CA YIMBY Endorses East Solano Plan Despite Cofounder’s Financial Ties, Dividing Housing Advocates

[Note from BenIndy: You may have heard that California YIMBY recently endorsed California Forever’s East Solano Plan, but did you know that its cofounder, who is also a current member of its board, is an investor in the project?  Kind of puts the endorsement under a cloud, doesn’t it – even with the standard reassurances. And did you know that some CA YIMBY members and other housing advocates are very deeply opposed to the project? Do you think CA YIMBY should have disclosed that its cofounder and board member has a financial stake in the success of a project it endorsed? Do you think CA YIMBY is justified in dismissing the concerns of a grassroots coalition that has united a diverse array of groups – Democrats, Republicans, YIMBYs, NIMBYs, long-time residents, new residents, environmentalists, ranchers, and farmers of all ages and backgrounds – as merely “reflexive skepticism?”]

YIMBYs are feuding over ‘California Forever,’ billionaire-backed utopia in rural Bay Area

A plan to build a city in eastern Solano County is causing a schism in the YIMBY movement. | Noah Berger / The Standard.

The San Francisco Standard, by Gabe Gerschler, June 24, 2024

A plan backed by billionaire techies that promises to bring hundreds of thousands of new homes to a remote part of the Bay Area is causing a major rift within one of the state’s most influential housing organizations.

The divide spilled into public view on Wednesday after a former member of California YIMBY criticized the organization’s endorsement of the East Solano Plan, exposing a split between the broader pro-housing coalition and its more urban-focused wing.

Melissa Breach, who left California YIMBY in April, described the East Solano Plan in an interview as “sprawl” that would cost taxpayers heavily for new roads and other infrastructure.

“Everyone wants to believe there is a golden ticket for 400,000 new homes,” Breach, who served as California YIMBY’s chief operating officer, told The Standard. “Everybody wants to believe there’s a silver bullet. We need to be building predominantly inside our existing communities.”

The East Solano Plan, backed by a group calling itself California Forever, is no stranger to criticism. According to its website, the plan hopes to attract 400,000 more people to rural Solano County by providing “middle-class homes in safe, walkable neighborhoods.” It also calls for communities to be served by a “range of transportation needs,” including cars, walking, bikes and “frequent” transit service.

Some residents have resisted the plan, with concerns about the purchase of large swaths of farmland, initial secrecy surrounding the plan and questions over job prospects in the area. The Sierra Club called the land acquisitions a “hostile takeover.

Now concerns are also coming from some of the state’s housing activists, a group that has become increasingly influential at the local and state levels as affordability issues continue to plague the Golden State.

Instead of going all the way out to Solano County to build more housing, the YIMBY critics argue the development should be “infill,” meaning it must happen within cities to capitalize on existing infrastructure and transit lines. That’s in stark contrast to the East Solano Plan, considered “greenfield” development that builds on top of previously undeveloped land.

California YIMBY’s decision to endorse the East Solano Plan is causing rifts within the pro-housing community. | Noah Berger / The Standard.

“I think it is an interesting discussion between people who are very pro-housing and people who are urbanists,” said housing activist Darrell Owens. “That’s the crux of the debate.”

Sam Greenberg, who describes himself as a pro-housing organizer, said the East Solano Plan is incompatible with his vision of what more development in the state looks like.

“I personally do not believe that this project is the right solution to the regional housing crisis,” said Greenberg. “Looking at history, there haven’t really been examples of successful new cities like this in the United States. The movement that has advocated for other new cities in the modern era has not really resulted in places that are that much more sustainable than existing places.”

In addition, Greenberg cited a lack of trust in the people behind the East Solano Plan.

“I think there are a lot of folks who don’t have trust that their intentions are purely altruistic,” said Greenberg. “I think they’re looking to just make a profit.”

Investors in the project include major Silicon Valley technologists and venture capitalists, like Marc Andreessen, Chris Dixon, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, Stripe’s co-founders Patrick and John Collison, philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs and Michael Moritz, The Standard’s chairman.

Other investors include Nat Friedman, a co-founder of California YIMBY and a current board member. [Emph. added.] Brian Hanlon, who leads the organization, said Friedman had no influence on California YIMBY’s endorsing of the East Solano Plan.

“This was a staff-led decision,” he said.

A spokesperson for California YIMBY described the pro-housing movement as “a really big tent.”

“The thing we all agree on is there is a housing shortage and an affordability crisis causing harm across California,” said spokesperson Matthew Lewis. “It is not a surprise we don’t all agree on everything. Yet, I think we still love each other.”

In its letter explaining the decision to endorse the plan, California YIMBY said “most greenfield development in California over the past century has left much to be desired.”

But the East Solano Plan, the organization argues, would establish walkability that is much better than past greenfield developments. The letter also addresses the schism within the YIIMBY movement.

“We sympathize with the reflexive skepticism of the project among members of our coalition, including friends in the environmental movement,” the letter states. “When it comes to solving our housing crisis, our focus remains on making it easier to build housing in existing cities—near quality jobs and public services.”

The East Solano Plan qualified for the ballot this month after receiving the required signatures. On Tuesday, the Solano County Board of Supervisors will decide whether to adopt the plan outright, place it on the November ballot, or order a report to assess the project’s impacts before it is placed on the ballot.

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