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Renters' Movement Presses Cities For More Housing Development


OK. Here's a situation some folks may face. You have decided to move to the big city - maybe San Francisco or New York - and you start looking for a place to live. And it's a total shock. Everything is too expensive. But it's so bad in some cities, a new political movement has formed demanding that cities make it easier for developers to build. Dan Charles from NPR's Planet Money podcast has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: One night four years ago, Sonja Trauss was walking down a street in San Francisco, and she saw a sign. It said, help us stop developers from putting up a big new apartment building here, and that sign made her furious. She was having such a hard time trying to find a place to live. And she thought - the people who put that sign up, they have homes, but they're keeping other people from getting the same thing. She cracked.

SONJA TRAUSS: I was just like, screw you guys. Like, I know what you do. You make posters. You write letters. You go to hearings. So I saw that sign, and I was like, I'm going to make signs, too. You know, I'm going to make a website, too.

CHARLES: She formed a group - mostly young people, mostly renters. Their message was simple - build more housing. The way she and her friends saw it, they were fighting NIMBYs - people who look at new construction and say, not in my backyard. So they called themselves YIMBYs - yes, in my backyard. They started showing up at neighborhood meetings supporting new development. People didn't know what to make of them at first, like this woman at a meeting in Berkeley where they were arguing about another big new apartment building.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I also want to say that this little group of people over here is led by a woman who goes around to Albany, San Francisco and Berkeley talking about development just because she loves it so much. This can only be a front group for development.

TRAUSS: Personal attacks? What is...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You have to leave.

TRAUSS: ...That all about?

: Are you going to let me have my time, Admin Kristoff (ph)?

: Yes, you can have your time. Let's not have any personal attacks.

CHARLES: Sonja Trauss got to the microphone a few minutes later.

TRAUSS: Property values go up when you don't build enough stuff, so I'm - you can say I'm here from a greedy developer, but I can say you're here as greedy homeowners.

CHARLES: Her movement has grown. There now are a self-proclaimed YIMBY groups in lots of other California cities - also Boston, Seattle, Australia. And instead of just supporting individual construction projects, they're trying to change the rules for housing. They want to make it easier to build apartment buildings in neighborhoods that, right now, are full of single-family homes. Those neighborhoods make up most of San Francisco and the suburbs.

TRAUSS: People need to be able to allow their single-family homes to be torn down and build a fourplex or maybe even a 10-unit, garden apartments.

CHARLES: The YIMBYs are still small. They're outsiders banging on the doors of city government, but they're actually winning a few battles. Last year, San Francisco adopted a new law that allows denser housing in some quiet residential neighborhoods. A couple of months ago, the city elected a new mayor, London Breed, who sounds an awful lot like a YIMBY.


LONDON BREED: And I plan to change the politics of no to the politics of yes.


BREED: Yes, we will build more housing.

CHARLES: And Sonja Trauss? She's now running for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Dan Charles, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKHEAD'S "ATTACK THE DOCTOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.
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