San Francisco’s political winds may turn after Matt Haney’s crucial victory in the state assembly race, with politicians’ perspectives on housing development becoming an important new litmus test.
When he first announced his campaign for the congregation in September, Supervisor Matt Haney said building lots of homes was his top priority when he came to Sacramento. The next month, when a majority of his peers on the board of supervisors opposed development of 495 housing units in his district, Haney made the incident a key campaign issue. And in the final stretch of the race, Haney pounded his opponent David Campos on his apartment record with a barrage of tweets, mailers and digital ads.
While it’s impossible to tell how much Haney’s dogged messages on housing contributed to his victory in the April 19 special election — compared to his massive fundraising advantage or his overall low turnout — his central campaign issue may be in politics not to be ignored by San Francisco. Haney’s lopsided victory could be a sign that the YIMBY movement’s ideology may not be as controversial as it used to be. YIMBY (Yes in my backyard) is committed to building plenty of housing in every neighborhood at all income levels.
“From the beginning of his campaign, Haney has pushed a strong contrast to housing, which is the number one problem in San Francisco,” said Jim Ross, a veteran Bay Area political adviser who hasn’t worked on either campaign. “Haney’s message was, ‘Build more homes.’ Campos” read: “Build more affordable housing, don’t give developers tax breaks.” If you fight a bumper sticker with a heel, you’ll usually lose.”
With housing being one of the few issue areas where the two candidates identified as progressive had significant differences, the campaign turned increasingly negative. As the race progressed, the contestants exchanged jabs on Twitter and in their mailings, culminating in a TV Advertisement by Campos, which showed Ronald Reagan’s face transforming into Haney’s.
But amidst all the sparring, the rejected project at 469 Stevenson St. in SoMa became Haney’s most effective rhetorical bludgeon, according to political adviser Nicole Derse, who led an independent pro-Haney spending campaign that lobbed $900,000 from worker groups.
“Haney wanted to build a high-density housing project with many affordable units in a San Francisco parking lot, and the board of directors stopped it,” Derse said. “People thought that was ridiculous.”
Campos “had a chance at that point,” Derse continued. “If he had said, ‘Matt Haney was right and I would have voted for this project,’ he would have shown that he had progressed … But he didn’t. He doubled down on the obstruction and it was clearly a lost message for him.”
In contrast, Haney was rewarded for dramatically changing his stance on housing – a move that drew the ire of other progressives who accused him of selling to real estate interests. “Matt Haney sold his soul to the corporate devil,” noted San Francisco historian David Talbot in a post on Campos’ website. “It’s so sad and so simple.”
In fact, Haney previously espoused many of the same housing stances he criticized Campos for in this campaign, supported Campos’ failed moratorium on new housing at the Mission, and opposed several state laws aimed at speeding up housing construction. In 2018, Haney ran as a supervisor against Sonja Trauss, one of the founders of the YIMBY movement, and in doing so sharply criticized her and her housing policy.
Oh how times have changed. At that election, Trauss said that Haney is essentially “walking on my platform,” but that she’s glad he’s using her political ideas. “It’s like if your team loses early in the playoffs and you want to see the team that beat you to win the whole thing.”
While Trauss and Bilal Mahmood, an assembly candidate who finished third in the February primary, were standard-bearers for the YIMBY movement, Haney offered similar ideas as just part of a broader progressive political agenda. In that way, Haney resembles David Chiu, the congressman he’s replacing, who began his career as a member of the board’s progressive wing and then became one of Sacramento’s strongest “YIMBY allies,” Trauss said.
Elsewhere in the state and nation, progressives and YIMBYs are not viewed as odd bedfellows. In Berkeley, the progressive wing of the city council has strong ties to the YIMBY movement. South Bay Assembly member Alex Lee has been endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America and also identifies as YIMBY. AOC and Elizabeth Warren identify as YIMBYs. “San Francisco is an outlier,” Trauss said. “Pretty much everywhere else, people are realizing that progressivism is about inclusion and change and about housing.”
Whether Haney’s pivot on housing hints at a larger pivot among San Francisco voters remains to be seen. Turnout for the general election is expected to be between 25% and 30%, and Assembly District 17 covers only half of the city — the more development-friendly eastern half at that.
“This was an election with low turnout,” said Róisín Isner, director of Daybreak Pac, a progressive group that has championed Campos. “It’s hard to draw conclusions about voters’ values when most of them didn’t vote.”
He doesn’t see things that way. “This election was a referendum about building affordable housing and building more housing in San Francisco in general,” she said. While progressives can still “emphasise the limitations of commercial housing construction,” Derse said, “they cannot argue that housing construction is inherently a bad thing. People just don’t believe that. They didn’t really believe that 10 years ago, but they definitely don’t believe that now.”