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NIMBYs still block housing in San Francisco. They’ve just updated their language

New housing is always ‘too tall,’ ‘too dense’ or just ‘not right for this neighborhood.’ Is there anywhere we can build desperately needed homes?

Colorful artwork of a coastal street with houses, lined by barriers and bulldozers under a pastel sky.
AI illustration by Clark Miller

By Jane Natoli

It used to be fashionable to just say you didn’t like new homes. When I started doing housing advocacy almost a decade ago, people straight up said that in their public comments. The talking points have matured over the past decade as the Yes in My Backyard movement has grown in San Francisco and beyond. It’s now gauche to say you just don’t like new housing or new neighbors.

Now, opponents of new homes—foremost among them Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin—love to say they support new housing as long as it’s the right kind of housing. Or in the right neighborhood. Or just not so tall. Oh, we love this modest building—that is often not legal to build due to our current laws nor financially feasible. Why don’t we just do more small, modest buildings like that?

But let’s be clear: Too many San Franciscans will never be happy with any new homes, regardless of how smooth their rhetoric has become.

Already in 2024, NIMBYs have organized against proposed housing in the Northeast Waterfront at 955 Sansome and 1088 Sansome, leading to legislation by Peskin imposing density limits on the neighborhood. They have complained about proposed plans for allowing greater housing density in the western and northern neighborhoods, specifically focusing on Lombard Street in the Marina and Cow Hollow and Geary Street in the Richmond. 

The Board of Supervisors, led by Peskin, opposed a proposed state law that would make it easier to develop the arbitrary parts of the Coastal Zone that don’t need protecting and are already developed, like Safeway parking lots or even 2700 Sloat St., the site of a garden center where neighbors have fought every iteration of a housing plan. NIMBYs showed up to say that adding 24 new homes in the middle of Pacific Heights was inappropriate, raising spurious environmental concerns. 

Again, Peskin was the lone vote against these new homes. There is a clear pattern of Peskin riling up and organizing the NIMBY vote for his rumored mayoral run in the past two months. All this despite San Francisco’s continuing housing shortage and need to build new homes, as the city agreed to do to comply with state law. 

My question for opponents of housing is: Where can we build new homes? How will we meet our obligation to house current and future San Franciscans? Why are we unwilling to make space for the next generation of San Franciscans, pricing them out to elsewhere in California or beyond? What answer can you possibly have when the only word in your vocabulary is no? 

Naysayers don’t want housing anywhere

Since the 1980s, the city has been focused on developing new homes on the east side of San Francisco, which is why our unanimously approved citywide housing plan concentrates on building more homes throughout the wealthier neighborhoods in the north and west sides of San Francisco, where development has been shut out for decades. But if we can’t add housing density on the Northeast Waterfront, or the Richmond, or the Marina, or Cow Hollow or Pacific Heights, or the Outer Sunset, where exactly are we supposed to build new homes? 

It’s time to stop giving credulity to people who reflexively say no to all new housing. The fact is they don’t want new housing in San Francisco. They want to throw up a giant “no vacancy” sign atop Telegraph Hill, and let everyone scramble for whatever houses remain. We have seen the disastrous effects of their policy preferences play out over decades: spiraling rents, unaffordable homes and massive displacement. 

There will always be tradeoffs. But we should not be equally weighing homeowners’ beautiful bay views against the needs of hundreds of future San Franciscans who could live in a newly erected building near the bay. Those two things are not equal. People deserve priority.

Change is hard, and NIMBYs by definition are change-averse, but change is occurring whether they participate in it or not. That change, for decades, has been to displace anyone who can’t afford to live here, anyone who doesn’t have the security of locking in a good mortgage a long time ago or anyone who’s just fed up with the inequitable tax burden placed on new residents despite reviling newcomers rhetorically. 

Thankfully, the tide has turned because of the YIMBY movement. We have written better laws. We are holding our politicians accountable when they make these decisions and rendering the constant NIMBYing of projects moot because we have a legal obligation to build homes. But that all takes time. 

There is a compounding cost to the housing not being built now, to the housing being delayed because we enable naysayers. We need to stop enabling politicians like Peskin, who embody this kind of behavior. We’ve seen what kind of city the NIMBYs have built—we are all living in it. Let’s see what kind of city we can build if we say yes to more homes. 

Jane Natoli is the San Francisco organizing director for YIMBY Action. She lives in Inner Richmond.

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