Pro-housing YIMBY activist Sonja Trauss runs for political office in San Francisco.
The YIMBY movement began as an activist movement in San Francisco, where housing, as in Los Angeles, has become prohibitively expensive. Last week the movement won a signature victory: Governor Jerry Brown signed 15 bills intended to enable the construction of new housing in California.
Now one of the founding YIMBYs is getting serious about politics: Sonja Trauss is the founder of SF BARF (the SF Bay Area Renter’s Federation), co-founder of the YIMBY Party, and founder of a nonprofit that enforces state housing law by suing suburbs that block the construction of “by right” housing. Now she is running to represent District 6 on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. She will likely be running against Matt Haney, who is a more traditional progressive and a member of the Board of Education. Trauss has been described by The New York Times as “a new generation of activist whose pro-market bent is the opposite of the San Francisco stereotypes — the lefties, the aging hippies and tolerance all around.” But what she represents is the rising political clout of a stridently pro-growth faction that is finding its voice in costly cities across the nation.
We reached her at her apartment, located in the downtown area that’s part of District 6, as she awaits the birth of her first child, due in late November; and talked to her about the difference between being an activist and a politician; why the “revaluation of black land” is a sign of greater social equity; and whether her views on housing have changed with impending motherhood.
DnA: Partly thanks to the efforts of groups like yours, 15 housing bills were signed last week by Governor Brown. What do you think of the passage of these bills and do you think it’s going to make a difference to the housing picture in the state of California?
Sonja Trauss: I’m thrilled about them and absolutely all the advocates hope it makes a huge difference. The package includes funding bills, bills that make it easier to encourage developers to set aside parts of their development to the below market rate. And it includes a bunch of streamlining bills to make it harder for opponents of housing to interfere with its production.
So it is very exciting. But the reality is is that California has actually had some really great housing laws for 30 years. And it really takes local communities to decide to follow them. Because the state actually doesn’t do a lot to enforce these things. So if an entire town is really against a housing project then it won’t happen. So individuals in their own neighborhoods still need to come and show support for housing at their city councils and at their neighborhood meetings.
DnA: Why are you running for Supervisor?
ST: We’ve had so much success having really good relationships with supervisors and now is an opportunity in this race to make sure that there’s somebody in this position who’s really going to continue to bring the pro-housing pro-infill, pro-human scale development angle to the city.
DnA: Where exactly is District 6?
ST: District 6 includes part of the downtown central business district. It’s like the northeast corner of San Francisco. It also includes the Tenderloin. It’s really the densest part of San Francisco. In the last 10 years this one district has built 60 percent of San Francisco’s housing. District 6 residents get it. We’re the housing district, and also the jobs district, and also the manufacturing district. It’s really incredible. It’s the best district in all of San Francisco.
DnA: When you and I spoke on the phone a year ago I got the impression that you were enjoying being an activist and annoying people at planning meetings and suing suburbanites and so on. Now as a supervisor, obviously you have to represent a wide spectrum of individuals and interests and you have to get serious. Are you ready for that?
ST: It is completely different. I mean it’s fascinating because as an activist the people on your mailing list, the people that you’re representing all believe the same thing. But as a supervisor the only thing your constituents have in common is that they live in the same area which means, you’re absolutely right, you’re much more of a mediator. And then also an administrator. I mean the Board of Supervisors is basically the board of directors for the city.
DnA: Just this year you were selected by Politico as representative of one of the 50 ideas blowing up America right now. But along the way part of your success has been to be a provocateur and part of that provocation has been to occasionally let slip things that you now have to account for. For example, now you are being criticized for various things you’ve written, one of them a tweet in which you called gentrification “the revaluation of black land to its correct price.” I think I understand what you mean by that but I can also see why people would get bothered by that. What did you mean by it?
ST: Well, when a neighborhood is gentrifying, if it’s an African-American neighborhood, then that means that the home owners in that neighborhood, the black homeowners, their property values are going up. And not everybody actually wants their property values to go up, but a lot of Americans do. And it’s one of actually the many injustices — one of the examples of institutional racism in the U.S. is that, one, as an African-American it’s harder to become a homeowner and, two, if you do become a homeowner your house value is lower than if you were a white person just because you’re black. And it’s something that was institutionalized formally in the ’30s, that’s what redlining is. And even though sometime in the ’50s the FHA stopped formally devaluing black-owned land — as in, you know, homes that African-Americans live in — there’s still a legacy of that. Gentrification has many many effects. But one of them is that those black homeowners whose home value is unfairly low finally sees their home values appreciate in the way that their houses would have appreciated if they were in a white neighborhood.
DnA: So in that sense you’re seeking social equity. However, does that mean that you support market forces shaping housing prices and therefore do you not support intervention into the markets to keep housing prices or to keep some rental prices down?
ST: We have a market process now. So that’s our reality. That said, within that reality, absolutely. The state does and should, and should more, spend money subsidizing housing for people who don’t make enough on their own to live somewhere that’s safe and healthy.
DnA: Do you still advocate, now you’re running for supervisor, the sort of untrammelled housing construction that you were associated with in your activist phase?
ST: No housing construction is ever untrammeled. Housing, just like every other part of our economy, is heavily regulated, which is a good thing. This whole time what we’ve been advocating for primarily is that people be allowed to build to their zoning within the laws.
DnA: The ‘by right’ development?
ST: Exactly, and what by right means is that cities make rules about what should be built where. And that we should be carrying out the plans that our cities make. And it’s amazing that that winds up being very radical.
DnA: Now Sonja, you are about to have a child and you just got married so you are moving into a different phase in your life. It’s a phase at which many Americans start thinking about moving out of the city, perhaps into a more suburban environment, perhaps the single family home, the yard, and so on. There’s talk of Millennials now looking for something that’s a kind of hybrid of suburban and urban, I think the phrase is ‘surbs.’ Do you feel you might get to a slightly different mindset where you start to understand some of the folks who have been so resistant to seeing their neighborhoods be changed by greater density?
ST: Well as far as the yard goes, I don’t want a yard. I don’t want to mow. I’ve already actually for a long time understood why people want big houses or big apartments. I myself have two parents, two brothers and growing up we had other people living with us too. You know my dad’s cousin lived with us for a while. So I totally understand why people want to live in big houses. But you can have big apartments in the city. One thing about my childhood growing up that I definitely want to replicate is that I was able to walk around my neighborhood and get myself places on my own. I walked to my friend’s house, to my school, starting when I was like seven years old.
DnA: Where where was this neighborhood?
ST: In Germantown, in Philadelphia.
DnA: There are some who say to the pro housing activists in the low-rise cities west of this country that these regions are designed in such a way that does not accommodate density and that new people should just move to other cities: Detroit, St. Louis, cities where you can buy property cheaply and don’t keep putting pressure on our neighborhood. What do you say to those people?
ST: Well, this is where the jobs are. We’re moving away from Detroit and St. Louis because we don’t have jobs there. I lived in St. Louis before I lived in San Francisco and I moved because there just weren’t jobs.