YIMBY in Pricy Massachusetts?

Citizen group actively involved in affecting growth and development in town.

YIMBY in Pricy Massachusetts?

Postby NIMBY on Sat Jan 17, 2004 1:37 am

Yes, In My BackYard

Pro-growth group may be best representation of average San Franciscan

by Carol Lloyd, special to SF Gate

Tuesday, May 29, 2002

Too often, San Francisco's housing struggles play like bad melodrama. There's the vile, money-grubbing developer, the well-meaning if quixotic activist, the outraged neighbor screaming "not in my backyard!" The plots all sound the same, with battles generally waged between profit-maximizing speculators and lifestyle-maximizing homeowners.

But now a new protagonist has arrived, threatening to scatter this tired old plot line into disarray once and for all. Part activist, part neighbor, part developer's ally, this character defies all the old stereotypes, but, ironically, may end up best representing the average San Francisco citizen.

Meet the YIMBY.

Like the NIMBY (Not In My BackYard), the YIMBY (Yes In My BackYard) shows up at planning-department meetings, organizes grassroots neighborhood actions and tries to figure out who greases the wheels of city government. But instead of fighting against high-density development in their neighborhood, the YIMBYs are screaming, "Yes in my backyard!"

"If it was up to me, I would build it: new housing," exclaims 61-year-old Clara Orlando, sporting flaming-red hair and wearing a lemon-yellow pantsuit.

Why is this nice Italian-born, churchgoing lady not fighting to get more flowers planted in median strips instead?

Like many YIMBYs I spoke to, Orlando has watched the affordable-housing crisis erode the stability of her neighborhood, displacing long-term residents or forcing them into inhumane living conditions. She also lost her daughter to San Diego, when the younger Orlando could no longer afford her $1,200-a-month one-bedroom.

"It's like a Third World country here," she says. "Think about the family with the babies, who are living two or three families in a small apartment, or in a car. Is there no shame? I was never an activist, but I cannot stand to see this thing."

So, for the past year, she has spent many frustrating hours advocating for an affordable-housing development to be built on Phelan Loop in her neighborhood near San Francisco City College.

Along with her congregation at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, where she cooks in the rectory, Orlando is a part of the YIMBY Campaign, organized by the San Francisco Organizing Project, a federation of 40 church congregations in 17 neighborhoods. Over the years, the SFOP has organized other collaborative grassroots projects, including fighting for youth centers and community health clinics, that affect the everyday lives of ordinary San Franciscans.

Neither yuppies nor professional activists, YIMBYs are average folks from middle-class and working-class families who hope to keep their relatives or neighbors from having to move out of the Bay Area because of the high cost of housing. Their plan? To solve the affordable-housing shortage by identifying sites in their neighborhoods for development and pushing to get stuff built. (Although rental rates have plummeted since the dot-com bust, prices are still far too expensive for most San Franciscans, and the cost of homeownership is higher than ever.)

Like her fellow YIMBYs, Orlando disputes the much-cited excuse that San Francisco has no new land to develop. She shows me the Phelan Loop on Ocean Avenue, a patch of urban blight along a declining commercial strip where Muni buses turn around. Then she leads me behind it to two gargantuan reservoir basins-the size of several football fields-that have been paved and marked with parking spaces used by City College students. (According to my rough calculations, this site could easily house a thousand units, with fewer than three stories and with plenty of open space left over.)

Despite such resourcefulness as proposing housing here, however, the YIMBYs have already encountered more obstacles than you can shake a two-by-four at.

The idea of developing housing on the reservoir site has already been removed from the agenda, since City College and the city's Public Utilities Commission, which each own half the area, already have plans for it. (The PUC wants to put water there someday, and City College wants to expand the campus.)

"It was a nice project," says Orlando wistfully, dismissing the meteor-size pits with a wave of her hand. "There could have been housing for students. Instead, we have this: a waste."

The Phelan Loop project is still a potential reality, with a proposed development of 80 units of affordable housing adjacent to 170 units of market-rate housing on the adjoining site where a Kragens now stands. But neighbors, who wanted a park instead, are pushing for a much smaller development.

"Every meeting, the plan gets more and more scaled back," Orlando says, shaking her head. "Pretty soon, you've got nothing."

How does she feel about neighbors' concerns about parking and other lifestyle issues? Orlando doesn't mince words.

"They are selfish. They care about their property values, about a tree more than a hundred human beings out on the street," she says, referring to discussions in which NIMBYs fought to preserve inner-city open space rather than create housing. "I'm sorry. I love nature, but you have to have a balance."

In addition to these properties, the YIMBYs say they've located enough land to hold another 5,000 units of affordable housing in the city. They're also supporting a new $200 million affordable-housing bond measure, to be put on the November 2002 ballot, that could help fund such projects. Taken as a whole, they represent a formidable new voice to combat San Francisco's prevailing NIMBY sentiments.

What's so unusual about the YIMBY approach? The decision makers at city hall and in the planning department have long complained that while the majority of voters want more housing, not enough people come out to support development in its planning stages. As a result, only the voices of opposition get heard. The YIMBYs are trying to counteract this trend by advocating for what they want, rather than protesting about what they don't want.


Even so, they have taken a page from the NIMBY book of fighting tactics. "If we just go and talk nicely to everyone, it doesn't work," says Orlando. "We have to be ready to yell, to be strong."

There's no doubt the YIMBYs have the numbers to get city hall's attention. YIMBY Andrea Lombardo, a 21-year-old USF politics major, says that neighborhood can mobilize up to 500 participants to attend meetings; citywide events can galvanize as many as 5,000 people.

Yet, true to San Francisco politics, the YIMBYs have more than their fair share of critics. The SFOP's proposed bond measure would get funded from property taxes, and so, naturally, it finds opposition among local property owners. And some argue that the last bond of its kind, Mayor Brown's Proposition A, produced only a fraction of the promised 3,000 low-cost apartments. SFOP Executive Director Denise Collazo counters that by August 2002, the money from Prop. A will have served 2,316 households, with 31 developments, 1,812 apartments,

264 transitional-housing units and 240 down-payment-assistance loans. She adds that at about $40,000 a unit, this is a good use of public funds.

So, as the YIMBYs learn about urban planning San Francisco style, they also represent a distinct vision of San Francisco. Often the pro-growth, no-growth battle is framed as a battle between change and preservation. The developers welcome change; the NIMBYs embrace preservation. The YIMBYs turn such simplistic formulas on their heads. Their agenda may change the physical face of S.F., they argue, but it will help preserve a more fundamental asset: its citizens.

"It's about whether the people who live in this neighborhood are going to be able to stay here," says Lombardo, a lifelong resident of Mission Terrace. "I mean, I would like to someday move out of my parents' house and get my own place, but right now I could never afford to."
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