The Rise of the YIMBYs

Gensler, Forge Development Partners, San Francisco

By Todd Williams

Todd Williams
[dropcap]D[/dropcap]espite an undeniable housing shortage marked by skyrocketing rents, virtually all housing development in the Bay Area remains controversial. Be it a downtown multifamily tower or a neighborhood four-plex, any project can draw fierce opposition. However, in the perpetual clamor between developers and entrenched neighborhood opponents, a new, previously unheard, voice has entered the fray: prospective residents known as YIMBYs.

No one seriously debates that California is mired in a housing crisis of epic proportions. The California Department of Housing and Community Development estimates California created on average fewer than 80,000 new homes annually over the past decade – 100,000 units short of the annual need. According to the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), between 1980 and 2010, Alameda, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties produced between 13,000 and 16,000 fewer homes than needed per year. Leading economists increasingly cite the housing shortage as the top threat to California’s economic expansion. A poll taken by the Bay Area Council in March of 2017 indicated 40 percent of Bay Area residents are considering moving away because of high housing costs and traffic.

Recent LAO reports conclude that a significant increase in housing production is needed to address affordability and stem displacement. The LAO largely blames the lack of production on “Not-In-My-Back-Yard” (NIMBY) development opponents, who routinely object to new development especially in coastal areas, along with outdated and restrictive planning and zoning laws that add cost, delay and uncertainty.

Urban area residents often object to dense housing development on the grounds of gentrification, displacement, impacted views and affordability. Suburban objections focus on issues of open space, traffic and neighborhood “character.” The result, along with economic factors such as high construction costs, is a dramatic shortfall in housing production.

However, the debate may be shifting, and the YIMBYs are leading the way. The Yes-In-My-Back-Yard movement started barely five years ago, led by a handful of millennial renters frustrated at rising costs and scarce availability of units in San Francisco, as well as suburban jurisdictions’ reticence to multifamily development. The group’s essential mantra was simple: build more housing. That handful of individuals has now grown into several chapters with hundreds of members across the state and in cities outside of California. They have received considerable support from technology entrepreneurs, such as Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, who grew frustrated with the housing crisis’ impact on their ability to attract and retain workers.

Currently, the “YIMBY Party” consists of several member organizations each with a different focus including East Bay for Everyone, SF Bay Area Renters Federation, YIMBY Action and the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund. Similar YIMBY groups have formed in the South Bay, including Palo Alto Forward and Catalyze SV.

Unlike housing advocates who focus exclusively on deed-restricted affordable housing, the YIMBY groups generally support efforts to build higher density housing in all locations and price points. While supportive of below market rate housing, the YIMBYs believe that improving the housing supply, even with market-rate units, helps relieve displacement pressure on older housing stock and existing residents.

While their origin began with commenting in favor of housing projects at local public hearings, the YIMBY groups quickly broadened their approach by filing lawsuits against cities they believe illegally denied projects, such as Berkeley, Lafayette and Sausalito. YIMBY groups have championed approvals of recent projects in San Francisco, Oakland and elsewhere in the Bay Area, in some cases turning out more supporters than NIMBY opponents.

YIMBYs turned their attention to Sacramento and became an increasing political voice to be reckoned with. In a flurry of housing bills adopted during the 2017 legislative session, two of the more important bills were the YIMBY-backed Senate Bill 167 and Assembly Bill 1515. These bills took an existing, and largely ignored, law known as the Housing Accountability Act and sought to add teeth to its provisions.

The prior law limited a city’s ability to deny or require reduced density for projects that complied with general plan and zoning standards. The new legislation strengthens the law by holding cities to a higher evidentiary standard when rejecting projects, and provides additional judicial remedies against cities that fail to comply with the law. In addition, the bills require cities to inform developers at an early stage as to whether their projects comply with objective general plan and zoning standards. The changes could result in compelling cities to approve more projects rather than face the legal risk of defending a denial. In just the past year, the Housing Accountability Act has been successfully used in suits to reverse project denials in Berkeley and Los Gatos.

The YIMBY’s efforts have garnered praise from legislators, including State Senator Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco), who sponsored Senate Bill 35 to streamline infill development, and Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) who authored SB 167, as well as SB 166 (relating to making adequate sites available for housing). “Getting a permit to build housing should not be a shell game,” said Senator Skinner in a press release. “My bills tackle the ‘Not in My Backyard’ obstacles that too often keep needed housing from being built.”

The YIMBYs are not slowing down. They continue to make their presence felt not only in San Francisco and Oakland but throughout the Bay Area and are now stepping foot into the political realm. They have partnered with the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition on a 2018 ballot initiative to make 100 percent affordable housing projects (at low and moderate income levels) as well as housing projects for teachers and school staff in the City subject only to ministerial approval and greatly insulating such projects from legal challenge. In addition, Sonja Trauss, one of the founders of the Bay Area YIMBY movement, has announced that she is running for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Todd Williams is an attorney and Chair of the Land Use Group at Oakland-based law firm Wendel Rosen Black & Dean LLP. He can be reached at

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