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Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America BY Conor Dougherty. New York: Penguin Press. 288 pages. $28.

The cover of Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America

In April 2014, a group of protesters in Oakland blockaded a purple coach bus that was transporting Yahoo! employees to their Silicon Valley offices. Demonstrating against the tech-fueled inequalities in the Bay Area, one member of the protest climbed on top and intentionally vomited down the bus’s front windshield. Shortly after the incident, Oakland resident Sonja Trauss read a TechCrunch essay explaining how the “vomiting anarchist” had been born out of decades of inequitable Bay Area housing policies. Trauss, a thirty-two-year-old former teacher and “marginally employed rabble-rouser,” concluded that “the bus protestors were right to be angry about rent but were focusing on the wrong things.” Inspired nonetheless, she soon formed the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation—an organization better known by its acronym, SFBARF—to attack the region’s housing crisis by advocating the construction of as many new units as possible.

In his new book Golden Gates, New York Times journalist Conor Dougherty follows SFBARF’s path from an Oakland apartment to the state capitol as the group created a movement that “would upend California politics and help to spawn a national uprising of angry, millennial-aged renters.”

Golden Gates argues that the real root of San Francisco’s housing crisis is in the city’s and the state’s restrictive zoning laws. According to SFBARF, the city’s vast tracts of low-density-zoned neighborhoods prohibit building new, taller apartment complexes with more units, which means developers focus on building high-profit units in the few high-density-zoned neighborhoods available. This shortage of new housing not only incentivizes landlords to evict existing tenants but also forces lower-income renters to compete with the city’s highest earners. SFBARF has taken a YIMBY, or “Yes in My Back Yard,” stance, predicated on the idea that more market-rate housing of all kinds, including luxury buildings, will take pressure off the market and today’s high-end apartments will eventually be affordable. This developer-friendly strategy might sound too good to be true, and by Dougherty’s own admission, this process from luxury to affordability will “take decades.”

To her credit, Trauss also advocates building publicly subsidized affordable housing and extending tenant protections like rent control. On this point, Trauss has a fragile alignment with Bernie Sanders’s Housing for All plan, which includes YIMBY provisions like using federal law to supersede local prohibitive ordinances to build more affordable housing units. Her belief in building housing of all kinds to help everyone was based on personal experience. Trauss saw the effects of housing saturation firsthand while growing up in the Philadelphia neighborhood of Germantown during the late 1980s. The area had once been a prosperous place, full of stately mansions, but had declined over the years. A building next door had gone up in 1914 as luxury apartments but by the time Trauss was born had become a squat. Her father, a housing lawyer, decided to buy the place himself and clean it up. From this experience, Trauss learned “how an excess of property leads to lower rents” and “how once high-end buildings filtered down the income ladder.” Above all, Trauss realized “that it was possible for a regular person to insert himself into a big and complicated problem that he seemingly had no business getting involved in.”

Trauss arrived in the Bay Area in 2011. Since then, the ratio of jobs created to housing units built has been eight to one. California’s housing crisis might seem extreme compared to the rest of the country. San Francisco regularly tops the list of most expensive cities in the country—a market-rate one-bedroom apartment rents for almost $4,000 a month on average. As Dougherty has written for the New York Times, some government employees making $81,000 a year—just below the “low income” line of $82,200—commute for six hours round-trip from cheaper towns inland. But Dougherty, along with Trauss and SFBARF members, argues that the housing crisis in California is a harbinger of what’s to come in other cities around the country.

Trauss’s public-speaking and social-media skills garnered the attention of local bigwigs like Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, one of the first funders of SFBARF, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ Scott Wiener, who embraced her movement. Her willingness to work with tech bros and political “moderates” (at least by San Francisco’s warped and insular political standards) like Wiener in pushing construction of market-rate housing raised the question: Which side are you on, SFBARF? This ragtag group managed to gather enough momentum to create YIMBY Action, a well-funded lobbying and political-mobilization machine. In 2017, the state legislature passed SB 35, a YIMBY Action–backed bill that streamlined housing construction across California, and Governor Jerry Brown signed a $4 billion affordable-housing package to address the issue.

Although Golden Gates is premised around the rise of SFBARF and Trauss’s political power, Dougherty shows that the movement has yet to achieve a sustained victory. Based on current building costs in California, the $4 billion housing package, even when combined with $8 billion in matching private funds, will supply only 28,235 units, or 0.8 percent of the 3.5 million units needed to make a dent in the state’s housing crisis. Trauss herself has been unable to turn her publicity into a traditional version of political success. In 2018, she made an unsuccessful attempt to get elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on a YIMBY platform. Though the entire book builds toward Trauss’s political ascent, Dougherty ends with a tear-filled post-election party.

Despite Dougherty’s compelling reporting on SFBARF and Trauss, his book’s ending feels less than satisfying. Perhaps a lack of resolution to Golden Gates is fitting for such a seemingly intractable problem as affordable housing. Dougherty was the right reporter in the right place to capture the human stories at the heart of this dreadful irony. Despite its setbacks, SFBARF may be the start of a political breakthrough—or it might just leave us with more luxury housing and vomiting anarchists.

Justin Slaughter is a journalist and critic in Brooklyn.