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Reported Article Tenant Power Returns

Is a YIMBY/Tenant Activist Bridge Possible?

A culture war between housing justice advocates and YIMBYs began in 2014. While the groups have different priorities, they do have shared interests. Can they be allies or will the habitual quarreling keep them at odds?

Photo by Flickr user Brenda Gottsabend, CC-BY-NC-2.0


This article is part of the Under the Lens series

Tenant Power Returns

In this series Shelterforce dives deep into the past, present, and future of tenant organizing. We take a closer look at the components of what many organizers call a tenants bill of rights and give you accessible ways to share them with others, plus lots more.

A view from below of the girders supporting a bridge. They're a bright blue, in contrast to the black underside of the roadway and the white sky.

Photo by Flickr user Brenda Gottsabend, CC-BY-NC-2.0

YIMBYtown 2022 was arguably the most tenants-rights-focused pro-housing conference of all the YIMBYtowns held so far. The organizers of the annual gathering of supply-side housing activists even invited me to moderate a panel specifically addressing tenants rights.

But that doesn’t mean the conference abandoned the YIMBY movement’s focus on enabling more, denser housing as the primary route to affordability. The first breakout session I attended included Paul Del Vecchio, president of market-rate regional development firm Ethos Development, whose message typified the well-known YIMBY mantra of “build, baby, build!

“If you’re trying to effect change, think about removing rules,” Del Vecchio said. “Given the opportunity, market-rate developers will build affordable housing, we just don’t know it.”

Yes in My Back Yard (YIMBY) followers are fundamentally correct that the nation needs far more housing than is currently being built. But YIMBYs’ prioritization of unit production over other goals—like tenant protections and anti-displacement measures—has been a major thorn in housing justice activists’ and tenant unions’ figurative sides since YIMBYs showed up on the housing scene around 2014.

Today, many YIMBYs argue that their platform and message have evolved, and they too support tenant protections. But a lot of tenants’ rights advocates aren’t having it. Many say the YIMBYs’ units-over-unity mentality has damaged the relationship (or prevented one from forming)—possibly irreparably. But there are also leaders on both sides seeking opportunities to move from being at loggerheads to working in cautious liaison with one another.

Policies, Protections, and White Supremacy

Rasheedah Phillips, an attorney, author, and activist who works as director of housing at PolicyLink, says one YIMBY practice the housing justice world takes issue with is that they ignore history and whitewash the fact that, among other factors, the current housing crisis stems from decades of policy failures that have affected different groups differently.  

“We cannot meaningfully address [the housing crisis] without acknowledging that history,” Phillips says. “That often means recognizing that not all communities are starting from the same point and that communities of color have been displaced [from] and locked out of affordable housing.”

She says focusing the fight only on building new housing fails renters. It currently takes at least 18 months and often several years for new housing to come online. (It takes between four and seven years to build new affordable housing, according to the Local Initiatives Support Coalition.) Renters, and especially renters of color, need help on a far shorter timeline because displacement is happening now, not years down the road. Focusing on establishing tenant protections like the right to counsel, sealing eviction records, and source of income protections not only increase housing stability and access to existing housing, they also improve racial equity, says Phillips.

“These things are all needed to counteract the decades of structural racism that create the interlinked systems that we see deny people of color the ability to access housing,” Phillips says. “We just don’t often hear or see that nuance around the YIMBY approach.”

But some YIMBYs, such as Jordan Grimes—a lifelong San Mateo County resident in the Bay Area who runs Peninsula for Everyone, a chapter of YIMBY Action—argue that to effectively introduce tenant protections, you’ve got to have the units to put them in. Without adequate supply, higher-income renters will scoop up all the housing whether there are tenant protections in place or not.

‘if YIMBYs and tenant groups were on the same page, so many things could get knocked out. . . . we could do meaningful reform and we could make meaningful dents in the housing crisis.’

Grimes got started in housing activism by working on a local rent control campaign. In 2017, he began focusing on supply-side activism in the San Mateo area, which has a five-story building height (or 50-unit) limit and was purposely downzoned by residents in the 1990s. Grimes says San Mateo typically has about a 1 to 2 percent vacancy rate, meaning most available units, regardless of age or quality, are priced at market rate.

“If there were more market-rate apartments here, the higher-income tenants would go there. There is clearly this huge demand. And I think that is one of the core disputes between YIMBYs and tenant activists,” he says. “So the question to me is, essentially, what is the effect of building a market-rate apartment and does that help lower-income people at all? And to me the answer is yes. Like, not directly; can they live there? No. Can I afford to live there personally? No.”

Grimes is still pushing for rent control measures. But he argues that in wealthy suburban areas, like San Mateo, so much discrimination exists from people trying to keep multifamily developments (and therefore lower-income people) out that one important way to increase tenant power is to fight for substantially increasing market-rate supply in traditionally single-family neighborhoods.

“These affluent enclaves really are so discriminatory,” he says. “And [YIMBY] messaging is being used by people like landlords and Realtors to say we just need more supply. More housing is the gateway. It doesn’t mean we don’t also need all of these other things like right to counsel, eviction protections, and rent caps. I think YIMBYs’ primary focus is always going to be on boosting supply, and I don’t see anything wrong with that, but where YIMBYs need to do a better job is by getting involved with tenant groups and showing up for them.”

YIMBYs’ assertion that developing more housing automatically means more access to housing by those who need it most is “just not true at all,” says Tram Hoang, a senior housing associate at PolicyLink who participated in the Shelterforce-moderated panel at YIMBYtown.

“The foundations of white supremacy in our finance and banking world [and] on which eviction and our criminal justice system is built . . .  greatly impact who’s able to access housing,” Hoang says. “They’re just thinking that if you build more the people will come. The people have been trying to come for decades, for centuries. And I think that [YIMBYs] make a huge mistake in assuming that the barriers that renters of color and low-wealth people face are somehow just easy to overcome.”

In central city neighborhoods ripe for investment and development, upzoning to allow for multifamily development can actually drive up land prices, Hoang says, making it harder than it already is to build affordable units.

Money Breeds Mistrust

YIMBYs burst onto the Bay Area housing scene almost a decade ago. In the years since, their broad “more housing” platform has pulled in strong political backing—and money—from tech bigwigs, libertarians, neoliberals, and, yes, some real estate developers. A 2018 investigation by In These Times found that about 45 percent of the early YIMBY funding came from the real estate industry, including developers, architects, attorneys, and lenders that finance development. Many tenant organizers, including Julian Francis Park, an organizer with Bay Area Tenant and Neighborhood Councils, say this disqualifies them from being tenant advocates, no matter how much they claim their platform has expanded.

“Let’s say there was a tenants group . . . and let’s say they were receiving money from developers or landlords or real estate organizations,” Park says. “I can tell you right away, no one else in that tenants movement is going to trust that organization. People are going to ask, ‘Why is it that these tenants are taking money from our opposition?’”

Brian Hanlon, CEO of one of the larger YIMBY groups, California YIMBY, says his organization gets less than 1 percent of its total donations from real estate developers, though he declined to disclose an exact amount or specify which developers donated. He says it shouldn’t matter.

Hanlon says he and most YIMBYs strongly support tenants rights, citing tenant protections written into legislation that California’s largest YIMBY coalitions have supported or co-sponsored, specifically 2020’s Senate Bill 50—which would have overridden local zoning laws and allowed high-density housing development near transit lines and other high-demand amenities—and the California Social Housing Act. He says YIMBYs’ actual, tangible support of tenant protections should outweigh where the money comes from and says the follow-the-money argument is a “way to delegitimize our activism.”

It’s worth noting that neither of those bills were supported by tenant advocates. They believed the anti-displacement protections weren’t strong enough and the legislation didn’t contain key provisions. For example, AB 2053 (the social housing bill) lacked state subsidization for startup money and didn’t protect the lowest-income tenants, says Shanti Singh, communications and legislative director for Tenants Together, a statewide coalition of tenants rights groups in California.

“Fundamentally, people just want to know they’re going to be able to live there,” Singh says. “And if you’re representing people, and [Tenants Together does] represent people, they’re literally being screwed in the private market. So we have to fight for them as a matter of priority.”

What’s Wrong, What’s Right

In St. Paul, Minnesota, Councilmember Mitra Jalali—an elected official grappling with affordable housing several states away from the housing fight in the Bay Area—faces similar clashes between YIMBYs and tenants rights organizers. Jalali, who has a community organizing background, remembers the 2021 planning phase of the proposed Lexington Station development in Frogtown, a historically disinvested St. Paul neighborhood with high poverty rates and majority residents of color. YIMBYs came out to support the development as proposed until “the community, aka overwhelmingly BIPOC activists,” pushed for it to include more affordable units.

During negotiations, the “tenant protection and BIPOC community development folks were squaring off with a lot of white YIMBYs who don’t really live in that area,” recalls Jalali. “Some of them did, but a lot of them did not, and they had never had conversations with the people they were now arguing with.” The developer agreed to add “a bunch of 60 percent AMI [area median income] studios, and [the activists] were still very angry about that because it just felt like there was no vision to mobilize additional resources to try to make the project work for the community that lives there,” Jalali says.

YIMBYs forgot to listen to the locals in the room, and their presence during negotiations distracted from the demands that local activists were making on behalf of the people already living in the neighborhood. Rather than siding with the people asking for the developer to create new affordable units, YIMBYs argued in favor of market-rate apartments, watering down the locals’ demands in the process.

That specific complaint is heard regularly from tenants rights activists: YIMBYs show up to support developments and push their agenda on a neighborhood without asking what existing residents want. This tactic creates mistrust that “can either be irreparable or very difficult to repair,” Jalali says. (YIMBYs in the Bay Area say they have recognized the problem with this and for that reason moved beyond supporting individual projects in existing urban areas and are focused instead on changing exclusionary zoning policies in suburban areas. Read more in “Have the YIMBYs Evolved?”)

“In community organizing, everything starts with relationships,” Jalali says. “And in a lot of organizing spaces I’ve been in, you come to the organizing meeting, and you explain who you are and what your stake is in the problem. You identify your self-interests . . . You try to share and build trust and an authentic relationship, and I think that’s what people are listening for.”

East Bay Housing Organizations has been fighting for affordable housing opportunities for low-income renters since its founding in 1984. Executive Director Gloria Bruce points to the “three P’s” of affordable housing—production, preservation, and protection—to describe what a balanced housing approach should look like.

“Every organization or advocate is going to probably emphasize one of those P’s over the other because housing is a huge, huge field. So expecting everybody to be able to focus on everything and be effective is not realistic,” she says. Bruce doesn’t feel YIMBYs need to lead the charge for tenant protections—they are focused on production. But they should be following, respectfully. YIMBYs should be “talking to the tenant [rights] folks,” she says, and asking what they can do to advocate for abundant housing without getting in the way of what housing justice advocates are working toward.  

“If they want the trust to be there, they’ve got to show up for stuff that is not just their thing,” Bruce says. “You’ve got to actually show up and show up in an authentic and informed way. It’s the ‘informed’ piece that’s very often missing [with YIMBYs] because being a generally more youthful movement that has had great success in the media and with social media, there’s a lot of hot takes and a lot of ‘listen to how smart I am.’”

A group of folks standing surround a long table that has a teal tablecloth.

Portland: Neighbors Welcome (P:NW) has pointedly shown up to support and connect with local existing tenants’ rights groups. Photo courtesy of P:NW

The Ones Getting It Right

The YIMBY movement isn’t a monolith, and some chapters (and individuals) are more culturally aware than others. Bruce mentioned East Bay for Everyone as an abundant housing advocacy group that also consistently shows up for tenants’ rights in a tangible, active way. (“Abundant housing” or “pro-housing” are terms being used by some who want to move beyond the term YIMBY.) The group was founded in 2015 and hosted YIMBYtown 2017 in Oakland, California. Bruce was just one of several sources for this story who mentioned East Bay for Everyone’s positive work in the tenant advocacy sphere.

“They’re knocking on doors, campaigning, tenant organizing, working with people to support rent stabilization laws in the East Bay,” says Paul Williams, founder and executive director of the Center for Public Enterprise, a nonprofit that supports social housing as well as the “three P’s.”

Greg Magofña, one of East Bay for Everyone’s co-founders and a former co-executive, grew up in Berkeley and says he got involved in the YIMBY movement because he saw the area getting more expensive and felt “there was just no place for us.” He and the other co-founders watched the YIMBY movement coalesce in San Francisco and set out intentionally to form a different type of group.

‘Not building is not an answer, because not building is what has got us here. . . .  So we have to build and we have to be conscious of how we build.’

“It was super white tech bro, and we didn’t want to do that. We wrote into our bylaws that we have a board, and we have co-executives, and [our leadership] could never be more than 50 percent white man. There always has to be representation,” Magofña says. “And if you look at all of our co-executives, I was the first ever co-executive—[a] brown, gay man—and [served with] Victoria Fierce, who’s trans. After that was Ernest [Brown], who’s African American. Then Darrell Owens, [who’s also] African American.”

Representation matters, Magofña says. East Bay for Everyone’s platform was intentionally different from the other YIMBY groups in the Bay Area, but despite this intentionality, Magofña says they’ve still felt pushback from some tenant organizers. His experience in the abundant housing movement has led him to believe that “the problem that a lot of progressives are having with the YIMBY movement is we don’t fit their narrative.”

“They can’t easily say ‘you are my enemy, or you are my friend’ because we don’t fit. [They act as if] we’re either super pro developer or super pro tenant. There’s this binary that exists that I think a lot of progressives cannot get out of their head,” he says. “One thing I talk about with people is that not building is not an answer, because not building is what has got us here. . . .  So we have to build and we have to be conscious of how we build.”

Another abundant housing group, Portland: Neighbors Welcome (P:NW) based in Portland, Oregon, has pointedly shown up to support and connect with local existing tenants’ rights groups. At YIMBYtown 2022, P:NW board member Trisha Patterson participated in a panel called “Showing up for All Our Neighbors: YIMBY and Houselessness.” One of the panel’s main topics was how P:NW “leverages its capacity and its expertise to [help] folks on the ground who maybe don’t have the same capacities and expertise as we have.”

The panel moderator asked Patterson how to marry the push to build more housing with the need to “show up for people how they are, where they are,” specifically for unhoused and/or insecurely housed people.

“It’s a practice. It’s looking at what are the skills we currently have and looking at the privileges we currently have. Portland: Neighbors Welcome, when we started, it was a predominantly white, predominantly male, very educated, wealthy group, as many YIMBY spaces are,” Patterson responded. “For me, in my whiteness, it can be really uncomfortable to think, ‘Am I taking up too much space? Am I speaking for other people?’ And so meeting people where they are is kind of like . . . thinking, ‘What do I have to offer? And how can I utilize what I have to offer for liberation?’”

PolicyLink’s Hoang says YIMBY groups and individuals who fail to ask those questions are ignoring their privilege, which is part of their problem. Simply being able to operate so easily within the current policy framework—i.e., gaining political traction so quickly, getting legislation in front of powerful politicians, securing financial support from such a wide range of donors, etc.—is a testament to their privilege.

“YIMBYs [need] to question the structures that they’re operating in,” Hoang says. “Why is it so easy for you to enter a space? Why are your ideas accepted so readily?”

Playing Politics to Win

YIMBYs have been racking up large-scale policy victories in recent years. California YIMBY sponsored AB 2097, which eliminated parking requirements for homes and commercial buildings near transit centers, making dense transit-accessible housing easier (and cheaper) to build. Open New York, a New York City-based pro-housing group, successfully pushed to upzone the city’s wealthy SoHo neighborhood to allow for affordable housing and has taken its lobbying efforts statewide. One way these groups have gained political ground and formulated policy change is to appeal to the broadest coalition possible, from libertarians to socialists, says Darrell Owens, a self-identified “left-YIMBY,” a member of East Bay for Everyone, and a policy assistant at California YIMBY.

‘Because the landlords don’t see YIMBYs as a threat, they didn’t decide to outright oppose it.’

Owens points to how far they got with the California Social Housing Act, which would have revived public housing in the state—an ambitious goal that tenants rights advocates have wanted for years. Though it didn’t pass, it got significant traction in the state legislature—gaining several Democratic cosponsors (but no Republicans). The bill made it out of the Assembly and into the Senate where it failed passage in the Governance and Finance Committee by just one vote. Owens says this near win was possible because the YIMBYs backing it were strategic in who they lobbied and how they went about it. 

“If you want to get anything passed, you’re going to need either the approval or the non-opposition of the big power players in the state. There’s only a handful of them. It’s the landlords. It’s the Realtors. It’s the trade unions,” Owens says. “They were powering [the bill] through . . . which was kind of shocking at first because most tenant bills don’t even make it out of committee before the landlords kill it. But because the landlords don’t see YIMBYs as a threat, they didn’t decide to outright oppose it.”

Having the landlords decline to lobby against the bill allowed public sector unions, construction worker unions, and YIMBYs to put their political power behind the bill. Tenant organizers did not endorse the bill—although they didn’t officially oppose it, either. Singh says she and other tenants rights organizers were involved in “some negotiations that went in a positive direction.” In the end, late-game opposition from groups like the California Association of Realtors and the California League of Cities killed the bill (though there’s talk it will be back in a new form in the next session).

Owens argues that building a “three P’s coalition . . .  plus upzoning, plus displacement protections” between YIMBYs and tenant organizers where they support each other’s objectives could get “a lot of affordable housing going”—possibly even new public housing next time around.

“The thing is that if YIMBYs and tenant groups were on the same page, so many things could get knocked out,” he says. “If the tenants could really mobilize folks, especially in the big cities . . . we could do meaningful reform and we could make meaningful dents in the housing crisis.”

And if winning policy change is the goal, tenants rights activists and YIMBY folks getting on the same page may be the only way, says Alex Schafran, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Metropolitan Studies at San José University whose work includes consulting on California’s housing future.

“Neither group is powerful enough to win on its own. . . . Working together we can effectively drive real change in California in the 2023-24 legislative session,” he says. “We can see historic changes that will truly impact housing on the ground. The wiser heads in both camps know this, and I just hope they can keep their internal coalitions together long enough to drive a grand bargain.”

Is Coalition Possible?

The housing justice advocates interviewed for this story were nearly universal in their mistrust for YIMBYs and the abundant housing movement overall. They challenged YIMBYs’ sincerity, their loyalty, and their commitment to tenant rights, and claimed YIMBYs’ agenda and voices drown out those of tenants and tenant activists.

“That’s their political fight, just allowing the market to filter. Our political fight is a much bigger, harder one,” Singh says. “It’s against real estate and for funding low-income housing, for really strong tenant protections and strong rent control.

“Our goal is power . . . we’re trying to build a popular social movement of tenants and workers.”

The YIMBYs’ “big tent” approach lets in those who support rent control and tenant protections but also those who are firmly against rent control, tenant protections, social housing, and other things that are central to the tenants rights movement.

“If you’re such a ‘big tent’ that you can be both pro-tenant and anti-tenant, then how is that a tent people can work with?” Singh says, adding that YIMBYs’ support for tenant protections comes with several caveats. Singh was involved in the legislative negotiations for AB 2053 during the last session. “They don’t actually consult with or talk to people who understand tenant law . . . and even the ones who say they support rent control will put different conditions on what rent control has to be, and none of that is coming from actual people who understand rent control policy, or tenants on the ground who are demanding strong rent controls.”

But while mistrust echoed through tenants rights advocates’ statements, some, like Bruce, see an opportunity and need for coalition building between YIMBY groups and the housing justice movement. Bruce remembers that when California passed AB 1482, which limited the amount landlords could increase rents statewide, it was “amazing” to see tenants rights groups, people from the tech world, pro housing groups, “and everything in between” working together. Some of those cooperative relationships have lasted in state and local advocacy spheres, even if others haven’t, Bruce says.

“It’s really about continuing to talk with the abundant housing groups that do realize they have an image problem, and they have a trust problem,” she says. “Because, like with East Bay for Everyone, I don’t always agree with all of their stances, but they’re actually a member of [East Bay Housing Organizations] and they come to our meetings. They ‘get’ it, and we try to get where they’re coming from.

“We’ve got to remember the real enemy, and that the people who still, even in California, have the most political power, are the exclusionary proponents of local control NIMBYism. If we are continuing to shout at each other, we are not making any actual headway with these folks, So we’ve got to remember what we are really up against, and that those people are often quite aligned with or don’t care at all about the landlord forces who are evicting people—because it’s all wrapped up in this very harmful concept of property rights and what those property rights mean.”

Owens says that “the fact that everyone from socialists to libertarians can refer to themselves as YIMBYs has been a curse and a boon for the movement.” He acknowledges that the libertarians and market fundamentalists who harp on pro-production policies over anything else have often been the loudest YIMBY voices and “always come off as really callous.” Some YIMBYs have used the anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter to attack housing justice advocates who call for thoughtful development and stronger anti-displacement policies over a housing-at-all-costs mentality.

“Tenant groups have a right to be suspicious of the YIMBYs, and I think they have a right to want to see YIMBYs make the first sacrifice before they go to bat for dense housing and upzoning,” he says. “But I think also there are some differences we’re never going to agree on. What do you do with differences you cannot change no matter what? Too many people, I think, take the nuclear option.”

Schafran is a member of East Bay for Everyone and East Bay Housing Organizations and identifies as a member of “both camps”—housing justice folks and YIMBYs. He says he’s seen “real willingness to listen from some key leaders and organizations, even if this isn’t always reflected in the media.” But he also sees challenges between leaders trying to “build bridges, as both camps have stubborn holdouts who’d rather stay ideologically pure than actually change housing.”

Owens also mentioned encountering tenant organizers and union members who seem unwilling to move past the history of animosity even when YIMBY movement participants actively fight for the protections tenants groups have been after for years. But he acknowledges that bitterness exists on both sides.

“There’s a lot of YIMBY bad actors who need to step back,” he says, and “a lot of old-time activists and organizers” on the tenant side who’ve been deep in the discourse for so long that they’re unwilling to trust YIMBYs regardless of how actively they demonstrate their commitment to tenant protections. He points out that when YIMBY groups do support tenant protection legislation, such as California propositions 10 and 21, both of which would have repealed an existing state law that limits the scope of rent control policies, tenant organizers often try to downplay or invalidate that support rather than allow their narrative about YIMBYs to become more complicated.

He’s not entirely wrong. It’s true that some housing justice organizations have been unwavering in their scorn for YIMBYs.

In cases where bad blood makes cooperation impossible, Owens argues that people on both sides who have that personal history should step aside and make room for those who will collaborate.

“It’s incumbent on a lot of us who actually want [collaboration] to happen to call out the bad actors on both sides,” Owens says. “Because what ends up happening is if we don’t call out a bad actor, even on our own side, then there’s no incentive for the other side to call out bad actors on theirs.”

This article is part of Tenant Power Returns, an Under the Lens series produced by Shelterforce. If you’re enjoying the series, consider making a donation to our newsroom. Donate Today.

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