Q & A with “reporter” Toshio Meronek
Since nothing I actually said made it into a recent hit piece full of misinformation, I’ve decided to publish the email exchange I had with Toshio here. Enjoy!
How did you get involved with housing organizing in SF? Are you a renter/do you own?
I rent in Noe Valley in a 2-unit building. Our landlord lives in the downstairs unit.
I had been getting into local politics, when I got a letter in the mail from a homeowner several blocks away who had blanketed the neighborhood with a classic NIMBY letter. It was a diatribe ranting about how their next door neighbor was going to turn a 1-unit 1 story building into a 2-unit 2 story building that they didn’t want to look at. I started getting madder and madder. Here we were in the middle of a housing shortage and this entitled, selfish NIMBY was ranting about how the house wouldn’t be pretty and it would disrupt the character of the neighborhood. And I was so frustrated that this was happening to thousands of potential units all over the city. All because a few neighbors had the power to stop it, and all the people who didn’t care wouldn’t show up to defend this potential housing unit.
So I marched over to the 1-unit 1 story building and knocked on the door. When someone came to the door I awkwardly said “So, I hate the people who wrote this letter. What can I do to help you?”
From there things just spiraled out of control. I joined a special group of slightly crazed mostly millennial women. Annie Fryman, who was working for the architects who owned the building, Sonja Trauss, who was starting Bay Area Renters Federation, and more. I was doing this as a hobby, until 10 months ago when I quit my job to do activism full time.
One reason the YIMBY Party seems to be gaining popularity is the promise that eventually we’ll see more affordable housing and lower rents in San Francisco. Do you have any studies that prove the model in SF? Or are there anecdotal signs that it’s working?
Any studies that prove that model? Like literally 100% of the research backs this up. I’ll send a separate email with a bunch of stuff. Anecdotally, we ramped up production recently and we’ve seen a recent plateau and slight dip in rents.
Also, you know there is a difference between housing that is considered affordable and what is meant by “Affordable Housing”, correct? Affordable Housing refers to subsidized affordable housing, built by private non-profits with mostly public funds. Housing that is considered “affordable” is when folks are spending about 1/3 of their income on rent/housing.
FROM A SEPARATE EMAIL:
I’m just throwing some of newsier articles in here and cc’ing my favorite policy wonk, Brian Hanlon. He will pile on with studies.
And I like this one, obvi:
FROM BRIAN HANLON:
- Fueling the Fire: Information Technology and Housing Price Appreciation in the San Francisco Bay Area by Karen Chappel, John V. Thomas, Dena Belzer and Gerald Autler
- Housing Market Spillovers: Evidence from the End of Rent Control in Cambrige, Massachusetts by David H. Autor, Christopher J. Palmer and Parag A. Pathak
- Residential Land Use Regulation and the US Housing Price Cycle Between 2000 and 2009 by Haifang Huang and Yao Tang
- The Effect of Density Zoning on Racial Segregation in U.S. Urban Areas by Jonathan Rothwell and Douglas S. Massey
- Density Zoning and Class Segregation in U.S. Metropolitan Areas by Jonathan Rothwell and Douglas S. Massey
- The New Exclusionary Zoning by John Mangin
- Regulation and the High Cost of Housing in California by John M. Quigley and Steven Raphael
- Do Strict Land Use Regulations Make Metropolitan Areas More Segregated by Income? by Michael C. Lens and Paavo Monkkonen
- Why is Manhattan So Expensive? Regulation and the Rise in Housing Prices by Edward L. Glaeser, Joseph Gyourko and Raven Saks
- The causes and consequences of land use regulation: Evidence from the Greater Boston by Edward L. Glaeser and Bryce A. Ward
- Are Private Markets and Filtering a Viable Source of Low-Income Housing? Estimates from a “Repeat Income” Model by Stuart S. Rosenthal
Google tells me you’ve been juggling advocacy work with quite a few different groups — GrowSF, United Democratic Club, SF YIMBY Action, the Sierra Club — how do you find the time!?
It’s not so bad as all that. GrowSF actually became YIMBY Action. United Democratic Club is all volunteer, like all democratic clubs in the city. And I lost the Sierra Club election so it doesn’t take up much of my time, lol.
I did win the ADEM elections, which only crazy local politics people care about.
What’s kinda nice about working in politics is that it’s both all-consuming, and generally very rewarding. Meetings with people I genuinely like; strategy sessions with folks who care deeply about the future of this city; throwing events to get folks pumped about nerdy public policy; etc.
In general, people will come out once or twice because they’re pissed about an issue. But if you want to get folks consistently coming out, taking on leadership rolls, and really moving the ball forward, you have to build a community. Most of my job is community building for a purpose.
I feel very lucky that I get to be here, doing something I believe in, fighting for integration, environmentalism and social justice.
How does YIMBY Action keep going — can you give me a breakdown of where the funding comes from?
About 75% of our funding comes from membership dues, which are actually optional. We’ve also got a couple “Business Members” including Mission Housing, an Affordable Housing developer, and a couple small businesses. 95% of our donations are under $200. [UPDATE: Our average donation is currently ~$100]
But I’m generally really sick of people obsessing about our funding as a way of dismissing the fact that this is a genuine grassroots movement that is gaining a lot of traction around the region and across the country. Our funding is pretty boring and something I have to spend too much of my time stressing about, like any nonprofit.
Did you follow the recent Measure S battle in LA? If so, did SF YIMBYs do any advocacy from the Bay around that issue?
We cheered [the defeat of Prop S] from afar, and sent folks their way, but we didn’t have much we could tangibly offer. But we did point at them to the degree we could.
One critique of YIMBY I’ve read is that it focuses on market-rate housing. Do you have any campaigns in the works to address the lack of new low-income housing, such as more Section 8 units?
That critique is frankly bullshit. It’s an argument made by people who want to drag YIMBYs without actually following our work or who find it convenient to lie about us.
Let me list out a few of the many ways YIMBYs have worked to support low-income subsidized Affordable Housing:
- On a project-by-project level, we’ve worked to support things like the Forest Hill Senior Housing, which has suffered from crazy NIMBY nonsense. We’ve repeatedly stood up for Affordable Housing projects, even when they’re being built by people who consider us their opponents, such as MEDA.
- On a city level, we have supported streamlining the approval process for Affordable Housing, which was successfully passed last year (and needs some further work, which we are endorsing). We’re even considering putting “by right” on the ballot for 100% Affordable Housing which would speed up the production of low-income housing. We support building homeless supportive housing in every district, and have called out Supervisors who are generally in our coalition for not supporting Navigation Centers in their district.
- On a state level, we have supported measures to increase funding for Affordable Housing such as AB 71. We also endorse measures like SB 35 that would have consequences for municipalities that refuse to build their regional housing requirement of subsidized Affordable Housing as well as Market Rate.
- On a federal level, we’ve decried proposed cuts to HUD funding and raised the alarm that the Tax Credits that Affordable Housing Developers rely on are in peril. There’s not much we can do to advocate for increased Section 8 funding, though we’re for it.
- We’re loud supporters of reforming/repealing Prop 13 and having the lions share of that money go to subsidized Affordable Housing and public transportation.
But most people live in Market-Rate Housing. And it’s housing that doesn’t require any government subsidy, and it’s being blocked for dumb, and ultimately selfish reasons. It’s housing we’re leaving on the table.
We probably spend 20–25% of our energy on subsidized Affordable Housing. Listen to Sam Moss and I chat about Housing and Affordable Housing on a recent radio show that we re-broadcast on our Podcast INFILL.
We are big supporters of subsidized Affordable Housing. If a person lives in it, we’re for more of it. That’s what being pro-housing means.
There are folks in the Bay Area who have used a false narrative that it’s EITHER Affordable OR Market Rate. That is completely untrue. It’s BOTH subsidized Affordable AND Market Rate.
The only way we can make Market Rate not a synonym for Luxury is to build more.