As the tech boom lures tens of thousands to the region, workers are finding that the industry's notoriously lavish salaries aren't enough to make market rate housing affordable. Rents have gotten so high that local publications have openly wonderedwhether commuting by air from Las Vegas makes more economic sense than trying to rent in the Bay Area. In response to the housing crisis, a loud army of activists, journalists, community leaders, politicians, and trolls has emerged to accuse each other of spurring the outrageous upsurge in regional housing costs.
But not everyone is content to merely debate the issue. The San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation (SFBARF), a pro-development political action committee, is attempting a new strategy: Find a powerful progressive organization, pack its ranks with sympathizers—heavily recruited off Reddit—then use this new voting bloc to take that organization over, and leverage its platform and influence to convince voters to change the city's housing policy.
The organization is putting this strategy into action with the local Sierra Club chapter. Sonja Trauss, the founder of SFBARF, told VICE that her group has already recruited 210 supporters to join the venerable environmental advocacy group, whose executive committee elections begin today and run through December 18. The effort has received praise from local newspaper columnist Robyn Purchia and Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman.
This is not the first time outsiders have tried to hijack the Sierra Club: in 2004, reports surfaced that anti-immigration activists had engaged in a decades-long attempt to stage a hostile takeover of the organization's national branch that would have allowed hate groups to advance their views without seeming racist. And even if SFBARF fails to take over the club, the campaign could serve as a blueprint for how real estate and other monied interests can seize control of influential liberal groups with open elections.
Over the course of reporting on SFBARF's efforts to take over the San Francisco city branch of the Sierra Club, VICE uncovered evidence that Donald Dewsnup, the SFBARF member spearheading the campaign, has a track record of using shady activism tactics in his attempts to make the San Francisco housing market more amenable to development, including providing multiple false addresses to the Department of Elections to gain access to a neighborhood organization he wished to influence. VICE also learned that Dewsnup has been banned from the neighborhood-oriented social network Nextdoor for making online threats so severe that they led users of the service to file a restraining order against him.
The Sierra Club Becomes a Target
Before we get into all that, though, it's important to understand why anyone would want to take over a local Sierra Club chapter at all. In recent years, the San Francisco city chapter of the Sierra Club has come to represent the interests of a variety of local progressive causes such as the solar energy initiative CleanPowerSF and thecounty's 2010 vehicle registration fee increase. Though protecting the environment is the national organization's chief concern, this often manifests itself locally in different public policy stances. This includes a commitment to supporting what a Bay Area Sierra Club spokesperson termed "transit-oriented housing," referring to housing built near public transportation with the intention of reducing the number of cars on the road.
In 2013, as part of a broad coalition of organizations, the San Francisco Sierra Clubbacked an effort to block a proposed 134-unit, 136-foot-tall condo project at 8 Washington, a parking lot steps away from the city's waterfront Ferry Building. The groups argued that the project, which would have sold bayside units for an estimated $5 million, would create a "wall on the waterfront," and kick off a wave of development that could transform the San Francisco shoreline into Miami Beach. Although the city's Board of Supervisors had previously approved the project, two separate initiatives made it on to the citywide ballot in 2013, allowing voters to determine the outcome of the project.
The campaign against the development was run by Jon Golinger, an environmental attorney and longtime activist living on nearby Telegraph Hill. When voters handily rejected the project, Golinger credited the Sierra Club (of which he's a longtime member) with helping sway voters against the project.
SFBARF has repeatedly used the Club's opposition to this project as evidence that the local chapter has gone rogue. That's not hyperbole: SFBARF founder Sonja Trauss literally referred to it as a "rogue chapter" when I spoke with her recently. She feels that anti-housing activists have taken over the Club's Executive Committee and have turned the Sierra Club into a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) organization. "If nobody is paying attention," Trauss told me, "any old asshole can take over the board, and that's kinda what happened here."
The irony of her statement, of course, is that her organization is trying to do the same thing, but sway the Sierra Club in the opposite direction.
The Beginnings of SFBARF
For nearly two years, the San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation has had a singular message: build more housing, and build it now. It's a mantra that plays well with libertarian-minded Redditors (the San Francisco subreddit boasts over 48,000 subscribers) and with the scores of downtown strivers moving into the region, compelled by the booming tech industry.
Trauss, a former math teacher from Philadelphia who now lives in Oakland, started SFBARF in early 2014 as an email listserv she ran as a passion project. It has since grown into a burgeoning political operation, converting cash and outspoken support from the likes of Yelp's Stoppelman and Y Combinator partner Garry Tan into widespreadcredibility in the tech scene. The group has become a regularfeature on the San Francisco subreddit, where users have praised Trauss and her "important activism." And Mike Schiraldi, a former Reddit employee and administrator, once referred to as "the face of our company" by a Reddit colleague, is an active member of SFBARF whopromotes the club online and off. See full article HERE