This week, Seattle Weekly ran an error-riddled piece by a San Francisco activist and writer named Toshio Meronek titled “The Growing Power of Seattle YIMBYs.”
As someone who has covered the YIMBY movement in Seattle (and attended the first-ever national YIMBY conference two years ago), I was intrigued by the headline, which echoed my own reporting on the increasing influence of YIMBY activists in Seattle and other high-cost cities. Unfortunately, the headline was just about the only thing about the story that was accurate.
Generally speaking, YIMBYs can be described as people who support the development of housing affordable to people at every income level, from formerly homeless individuals and families to those who can afford market-rate housing in an expensive city like Seattle. Since YIMBYs span the political spectrum, making the term itself a somewhat slippery catch-all, they might better be described as pro-housing: They support zoning and other regulatory changes that make it easier for affordable and market-rate housing developers to add housing to cities, and oppose exclusionary zoning and other restrictions that keep single-family homeowners’ house values on an ever-rising trajectory while pushing people who lack the means to buy single-family homes out of cities. Many YIMBYs explicitly oppose exclusionary single-family zoning because of its roots in racist redlining policies; others do so because it artificially drives up land values by excluding whole classes of people from huge swaths of growing cities. Some YIMBYs support more government-subsidized housing and protections for incumbent tenants; others oppose regulations like rent control on the grounds that they can drive up housing costs. But on one thing, they agree: They say “Yes in My Backyard.”
I wasn’t familiar with the writer, Toshio Meronek. So I did what the editor who green-lighted the story probably should have done in the first place: I googled him. As it turns out, Meronek is a Bay Area activist with a long history of making inflammatory, unsubstantiated claims about YIMBY activists. In a piece for the lefty online publication Truthout titled “YIMBYs: The Alt-Right Darlings of the Real Estate Industry,” Meronek made the bizarre claim that YIMBYs’ goal is to turn cities into playgrounds for the tech nouveau riche while driving poor people into “debtors’ prisons” with the aid of “militarized policing ” and “social control.” In a followup piece for the San Francisco Examiner titled “The Problem with YIMBY,” he doubled down, claiming that YIMBYs’ “alt-right” views are “rooted in racist and anti-poor conservative neoliberal ideologies first inaugurated by Ronald Reagan. Further, they collaborate with the real estate industry to rebrand these racist and conservative policies as hip and edgy — this is the ‘alt-right’s’ method of spreading right-wing politics beyond its old white men in suits image.” Victoria Fierce, a YIMBY activist whose group, East Bay Forward, was featured (and mischaracterized) in Meronek’s Truthout piece, had a particularly scathing, and thoughtful, rebuttal.
Meronek imported the template he employed in San Francisco to Seattle, writing a poorly researched polemic for the Weekly that pits tenants’ rights activists such as the Seattle Tenants Union against YIMBYs writ large, to the diminishment of both.
The piece is a mashup of unrelated policy arguments and mischaracterizations of YIMBY views that reveals Meronek’s ignorance of Seattle’s policy debates and his disdain for accurately reporting basic facts that interfere with his agenda of portrayingYIMBY activists as wealthy, racist, Silicon Valley-funded proxies for the real estate industry.
Originally, I had planned to address every discursive non sequitur in the piece, but then I realized that that’s the entire point: Meronek is attempting to dazzle us with bullshit. By suggesting that YIMBYs are somehow on the wrong side of local, national, and international debates over everything from rent control to rent bidding web sites to Airbnbs to the relative number of public housing units in New York City and Singapore, Meronek manages to implicate them by mere proximity in issues that are barely related, if at all, to the availability of housing in Seattle—which, after all, is what YIMBYs are actually working to increase. The straw men Meronek sets up can then be knocked down with a whisper. The Tenants Union wants more affordable housing? Imply that YIMBYs are against that. The Seattle City Council wants restrictions on rent bidding websites? I bet YIMBYs are super into rent bidding, too. The waiting list for Section 8 vouchers in King County is absurd, and has been for decades? Sure, they weren’t even around when the problem first materialized, but let’s blame YIMBYs for that, too. Some venture capitalist in San Francisco who has nothing to do with the YIMBY movement compares housing to sandwiches? Attribute that same belief to an unrelated think tank researcher in Seattle, while presenting no reason whatsoever for making that connection. Think about it for two seconds and it’s too late, because we’ve crossed ten lanes of traffic to get to an anecdote about Airbnb regulations in New York City.
In the end, the YIMBY becomes a comical straw capitalist with blinking dollar signs in his eyes—the kind of imaginary person who isn’t himself “impacted by the housing crisis” but has figured out how to benefit from it, one greasy backroom deal at a time.
So I’ll just stick, for the most part, to the many mischaracterizations and factual errors in the Weekly’s piece, starting with the claim that the Sightline Institute, a sustainability think tank for which I have written about equitable development and affordable housing solutions, “promote[s] a libertarian, free-market solution to the housing crisis based on trickle-down economics.” Sightline, formerly Northwest Environment Watch, is in reality a Seattle-based think tank that promotes policies that advance sustainability, environmental justice, and social equity. Even if you aren’t familiar with the group, their mission statement and a description of the work they do is right on their website. And even if you’re skeptical of things like mission statements—perhaps you read “We strive to identify injustice and work to dismantle the systems that perpetuate it” and think, “That sounds like free-market libertarianism based on trickle-down Reaganomics to me!”—you can always look over Sightline’s exhaustively archived research, or interview local Seattle sources about their work, or actually talk to the group itself about their mission. There is no evidence that Meronek did this.
Instead—after an 11-word, out-of-context quote from Bertolet, the only YIMBY voice in this story ostensibly about YIMBYs—Meronek accuses Sightline of funneling money… to itself.
Specifically, Meronek makes the bizarre and nonsensical claim that Alan Durning, the director of Sightline, has “funneled at least 1.3 million dollars to YIMBY organizations through the charity Good Ventures, founded by Facebook billionaire Dustin Moskovitz.” This claim is so ridiculous on its face that I’m going to take a second to unravel it, because it speaks to the poor level of reporting in this piece overall, and is the kind of thing that should have made an editor or fact-checker question the veracity of the entire story.
Open Philanthropy, the foundation created by Good Ventures, is a nonprofit that provides grants to a long list of mostly left-leaning organizations, including Sightline and other sustainability groups. Sightline is not itself a granting organization and does not control the giving of any organization that provides its funding.
What Meronek appears to have done is look at Open Philanthropy’s grants database, picked a few groups more or less at random, including Sightline, and added those up to get to (approximately) $1.3 million. (I say “more or less at random ” because there are several groups that received funding from Open Philanthropy, including California YIMBY, that have “YIMBY” right in their name but did not make Meronek’s list of YIMBY groups). What’s bizarre about Meronek’s statement is not only that he’s claiming that Sightline made funding decisions for Open Philanthropy, a group that gave Sightline money and not the other way around, but that Sightline gave Open Philanthropy’s money to itself.
This is confirmed by an email from Weekly editor Seth Sommerfield to Sightline, in which Sommerfield explained that the $1.3 million number was “the approximate sum of these grants specifically: Sightline $350,000 10/17; East Bay Forward $40,000 4/17; Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corp. $300,000 7/16; California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund $300,000 6/16; Sightline $450,000 10/15.” (Those numbers actually add up to $1.44 million, not $1.3 million, which seems like a weird rounding error if those were in fact the numbers Meronek used to get to $1.3 million.) Sommerfeld then said that any issues with the way the Weekly characterized Sightline were just ” a matter of your perception, not based on false reporting.”
“We have not found any inaccuracies in the reporting,” Sommerfeld wrote.
What the Weekly is saying, and standing by, then, is that of the funding it is claiming Sightline “funneled” to nonprofits through Open Philanthropy, a funder that is not controlled by Sightline, approximately $800,000 went to Sightline itself. Put another way, they’re claiming that Sightline granted itself $800,000 from an organization it does not control. There’s no way to make these numbers make sense. They just don’t. It’s like saying that a group that gets money from the United Way—say, the Downtown Emergency Services Coalition—is in control of all of United Way’s charitable giving because they received a grant from United Way. Claiming that a group controlled the funding decisions of one of its benefactors, and somehow gave money to itself, is not a matter of perception, or a different way of looking at the numbers. It is a falsehood, represented as fact.
But the YIMBYs at Sightline aren’t the only thing Meronek mischaracterizes. He also blames YIMBYs—an acronym that barely existed before 2016—for gentrification in the Central District, implying that it is a new phenomenon that can be laid at their feet.
The city’s Central District is a stark example of what can happen when market-rate development is unleashed on a neighborhood. Once a majority-black area, the District is now cost-prohibitive to many black Seattleites, who make, on average, less than Asians or whites. The city now faces what its own Race & Social Justice Initiative calls an “extreme racial disproportionality in homelessness,” with—no surprise—black people ending up on the street in droves.
I couldn’t find an online source for that RSJI quote, which gives me pause in the context of a story that is so littered with misrepresentations and sentence-fragment quotes throughout, but that isn’t the part that’s wrong—Seattle’s homelessness crisis is also a racial equity crisis, with Native Americans and African Americans ending up homeless far out of proportion to their representation in the population. The problem is that the Central District (or, as Meronek adorably calls it, “The District”) lost the bulk of its African American population long before the current boom. See, for example, this 2005 Seattle Times article bemoaning gentrification from a wave of white newcomers to the area. Or this 2007 Seattle PI article describing the same trend.
In fact, you can go all the way back to the year 2000, when the Central District’s African American population had been reduced to more than 70 percent in the 1960s to just over a third. (Today, it’s closer to 20 percent). People were trying to figure out what to do about the problem then, too. At the time, though, the issue wasn’t a wave of market-rate development—that didn’t happen until recently—it was a lack of housing affordable to people who were being priced out of the area by taxes and losing their homes to predatory housing lenders. (Policies that would have allowed and incentivized more housing in the area, including affordable units, could have helped with that.) The current wave of market-rate development that is being “unleashed on” the Central District is not responsible for gentrification that emptied the neighborhood of African American residents 20 years ago, or 10 years ago. These are complicated problems that shouldn’t be placed, ahistorically and unfairly, at the feet of present-day activists who are, in real time and on the ground, trying to solve them. There are certainly groups, particularly in the Bay Area, that promote market-rate housing at the expense of other solutions. But that’s not what’s happening in Seattle—nor, for the most part, anywhere. Pro-housing YIMBY groups here in Seattle have actually supported equitable development projects that are attempting to slow the trend of gentrification in the CD, like the recent partnership between Forterra (a sustainability nonprofit that has recently gotten into urban development) and Africatown, to develop affordable housing and support black-owned businesses in the heart of the neighborhood.
After blaming historical gentrification in the Central District on a movement that just started in the last few years, Meronek pivots back to Sightline, which is when he makes his most bizarre
The next misrepresentation, which has little to do with the YIMBYs, is minor in comparison: Meronek claims that an electricity survey showed that Vancouver was overrun with foreign investors buying up apartments and leaving them vacant. (The evidence was that 12,000 units had very low electricity usage, a stat that advocates for foreign investor taxes have used to argue that those units are sitting vacant.) Bertolet himself actually did a great job debunking this survey, using historical electricity usage data and occupancy data over time to show that the rate of low-usage units has remained flat over time, as has the occupancy rate of apartments in Vancouver. His research, headlined “Stop Blaming Foreign Home Buyers,” is well worth reading in full.
After a quote from “Capitol Hill staple” Dennis Saxman (an old-school lefty with little influence but who’s always game for a quote about how development is bad) describing YIMBYs as advocates for “uber-development,” the aforementioned non sequitur about New York and Singapore, and some random statistics about Airbnbs in Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, and New York, the piece winds down with a plea for rent control and inclusionary zoning. But Meronek gets that one wrong, too. After implying that Seattle doesn’t have inclusionary zoning, Meronek pivots and says we do, but that “an unmarried, childless buyer can make up to $84,000—or 120 percent of the area median income—and still be eligible for this affordable housing.” Seattle’s inclusionary zoning program, known as Mandatory Housing Affordability, provides rent-stabilized apartments to people making up to 60 percent of the Area Median Income, or $42,150 for a single person with no children, and homeownership assistance is available for people making up to 80 percent of AMI, or $56,200 for that same single, childless person. It’s unclear where Meronek got his 120 percent figure, which also remains uncorrected.
Would a local writer with some familiarity with local organizations and issues have done a better job writing about this issue? Probably. Would an established journalist have done a better job than an activist with an (easily Googleable) ax to grind? Almost certainly. But the biggest issue I see with this story isn’t even its writer’s mangling of the truth. It’s that the writer decided he wanted to tell a story—about a shadowy cabal of corrupt Silicon Valley capitalists and associated sham nonprofits lining their pockets with the spoils of late-stage capitalism—but he didn’t have the goods. That’s why the story, on its face and setting aside all the errors it contains, makes no sense. What do Singapore’s public housing policies, Facebook, Airbnb, Chinese investors in Vancouver, and Rentberry have to do with a bunch of activists in Seattle? Nothing, really, but when you glue them all together with a few quotes from tenant advocates and random Capitol Hill activists, it sure sounds sinister, doesn’t it?