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Millennials tell boomers 'Yes In My Backyard'

Lilia Luciano

Published: 5/17/2017 8:36:37 PM
Updated: 8:36 PM PDT May 17, 2017

Sacramento, especially the Downtown and Midtown areas, has the fastest rising rents in the country. As the Bay Area’s middle class gets “squeezed out in droves,” as a Newsweek article put it last year, those rents will continue rise.

“I see that increasing supply of housing is one way to combat the really crazy changes that we see in rent,” says Louis Mirante, co-chair of House Sacramento, a new “pro-housing, pro-infil, anti-rising rents organization,” is one of Sacramento’s most active YIMBYs. The movement counters NYMBY-ism, (Not In My Backyard) to support new development of housing through local political involvement.

I met Luis along with a group of young members from the Bay Area’s YIMBY Action party, as they visited legislators’ offices in the Capitol, to rally support of SB 35. San Francisco Senator Scott Weiner’s Bill is one of over 130 laws at the state level that are taking aim at resolving California’s housing crisis.

Last year, Governor Brown’s by-right proposal, which would have immediately green-light housing development that complies with local zoning, failed in the legislature. Weiner’s bill holds cities accountable for meeting their housing goals, by requiring them to approve new housing, if their share of housing goals haven’t been met.

Senator Weiner said, “it shouldn’t take three to four years to approve new housing if that housing complies with zoning.” He added, California needs to create about 180,000 units of housing per year throughout the state, (but) we’re producing about half of that.”

Laura Clark, Executive Director of YIMBY Action said, “the jobs are already there, California has an incredible economy and the YIMBYs are saying that the only thing that’s holding us back is that we’ve chronically underbuilt housing for more than 30 years.”

Senator Weiner said, “The housing crisis in California affects millennials as much or probably more than anybody else.”

Home ownership for people under 35 is at a historic low -- with 40 percent of millennials living with their parents -- twice the rate as in 1980. In the Bay Area, for every eight new jobs created, only one new housing unit is added to the market

In cities like San Francisco, where almost all housing aid goes to low income populations, people who don’t qualify for subsidized housing, but also can’t pay the astronomical rents in the city, just have to get out.

But decisions regarding the supply of housing are made in planning meetings that are often a foreign place and even a foreign concept for many renters.

That’s why the YIMBYs are turning to planning meetings in San Francisco, Berkeley, Brisbane, and other Bay Area localities to make public comment in favor of projects that members of those communities oppose. In a recent meeting, Clark commented, “75 percent of voters said they supported building housing in their neighborhood and I think it’s important for you to keep in mind that this is not necessarily the most Democratic way to get the pulse of people’s reaction to building housing in their neighborhood.

“The people who are able to make time and come out here on a Thursday afternoon are crazy people like me,” she added.

Paavo Monkkonen is Associate Professor of Urban Planning at UCLA who researched the causes and effects of opposition to urban development. He explained that in California, “we have small cities in many cases in a big metropolitan area and where there’s a collective-action problem; whereby each city kind of wants development from happening somewhere just not each in their city so they’re fighting development and pushing it elsewhere.”

I asked why people oppose development and he explained, “cities have done a lot to accommodate the issues that people have and then they have new issues to block development. A lot of people believe people block development because a resistance to change of any sort or because they want to maintain their property values high. They don’t mind that there’s new supply because it means that they’re getting richer if they’re homeowners.”

The effects of that go beyond an impact on affordability. When people object to increase density in cities, by building more and higher, cities then grow horizontally. This urban sprawl leads to more people commuting to work from further away, which in turn harms the environment. Something polls show millennials care about three times more than their parents’ generation.

That’s why YIMBYs support legislation at the state level that loosens local requirements for development and removes some the power of local governments. They’re not alone as a report by the California Department of Housing and Community Development recommends increasing the supply of housing to all income levels, streamlining the permitting process, increasing infill development, enforcing existing regulation that’s often not enforced and increasing incentives for development.

In San Francisco, I met with Calvin Welch, founder of San Francisco’s Council of Community Housing Organizations (CCHO.) He explained that the reason why he and his organization oppose market rate housing projects in San Francisco is not because he seeks to maintain his property value high, but because it displaces minorities and low-income populations in the city.

“Low-income people live in low-density housing, market-rate developers buy that housing, tear it down, and build high-density housing because they can,” he said.

In a Facebook Live discussion I hosted earlier this week, Laura Clark, Sam Moss from Mission Housing Development Corporation, Tommi Avicolli Mecca from Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco and Peter Cohen from CCHO discussed conflicting theories about the impact that market-rate housing development has in prices, and how subsidies should be allocated.

Sonja Trauss, Director of San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation (SF BARF) contradicts the notion that market-rate housing development displaces low-income populations.

“No, the whole point of YIMBYism is that we don’t want to displace anyone. The way it is now, if someone new comes into the city someone has to get out and we think that’s bad,” Trauss said. “Being pro-housing is like playing musical chairs, where you let people bring-in their own chairs, we have plenty of room, if we decide to zone to build it.”

According to the San Francisco planning department, under current zoning the city can add 140,000 new units, and a study by the California Legislative Analyst (LAO) shows places with high rates of market development have low rates of displacement

The YIMBY Action Party hold fundraisers, information sessions and happy hours throughout the Bay Area and in cities across California to get, especially millennials, to join the movement. But many affordable housing activists say they’re just shills for developers, funded by tech giants, whose mission is at the least naive and worst predatory. A Truth Out piece published last week called the YIMBYs “the Alt-Right Darlings of the Real Estate Industry.” The article later retracted to remove the label “Alt Right.”

Trauss explained, “most of our funding comes from big employers because for them this is a workforce housing issue. Unemployment in San Francisco is 2.9 percent, which I take as a measure about how tight your housing market is. When you don’t have a job here you have to go... so, if you’re a big company and you want hire a new thousand people.”

This issue seems to bring two generations to a clash, millennials and baby boomers, each pointing fingers and calling the other “entitled.” Bruce Gibney, Venture capitalist and author of “A Generation of Sociopaths, How Baby Boomers betrayed America” says it’s not millennials who are entitled.

“Boomers especially in the media have labeled millennials as entitled -- I think if anything millennials are not entitled enough,” he said. “I think they are entitled to a high functioning government that observes everyone’s interests over the long term and I think they should demand it and that boomer government we have now has not been serious about serving the needs and interests of millennials.”

Millennials are more educated than any other generation but they earn 20 percent less than baby boomers did at their age. They are seeing their wages decline, undergoing longer periods of unemployment, and according to census data, more than 20 percent of them live in poverty -- up 14 percent from 1980.

Millennials are also burdened with student debt which boomers didn’t have. Gibney said, “It was boomer policies that drove student debt so much higher.

“If I had one message for younger voters, it’s get out there and vote, vote aggressively... It’s a passionate crowd, and that passion should get translated into votes and those votes should be directed against the boomers,” he added.

Going by the YIMBY movement, millennials are catching on.

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