Bay Area renters group advocates for more density to solve housing crisis

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Sonja Trauss, the founder of San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, holds up a pro-development sign at 75 Howard St. (Conner Jay/San Francisco Business Times)

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c964e lirolandps Bay Area renters group advocates for more density to solve housing crisis
Roland Li
Reporter- San Francisco Business Times


Sonja Trauss strode up to the podium in San Francisco’s stately City Hall recently. She was there to testify on a proposal by developer Related California to build more than 300 units at 1601 Mariposa St. in Potrero Hill, a project that has been decried as too big and too disruptive by some community groups.

Rather than focusing on details like construction noise or traffic impact, Trauss’ message was simple. “I’m in support of this project. I wish it could have already been finished because we are in a housing crisis and there are a lot of people who need housing now,” she said.

“We should really be considering the cumulative impact of not building. Because by not building over and over again, we, one, increase crowding in the units that do exist, and we also force people to spend more money on the units that do exist,” she said.

Trauss, 33, is the founder the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation, or SFBARF, an activist group that advocates for maximum density for proposed projects, no matter how expensive the apartments are.

Although the group has spoken at dozens of City Planning events since its formation at the beginning of last year, 1601 Mariposa St. was a catalyst for the group’s formation. In January 2014, Trauss saw a flier from community group Grow Portrero Responsibly, which urged people to testify against the project. She disagreed with the group’s stance, but decided to adopt a similar strategy of grassroots activism.

SFBARF started as a passion project, but it has gathered momentum and financial support. The group’s mailing list has grown to around 130 people since forming at the beginning of last year, and Trauss says as many as 10 members travel to testify regularly at hearings. SFBARF is also hosting its first housing discussion panel on Feb. 2, with speakers from Seattle and Palo Alto. It also plans to team up with other pro-development groups in the Bay Area on regional issues.

Trauss began by organizing like-minded friends who had been priced out of San Francisco’s neighborhoods to push for more density. SFBARF posts fliers throughout the city and urges its members to show up and testify in favor of proposed projects at City Planning hearings, which are typically dominated by local residents, many of them retired with time on their hands, who are critical of projects.

At the end of 2014, Trauss quit her job as a math teacher at Tilden Prep School in Albany to work on SFBARF full time. She raised $10,000 total from the San Francisco Moderates and a second source she declined to name. Trauss said SFBARF hasn’t raised any money from developers, noting that that builders must disclose their financial contributions to nonprofits when submitting projects of $1 million or more to City Planning.

“We think the only real solution to San Francisco’s housing crisis is to build lots of units,” said Mike Sullivan, a board member of San Francisco Moderates. In Trauss, the group found a leader to bring that message directly to real estate stakeholders. “It’s rare that you find someone with that kind of passion,” said Sullivan.

SFBARF’s eyebrow-raising acronym has helped it catch attention and convince many that it really is a grassroots movement. “Everyone thinks I’m some PR plant, but then they see the name and they say, ‘No, it’s some crazy person,’ ” Trauss said.

Trauss sees hostility towards new projects in part as a bias towards renters, both local and out of city, seeking to move into a new neighborhood. “I was increasingly appalled at the nativism and anti-newcomer sentiment,” she said.

She also believes that the city’s regulations are stifling development and exacerbating soaring housing prices. She cited last week’s vote on a proposal to build a six-story condo at 190 Russ St. in South of Market as excessive regulation. The city’s Recreation and Park Commission voted against the project based on the shadows it would cast on nearby Victoria Manalo Draves Park.

Trauss sees strong potential for new, dense housing at four publicly owned development sites: Balboa Reservoir, Central Subway Station at 4th St. and Folsom St., 1950 Mission St. and the Upper Yard near Balboa Park Station.

Just prior to the first City Planning public hearing on Balboa Park Reservoir last week, SFBARF plastered fliers around the city that advocated for 6,000 apartment units on the site and also posted a rendering of a potential design. Although such density is unlikely to be approved, Trauss said it was important to bring to the conversation what was technologically possible on the site. “We are in a crisis,” she said.

SFBARF has succeeded in aiding development at 2051 Third Street, a 92-apartment rental development in Dogpatch. Trauss contacted Laguna Niguel-based developer Raintree Partners and testified at public hearings in favor of the project in 2014. “At our hearing in June, I did feel (SFBARF) did impact it positively,” said Richard Price, development associate at Raintree Partners.

The developer eventually gained approval for the project and plans to break ground this spring. Market rents range from the mid-$2,000s for a studio to the mid-$4,000s for a 2BR, said Price.

“Sonja definitely has a lot of enthusiasm for her cause, and because of that and her magnetic personality, she’s been able to do this movement further than it’s gone before,” said Price. “Changing the political landscape in San Francisco is going to take a long time, but it’s something that can be done with groups like this.”

SFBARF has attracted members such as Chris Nicholson, a former New York Times editor who now oversees communications at investment advisor startup FutureAdvisor.

Nicholson moved to the city in 2013 and slept in a bunk in a start-up hostel for a year because he couldn’t find a suitable apartment. He now lives in Oakland. “San Francisco has got some very deep problems,” said Nicholson. “They have not succeeded to build the density that a real city has.”

Part of that problem has to do with the dominance of the planning process by community groups that oppose projects, said Nicholson. “The percentage of people who are willing to go to these meetings is minuscule, usually local homeowners,” he said. “NIMBYism is people who think anyone who thinks San Francisco should be built is a shill for developers.”

Trauss takes the long view on luxury projects, noting that new buildings will last for decades, and the middle class might be able to afford an expensive unit in the future. The key, she said, is raising overall supply for all income levels. “You have to make room for rich people. When there’s a shortage, the poor people suffer,” she said.

She added that the rich are generally detached from the planning process, which is dominated by activists composed of traditionally disempowered groups. Also absent from the process are the potentially thousands of renters and buyers who could benefit from completed projects. SFBARF is a way to give voices to those groups, said Trauss.

Some community groups say Trauss’ support of maximum density in all cases is flawed, particularly when the majority of units are expensive market-rate units. “I don’t think that’s the right approach,” said Alison Heath of Grow Potrero Responsibly, the neighborhood group that inspired the formation of SFBARF. “The trickle down idea makes no sense.”

“She’s entitled to her viewpoint, frankly I think it’s kind of fringe,” said Heath. “I get it. I know we’ve got a problem here, but I think it’s a very simplistic approach to something that’s incredibly complex.”

But others believe that SFBARF has a chance to change the dialogue in the city’s often contentious planning process.

“She’s really captured something,” said Tim Colen, executive director of the San Francisco Housing Action Coalition. “The people she gets to meetings are articulate and reasonable. They’re not angry like some of the neighborhood.”

San Francisco’s rents are the highest in the country. According to commercial brokerage DTZ, the average asking rent for a San Francisco market rate apartment was $3,392 at the end of 2014, up 11 percent compared to the prior year and 55 percent higher since 2009.

The tech boom has escalated prices, but the problems go deeper, said Colen. The city’s geography means it is locked in by water, so development space is already limited, and proposals are often downsized. “Google, Twitter and Facebook did not do this to us,” said Colen, who described San Francisco as one of the most conservative cities in the U.S. when it comes to development. “There’s strong, strong resistance to change.”

The evening after the 1601 Mariposa hearing, Trauss was walking through the Financial District’s forest of skyscrapers. Arms extended, she exulted, “I love tall high-rises.”

Although she admires the city’s skyline, Trauss has never been able to afford to live in San Francisco. Four years ago, she moved to the Bay Area from Philadelphia. Unable to find suitable apartments in the city, Trauss ended up living in El Cerrito. She wanted to move to the Mission, but her potential roommates were evicted. Now, she lives in West Oakland.

As a native of Philadelphia, a city that lost more than 500,000 residents between 1950 and 2000, Trauss is concerned about San Francisco’s ability to remain a destination for new arrivals, and its capacity to handle a population that is expected to grow rapidly in coming decades. The city’s reliance on tech is also a concern. “We’re more like St. Louis and Detroit — will it grow to a diverse base?” she said.

Trauss didn’t plan on becoming an activist, but has found the process invigorating. “I like socializing with a purpose,” she said. She hopes that the local pro-density movement will grow to the point where she no longer has to lead it. She envisions that SFBARF could eventually evolve to take a decentralized organization, with branches throughout the community akin to a religion, with the common maxim, “Build high.”

Roland Li covers real estate and economic development

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