Forget NIMBY vs. YIMBY. It’s Speculators vs. Affordability

Forget NIMBY vs. YIMBY. It’s Speculators vs. Affordability

Jun 13, 2024

Phoenix Project

Tom Ammiano served on the San Francisco Board of Education from 1990 to 1994, the Board of Supervisors from 1994 to 2008, and the California Assembly from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of the Phoenix Project’s Advisory Board.

The fight over San Francisco housing has been portrayed as NIMBY versus YIMBY, obscuring the role that moneyed right-wing groups like GrowSF, Neighbors for a Better San Francisco and TogetherSF are playing in city politics.

The real housing debate is not between NIMBY and YIMBY, but between real estate speculators and those advocating for affordable housing. The YIMBY agenda seeks to substantially increase San Francisco’s population by adding thousands of luxury housing units. Missing in this equation is any plan for affordable housing.

The idea is to further enrich real estate speculators like Michael Moritz, the billionaire venture capitalist behind TogetherSF and a major donor to Neighbors for a Better San Francisco. Moritz owns 1088 Sansome Street, a building he wants to develop into luxury condos. John Kilroy Jr., a leading investor in Neighbors inherited his father’s real estate investment firm which owns a number of properties in downtown San Francisco. Kilroy, too, stands to benefit handsomely should YIMBYs succeed in pushing for unfettered development in the city. Neighbors is led by a third real estate speculator, Nick Podell, who serves as president and director of Neighbors’ advocacy wing, along with being the president of his real estate corporation, Nick Podell Company. One may remember Podell’s name from his failed Beast on Bryant development project in the Mission, which was forced to become an affordable development after a drawn-out fight with community-based advocacy groups in 2016. 

Moritz, Kilroy and Podell have the resources to buy now and develop later. They can afford to wait five or ten years before starting a construction project. The wait would be worth it.

None of this will make housing affordable for teachers, nurses, Muni operators, police officers and other working San Franciscans. For them, making monthly rent will remain challenging. Helping the people who provide essential services all city residents remain in San Francisco has never been part of the speculator agenda.

Few San Franciscans are okay with handing over their city’s future to real estate speculators. However, the changes these speculators are proposing to local laws and regulations are more likely to be supported if they are presented as “pro-housing” and those who oppose them as “anti-housing.” This is central to their strategy to convince voters to back policies that will enrich them, but do nothing to address San Francisco’s real housing crisis, the dearth of affordable housing. 

Like all cities, San Francisco is a work in progress. More than others, it has been extraordinarily diverse which gives rise to natural disagreements about the city's future. Our local politics are about arguing for our different visions, a natural and even healthy process in any city. San Franciscans deserve a rich debate when it comes to issues like housing and development. But these discussions should take place on an even playing field. When one side tries to foist its agenda on the city — and to do so disingenuously —  the fight is no longer an honest one.

To suggest that San Francisco’s housing debate is between those who want to build and those who don’t is to deliberately mislead. These billionaire-funded organizations claim that the way to drive the cost of housing down is simply to drop regulations and then hope for magic. The magic will never happen. San Francisco will see a spate of very quick housing construction that will only add to the glut of luxury condos that sit empty. Meanwhile, there will be no increase in the number of affordable units the city so desperately needs. Should the YIMBY agenda succeed, it will be a triumph of narrative over economic reality.

The real question in San Francisco is whether we want the housing agenda set by — and for — wealthy speculators and developers or do we want to prioritize building units that are affordable for working San Franciscans. The housing debate in San Francisco is about affordability versus speculation, not NIMBY versus YIMBY as it has been portrayed.

The need for affordable housing is among the biggest issues facing San Francisco. It pits wealthy elites looking to remake the city for financial gain against middle-class and working-class San Franciscans who need a more affordable city with reliable public services. That clash applies to a broad range of issues facing San Francisco —  everything from tax policy to public safety. Groups like TogetherSF, GrowSF and Neighbors for a Better San Francisco’s plan is to shift wealth upwards. The result will be a city that works for the very rich, but no one else. 

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