Knowing the pain of writing huge rent checks each month to live in the Bay Area during a housing crunch, Victoria Fierce is out to make communities opposing building new homes experience a similar financial burden.
“I speak truth to power. I get in front of the dais and say ‘I will come after you, and it will hurt.’ And then they shrug it off. Then it hurts,” said Fierce, who helps operate the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund.
Fierce, who has sued Bay Area cities such as Lafayette and Berkeley over housing opposition, is preparing to bring her organization’s fight to San Mateo following the City Council rejecting a proposal to build a 10-unit condominium building off El Camino Real.
The Oakland software professional turned legal housing expert is part of a energized group fed up with the local housing market refining that is refining its tactics and formalizing strategies to promote residential development.
“We have political power and we are not afraid to use it to seek our goal,” said Fierce, who considers herself a YIMBY — an acronym representing Yes In My Backyard, or an alternative answer to the traditional call of “not in my backyard,” from property owners often fighting housing development in their neighborhood due to concerns over threats to their quality of life. Development critics have historically been recognized as NIMBYs.
Leora Tanjuatco Ross, organizing director with the San Mateo County Housing Leadership Council, said she has recently witnessed the advocacy group’s enrollment, savvy and influence increase significantly.
A few years ago, Tanjuatco Ross said it could be expected that only a handful of housing advocates would appear at a local city council meeting to speak in favor of a project. Now it is common to see dozens of YIMBYs publicly attempting to persuade officials.
With their growth comes greater sophistication as well, she said, as YIMBYs have turned from bluntly calling for more housing to addressing land use policies such as zoning definitions, height limits, density requirements and more detailed matters.
“We’ve definitely gotten nerdier in the past few years, that’s for sure,” said Tanjuatco Ross.
The progression has been noticeable for local legislators working to enact some of their favored policies as well, according to Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco.
“I’ve seen the evolution in their advocacy from simply showing up to being much more strategic, tactical and being more sophisticated in what they advocate for,” he said.
Their polished tack aligns with growing awareness and appreciation of their efforts at the state Capitol, as lawmakers and YIMBYs are working in tandem to fight the state’s housing crisis.
Meanwhile, exorbitant rents and real estate prices persist across the Bay Area and much of the state, raising questions regarding the effectiveness of the movement. And not all of the group’s legal efforts pay dividends either, as East Bay courts last year rejected an effort to sue for development of 315 units in Lafayette.
Proponents though will point toward approval of large developments locally in Millbrae and San Mateo as partial testaments to their organizing. Tanjuatco Ross considers the uptick in strategic planning a sign of success as well.
“People are starting to connect the dots about long-term policy and the implication that has. It’s not a project-by-project strategy that we have and that is contributing to our efficacy.”
Last year’s slate of new state housing laws also gives the advocacy group more leeway to push for development, which San Mateo City Attorney Shawn Mason said should be recognized by local officials.
“The city councils and planning commissions are on the front lines and they are having to meet the interest of the community while also complying with these new legal requirements which make it more difficult to deny projects,” he said.
For his part, Mason said he believes San Mateo’s recent decision regarding the project near El Camino Real and West Santa Inez Avenue is defensible, claiming it objectively violates a policy designed to smooth height differences transitioning between properties. While Fierce has not officially filed the lawsuit, she claims councilmembers’ decision was subjective and illegal under the state’s Housing Accountability Act.
Vague interpretation of city policies is a key tool used by local officials seeking to block development and appease residents concerned that new housing would corrupt their standard of living, YIMBYs claim.
As a result, a focus of their latest push toward easing construction regulations is sapping control from local officials, who these housing advocates point to as a primary source of the state’s housing shortage.
The most notable recent affront to local control is Senate Bill 827, proposed by state. Sen. Scott Weiner, D-San Francisco, designed to remove height limitations and density controls on housing developments proposed within a reasonable distance from public transit stops.
The legislation, co-signed by YIMBYs, sent shock waves through communities which have long valued their ability to manage growth according to the will of residents.
David Canepa, San Mateo County supervisor representing District 5, was critical of the proposal and the support for it offered by YIMBYs.
He noted he was pleased to see the advocates begin sharing their concerns as part of the public dialogue, but believes their push on efforts limiting the perspective of others is hypocritical.
“Just because you don’t like something, that doesn’t mean you limit peoples’ voices or say ‘we are going to put a mandate on you.’ That’s not right,” he said.
Rich Garbarino, South San Francisco councilman and the Peninsula’s chief representative to the League of California Cities, agreed.
“I’m supportive of more housing, but there has got to be a process,” said Garbarino, who similarly opposes efforts to sap local officials’ authority due to fears over unregulated development.
He suggested fast-tracked building could significantly harm the local quality of life down the road.
“If that’s what these individuals advocate for, they may rue the day five or 10 years when developers build willy-nilly,” he said.
Tanjuatco Ross offered an alternative perspective though, suggesting development requirements are in order as a counterbalance to the years of restrictions on housing development in the name of local control.
“Municipalities in San Mateo County have had the last few decades to make their own decisions, and I want them to look at the state of things,” she said. “Traffic is awful — everyone can agree with that. And we are in a housing crisis. We have tried the decisions we have made. And it’s time to do something new.”
That something new will likely be advocated for by political neophytes who are called to action due to dissatisfaction with the constrained and expensive Bay Area housing market.
While the group broadens it horizons by exploring new political channels such as lawsuits and legislation advocacy, an eye is kept to grassroots organizing methods as well.
It is common for YIMBYs to pack a City Hall anywhere along the Peninsula where housing is being discussed with signs, petitions and raw passion directed as those opposing their cause.
Chiu said he is heartened to watch the group of frustrated residents across the Bay Area and state coordinate and begin to stand up for their interest in a sort of political awakening.
“Many YIMBYs are young, millennials who understand that our failure in our cities and state to build housing is having an incredibly negative consequence on their ability to live in our communities,” he said. “And their organization and advocacy has really made a difference in Sacramento, and has been a positive for us.”
Not everyone is enamored with the group’s efforts though, as critics commonly allege that YIMBYs are merely stooges for developers pushing in favor of housing construction at the behest of those standing to gain from the real estate market.
Fierce scoffed at such as suggestion though.
“If I was financed by a developer, I wouldn’t be paying half my monthly income to rent,” she said.
Instead, she said her passion is driven by a desire to share the opportunities enjoyed by those who purchased property before home values skyrocketed.
“I rent. That is my material interest. I want to pay less. I want to own a home,” she said.
To a larger point though, Fierce said she believes housing advocacy is in order to restore the progressive principles which once made the Golden State a national treasure.
“It’s not California’s values, and we are pushing back,” said Fierce, regarding housing opposition. “We want to get back to the promise that previous generations had.”
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