San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation

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The San Francisco Bay Area Renters' Federation (SFBARF) is a political advocacy group formed in response to the San Francisco housing shortage.[1] SFBARF advocates for more housing development, and fewer zoning restrictions on the production of housing.[2] It is one of several recently formed YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) groups in the San Francisco Bay Area.[3]

History, organization, and membership[edit]

SFBARF is an unincorporated club.[4] The organization's acronym barf, a slang term for vomiting, was deliberately chosen to improve the group's name recognition.[5]

The group was founded in early 2014 by local activist Sonja Trauss, a self-described anarchist.[6][7] Previously a prep school math teacher,[7] Trauss now leads the group full-time.[6]

As of April 2016, the group had a mailing list of 500 people and a "a few dozen hard-core members — most of them young professionals who work in the technology industry — who speak out at government meetings and protest against the protesters who fight new development."[6]


Opponents have accused the organization of being funded by the real estate industry.[2] SFBARF has denied this claim, saying they have raised no money from real estate developers.[8] Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman has donated $10,000 to the group.[2]


SFBARF engages in anti-"NIMBY" political activity, such as rallying for housing projects, campaigning for legislation, and organizing events.[2][7] The press has referred to SFBARF as an "avidly pro-development grass-roots activist group" aiming to increase the height and density of buildings allowed under San Francisco Bay Area zoning regulations.[9] The New York Times says of the group:

"Its platform is simple: Members want San Francisco and its suburbs to build more of every kind of housing. More subsidized affordable housing, more market-rate rentals, more high-end condominiums."[6]

SFBARF has campaigned to take over the leadership for the San Francisco chapter of the Sierra Club, claiming that the local chapter opposed high-density development, such as 2015's Proposition D in Mission Bay.[10] According to the San Francisco Business Times, SFBARF "believes that blocking dense housing near transit encourages sprawl," which is environmentally destructive.[11] The national Sierra Club strongly supports infill development.[12] The campaign was criticized in an editorial in VICE, which said that one of the candidates supported by SFBARF had a history of using "shady" activism tactics.[13]

Rivals and opponents of SFBARF include anti-gentrification activists; the San Francisco Tenants Union; and San Francisco supervisor David Campos.[7][6]


The group has invoked California's Housing Accountability Act in order to sue cities when they attempt to block, restrict, or down-size housing development.

Their first suit was in 2015, when SFBARF sued the city of Lafayette, California for blocking a housing development. The group referred to this as part of their "Sue the Suburbs" campaign, creating a website under this name.[14] The suit claimed that under California's Housing Accountability Act, the Lafayette city council could not force developers to reduce the density of a housing project, since the project already complied with all zoning laws.[15] In a televised debate with SFBARF, Lafayette mayor Brandt Andersson argued the suit was unwarranted, saying that Lafayette should "keep multi-unit housing downtown" near the BART station.[5]

SFBARF v. City of Lafayette 2017[edit]

In 2013, O'Brien Land Company submitted an application to the City of Lafayette to build 315 housing units on land in Deer Park Hill. More than two years later, the City of Lafayette met with the developer. Following these meetings, the City of Lafayette approved an application to build only 45 housing units on the property. [16]

The SF Bay Area Renters Federation (SFBARF) sued the City of Lafayette, arguing that the reduction in the number of homes on the land violated the terms of the Housing Accountability Act. In April 2017, a judge ruled in favor of the City of Lafayette, saying that since the city had never voted "no" on the initial application, there was no violation of the HAA.[16]

SFBARF v. City of Berkeley 2017[edit]

In April 2015, a developer submitted an application to tear down a dilapidated building at 1310 Haskell Street in Berkeley, and replace it with three two-story homes. In July 2016, the Berkeley City Council voted 5-0 (with 4 abstentions) to deny the proposal. The city was sued by the SF Bay Area Renters Federation, who argued that denying the application violated the HAA. In October 2016, the city settled the lawsuit by agreeing to reconsider the proposal.[17]

In March 2017, the Berkeley City Council voted to approve the use permit for the new development at 1310 Haskell, but deny a demolition permit necessary to destroy the dilapidated building occupying the lot. SFBARF sued the City of Berkeley a second time, arguing the city violated the spirit of the HAA by denying the demolition permit.[18] The city argued that the HAA applies only to housing approvals, not to ancillary permits like the demolition permit. In July 2017, the judge ruled in favor of SFBARF.[19] In September 2017, the Berkeley City Council voted to approve the project and settle the lawsuit.[20][21][22]

SFBARF v. City of Sausalito 2017[edit]

A homeowner in Sausalito wished to add an additional unit to a duplex. In May 2017, the Sausalito Planning Commission recommended denial of the application, finding that the new building "is out of scale with the existing village like quality of Sausalito and is not in harmony with neighboring structures." In September 2017 the Sausalito City Council denied the application.

In November 2017, SFBARF, Sonja Trauss, the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, and Robert Tillman sued the city of Sausalito, arguing that "out of scale" and "not in harmony" do not qualify as objective plan and zoning standards, and therefore cannot be used to deny an otherwise HAA-compliant housing development project. In April 2018, Sausalito agreed to approve the proposal, and cover CaRLA's attorneys fees.

SFBARF v. City of San Mateo 2018[edit]

In October 2017, the San Mateo Planning Commission denied a proposal for a 10-unit development at 4 West Santa Inez Avenue on the grounds that it was "too tall" and "not harmonious with the character of the neighborhood." In 2018, the San Mateo City Council affirmed the denial, finding that the city's Multi Family Design Guidelines suggested a "transition or step in height" if the difference between projects and neighboring buildings is more than one story.

In April 2018, SFBARF, the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund, Victoria Fierce, and Cliff Moon sued the City of San Mateo, arguing that the Planning Commission's denial violated the HAA, and that the guidelines used by the City Council to deny the project are suggestions, not objective standards, and in any case contain too vague wording to be enforced objectively. The case is pending.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ "SFBA Renters' Federation". Retrieved 23 December 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d McIntire, George (July 1, 2015). "Nobody Can Figure Out How to Fix San Francisco's Housing Crisis". VICE. Retrieved 23 December 2015. 
  3. ^ Murphy, Katy (2017-11-12). "'Homes for human beings': Millennial-driven anti-NIMBY movement is winning with a simple message". San Jose Mercury News. Archived from the original on 2017-11-23. Retrieved 2018-06-14. 
  4. ^ "SF Bay Area Renters Federation". localwiki. Retrieved 23 December 2015. 
  5. ^ a b Smith, Heather (17 Sep 2015). "Urban activists set out to sue San Francisco's suburbs". grist. Retrieved 23 December 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Dougherty, Conor (2016-04-16). "In Cramped and Costly Bay Area, Cries to Build, Baby, Build". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 2016-04-25. Retrieved 2018-07-02. 
  7. ^ a b c d Lydia DePillis, How a prep school math teacher has exploded the debate over affordable housing in San Francisco, Washington Post (February 9, 2015).
  8. ^ Li, Roland (January 29, 2015). "Bay Area renters group advocates for more density to solve housing crisis". San Francisco Business Times. Retrieved 23 December 2015. 
  9. ^ Lamb, Jonah Owen (October 2, 2014). "Pro-development activist group SFBARF agitates for more housing". SF Examiner. Retrieved 23 December 2015. 
  10. ^ Purchia, Robyn (October 14, 2015). "SFBARF keeps the Sierra Club in check". SF Examiner. Retrieved 23 December 2015. 
  11. ^ Li, Roland (Oct 7, 2015). "Housing crisis spurs fight over the soul of the S.F. Sierra Club chapter". San Francisco Business Times. Retrieved 23 December 2015. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ Montgomery, Kevin (November 19, 2015). "Why Are Redditors and a Cyber Bully Trying to Take Over San Francisco's Sierra Club?". VICE. Retrieved 23 December 2015. 
  14. ^ "Sue the Suburbs". SFBARF. Retrieved 23 December 2015. 
  15. ^ Modenessi, Jennifer (December 9, 2015). "Lafayette sued over luxury homes approval". Contra Costa Times. Retrieved 23 December 2015. 
  16. ^ a b Craddick, Judith. "Trauss vs. City of Lafayette" (PDF). Github. Superior Court of Martinez. Retrieved 19 June 2017. 
  17. ^ Knobel, Lance (1 March 2017). "Legal action likely after council rejects housing project on Haskell Street". 
  18. ^ SFBARF. "Petition for Writ of Administrative Mandamus, SFBARF vs Berkeley City Council" (PDF). Github. Alameda County Superior Court. Retrieved 19 June 2017. 
  19. ^ Taylor, Tracey. "Berkeley's bid to stop new housing being built overruled by judge". Berkleyside. Berkeleyside. Retrieved 23 August 2017. 
  20. ^ Taylor, Tracey (2017-09-08). "After long legal dispute, Berkeley approves application to build 3 homes on Haskell Street". Berkleyside. Berkeleyside. Retrieved 2 February 2018. 
  21. ^ Kim, Alicia (2017-12-05). "Housing development on Haskell Street ready for development". The Daily Californian. The Daily Californian. Retrieved 2 February 2018. 
  22. ^ Dougherty, Conor (2017-12-01). "The Great American Single-Family Home Problem". The New York Times Company. Archived from the original on 2017-12-04. Retrieved 2017-12-05.

    Whatever the specifics, what is happening in Berkeley may be coming soon to a neighborhood near you. Around the country, many fast-growing metropolitan areas are facing a brutal shortage of affordable places to live, leading to gentrification, homelessness, even disease. As cities struggle to keep up with demand, they have remade their skylines with condominium and apartment towers — but single-family neighborhoods, where low-density living is treated as sacrosanct, have rarely been part of the equation. If cities are going to tackle their affordable housing problems, economists say, that is going to have to change.