In the last three years, the pro-development SF YIMBY movement has burst into the spotlight. One of its founding members, Sonja Trauss, is currently running for SF District 6 Supervisor–a historically progressive district that is now hotly contested due to an influx of newer, wealthier residents. Though Trauss characterizes her activism as centering around housing affordability, there are reasons to be suspicious. A close look at her past statements and associations reveals nontrivial links to conservative libertarian groups: Trauss has raised money with and received support from individuals who exist in these libertarian orbits, she has been featured in media platforms funded in part by the Koch brothers, and she embodies a conservative agenda of promoting state deregulation over local control, along with a focus on property rights, that could have been written by any number of Koch-funded think tanks.
YIMBY (“Yes in My Backyard”) is an umbrella term for organizations that Kim Tran of Rewire.News describes as “advocating the hyper-development of market-rate housing for new migrants.” YIMBYs believe that SF can build its way out of the current housing affordability crisis, and call for massively deregulating new projects. Trauss helped start the local YIMBY movement by founding the SF Bay Area Renters Federation, SFBARF. She then went on to become the cofounder of YIMBY Action, and has become one of the movement’s most prominent voices nationwide.
There is a massive cognitive dissonance between the YIMBYs’ claims to promote housing affordability and their practical disinterest in many of the proven methods for lowering rents. Case in point, YIMBY Action’s current “no endorsement” stance on Proposition 10, a November ballot initiative that repeals the law currently prohibiting local jurisdictions in California from imposing rent control on units built after 1995, and in SF, after 1979.
Costa-Hawkins, the law that Prop 10 would overturn, has played a significant role in promoting real estate speculation; it guarantees that local governments cannot stop the rent-gouging that makes it so profitable to be a landlord and so precarious to be a tenant. YIMBY leaders ignore how this speculation incentivizes landlords to drive out long-term tenants, upending whole communities in the process. If YIMBYs’ true motivation was affordability, as they claim, you would think Yes on Prop 10 would be an obvious choice.
Local control vs. state-sponsored deregulation
Trauss has changed her position on Prop 10 twice. As of this article’s posting, her official position is once again Yes. But can we trust that the commitment is genuine? Here is what she previously told People Power Media, “I am excited about the Prop 10 Costa-Hawkins repeal because of the opportunity it provides for California to make Rent Control laws at the state level. The first Rent Control laws were passed locally in the late 1970s in CA cities. 40 years later, only 15 CA cities have rent control out of 500 cities, towns and counties. Most tenants in CA have no protections at all. Statewide tenant organizing could extend Just Cause and Rent Control protections to the rest of the state.”
This appears to be a positive statement, but her emphasis on making changes at the state level is very strange. Trauss implies that repealing Costa-Hawkins would allow state-level legislation to increase rent control and tenant protections. What it would actually do is allow local governments to do this. So what is she really endorsing?
Her comment begins to make more sense in the broader context of YIMBY rhetoric and actions. YIMBYs habitually disparage “local control,” the idea that communities should have input into planning decisions in their neighborhoods. To YIMBYs, local control is a devious tactic wielded by NIMBYs, a label traditionally given to wealthy homeowners who block new housing in their neighborhoods. YIMBYs point out, correctly, that the excuses NIMBYs use to torpedo new housing, such as concerns over blocked sunlight or the need to preserve “neighborhood character,” are a cover for what they really care about: how new development might affect their property values. YIMBYs thus present local control as a barrier to their goals, and often ally themselves with efforts to take power out of the hands of local communities and give it instead to decision-makers at the state level.
Wealthy homeowner NIMBYs exist here in SF and they are terrible. But in the context in San Francisco’s “hot” real estate market, local control is an important tool for marginalized communities to protect themselves from displacement and gentrification. Community groups formed by coalitions of low-income workers fight market-rate, luxury development in their neighborhoods for the very real reason that expensive housing drives gentrification and destroys communities through eviction, rising rents, and land value exploitation. Blanket attacks on local control deeply disadvantage these groups, who lack the resources to fight their battles statewide. People fighting tooth and nail to stay in their homes don’t have time or money to launch a large-scale lobbying effort in Sacramento.
YIMBYs have played a key role in helping their allies in the state legislature pass a number of bills that hamstring local groups and planning departments from blocking developments or bargaining for larger percentages of units affordable to low-income residents. They have also helped pass SB 167, a law making it easier to sue municipalities for not approving projects (see endnote). Trauss and other YIMBYs have shown a strong dislike of the CA Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), as this is one of the key tools citizens have to stop unwanted projects.
The experience, needs, and demands of these community groups are conveniently ignored by many YIMBYs as they push to “streamline” development –“streamline” being code for deregulating land use. For this reason, YIMBYs’ desire to consolidate power at the state level is at best deeply irresponsible. It’s also suspicious. Why would a group who ostensibly supports affordable housing seek to deprive vulnerable communities of the tools they use to protect their neighborhoods. The answer may be that this agenda of state-level deregulation aligns precisely with the goals of libertarian groups funded by the Koch brothers, big oil, and other corporate interests. So it should not be surprising to learn that those same libertarian interest groups have links to local YIMBYs in general, and specifically to Sonja Trauss.
Libertarians in YIMBY and Trauss’ universe
In the name of “freedom,” libertarians resent anything that takes wealth away from them to serve the broader public, such as progressive taxation and regulations on business. They believe that social problems should be solved through the free market. As Nancy MacLean writes in her history of the movement, Democracy in Chains, early libertarians recognized that wealthy actors could best influence policy at the state level, where citizen groups fighting for public services and protections were less effective.
A number of YIMBY allies have connections to the State Policy Network (SPN), a network of 153 tax-exempt organizations created to promote libertarian ideology and write cookie-cutter legislation for use at the state level. SPN organizations are funded in part by the Koch brothers. Some are liberal on social issues such as immigration and reproductive rights, but all are generally against regulation and government programs–including minimum wage requirements, free public schools, and welfare benefits. Like many YIMBYs, SPN groups also oppose rent control and inclusionary zoning, which is a requirement that new housing developments include a locally-mandated percentage of units affordable to lower-income people.
These connections are detailed in the red box to the right. Here are a few highlights:
State Policy Network
- A connected web of over 150 right-wing think tanks and tax-exempt organizations
- SPN groups do the policy, communications, and litigation work to promote a libertarian agenda in US state legislatures
- Many YIMBY affiliates have connections to groups that are part of SPN
- SPN groups are funded by a selection of right-wing special interest groups, including Koch brothers, the DeVos family, Coors family, the Walton family (Walmart), and others
The Mercatus Center
- Ground zero for the State Policy Network
- Located at George Mason University, top recipient of funding from the Charles Koch foundation – more than $95.5 million from 2005-2105
- The Charles Koch foundation's goals include: “to propagandize and cultivate students loyal to the cause of the ‘freedom movement’” and “to create a ‘talent pipeline’ for future scholars, think tanks, and grass roots political efforts.”
Foundation for Economic Freedom
Market Urbanism Report (founded 2017)
- Blog founded in 2017 by Scott Beyer; Sonja Trauss one of four original advisory board members
- Advocates for deregulation, minimization of government control
- Promotes market-oriented reforms for schools, public safety, park maintenance, and more
- Criticizes zoning, height limits, growth boundaries, parking minimums, and rent control
Market Urbanism (founded 2007)
- Blog founded by Adam Hengels in 2007
- Many writers or Market Urbanism, listed on other slides here, have links to SPN organizations
- Market Urbanism exists to promote market-based solutions and property rights; opposes “interventions” like rent control
- Authors for Market Urbanism have participated in the annual conference for the Foundation for Economic Education
FEEcon 2017 and 2018
- Annual conferences of the Foundation for Economic Education (the Koch-funded group mentioned on a separate slide)
- Attended by many writers for Market Urbanism: Adam Hengels, Emily Hamilton, Nolan Gray, Jeff Andrade Fong, Stephen Smith, Sanford Ikeda, and Michael Lewyn
- FEEcon 2017 was attended by YIMBY activist Brent Gaisford, who later hosted a fundraiser for Sonja Trauss’ run for D6 Supervisor
- Founder of Market Urbanism Report (of which Sonja Trauss was a founding advisory board member)
- Regular writer for Forbes and contributor to right-wing publications like the National Review
- Has quoted and featured YIMBYs multiple times in articles he has produced
- In frequent communication with YIMBYs online
- Co-hosted a fundraiser for Sonja Trauss
- Former employee of the Reason Foundation
- Has links to Students for Liberty, Cato Institute, and Foundation for Economic Freedom
- Suggested privatizing Puerto Rico after the 2017 hurricanes
- "Fucking hates rent control"
- Blames regulation for the high cost of housing
- Former Programs Manager at Independent Institute, a David Koch-funded organization that wants the free market to solve climate change (as opposed to regulations)
- In frequent communication w/ Trauss and other YIMBYs on Twitter
- Wrote a March 2018 SF Examiner opinion piece extolling Scott Wiener’s SB35 for using state control to create housing despite Ohlone people’s protests.
- Has called Sonja Trauss someone she "looks up to"
- Appeared on a panel convened by SFBARF on Feb 2, 2015
- A regular contributor to Market Urbanism Report
- Invited Sonja Trauss to speak to the Seattle Builders Council (she spoke against mandatory inclusionary zoning)
- Argued against imposing rent control in Seattle
- Research Associate at the Mercatus Center and writer for Market Urbanism
- Presented at YIMBY Town 2017 and 2018
- Argued against unemployment benefits, zoning, and regulation of Airbnb
- Wrote a March 2016 article for Market Urbanism defending the idea of “low-quality” housing for low-income residents (note: this practice is not allowed due to existing regulations)
- Former NY YIMBY and presenter at YIMBY Town 2016 (as was Trauss)
- In charge of the Market Urbanism Twitter account and one of the admins of the Market Urbanism Facebook page
- Announced Trauss’ D6 candidacy on Twitter
- Advocated against rent control as being “bad for newcomers”
- Writer for Market Urbanism and Market Urbanism Report
- Co-wrote a study for the Mercatus Center
- Argues against rent control and in favor of gentrification
- Argued against community input into planning decisions in NY
- Executive Director of California YIMBY and former colleague of Sonja Trauss at the CA Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund
- Received Masters in Public Policy at GMU in 2007
- Presented at a conference promoted by Market Urbanism Report
- Helped write SB 167 and the recently-defeated upzoning bill SB 827
- Donated to Sonja Trauss’ campaign and listed among her endorsers
SF YIMBY Cathy Reisenwitz, who co-hosted a fundraiser for Trauss’s District 6 campaign, is a former employee of the Reason Foundation with connections to several SPN organizations, including Students for Liberty and the Cato Institute. In a column for the Bay City Beacon, Reisenwitz wrote that the high cost of housing is due to “excessive regulation, needless red tape, and regulatory delays.” In another, she referred to local control as “a regressive system.” In a recent tweet, she stated, “…I fucking hate rent control…”
Nolan Gray, a childhood friend of Scott Weiner’s legislative aide, recently encouraged donations to Sonja Trauss on Twitter. Gray was a Students for Liberty chapter president as an undergrad. In 2013, he was a Charles G. Koch Fellow for the Marijuana Policy Project, and in 2016-2017, a Fellow at the Mercatus Center, which is ground zero for SPN. In March 2017, he wrote glowingly of Houston: “the city does not have rent control, whether of the now-discredited twentieth century kind or the new, shiny, equally counterproductive ‘inclusionary zoning’ kind.” He also noted positively that there is no local minimum wage there.
David Schleicher is a Yale Law professor who has spoken at events sponsored by the Federalist Society (see endnote), a group with links to other SPN organizations. He promoted a recent interview of Trauss on Twitter on July 27, 2018, and donated to her District 6 campaign. Schleicher argues that stable communities are bad for the national economy and innovation because they inhibit the mobility of talented young people. This may clarify assertions that Trauss and other YIMBYs have made that they represent those who have not yet moved here.
Connected to both the YIMBYs and the SPN is a group of bloggers who call themselves market urbanists and believe that untrammelled market forces, in combination with vigorous protection of property rights, can create ideal communities that best address the needs of individuals in society.
One of these market urbanism blogs, Market Urbanism Report, was founded by Scott Beyer, a YIMBY ally and past writer for the Cato Institute and right-wing publications like the National Review. Beyer has openly opposed rent control, public sector unions and local minimum wages, and has called for privatization of public services such as transportation. Sonja Trauss is one of four original advisory board members for Market Urbanism Report.
Trauss was listed as a member of the Libertarian Party of California until 2017. Trauss has given talks at SF Libertarian and Cal Libertarian events in 2015 and 2016. And when we assess Trauss through her own statements and writing, she appears to fit right in with their Koch-inspired agenda.
Trauss in her own words: property rights and free markets
In Trauss’s Member Profile interview for pro-development think tank SPUR, she stated that one of her favorite books is Unheavenly City by Edward Banfield, a presidential advisor to Nixon, Ford and Reagan, and a flagrant racist responsible for large cuts to HUD funding under Nixon. In Unheavenly City, Banfield argued that government services are wasted on lower-income people, particularly African-Americans. Here is Banfield in his own words: “the term normal will be used to refer to class culture that is not lower class. The implication that lower class culture is pathological seems fully warranted…because of the relatively high incidence of mental illness in the lower class” (p. 54). Likewise, “If, however, the lower class were to disappear…the most serious and intractable problems of the city would all disappear with it” (source). This is the book that Trauss says gave her a “nuanced” view of gentrification.
Trauss attracted a great deal of criticism for her July 12, 2016 tweet, “Gentrification is what we call the revaluation of black land to its correct price.” Defending the comment, she explained that she meant that black people who owned property should be able to profit from selling their homes as much as white people do. Further down in this same Twitter exchange she wrote, “For huge amounts of money. All anti-gentrification activism in some form is hostile to this recalculation.” It is apparent from this and other comments that Trauss’ version of social justice is focused exclusively on property rights, and that she remains ignorant of the crisis of predatory foreclosure that has been disproportionately inflicted on black Americans before, during, and after 2008. Two years earlier, she said something similar. Responding to the news headline, “Tech Boom Spurs Changes in West Oakland,” she wrote, “…Also, no mention of the black retirees and heirs thrilled about their new wealth…”
In 2015, Trauss wrote that she did not want a below-market-rate unit, but instead preferred to buy on the free market, because a below-market condo would do nothing for her overall wealth. In May 2016, Trauss spoke to the Seattle Builders Council at the invitation of Roger Valdez, the head of YIMBY group Smart Growth Seattle, against mandatory inclusionary zoning. Inclusionary zoning is the main tool for forcing market-rate developers to build below-market-rate housing. Trauss’ statements suggest that she prefers to allow an unrestrained private market to dictate the terms of our housing and sees inclusionary zoning as little more than a way to depress the wealth of potential buyers.
In November 2016, Trauss posted as “InternetGerbil” on Reddit [mistakes all in original]: “How we incent people to build in when prices are too low is a good an interesting question. What cities normally do, in order of necessity is (1) legalize all safe and healthy types of building, (2) Don’t charge taxes on development (aka impact fees), (3) Property tax abatements for new development (Philadelphia has these), (4) Explicitly subsidize market rate development. In other words, Legalize Housing, Don’t Tax Housing at the time it’s built, Don’t tax housing after it’s built, if all that fails, the government straight up pays for its construction…” In other words, Trauss would like to shift the burden of risk to ordinary taxpayers and give developers and their investors a break.
In June 2016, Trauss and Executive Director of YIMBY Action Laura Foote were featured in an article in Reason magazine, a publication of the Koch-connected Reason Foundation. “Whether your city is shrinking or whether your city is growing, what is the property rights regime that protects people and helps people protect themselves?” Trauss asks. This is an odd question by someone who founded and runs something called the Bay Area Renters Federation, and who stated in a Reddit post in 2016, “Also what’s wrong with fomenting class warfare? It’s the landless vs. the landed, we are in class war. The landed regularly come out to oppose housing for the landless, and they have the political clout to be successful.” It seems likely that Trauss actually sides with the landed.
Though Trauss often brings up her experience as a teacher who could not afford the high Bay Area rents, there is so much about her that tells a different story from one of solidarity with vulnerable people. Trauss’s statements suggest that she prefers to allow an unrestrained private market to dictate the terms of our housing and sees inclusionary zoning as little more than a way to depress the wealth of potential buyers. Notice who is not the priority on any of these statements: lower- and middle-income folks who actually benefit from below-market housing. These statements also ignore racist and classist housing practices throughout history and today.
A Battle Between Stability and “Innovation”
When People Power Media asked Matt Haney, Trauss’ main opponent for D6 Supervisor, for his view on Prop 10, he responded: “This is one of the most important state ballot propositions that we’ve seen in recent history. Overturning Costa-Hawkins will allow San Franciscans to control skyrocketing rents and prevent rampant speculation. When it passes, we will have the opportunity to expand rent control to new developments, many of which have been in D6. And we will also be able to place stronger rent caps and vacancy controls to limit incentives for displacement. I am in full unequivocal support, and will hope to lead in expanding rent control once the Proposition passes.”
Haney’s unequivocal comment highlights an understanding of the interplay between market forces and the threat to vulnerable communities, which increasingly includes middle-class renters. Trauss and her allies, meanwhile, cling to the narrative straight out of the libertarian playbook that our high housing costs are due to constraints on market forces. It is a fairy tale that sees market-rate developers as “home creators” rather than predators out to make money off the lives of real people. And it is a narrative that ignores race and class, which is particularly troubling as District 6 happens to be one of the most racially diverse districts in the city; it contains some of SF’s poorest and richest neighborhoods in the Tenderloin and Mission Bay, respectively. Trauss has not yet explained how her policies would help house residents of the low-income neighborhood she is running to represent: in her own words, “Here my demographic is renters who ended up being white.”
Joe Fitz Rodriguez referred to the YIMBY conflict over Prop 10 as a “soul-defining choice.” It’s not only the YIMBYs’ souls at stake: the November election could be decisive for the future of San Francisco. Prop 10 and the District 6 race for Supervisor may be the last chance long-term working-class and middle-class residents have to fight against being replaced by wealthy newcomers.
Kevin Rae has been a San Francisco resident for over 20 years and does not have a backyard.
Correction: A reader notified us that previous language in this piece could be inferred to mean that SB 167 would allow municipalities to be sued for environmental reasons. That language has been removed.
Correction: David Schleicher clarified that he is not a member of the Federalist Society, but has spoken at events sponsored by them. That language has been updated.