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Millennials find their voice in YIMBY's Sonja Trauss

Sonja Trauss has advice for anyone who feels powerless as they try to stare down the Vancouver real estate juggernaut that’s pricing any kind of living space out of their reach. Speak out. Get involved.

Sonja Trauss has advice for anyone who feels powerless as they try to stare down the Vancouver real estate juggernaut that’s pricing any kind of living space out of their reach.

Speak out. Get involved. Let the decision-makers know what you think and what you need.

“The great thing about politics is it’s like exercise — anything is better than nothing,” the president of the San Francisco Bay Area Renters’ Federation (SFBARF) said in a telephone interview.


Trauss, a 35-year-old math teacher with a master’s degree in economics, is a leading voice in the YIMBY — Yes In My Back Yard — movement. Like many people in her age demographic, she says “yes” to development projects that create new housing opportunities for people who are priced out of the rental or owners market.

The alternative, she says, is seen on the streets of San Francisco. The city has the second highest homelessness rate in the United States, with 795 homeless people per 100,000 residents. Daily headlines chronicle the challenges facing young people who throng to the Californian tech capital but can’t find affordable housing.

When Vancouver counted its number of homeless residents last March, there were 1,847 people without a permanent roof over their head, or 0.31 per cent of the city’s population. It was the highest homeless population ever recorded in Vancouver. This year’s results will be released soon.

homeless vancouver
Last year's homeless count revealed that 0.31 per cent of Vancouver's population has no permanent roof over their heads. - Dan Toulgoet

Although Vancouver is now immersed in the same debate that has been occupying San Francisco’s conversation space for years, Trauss is heartened by the level of deliberatons here.

“I feel Canada is way ahead,” says Trauss, who will be one of the speakers at the sold-out RED (Real Estate Development) Talks at the Playhouse on March 30 . When a friend told her that Vancouver city council might allow owners of character homes to convert their property into a multi-unit residence, she was impressed by the political openness to new ideas.

In fact, she’s becoming more aware that Canadians are not just Americans in warmer clothing. “I’m slowly getting used to Canada,” she said. “It’s very interesting. Everyone speaks English so I expect them to be like Americans but they’re different.”

The YIMBY movement has echoes in the Brexit debate, where young people against Britain leaving the EU because they like the opportunities that open borders provide and older residents tended to want life to remain the way it used to be.

People who own homes or have secure housing in price-challenged housing markets often have no idea what young people are facing, Trauss says. Baby Boomers are living longer and healthier so they’re staying in their homes. “I’m 35 and my parents still live in the house I grew up in. Everything’s the same for them.”

It’s not an old vs young debate, she said. It’s about how people envision the dynamics of their city not just now but when demographics shift as a result of young people moving away. “You want your city’s tax base to be growing and stable and paid into at the prime of people’s lives,” she says. “When we get older we’ll want young people who will care and take care of us. I’m appreciative of all the people.”

She adds, “I wish people would have more empathy and understanding” about the challenges her generation and those following her are up against.

Bigsby bakery
While neighbourhood businesses such as the Bigsby bakery are proving popular in residential neighbourhoods, some owners fear that commercial rents with new residential units will price mom-and-pop operations out of business. - Dan Toulgoet

Trauss was told about this week’s cover story in the Courier. The story highlights the re-emergence of the corner store as residential neighbourhoods start to value walkability to stores and services. The story quotes a baker who is worried about a proposed three-storey development near Mackenzie and West 33rd. It’s not the housing that concerns him; it’s the fact that nine commercial spaces on the street would be replaced by three commercial spaces in the new building.

“No small independent business can afford it,” Earl Morris told reporter Christopher Cheung. “Starbucks is not interested in it because there’s not enough traffic… It will destroy the community.”

Trauss recommends keeping the two debates separate: talk about housing for the sake of housing and let the commercial space dilemma work itself out.

“The public conversation is real and important but a lot of the time when people say that they’re not against housing, that they’re against something else, it’s not always true… We need housing. The commercial stuff has to work itself out.”

Here in Vancouver, there are signs that young people are willing to take Knauss’s advice to get involved in the debate by attending planning meetings, publishing op-eds and turning to social media to give voice to their needs.


In her This City Life column on the Spacing Vancouver website, Jillian Glover describes a City of Vancouver meeting where a young person who spoke in favour of a housing project is accused of being a “shill” for developers by someone opposed to the development.

“A few weeks ago, I was imploring young people to get out and make some noise on housing affordability,” she writes. “Well, it turns out some of them—a few of whom I know and respect in the local urbanist community —were already getting organized.”

She mentions Adrian Crook of 5kids1condo, the @yvryimby Twitter account and Commercial Drive resident Kyle MacDonald who gained notoriety by bartering his way up from a red paper clip to a house in 14 online trades.

“We’re starting a movement, it’s part of the worldwide YIMBY movement — Yes in My Back Yard — which is counter current to Not In My Backyard,” she quotes MacDonald telling the CBC after the meeting. “If you go to #YVRYIMBY you can find an eclectic assortment of people around the city with different versions of what they would like to build in their backyard.”