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Meet the woman stockpiling cash to sue San Francisco over housing deadlock

Sonja Trauss stands for a portrait at the Yes In My Back Yard office on Friday, September 15, 2017 in San Francisco, Calif. | Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

What do the YIMBY movement and the American nuclear weapon program have in common? They’re both stockpiling ammunition in order to quell their enemies into submission.

In the case of YIMBY, their ammunition takes the form of a legal fund that they’re hoping will intimidate the city into complying with state housing laws.

That’s the experiment at play with the “Sue San Francisco Fund,” a fund recently launched by YIMBY Law executive director Sonja Trauss. She’s raised nearly $300,000 from a slate of high net worth individuals so far, including Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman and investor Garry Tan, and hopes to raise $1 million by end of year.

“It’s to try to deter the city from messing around,” she said. “SF may try to play chicken with the state regulators and we want to make sure that the city knows that there’s resources ready to go.”


YIMBY founder Sonja Trauss is raising $1 million dollars from a slate of wealthy individuals to intimidate San Francisco into complying with state housing regulations. Read more at our LinkInBio. #sanfrancisco #housing #yimby #yimbytok #nimby #sf #housingcrisis #fyp #zyxcba

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San Francisco is already on the state’s naughty list for its housing policies—notably its long permitting timelines and recent high-profile project denials at 469 Stevenson Street and 450 O’Farrell Street.  

But even if the state determines San Francisco isn’t complying with housing laws, there hasn’t been a strong enforcement mechanism to get the city to comply. For example, San Francisco openly admits to not following a state law requiring certain permit processing times, which Trauss calls “brazen.”

This year’s Housing Element Update process is supposed to have more teeth, with the state threatening to withhold funding from cities that fail to create a realistic plan to add to their housing stock. And last month, the state launched an investigation into the city’s “processes and political decision-making.” 

Despite several strongly worded letters, the state has yet to bring a lawsuit against the city over project denials like 469 Stevenson Street, which YIMBY and its allies, including State Sen. Scott Wiener, see as illegal. 

That’s where the “Sue San Francisco Fund” comes in.

“We compliment the state enforcement agency,” she said. “We can be more agile, and they don’t have unlimited resources.”

YIMBY Law has already filed lawsuits against multiple jurisdictions in California.

The group is also involved in two suits against San Francisco related to two of the most high-profile housing denials over the last few years—the planned projects at 450 O’Farrell St.and 469 Stevenson St.

Housing is top of mind right now for many politicians in San Francisco as the state takes a firmer hand in the city’s housing policies. 

In addition to the statewide housing probe, there are two battling ballot measures on the November ballot that address housing. Mayor London Breed is backing Proposition D, a ballot measure that seeks to streamline new housing that meets certain affordability minimums. Proposition E, a rival ballot measure co-sponsored by Supervisors Connie Chan and Aaron Peskin, competes directly with that measure and has earned the scorn of pro-housing groups. 

One expert on law and deterrence said he had never heard of anything like the “Sue San Francisco Fund.”

“This is an incredibly novel concept,” said Nick Warshaw, an attorney at Loeb and Loeb who has studied deterrence mechanisms. 

“Normally people and interest groups try to influence elected officials through the ballot box or through lobbying elected officials. This model proposes a unique mechanism to influence government policy.”