No YIMBYs on Stolen Land
In national stories about the housing unaffordability crisis, San Francisco is a cautionary tale. The stark gap between rich and poor, incredible eviction rates, racialized homelessness, and phasing out of tenant protections and public housing are complex problems. But according to the popular narrative circulated by corporate media, and more recently in Silicon Valley influenced (and run) social media, they require simplistic solutions based on supply and demand and a deregulated housing market.
Living in San Francisco during the boom in journalism about the city's crisis, we've spent many restless days of our lives reading about housing here. Of the writing that attempts to describe the housing crisis to non-academic audiences, we find that two books encapsulate oppositional forces in the conversation better than others. Golden Gates (Penguin Books, 2020) is the work of a New York Times journalist whose narrative, presented as nonfiction, reflects the mainstream's disorienting simplification of the issue. Alternately, the Arapaho-Cheyenne author of the fictional There There (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017), braces the world of his characters with past/future possibility realized by Indigenous people before and after US manifest destiny.
The second of the two writers, Tommy Orange, has already found his people. They were always already here. The Oakland-born writer makes that case in his first novel, There There, a multi-point-of-view story about Indigenous history, urban belonging, homeland massacre and afterward. Orange’s novel is an important and unique statement on urban Indian life. There There confronts legacies of systemic violence during a moment when Indigenous resistance is more visible to the non-Indigenous. The 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline occupation and protests began a year before the book's publication. Forming during the same time: the Red Nation movement, and its Red Deal which calls for free sustainable housing and public transportation and includes a critique of the real estate industry that the Green New Deal lacks. There are also the continued killings and arrests of people felling statues of conquistadores and missionaries responsible for Native genocide, and a concerted emphasis in Native-produced media on connecting Indigenous struggle with the Black Power movement and other anti-colonial battles in Palestine, Puerto Rico and Venezuela to name a few.
Like Orange, Conor Dougherty was born in Oakland. His own debut, Golden Gates, attempts to explain the crisis affecting most people in the US today — time when a full-time, minimum wage job won't pay for an apartment in any state — and suggests a trickle-down, de-zoned libertarian model to address housing affordability in the Bay Area. Placed next to There There, Dougherty's book reads like an invitation to resettle here for his people , a wealthier, whiter population adjacent with the social circles of New York Times journalists like Dougherty and his wife. The book appears designed to shed any liberal guilt they might have from the heightening mound of bodies of people forced out of the Bay Area, by bullet or eviction notice. As Dougherty acknowledges, with the 2008 mortgage crisis in the rearview, Bay Area developers and governments concentrated on attracting tech transplants who could afford higher rents and mortgages, offering tax breaks to some of the world's most-highly-valued companies like Twitter, and physical proximity to many of the country's venture capitalists in the US's second-densest city.
Golden Gates also chronicles the beginnings of the YIMBY movement ("Yes-In-My-Back-Yard"), an astroturfed real estate and tech-industry public relations front that is libertarian in its policy objectives (such as de-zoning) and oh-so-familiar promises of trickle-down benefits to the non-wealthy. The YIMBY movement has parallels to the urban renewal/redevelopment projects of the 1960s that upended Black communities, a policy which was designed to address alleged “blight”—now recognized widely as violent white supremacist policy. YIMBYism is a framework meant to address a housing shortage through increased dense development, however, there hasn’t been tangible evidence of how increased development has affected the unaffordability crisis in a meaningful way. Possibly by accident, think tank-hopper Richard Rothstein became YIMBYism's ad hoc land-use scholar/mascot as author of the more popular The Color of Law, an examination of redlining that offers the supply-and-demand, Reaganomics answer to housing unaffordability. That book flimsily retcons the fight for racially integrated neighborhoods as a movement against zoning restrictions for luxury housing developers, ending with a white person's guide to ways that Black people can and should welcome whites into their neighborhoods.
THE NEW URBAN RENEWAL BRIGADE
YIMBYism defines itself as a "pro-housing" movement, but its impact is to enrich the already rich. The casualties of the influx: people who were housed in San Francisco until the latest tech boom were forced to the streets or far away from their communities. The vast majority of the Bay's homeless people were housed in San Francisco until, over the past decade, already expensive housing became so outrageously unaffordable that it was nationally parodied in "weird news" stories describing, for example, a single parking space listed for $100,000 in 2013.
In There There, the ensemble of Cheyenne main characters we are introduced to embody the people who are being – and have been dispossessed. One such character is Dene, the tagger careening precipitously near the art world, who early in the book arrives late to anxiously ramble before a panel of people who will decide whether or not to fund his film project proposal. In The Color of Law, Rothstein writes: “Certainly, it would be better if every young African American man resisted adopting an oppositional and alienated stance.” A moment that speaks to Rothstein’s anticipation of sacrifice to produce an integrated world is Dene’s awkward encounter in the panel's waiting room with another applicant for the grant named Rob. Dene reflects on Oakland-born Gertrude Stein's take on the gentrification of her hometown:
[Stein] was talking about how the place where she’s grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore. Dene wants to tell him it’s what happened to Native people, he wants to explain that they’re not the same, that Dene is Native, born and raised in Oakland, from Oakland. Rob probably didn’t look any further into the quote because he’d gotten what he wanted from it. He probably used the quote at dinner parties and made other people like him feel good about taking over neighborhoods they wouldn’t have had the guts to drive through ten years ago.
What Rothstein might identify as “opposition” and “alienation” in Orange’s novel does not capture the emotional saturation Orange documents. At the same time, it is presented as the precondition of Orange’s Cheyenne Oakland. Integration, if it’s ever a relevant question in a slaughter’s aftermath, has a psychic cost that can’t be merely tamped down for inclusionary zoning for the most privileged. So much more about urban Indians can be written. At its heart, YIMBYism is a continuation of colonial fiat. YIMBYs are professional activists in Dougherty's Times economics reporter orbit: people like Steven Buss, the Google employee who "believed in data" and its ability to solve problems such as the housing crisis — so much that he used a two-month sabbatical from Google to work on another YIMBY's failed bid for an office in City Hall. The campaign's failure is the movement's low-point, which permeates the beginning of Golden Gates. However, it didn’t stop YIMBYs from running for office on political platforms centered around new construction. Buss himself failed in a run for the local Democratic County Central Committee, but his one-man show, the YIMBY offshoot Neoliberal YIMBY, holds (pre-COVID) meetings in the same office as Socialist YIMBY. YIMBYs are the spiritual, if not yet totally material, successor of the conquistador. Local city identities erode, replaced by upscale, AirSpace boxes within San Francisco's seven square miles where you're never more than an 90-minute walk from Airbnb's global headquarters. The homeless tent cities Dougherty describes are formed (and soon destroyed by police and Public Works administrators) in the shadows of Airbnbs and unoccupied investment properties (the "ghost condos").
In his book, Dougherty Frankenstein’ sources supporting YIMBY doctrine from the work of conservative supply-side economists, developer-backed politicians and the most real estate industry-boosting of urban planning and land-use professors. YIMBYs simplistic "friend or foe" politics labels anyone who doesn't buy in as a "NIMBY" ("Not-In-My-Back-Yard'ers" who oppose new construction that might lead to lower property values, and who clog the municipal 3-1-1 anti-"blight" complaint lines and apps like Citizen and Nextdoor). But both groups are made of people who have generally only had the perspective of being in control over where they live. Tenant organizers, who have for decades worked oppositional to landowners and their allies, are mostly disappeared from his book, while YIMBYs co-opt their language and traditions, like the advertising arm of a marketer working for an anti-tenant political action committee.
GHOST CONDOS VS. GHOST STRUCTURES
Orange's community of characters, even those who haven't officially met, are linked by braids of connection in a way Dougherty's characters are not. YIMBYs meet and work toward making the Bay Area a friendlier place for white people who are from the future, because they have yet to arrive. The separation between characters featured in each book illustrates the divide between people in the Bay Area today, even with recent tech flight spurred on by remote work.
The protagonist of Golden Gates, Sonja Trauss (teacher turned ‘housing advocate’), starts out the book, and her career trajectory, with a head start. Trauss is the daughter of a Philadelphia landlord who comes off as a Silicon Valley TED talk in human form. Dougherty presents Trauss as rising out of a proverbial garage with a vision dream backed by a (sometimes-violent) self-confidence that allows her to fail up. While both books present ensemble casts of characters, in Dougherty’s book, Trauss is the one who appears most, and first, and other characters are all described in terms of where they orbit around someone whose confidence is as outsized as Dene's lack of it.
Dougherty is charmed by what he presents as Trauss's “untried solutions” that could only have come from an upstart millennial. Left unmentioned is the fact that the housing unaffordability crisis isn't a crisis for Trauss and her millionaire, sometimes billionaire, donors. “Housing crisis”¹ of course involves, but massively diminishes, the genocide that Orange’s cast of characters live through. Dougherty emulates the industry’s re-marketing of redevelopment as a "good" in years when the number of potential homeowners and high-end tenants shrinks. In his telling, Trauss's startup founder persona is inherited from her enterprising father, who appears in the book as the man with the "gumption" to undertake the flipping of a "blighted" hotel in his daughter's gentrifying South Philadelphia neighborhood; its former residents left to find shelter elsewhere. He details her "so crazy, it might just work" marketing ideas, her focus on proselytizing the tech "immigrants" (her term), and deliverance of market-research-tested surprises to audiences of other upwardly mobile people. At the 2017 RED Talk conference (the real estate industry's answer to TED Talks—"thought leader" conventions where attendees pay $10,000 a head to witness epic, elevated elevator pitches), Trauss described her story as one of a "pro-housing activist" who moved to West Oakland and stayed after losing a schoolteacher gig because she didn't want to tell her friends back in Philadelphia she couldn't make it in California. As she told it, hers was a bootstrapped ascent from lowly math teacher to land-use thought leader who hung out with Silicon Valley scions. Dougherty returns to the phrase “upstart activist” in describing Trauss, presenting her as the underdog she identifies herself as.
In There There, Dene fixates on a dinner when his mom, Norma, invited his uncle Lucas up from Los Angeles after a long separation. Norma tells Dene that Lucas “makes movies”; Lucas’ Hollywood varnish quickly wears away as he reveals his working-class reality. Lucas tells Dene he's held the “boom mic above the shot, long and steady” in "little parts of TV shows and movies." Dene looks at his forearms.
Still, Lucas pitches Dene his movie:
It’ll be in the near future. I’m gonna have an alien technology colonize America. We’ll think we made it up. Like it’s ours. Over time we’ll merge with the technology, we’ll become like androids, and we’ll lose the ability to recognize each other. The way we used to look. Our old ways. We won’t even really consider ourselves half-breeds, half aliens, because we’ll think it’s our technology. Then I’m gonna have a half-breed hero rise up, inspire what’s left of the humans to move back to nature. Get away from technology, get our old way of life back. Become human again like we used to be. It’s gonna end in a reverse Kubrick 2001 human-bashing-a-bone sequence in slow motion. Have you seen 2001?
Lucas promises his nephew to bring his Kubrick collection next time, if that time actually comes; Orange writes Dene and Lucas existing in a space that conquest wrought. Lucas’ nephew asks how the movie ends.
“What, in the movie? The alien colonizers win of course. We’ll only think we won by getting back to nature, back to the Stone Age. Anyway, I stopped ‘thinking about it,’ ” he said, and put up air quotes, looking toward the kitchen, where Norma had gone when he started in about his movie.
Dene excuses himself for bed after the let-down; for a moment, he believed that there was this Native who was winning at a white man's game. Orange's ensemble narrative is spoken communally through varied protagonists who are not heirs to landlord fortunes. Dene is the likeliest candidate of the cast of characters to be novelist Orange’s avatar. The character's fevered, rambling proposal in front of a panel that will decide whether or not he receives a small grant to make the film his uncle didn't live to make should be relatable to anyone who's experienced imposter syndrome because of their background. Addressing the panel, Dene identifies (like Orange) as “an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma.”
Orange wrote his story about a return to Oakland during a time when many people were anesthetized to the forced displacement of non-techies. It was an accepted inevitability. There There’s plot is structured around its characters unknowingly converging at the Oakland Coliseum, a publicly funded stadium sold to private investors who plan to build housing once it's demolished.
A fifteen-minute drive away from the Coliseum is an area sacred to the Confederated tribes of Lisjan: a shell mound in West Berkeley that's still the site of a battle between activists and developers who intend to cover it with luxury housing. Corporations previously won a battle to install a nearly one-million square foot outdoor mall one town over, in Emeryville, where Lisjan Ohlone villages existed for more than 2,500 years prior to the genocide-requiring manifest destiny project. The concessions from the mall's developer included Lisjan Ohlone-inspired street names and a tiny commemorative space called a "ghost structure,” which is sandwiched between an Old Navy and a PF Chang's.
We write from the San Francisco of 2021, which could (should?) be lined with ghost structures, down to the half of the city that is built on the rubble of the 1906 earthquake and its subsequent fires. For ten years, the Sogorea Te' Land Trust has worked to rematriate land in the Bay on behalf of seven tribes whose members were enslaved by Spanish colonizers and forced to construct two of California's Missions (San Jose, in Fremont, and Mission Dolores in San Francisco).² Those original missions no longer exist, although in post-Spain California, the state government dubbed nearby replicas of the missions as historical monuments. The cement stucco facades and terra cotta roofs mimicking the original mud-brick adobe structures that Indian slaves constructed ("Spanish colonial revivalist" design) is still popular with developers of tract homes and retail plazas in the West.
In There There, Orange describes that, “Getting us to cities was supposed to be the final, necessary step in our assimilation, absorption, erasure, the completion of a five-hundred-year-old genocidal campaign. But the city made us new, and we made it ours.” Orange continues, “We don’t get lost amid the sprawl of tall buildings, the stream of anonymous masses, the ceaseless din of traffic. We found one another, started up Indian Centers, brought out our families and powwows, our dances, our songs, or beadwork.” However, a couple hundred pages later, the effects of generations of violent dispossession remain,.
On the other hand, as Dougherty's book describes, YIMBYs have absorbed and reworked social justice language, such as the above-mentioned "tech immigrant” for example, to serve real estate industry agendas. The book goes into a moment of racial navel-gazing in his description of YIMBYtown, the group's now-annual conference:
Probably the biggest question of the conference was why most of the people there, and the YIMBY movement generally, were white. Different backgrounds, different incomes, different genders, identities and sexual orientations: the pronouns and points of view were diverse and represented, but most of those points of view came from people who were well educated and white. It was the self-conscious brand of white. The kind of white that acknowledged privilege and said “kale tacos are so white” while eating kale tacos. The kind of white that did not want to be called a gentrifier or to be at a mostly white conference. Not that YIMBYtown was all white, but when you’re at an urban-minded conference where you have to say, “Well, it wasn’t all white,” there you go.
The self-effacing passage is autoerotic for Dougherty's audience. Its spirit mirrors every hollow tweet posted by corporations and politicians during the 2020 uprisings against police after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade. In San Francisco, the police budget is untouchable. By August, city officials had mandated Black Lives Matter posters be hung in every police department. A month later, the city's Board of Supervisors voted to increase police budgets, while using austerity to justify the crumbling of public school buildings, the erasing of bus lines from the MUNI map, and dipping into a $200 million pot of funds originally set aside for the construction of deeply affordable housing. Dougherty's anti-hero, Trauss, the new face of redevelopment, keeps on. Meanwhile, urban Indians here, like everywhere in the US, are overrepresented among the homeless population and in San Francisco's five jails.
As Dougherty recounts, Trauss's first funder was Jeremy Stoppelman, a billionaire who co-founded PayPal and went on to launch the consumer review dot-com Yelp. In another early fundraising encounter, Trauss brunched at the Atherton, California mansion of another member of the self-described "PayPal Mafia," the venture capitalist Peter Thiel. The encounter is retold in a New Yorker piece, who promotes her "pro-housing" activism as the path to a San Francisco free of homeless people—if only the city would let the free market redevelop the Bay Area to reveal its inner Tokyo (which, by the way, is no haven for low-income people, a term Trauss has used to identify herself).
FICTION AND NON-FICTION (or PRO-HOUSING BUT NOT PRO-HUMAN)
After introducing us to underdog Trauss, the opening pages of Golden Gates are spent offering a genealogy of supply-side, trickle-down demagogues. Dougherty grounds us with “land-use experts” who believe industry is the salve to ailing economies, whose landowner-funded studies and books are fuel for Urban Renewal, consolidation of real estate, and the supply-and-demand economics that devastate and kill non-privileged people and communities. He begins with mid-twentieth century academics like MIT Urban Planning Department head Bernard Frieden, the guy who in 1979's The Environmental Protection Hustle called low-income residents of the Bay Area "unorganized, and probably unorganizable." Frieden was oblivious - or willfully ignored - that these same "probably unorganizable" classes were winning protections like rent control or its more radical counterpart, vacancy control. Such efforts were so successful that his funders in the real estate industry moved quickly to lobby for new government policies to blot out the spread of threats to real estate investor profits, such as the Alcatraz-to-Washington D.C. walk on the tenth anniversary of the Native reclamation of Alcatraz. Really, any potential precedent-setting moments that could spiral into profit losses couldn't be tolerated by property investors.
Dougherty's list of YIMBY intellectuals ends in the present with Matthew Yglesias, who injects YIMBYism into his personal Substack newsletter, and previously as a columnist for The Atlantic and staff blogger/op-ed producer for the Center for American Progress (the old money- [Goldman Sachs; Johnson & Johnson; the Rockefeller Foundation] and newer money [Amazon; Facebook; Google]-funded Liberal think tank led by President Biden confidante and austerity stan Neera Tanden). Yglesias's latest book, One Billion Americans, lays out a path for continued global dominance by the US. Yglesias spends a large portion of the book making a developer-friendly argument for the de-zoning of land, name-checking YIMBYs along the way. With oracles like these, Golden Gates is situated in a universe where the Big Bang coincided with the rise of US economics departments. Where do Orange’s Native characters and their ancestors live? Like in so much lit about the US, they're disappeared. And the housing crisis is staged on the YIMBY expectation that the Bay Area will continue to be the top destination for what President Obama called America's number-one export, the population he references in his Administration's A Strategy for American Innovation (2009):
an advanced information technology ecosystem...skilled, productive workers and sound investments that will spread opportunity at home and allow this nation to lead the world in the technologies, innovation and discoveries that will shape the 21st century.
Our best and brightest “knowledge workers” ride high on the boom, sacrificing the Native inhabitants residing within the non-possibility of their home never being found, or even just being left the fuck alone. The precarious lives of the working class – who make up most of the characters in Orange's story, are represented in Dougherty's book by the Gutierrez family (evicted victims of the knowledge economy) and constitute the vast majority of people who live in the US today—are likewise reduced to a conglomeration of people whose opportunities are controlled by the charity (or lack of it) and decisions of the "knowledge class."
Orange carefully works in contrasting gendered responses to the historic occasion by showing how unstable housing was for Jacquie and Opal’s mother. Before heading over to Alcatraz,
Me and Jacquie looked up at the house. It’d been okay, the yellow house. For what it was. The first one we’d been in without either of the dads, so it’d been quiet, and even sweet, like the banana cream pie our mom made the first night we spent there, when the gas worked but the electricity hadn’t been turned on yet, and we ate standing up in the kitchen, in candlelight.
Opal is initially excited by the “stacks of Wonder Bread and butter on tables with pots of stew” on Alcatraz: “‘I don’t know about you,’ I said to Jacquie, my mouth full of bread and butter, ‘but I could live like this.’” The Coast Guard initially permitted boats with supplies to go back and forth from the mainland to the island; sometimes celebrities showed up for the day and the corporate media stories weren't all bad. Like on the reservation, as the months progressed, the Feds felt less pressure to minimize their antagonism, supplies dwindled, and internal disagreements and tensions thickened.
In an essay she wrote in 2015 entitled “No More No to Housing,” which was published in a real estate industry publication called The Registry, is accompanied by an image of Trauss in a T-shirt with the words "NO MORE NO”. We're writing in February 2021, and a Supreme Court decision from last year recognizing the land rights of Muscogee tribes to territory called Oklahoma on most maps today hasn't produced material ammunition to counter the libertarian inflection of Sonja Trauss’ “NO MORE NO” slogan. But in the year since it was published, the arguments of Golden Gates are even less convincing. "NO MORE NO"? The current tech exodus emptying San Francisco is leading to decreases in rents at the very top of the market, with low-income housing still nowhere to be found. California's eviction moratoriums and landlord bailouts will eventually end. More than 90,000 households have left for less expensive frontiers since COVID-19 (according to US Postal Service change-of-address filings from November 2020), many to virtual globalized "offices." This time, Indian time, could mark the end of fantasies of trickle-down housing—NO YIMBYS ON STOLEN LAND.
Toshio Meronek’s writing on the Bay Area, housing, prisons, and queers appears in publications such as In These Times, The Nation, and Truthout, and anthologies including Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex and Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility. Their next project is Miss Major Speaks, a collaborative book with the trans activist Miss Major Griffin-Gracy (Verso).
Dame Ralowe Ampu CH CBE is desperately trying for a second act as a Buckingham Palace diversity czarina following the ongoing divorce/settlement proceedings from estranged longtime companion Milo Yiannopoulous and the unexpected cancellation of CBS’ The Talk where Ampu served as a cue-card girl for fifty-three seasons.
¹The "housing crisis" is rarely qualified by journalists or planning commissions in their reporting. The "housing affordability crisis" is not a crisis for real estate industrialists, who have intentionally constructed the crisis to keep prices of their housing units inflated, using tricks like "free" Teslas thrown in with the leasing of a new apartment, meant to lure wealthy newcomers without decreasing Area Median Income (AMI for short). AMI is one of the real estate capitalist's most-relied-on meters of success, measuring the "quality" of people in a given area by their wealth (more specifically, whatever number they report on their income taxes, over a period of one year). Stats show that AMI is higher in an area are a tool developers use to justify to potential buyers and renters that expensive prices of real estate are worth high price tags. Real Estate is also the top patron of local news media outlets in the majority of the US, and the second highest funder of local politicians' campaigns in San Francisco, and often the very top patron of local politicians in other municipalities.
²Lisjan (Ohlone), Karkin (Ohlone), Bay Miwok, Plains Miwok, Wappo, Delta Yokut and Napian (Patwin).