SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) – Sonja Trauss, a self-proclaimed “YIMBY,” has a plan to help solve the housing crisis: she’s suing the suburbs.
For those unfamiliar with the term, YIMBY is short for “yes in my backyard.” It’s a play off of NIMBY, short for “not in my backyard,” a term used for people who fight development.
Trauss helped co-found the YIMBY part in San Francisco. YIMBYs are usually young urban professionals who are pro-development.
“I had started organizing pro-housing renters to go to city council meetings and say, ‘We need more housing,’ because we were in a housing shortage and we still are,” Trauss said.
Her organization, California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, or CARLA, has sued nine California cities for refusing to build housing. Their weapon of choice is the Housing Accountability Act, a state law designed to promote infill development by speeding up the approval process.
“If the city zones for something, it says, ‘Okay, you can build an apartment building here,’ and a developer comes and proposes something that’s within the zoning, the city has to approve it,” Trauss said.
“I think sue the suburbs is a really poor, poor idea. I think its antagonistic, it has a bullying quality to it,” said Susan Kirsch, a Mill Valley Resident and advocate for slow growth.
Kirsch used to work for Livable California, an organization that advocates for local control in the suburbs Trauss has proposed to sue.
Kirsch is what many would call a NIMBY. Her activism started with successfully squashing a project that would have put a 20-unit apartment building in her backyard.
“That project has stopped and it’s still stopped,” Kirsch said.
Kirsch says she sees the “build, build, build” mentality as a threat to the community she loves. She worries about the commoditization of housing.
“What we’re facing is a crisis in capitalism, we need to be revisiting the extent to which capitalism is undermining so many things we value and care for,” Kirsch said.
Trauss doesn’t see Kirsch’s point. She says the NIMBYs taught her the concept of suing her way through the housing crisis. NIMBYs often invoke the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, to oppose projects and delay the building process.
A UC Hastings study found 87% of CEQA lawsuits in California challenge development that’s being proposed in an existing community while 13% of CEQA lawsuits target rural, undeveloped areas.
“I mean, we’re not the ones that invented suing our way through the housing crisis, definitely. If somebody wants to send that message, send it to all those neighborhood groups that are abusing the CEQA process,” Trauss said.
Kirsch says she worries the YIMBY voice is really developer dollars masquerading as activism.
“NIMBYs take the wrap for not wanting things in our backyard, the stronger message is there’s a lot of people who are stewards, not just of their own backyard, but the backyards of other people,” Kirsch said.
The next city CARLA could sue is San Bruno for failing to approve the Mills Park Plaza Development, according to Trauss. The 425-unit complex would have added $10 million to the city’s general fund but didn’t receive approval because one city council member voted against it.