own mind,” and another that it might “unlock upzoning and lead to building in the West Side” by removing incentives not to demolish buildings.

Still other YIMBY’s speculated that by not taking a stance on this, “we’re going to burn a lot of bridges” anyway. Another YIMBY-ite rightly acknowledged “we really need the political goodwill of the tenants groups,” and said his pro-tenants rights neighbor would throw a YIMBY slate card “in the trash” if they oppose Prop. 10.

Personally, I feel YIMBY has much to lose should they decide not to endorse Prop. 10, or even, conversely, to actively oppose it. In our earlier conversation, Richards reminded me that Clark is fond of telling planning commissioners to “put on your big boy pants.” Well, YIMBY, right back at you, because even a “no endorsement” would be perceived as siding against the measure, I’m told by its allies.

Perhaps the most insightful comment came from a YIMBY-ite Tuesday night who advised their fellow members to vote decisively, and not shy away from conflict. That it was important for YIMBY to define itself through action, no matter which way they should ultimately choose.

“An explicit ‘no endorsement’ from this group would mean both sides would fear the monster inside of us,” they said.

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