The easy thing to do is just try to ignore the likes of SFBARF and hope they will go away. But they don’t, and in fact, a technology reporter at The New York Times, who like other tech writers has suddenly discovered that housing is an issue in San Francisco and decided to chime in, just did a major feature on the group.
And this week, our own C.W. Nevius added another story that essentially argues that if only we stopped all the rules and regulations and got rid of neighborhood opposition, middle-class people would be able to afford the rent.
I just wish people who wrote about the SF housing crisis would first understand the basic facts, which are not that complicated.
We have a crisis because more people are moving here than there is housing – and because that creates a climate for landlord and speculator greed. There are two elements to that situation that are typically left out of all of these stories.
The first is that this particular wave of immigration to San Francisco isn’t the same as the waves of the “hippies” and the “beats” that all the uninformed writers like to talk about. One of the main reasons that counterculture types flocked to places like North Beach and the Haight in the 1950s and 1960s? The rent was cheap. The city was welcoming to people with different attitudes from the mainstream, but face it – if the rents had been the way they are today, the Summer of Love and the Beat Movement and all the cool stuff this city celebrates today would never have happened.
Those people moved here for cultural reasons, not economic reasons. Same, for the most part, as the LGBT community in the 1970s.
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I love phrases like “the Bay Area has always been expensive.” No: In the late 1960s, there were banners across Market Street offering “three months free rent.” When I arrived in 1981, a room in a flat in the Haight was $100 a month.
The reason that people are moving here today is, to a great extent, not cultural but economic. They’re coming for jobs. Nothing wrong with that, and it’s not the fault of the new arrivals. But it’s important to understand. And the reason there is so much more Demand is because city officials, starting with Mayor Ed Lee, decided that turning SF into a center for tech companies was a great idea. He just didn’t stop to think about where the new workers were going to live.
(Lee’s “jobs agenda” wasn’t aimed at unemployed people who already lived in SF; intentionally or not, the jobs that were created went overwhelmingly to people who moved here from someplace else to take them.)
There is Demand and there is Supply. Both, any Econ 101 student can tell you, are part of the equation that establishes Price. We talk all the time about the Supply side – SF isn’t building enough housing – but not about the Demand side. SF has given out tax breaks and rolled out the red carpet for companies that pay a lot of money to people who move here and want to live in a hip place like the Mission.
That wasn’t a random occurrence; it was public policy. Lee could have focused on creating jobs for people who already lived here and were unemployed, but that would have been harder – that population was less educated and an economic development policy would have required serious public investment. Letting the private sector just replace people was easier.
And while tech companies were already on the Peninsula, SF as a matter of policy made it easier for those companies and cities to outsource their housing impacts to San Francisco by encouraging a fleet of special private shuttles to take people from this city to their jobs. The areas served by shuttle stops have seen some of the highest price hikes and the most evictions of anywhere in the city.
And, of course, since the state of California won’t let San Francisco regulate housing properly, the result has been a huge boon for speculators and greedy property owners. The biggest beneficiary of the Twitter tax break wasn’t Twitter; it was the Shorenstein Company, Twitter’s landlord.
And let’s please not forget that Airbnb, a company the mayor has championed, has taken at least 6,000 housing units off the market.
There is zero talk in the NYT or the Nevius column about property owner greed. Instead, it’s all about building denser housing, which under the Invisible Hand of Adam Smith is supposed to bring down prices. Again, not noted: In many cities outside of the US, where there is massive density (Hong Kong) much of the housing is social housing, outside of the private market.
So: We ignore speculators. We ignore Demand. We ignore Airbnb. We just say the problem is Supply. So let’s look at that for a moment.
The solution to most of the city’s housing problems, according to the NYT, BARF, and Nevius, is to give developers a more free hand:
Ms. Trauss’s cause, more or less, is to make life easier for real estate developers by rolling back zoning regulations and environmental rules.
And there’s an utterly false dichotomy set up here, which is particularly annoying to those of us who are part of the stereotype:
In San Francisco, though, things get weird. Here the tech boom is clashing with tough development laws and resentment from established residents who want to choke off growth to prevent further change.
Ms. Trauss is the result: a new generation of activist whose pro-market bent is the opposite of the San Francisco stereotypes — the lefties, the aging hippies and tolerance all around.
Her opponents are a generally older group of progressives who worry that an influx of corporate techies is turning a city that nurtured the Beat Generation into a gilded resort for the rich.
Those groups oppose almost every new development except those reserved for subsidized affordable housing. But for many young professionals who are too rich to qualify for affordable housing, but not rich enough to afford $5,000-a-month rents, this is the problem.
Adding to the strangeness is that the typical San Francisco progressive and the typical mid-20s-to-early-30s member of Ms. Trauss’s group are likely to have identical positions on every liberal touchstone, like same-sex marriage and climate change, and yet they have become bitter enemies on one very big issue: housing.
I don’t even know where to start.
First, the opponents of SFBARF are NOT “a generally older group.” If the NYT tech reporter would bother to go to City Hall hearings, or loud and raucous rallies, he would have noticed that most of the people demanding a different housing policy are young. Many are non-white.
And the differences in policy? This concept that because we all agree on some social issues, like same-sex marriage, fundamentally ignores that fact that the left and the right (yes, the right) in San Francisco disagree profoundly on economic issues.
Many of the people known as “moderates” believe that the free market will ultimately solve our problems, that we need fewer regulations on land use, and that we should not impose higher taxes on speculators and the rich. Does that sound Conservative? Because on economic issues, it is.
When did “every liberal touchstone” stop including income redistribution, progressive taxation, and limits on the ravages of uncontrolled capitalism? Only in the current, bizarre, political narrative in San Francisco.
Ardent low-income housing activists, opposed to the building of anything but low-income housing, have formed an alliance with older, gray-haired NIMBYs to try to stop most construction.
I am a 35-year resident of this city, a homeowner, a parent, 58 years old (which I guess makes me “older”) and a person with gray hair. I do not oppose “most construction.” I agree there are people on the West side of town who don’t ever want any more density, which is a losing battle (although let’s remember: San Francisco is already by far the densest city West of the Mississippi, and third in the entire country).
What I ask, and so many of us ask, is for a little reality in the discussion.
And that starts with the idea that development of any kind should make the city better, not worse. Private development should pay for itself; the rest of us shouldn’t subsidize developers who are out to make a profit.
I have sat in hearings and heard developers say that if the city requires too much affordable housing, and Muni fees that actually reflect the cost of service, then the new buildings won’t pencil out. I haven’t seen the numbers, so I can’t vouch for that claim, but let’s assume it’s true.
In that case, the development shouldn’t happen.
Seriously: If you take the city’s own studies, which show that every 100 units of market-rate housing create a demand for 30 units of low-income housing (because new rich residents want people to serve them coffee and fine wines and clean their clothes and their toilets and provide security etc., and those new jobs mean new people who need places to live), then any high-end housing that isn’t 30 percent affordable is making the crisis worse. Got that? When you are in a hole, stop digging. If you’re in a crisis, don’t make it worse. And right now, building luxury housing is a net loser for the city.
The same goes for Muni. It costs the city far more to serve new housing than the new housing pays. Which means every time the rest of us pay higher fares for Muni, we are in effect subsidizing market-rate housing developers.
“Build, baby, build” sounds so fine and simple. But forget the ugliness factor (why do all these new projects have to be so hideous? A century or more ago, people could build amazing houses. And today, nothing but bland nastiness?) Forget views and traffic and density. Just look at the money: Are new projects costing us more in impacts than they bring in benefits? If so, why are we building them?
If the type of housing that the investors now will finance makes the crisis worse, why are we approving it?
If that new type of housing leads to more displacement and gentrification in vulnerable communities, what is its value?
If building more private-sector housing “of all types” were the answer, why is the private market unable to build housing for the middle class? (One reason: We have created so much Demand that land values and the cost of construction have soared. There is no way the current private market will build anything but high-end housing without strict regulations. And guess what? The more market-rate housing you cram in, the more land values keep rising, and the more it costs to build more housing.)
These are not Nimby questions. They are basic urban planning, basic math. And so far, I haven’t heard the developers or their allies give a reasonable answer.
Please: Show me any evidence, any credible evidence at all, that allowing the private market to build, baby, build in San Francisco today (without demolishing hundreds of thousands of rent-controlled units and creating a city like Manhattan or Hong Kong without the social housing, that none of us want to live in) will actually bring down rents and allow the middle class to stay, and I will listen. But as far as I can tell, that evidence doesn’t exist.