New Kids on the Block

New Kids on the Block

May 30, 2024

Phoenix Project

A new political action committee tiptoed onto San Francisco’s political stage. Less than two years later, Families for a Vibrant SF was ready for its close-up. In the run up to the March 2024 election, the group spent more than $800,000 to elect a slate of conservative candidates to San Francisco’s Democratic County Central Committee, the local arm of the party. The DCCC’s election endorsements are among the most coveted in any election season.

The candidates on the Democrats for Change slate took 18 of the 24 seats on the DCCC. In the wake of that victory, Vibrant SF’s founder Zack Rosen’s been running a metaphorical victory lap. “We out-organized them. We out-door-knocked them. We out-engaged. We out-messaged them,” Rosen crowed to a San Francisco Examiner reporter. “And we’re just getting going.”

Perhaps Rosen can be forgiven his boast. After all, he comes from the world of technology startups where modesty is an undervalued virtue. However, a more accurate reading of the March 2024 election results is that progressives were outspent by an astonishing factor of five-to-one when you factor in slate mailers, with much of the money coming from wealthy tech executives like Rosen.

People close to the garrulous Rosen recently told the San Francisco Standard that he intends to spend $5 million a year over the course of decades “to radically rewrite the script on housing, transportation, education and public spaces in the city.”

Rosen’s top priority is housing. He clings to a cult-like belief that removing obstacles to new construction — including safeguards like community comment and environmental review — will bring about housing at all price points. To that end, he founded California YIMBY — short for Yes in my Backyard — YIMBY is the agreed-upon branding for a movement that shares Rosen’s  belief that free markets will meet the state’s housing needs despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Removing barriers to construction will simply enrich real estate developers. It has shown little evidence of efficacy in increasing the city and state’s stock of affordable housing. 

Rosen began his involvement in local politics in 2022, spending more than $100,000 on Proposition D, a local ballot initiative that called for changing the standard for “affordability.” Affordability, according to Prop D, is 140% of the state’s median income — or $166,250 for a family of four — well beyond the means of most working San Franciscans. It also “streamlined” the development process. Voters saw it as another giveaway to real estate developers. The measure failed. 

Rosen is nothing if not determined. After that setback, he started Abundant SF, bringing on Todd David, formerly head of the California YIMBY-aligned Housing Action Coalition, as its executive director. Families for a Vibrant SF is the political arm of Abundant SF. 

Like Rosen, David believes in the redemptive ability of for-profit real estate development. He’s also been an enemy of rent control. "When you add another layer of additional rent control burdens, you create all this uncertainty in the housing market," David said in opposition to Proposition 21, a 2020 statewide ballot initiative to allow localities to strengthen rent control. "And uncertainty as we know does not breed confidence in investing and building new housing." Massively outspent by the real estate industry and its allies, the measure failed.

Rosen backs Mayor London Breed’s housing plan.The idea is that unfettered development will allow the city to meet the state’s demand for new housing. (If the city fails to meet those requirements, the state threatens to withhold funding for essential services like public transportation.)

Removing barriers from the development process will most certainly add to the city’s glut of vacant market-rate units, it will not address the desperate need for affordable housing. In fact, Breed’s housing legislation threatens to make the city’s shortage of affordable housing worse. It allows existing buildings to be demolished. Tenants in those buildings will be sent packing. The only alternative for many will be to leave a city that is prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthy. It’s hard not to believe that gentrification is the ultimate goal of Rosen and elected officials like Breed.

Given her loyalty to the YIMBY cause, Rosen has endorsed Breed in the November 2024 mayoral race. Here is where it gets tricky: At least one of Rosen’s wealthy allies, billionaire Michael Moritz of TogetherSF Action, appears ready to dump her. (The mayor’s favorability rating hovers at about 20% making her prospects for re-election seem shaky, at best.) 

Political insiders say fissures have emerged between the big-money PACs, who have differing priorities. “There is totally a tension there,” said a source familiar with the organizations. “If anyone tells you otherwise, they’re either not informed, lying or delusional.” 

Zack Rosen describes himself as a man with a hyper-limited attention span — “If I am confused or bored, my blood pressure rises and I can become a bad listener. I hate wasting time.” Change in San Francisco comes slowly. Enjoy the victory lap, Zack. It may be the last one you take, at least for a long while.

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