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California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund — General Support

Award Date 
Grant Amount 
For general support.
Topic (focus area) 

Published: June 2016

CaRLA staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $300,000 over two years to the California Renters Legal Advocacy and Education Fund (CaRLA) for general support.

CaRLA is a nascent advocacy organization that intends to litigate and advocate against regulatory barriers to building housing in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sonja Trauss, the organization’s cofounder, has been successful in some past efforts at mobilizing the public on the subject of land use reform, and we believe that CaRLA presents a good opportunity to grow the field of advocacy-oriented land use reform groups.


Land use reform is one of our focus areas within U.S. policy. Our current priority within this focus area is to grow the field of advocacy-oriented groups working to remove regulatory barriers to building more housing in key regions.

About the grant

Proposed activities

Initially, the main strategy CaRLA intends to follow is to pursue litigation against municipalities that restrict the construction of new housing despite laws that give developers the right to build. If these lawsuits are successful, CaRLA hopes that municipalities and developers will more often take pro-housing state laws into account.1

To begin with, CaRLA has hired a lawyer to sue the City of Lafayette for violating the Housing Accountability Act by rejecting a proposal to build 315 apartments in favor of a lower-density project, despite the original proposal being compliant with relevant zoning laws and previous planning. For more examples of cases where local governments have potentially broken state or federal law by not allowing more housing construction, see CaRLA Vision Statement.

In addition to litigating such cases, other activities that CaRLA may undertake include developing educational resources and/or hosting educational events about housing in the Bay Area; coordinating local residents to attend hearings regarding proposed housing projects; and researching potential future cases it could pursue.

Case for the grant

The San Francisco Bay Area is a key region for land use reform, having some of the highest housing costs and heaviest constraints on further construction in the country (more in our cause report on land use reform).

CaRLA’s cofounder, Sonja Trauss, has been able to attract some public interest to the issue in San Francisco through the SF Bay Area Renters’ Federation (SFBARF), which she also founded. We view CaRLA as a good opportunity to support Trauss to do broader work to reduce housing restrictions throughout the rest of the Bay Area, which we expect will be necessary to make progress on housing affordability. SFBARF will continue to focus on community organizing and campaigning, particularly within San Francisco, while CaRLA, as a 501(c)(3), will focus on approaches like the litigation strategy described above and educational initiatives to increase public awareness about the need for more housing across the Bay Area.

Budget and room for more funding

CaRLA expects Trauss’s salary and legal fees to be its main expenses in the near-term future. In addition to this grant, the organization has also received $100,000 from one other donor.2 We find it likely that the organization would be able to raise more funding from the public if it attempted to do so, though as far as we know there are not many other large funders who are actively funding work related to land use reform (more in our cause report on land use reform).

Risks and reservations

We see a few risks associated with this grant:

  • SFBARF has drawn considerable controversy in the past, and it seems likely that CaRLA will be controversial as well. We see it as fairly likely that such controversy will undermine CaRLA’s efforts by alienating potential partners, but we still see it as a bet worth taking. It’s also possible that controversy related to this grant could make some other potential grantees not want to work with us, though we think that’s quite unlikely.
  • The litigation strategy could fail to be effective, either if CaRLA does not win cases, or if it does not affect municipalities’ willingness to approve new housing in future cases. We don’t have any particular view about whether CaRLA’s legal theory is correct, but we see the litigation strategy as robustly worth trying.
  • Trauss has limited experience running a formal organization, and her public persona presents a degree of informality that we worry may limit her effectiveness as the leader of a more formal institution, though we believe it has contributed to her success drawing attention to this issue in the past.3

Overall, we believe this grant is riskier than usual.

Plans for follow-up

We expect to have a conversation with CaRLA staff every 3-6 months for the next two years, with public notes if the conversation warrants it. At the one-year mark, we expect to provide an update on this grant, either by publishing public notes or by producing a brief write-up. Towards the end of the grant, we plan to attempt a more holistic and detailed evaluation of the grant’s performance.

Goals for the grant

We hope that this grant will allow CaRLA to establish itself as a sustainable independent organization supporting increased construction of housing throughout the Bay Area. Ideally, the organization would be successful in its case against the City of Lafayette and begin to pursue one or more other similar cases, with the result that municipalities are aware of the possibility of a lawsuit if they do not approve housing permitted under applicable laws.

More generally, we hope that CaRLA’s existence and work will eventually contribute to the construction of significantly more housing in the Bay Area.

Our process

Alexander Berger, who leads our work on land use reform, heard from Trauss that she was planning to start a new organization focused on land use reform in the Bay Area. After this, we spoke with Trauss in more detail about CaRLA’s plan and potential budget.


CaRLA Vision StatementSource
Clark 2015Source (archive)
  • 1.

    “The California legislature passed the Housing Accountability Act (HAA) in 1982 to compel localities to permit zoning and general-plan compliant housing development… If CaRLA prevails in Lafayette, we expect developers to be less timid when dealing with localities. Much of California’s pro-housing laws are routinely ignored because localities do not fear litigation. It will not take many winning cases to embolden developers and increase housing production in California.” CaRLA Vision Statement, Pgs 2-3.

  • 2.

    “In addition to Jeremy [Stoppelman]’s $100,000 donation, we intend to raise funds from other tech leaders that have an interest in providing housing for their growing workforce.” CaRLA Vision Statement, Pg 9.

  • 3.
    For instance, see Clark 2015:

    “Trauss’s mischievous personality has also helped her group grow. When I asked her for a photograph to accompany this article, she e-mailed a shot of herself holding a textbook on zoning law, and another in which she posed in a bikini. In one of the organization’s stranger campaigns, it recruited more than 200 people to sign up for the San Francisco group in the Sierra Club’s Bay area chapter, so that the SFBARF sympathizers could attempt a leadership coup. Trauss said she wanted to take over the environmental organization because it has sought to block development projects on the San Francisco waterfront.”