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How YIMBYs wiped out in San Francisco

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Voters said “not in my backyard” to YIMBYs at ballot box

On Tuesday, the Bay Area’s nascent YIMBY (“yes in my backyard”) movement made its first big play in San Francisco politics, backing a slew of pro-development candidates for key City Hall positions, including many outspoken YIMBYs running for office themselves.

But when the results came in on Wednesday, voters had shut them out almost completely.

One election does not, of course, decide the long-term success or failure of any policy, or even any candidate; but as far as candidates go, Tuesday’s outcome was as bad for SF YIMBYs as an election can get.

Founded in 2017 but percolating for years, SF-based YIMBY Action pushes a platform of development as a solution to the housing crisis, daring to march under a banner declaring “density is good”:

We are unapologetic urbanists who believe in the virtues of cities. More people living in close proximity to each other can improve their lives and the lives of those far beyond city limits.

[...] People should be free to choose to live in places that are urban, compact and walkable, low-density and car-centric, or rural. Not everyone wants to live in a dense city. However, current policies restrict the supply of urban housing, leaving suburban life as the only affordable option for many.

Days before the election, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a longform piece examining the YIMBYs as a surprise new force in Bay Area politics. And SF-based state Sen. Scott Wiener declared “the politics of housing are shifting” thanks to the YIMBY movement.

“Candidates don’t want to be perceived as anti-housing” in the current SF environment, Wiener tells Curbed SF, a surreal development in a traditionally development-phobic city.

He adds, “Even candidates I would not say are YIMBYs still talk like YIMBYs,” hailing a kind of soft strategical win for pro-density forces even ahead of the election.

With multiple dyed-in-the-wool YIMBYs seeking big-ticket positions, even just one major win would probably have been declared a new day for San Francisco housing politics.

But comparing YIMBY Action’s suite of pre-election endorsements (which include candidates also backed by Mayor London Breed and the San Francisco Chronicle) to the actual results makes for a grim tally:

  • Local YIMBY crusader and San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation founder Sonja Trauss ran for the District Six seat at the Board of Supervisors. Although pre-election polling suggested a relatively close three-way race, Trauss came in third with just 18 percent.
  • YIMBY Action member Trevor McNeil made a bid for a seat in District Four. He also came in third, with just over 12 percent of the vote.
  • Theo Ellington, described as “far-and-away the most YIMBY candidate” in the entire election in YIMBY Action’s voter guide, hoped for a shot at District Ten’s Board of Supervisors seat. Once again this netted a third-place finish, with just over 20 percent of the vote. [Correction: YIMBY Action called Ellingtion “the most YIMBY candidate” in District 10, not in general.]
  • YIMBY Action also backed BART Board of Directors member Nick Josefowitz for the Board of Supervisors seat in District Two. Josefowitz came in second with about 37.5 percent of the vote in the latest tally.
  • YIMBY Action endorsed Michelle Parker for school board, citing her plan to develop teacher housing. Parker finished sixth in a crowded field.
  • YIMBY Action backed Victor Olivieri for SF City College Board on account of his support for housing development on City College properties. Olivieri finished fourth.

A few YIMBY-endorsed candidates did net SF wins this week, including Janice Li, who came in first out of a six-person field for BART Board of Directors.

But most of these wins were in contests with little drama or with candidates with no strong foot in the YIMBY camp.

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman (not particularly a YIMBY but endorsed by YIMBY Action) waltzed to an easy victory after running almost unopposed in District Eight, while SF-based Assemblymembers David Chiu and Phil Ting buried challengers that never gained steam in the first place.

YIMBY Action also saw some wins with state and local propositions, including the passage of Brisbane’s Measure JJ as well as the surprise win of Proposition C.

And East Bay YIMBY-backed Buffy Wicks prevailed in her state assembly contest in Berkeley and Richmond.

But if there was ever a chance for a YIMBY wave in 2018, it broke in San Francisco, where voters seemed not to want YIMBYs in their backyard.

“I think that it’s hard in politics not to believe your own—well, there’s a lot of narratives” leading up to an election, YIMBY Action director Laura Foote-Clark tells Curbed SF, trying to decide on precisely what lesson to take away from Tuesday.

“You never know anything in politics,” says Foote-Clark, adding, “If it was easy, it’d have been done already.”

Foote-Clark points to the endorsements of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (none for the YIMBYs) coupled with high turnout spurred by national politics for making the going tougher.

She also concedes that some YIMBY ambitions were tough rows with which to begin.

“YIMBY leadership is not delusional,” she says. “Some people think, ‘Oh, pro-housing, that’s so obvious, so just say it a couple times and [things will] change.’ That’s not how politics works.”

State Sen. Wiener also emphasizes that the races were individually difficult and downplays the idea that the election was a referendum on YIMBYism in SF, despite the near shutout.

“Over the long run we’re seeing a positive trajectory if you look at who got elected recently: David Chiu, myself, London Breed, ” says Wiener. “That doesn’t mean the most pro-housing candidate is going to win every race.”

“The YIMBYs have only been around as a force for five years,” he adds. “Anti-housing has been around for decades.”