Yes (on affordable housing) In My Back Yard!

I would be thrilled to see 200,000 new units of affordable social housing in the city. Just not more housing for the rich --because it's not about density, it's about displacement

I’m kind of done talking about the Yimby conference, which has gotten far more press than you normally see for a wonky housing policy event. But I have a couple of things I have to respond to.

Housing for all — or just market-rate housing for the rich?

I got this email from Sonja Trauss, one of the Yimby leaders in the Bay Area and a candidate for supervisor in D6. I have tried, as I generally do, to reach out to and respond to people who don’t agree with me, in this case Trauss.

Her response:

I think life would be better for hundreds of thousands of people, and would be better for me, if a million or more people lived in San Francisco. You think life would be worse for yourself and others like you if a million people lived in SF. I understand your position, I understand that if we achieve our political goals you will feel sad. I just don’t care. Politics arises out of conflicts.

Actually, Sonja, no.

If your goal is more density in San Francisco and more people living here, that won’t make me sad. You want to add density to single-family neighborhoods? I live in one, and that’s fine with me. (Just don’t demolish housing that already exists, because that makes no sense.)

I would be sad, though, if 250,000 more rich people moved here, and tens of thousands of existing working-class folks, immigrants, and poor people had to leave.

I would be sad to live in a city with no blue-collar jobs, no light industry, a city where workers in what is going to be the largest employment areas in the future – services, hospitality, and health care – have to commute two hours from the suburbs to their jobs because the vast majority of the new housing that “the market” builds will never be available to them.

I do not worship at the altar of the God of Growth. I don’t think every city needs to be Manhattan or Hong Kong. And I think it’s crazy to build more offices and housing without the money to build the infrastructure to accommodate them.

But like most of the housing and community advocates you consider your enemies, I think San Francisco can handle a lot more people than we have, and I think dense areas like North Beach are wonderful, and I would be thrilled to see 200,000 new units of housing in the city.

Our difference with the Yimbys is that we don’t want all that housing to go to rich people. And we don’t want the private market to decide who lives here.

I, of course, like the German approach to regulating housing prices.

But beyond that, I would love to see the city build 200,000 units of new housing — affordable, social housing, aimed at the existing and future workforce, not just at the tech industry, offshore investors, and the wealthy. Housing for people fleeing oppression and wars. Housing for people who see San Francisco as a haven for the LGBT community, for immigrants, for artists and writers and the truly weird who feel out of place in other parts of the world.

Highrise social housing; dense social housing. Infill social housing. I’m all for it.

If we repeal Prop. 13 and start taxing the very rich in this city and this state, we might even be able to pay for the buses and subways and schools and parks and cops and firefighters and water systems we need to handle all those new residents.

I would also like to see the Yimbys help us protect existing affordable housing by putting as much effort into repealing the Ellis Act and protecting rent control as they do into advocating more market-rate housing.

I am not a Nimby. I don’t care that much about my (nonexistent) views; my tiny back yard already gets too little sunlight to grow tomatoes. I am a homeowner who has no interest in rising property values (in fact, I wish property values in my neighborhood would come down, so people who aren’t rich could move here). I do care about the diversity of the city – and I think that what Trauss is advocating will drive out poor and working-class people and destroy the diversity (not the density) that I care about.

She disagrees with that analysis; fine. I can only believe that she seriously thinks allowing private developers and private finance to decide what gets built in San Francisco will lead to a more affordable and more diverse city. There is zero evidence that that has happened, or will happen. I think allowing the market to set housing policy will mean more displacement; it’s not only likely to fail, it will cause immense harm along the way. I feel the same way about health care, where market-based solutions have been a disaster. You like private health insurance? You’ll love market-based housing solutions.

The Yimbys say my goal of building 100 percent non-market affordable housing is a fantasy. I’m completely convinced that their idea that unlimited market-rate housing will bring prices down is even more of a fantasy. That’s the dispute. That’s it. Everything else is political diversion.


A few days after the Yimbys met in Oakland, I went to a much smaller event in San Francisco, held by a group called YAH!. That stands for Yes on Affordable Housing.

We listened to a presentation that had some reality behind it and looked at what job growth is likely to be in San Francisco, and what housing will be needed for that workforce.

The data we saw shows that over the next 20 years, the largest job growth will be in professional services, healthcare, and education. Hospitality is close behind. Tech is a footnote.

Because many of those jobs don’t pay high wages, more than 70 percent of the population growth will be people who earn less than the median regional income.

“A staggering 72% of added households will be in the lower three income categories which are not typically served by new market-rate construction,” the data shows.

It also shows that, contrary to the Yimby narrative, the Bay Area (and San Francisco) have been building a lot of housing – in fact, we’ve been building 99 percent of the market-rate housing we need.

We’re way behind on the housing for low- and moderate-income people. That’s housing that, whatever the Yimbys want to say, the private market simply will not provide.

At the Yimby conference, state Sen. Scott Wiener in essence said I was a “quack” for saying the more housing makes housing more expensive. No: I said that putting high-end (which is all market-rate housing today) housing in communities of concern tends to drive up land values and lead to higher prices and displacement. That’s supported by the evidence.

Then there’s this, again from my pal Sonja Trauss

No disrespect, but the fact that you think our strategy will fail is irrelevant to me because you have a bad track record of participating in strategies that succeed. Ostensibly, for over 30 years, you have been trying to make SF “affordable.” In that time SF has become more expensive than it has ever been and the most expensive city in the U.S. So how could a person with even half a brain look at your track record and think, “that’s a guy that knows what he’s doing! He sure picked a winning strategy!”

Sonja gives me way too much credit.

If you look at my “track record” you will find that most of the policy suggestions I’ve made in my 35 years in this biz have been ignored by politicians who are much more interested in developer money than in listening to a left-wing journalist.

If I were calling the shots, if I had the “winning strategy,” there would be no new office development without the developer paying the cost of housing, infrastructure, and transit (until the developers help us repeal Prop. 13). Apple, Facebook, and Google wouldn’t have been allowed to build corporate campuses for tens of thousands of workers without first – first – making sure there was housing for them.

If I were calling the shots, there would be rent control on vacant apartments, no Ellis Act, and Airbnb would have been shut down until first – first – we had rules to prevent displacement.

If I were calling the shots, we would be taxing the wealthy at high rates to pay for social housing.

If I were calling the shots, I would have slowed down the tech boom, disrupted a little less, and given all of us a chance to adapt within a more regulated market.

If my “strategy” was implemented, I honestly believe we wouldn’t be in this mess.

So don’t blame me. I tried.

I’m done now. I don’t know what else to say.


  1. "I’m done now. I don’t know what else to say."

    At least you are finally accepting your decades-long campaign for absurdity has failed.

  2. Half (53.1%) of all Mountain View workers live in Santa Clara County. 7,335 or 8.6% live in Mountain View. 8,771 or 10% live in San Francisco. If you look at places down the peninsula young people find attractive, they may be less affordable than San Francisco.

  3. I think it would be great if over-zealous developers overbuilt housing. Then, many of them could go bankrupt and sell of lots of nice housing cheap. If left to their own devices, developers will just keep building to their own detriment, which is a good thing. Ideally, you also tax the hell out of unoccupied housing and repeal proposition 13.

  4. It seems like one would be able to show “mass displacement” by comparing the number of residents that move, using ACS surveys from the Census, to other cities – specially those who have a reputation for being ‘stable’.

    Some comparisons I did a while ago tended to show SF with actually a lower rate of turnover than, say, Boston (IIRC). Don’t recall much more, but such an incendiary claim ought to be easily displayed.

    OTOH, if you are worrying about people who, for the most part, pay less and less each year in housing costs (if they have housing) suddenly getting dumped from the Gravy Train, then that emotionalism could easily get ‘displaced’ to dramatic charges lacking merit. And yes, from a personal perspective, it hurts. But personal hurts are not the best way, I’m told, to administer public policy.

  5. I also recall when people were being taxed out of their homes. Those manufacturing jobs are not likely to return. And has energy prices increase more will leave.

  6. There is no mass displacement. There has been mostly replacement. Talented young people have been coming to SF for decades. Employers with high paid jobs followed, attracted by the talented labor pool. Blue and white collar middle-class jobs have been leaving the City for decades and the trend continues. They are not likely to return. The population on average is becoming higher income and more highly educated. I doubt that trend will reverse itself.

  7. Tim Redmond’s main point seems to be to oppose market-rate development in low-income neighborhoods. The YIMBY movement’s push for more housing doesn’t seem to me to be focused on building in low-income neighborhoods. Couldn’t a possible compromise involve relaxing density restrictions in already high-income neighborhoods, but avoiding the same in low-income ones? An element of a compromise that would give a little bit more to Tim Redmond’s side would be support for limited increases in the amount of rent-controlled units. People on Tim Redmond’s side don’t need to believe that relaxing restrictions is good, and YIMBYs don’t need to believe that rent control is good. They just have to each believe that the positive effects of their side of the compromise would out-weight the negative effects of the other side of the compromise.

  8. I read the Forbes link, but I don’t understand how the German example conflicts with claims that the market can regulate housing prices. The article described local government telling a buyer he was paying too much. Is that a price control, or did the local government do better research on market conditions than the buyer did? It’s not clear.

    The article described German localities opening up more land for development as it is needed. That sounds like a supply side approach. There are probably housing regulations in Germany I don’t know about, but I couldn’t see them in the article and I can’t see how the article backed up Tim Redmond’s point.

  9. We’ve also been hearing about climate change for many decades and — guess what? — it’s real. So is mass displacement. Is everyone in SF rich? Clearly not, but truth is not black and white, all or nothing.

  10. After 100 degrees and 90 percent humidity with no air conditioning and bugs everywhere, I never again complained about the fog.

  11. “A key to the story is that German municipal authorities consistently increase housing supply by releasing land for development on a regular basis.”

    That, and the fact that homeowners pay a penalty (that landlords – and tenants – don’t).

    But don’t give Trump and the Rs any ideas. With the 1% controlling more than 50% of the net worth of the country, all we need is a scheme to rob the middle class of their biggest asset – to turn over to the govmint, which then does with it what it wants (Kelo vs Connecticut)

  12. That limit is subject to other considerations, via Jane Kim. So, yeah, there could legally possibliy be more than 5.

    When we moved into a flat in Duboce Triangle in ’73, I seem to remember some old timer saying that flats (5, 6, 7+ rooms) used to be for ‘families’ only. But when they allowed unrelateds, that that effectively priced out a dad (or mom) with one income and several mouths to feed. Even at $250 a month, if you were making minimum wage (~$350/mth), that was way too much. But not if 4-5 adults (or young people) paying $50/ combined to pay the rent.

    You’re right – won’t go back to that. Although maybe they could put that restriction on new housing. However, thats going to put a ding in the market valuation. And when “affordable” housing costs more than $500k (costs of around $3000/), a “family” making min wage ($15/hr = $33k = $2750/mth, … it’s hard.

  13. That is neat, I live close to St. Mary’s.

    I’d imagine the Army had no problem shipping you off to warmer climates! San Francisco must have been a magical place upon your return. That was a time of great hope on so many fronts and we saw some of the greatest leaders in modern American history.

  14. Born St. Mary’s after Peal Harbor. My grandmother was a retired pediatric nurse that helped deliver me.

    Yes fond memories. I recall leaving our front doors unlocked, playing in the middle of the street not worrying about getting run over by a car, and taking Muni alone starting at age 8 or 9 with no concern of safety. However, I never saw the City as beautiful until I returned after 3 years in the Army. As a teenager the City was a drag and I left for warmer weather at every opportunity.

  15. Never believe anyone who tries to insist they are right and doesn’t get back to you when asked for citations of their assertions.

    75 years is a long time in one place. I bet you have amazing memories of our beautiful city. Which hospital were you born, and was it before or after Pearl Harbor?

  16. One of the benefits development of smaller units on the eastside is that it has taken some pressure off of single family homes where several singles get together and share the house. It has also reduced the demand for illegal in-law units. In my neighborhood there have been several new occupants with children that have removed the secondary unit, incorporating it into the main house, to make room for children. The number of school-age children in my neighborhood has increased. It seems we have/had a mini baby boom.

    The percent of households with roommates is very low in most single-family neighborhoods except where the house is located near a university. It is mostly in more densely populated neighborhoods with multiple unit buildings.

    Currently, the limit is 5 unrelated individuals, which is not always enforced. I doubt the City would pass a law lowering the level or prohibiting roommates.

  17. “repeal Prop 13”

    Ok, Tim. I know v little of your personal housing sit. But my guess is your prop taxes would double, triple, quintuple …; would go from $200-300-500/month to $1000-1200-1500/month. Maybe that’s Ok with you. But for many others, it would mean the displacement of homeowners.

    I know you weren’t here in the 70s. But thats exactly what happened pre-Prop 13. I was not in favor of the prop at the time – I think it should have delayed tax payments, with payment coming out of an capital gain realized upon sale. However, that’s not what was voted on. And, like all Govmint Benefits – once you give it, you can’t take it away. Our politicians (like Moonbeam and the Dems in Sacto HAD that power. But they didn’t want to forgo – ne, postpone collecting those taxes. And they got what they deserved.

    CA is not a low-tax state. We don’t have a revenue problem – we have a spending problem. Been like that for a … while. And if you want to bemoan all the great things of the 60s (the ‘other’ Brown’s work), you have to remember it was financed largely by all the steel mills, auto plants and manufacturers who populated CA. See many around today?

  18. “What might help increase the supply of housing for families”
    Prohibit unrelated persons from sharing a unit. IOQ, nix “roommates” who would otherwise have to get a 1 BR or Studio apt or settle for the rooming house model (or, “roommates” in large bldgs).

    Otherwise, how are more traditional families, with several members who don’t ‘bring home the bacon’, expected to pay at the rate of working adults???

  19. Good question about what kind of City we want to live in. What is good about the City now is the diversity of neighborhoods offering many different lifestyles. I value multi-generational neighborhoods where you find many school-age children. In general, you tend to find more families with school age children in lower density, owner-occupied, single-family neighborhoods. I want to preserve those neighborhoods and keep them more affordable by maintaining the supply of single-family homes.

    What might help increase the supply of housing for families, is housing that would attract empty nesters out of their single-family homes. As I age I do find it would be nice to be able to walk to more services which generally comes with more density. Many of us might be willing to make that trade.

  20. “My ideas are based on 75 years of living in the City. What’s yours based on?”

    Data and expert opinion. It sounds like you and I probably won’t agree.

    Have a pleasant afternoon.

  21. Slowing development is a good thing. Rapid over development is a bad thing for the environment and our quality of life.

    My ideas are based on 75 years of living in the City. What’s yours based on?

    I know I can’t go home again. And I do think the changes have been both good and bad. I am really not opposed to all development.

  22. I agree there should be more housing in the South Bay. But what makes you think Google employees who now choose to live in SF will choose to live there.

  23. “One benefit of that tie is as the percent of affordable increases the rate of new development decreases. If there is no production of new market rate housing there will be no (or very little) production of affordable housing.”

    That’s… a benefit?

    It sounds like we have very different ideas of what kind of city we want to live in.

  24. The production of affordable housing is now tied to the production of market rate housing. One benefit of that tie is as the percent of affordable increases the rate of new development decreases. If there is no production of new market rate housing there will be no (or very little) production of affordable housing.

  25. Hmm, what was the original 8 Washington plan displacing again? Oh right…

    Actually, those private tennis courts are quite nice, or so I’m told.

  26. Also interesting is that the average low-income person in the US has more living space than the average middle-class person in Germany. Space is generally one indicator of standard of living.

  27. Without market rate housing there would be no affordable housing. The City has never been affordable. What diversity are you concerned about?

    Those lower-density neighborhoods have less noise, less pollution, more light and space, less crime, and more families with school-age children. There are good reason to preserve them.

    However, there may be parts of those neighborhoods, like along commercial corridors, where some modest increase in density would be no harm and maybe some benefit. And there seems to be areas on the eastside that can be developed.

  28. There seems to be an assumption that affordable housing will go to blue collar workers, teachers, nurses etc. Where is the evidence? From what I can determine, based on a non-scientific survey, affordable condos for purchase (I don’t know about rentals) are going to the same people (occupation and education) who purchase market rate condos. The difference is that they are younger people earlier in their careers. And it also seems that as their incomes and families grow, they move up.

  29. Very often predictions about what kind of jobs we will see in the future have not come true. But IF in fact the growth will be in professional services, healthcare, and education with hospitality close behind and Tech is a foot note. And IF those jobs don’t pay enough to live in the City (or close by). Then the prices will come down. There are many factors the cause higher prices, how much people are paid is a major one.

    Since computer and mathematical occupations are currently 8% of all occupations they can’t be the main driver of prices. Management, business, and financial occupations at 25% are probably the bigger factor.

  30. Step 1. Tie production of affordable housing to production of new market-rate housing
    Step 2. Oppose production of new market-rate housing
    Step 3. TBD
    Step 4. A wonderful, diverse, affordable city, that somehow preserved Don Sebastopol’s beloved low-density neighborhoods that cover 3/4 of the city.

  31. Who is going pay for it? Those who purchase market rate housing. The only problem is that it raises the market price, harming the middle-class.

  32. I have been hearing for 50 years that we are doomed because only rich people will live in the City and everyone else will be commuting from Tracy. Those predictions have yet to come true in SF or in any other City I am aware of. However, there is an upward trend in income and education of the population. But so far there does not seem to by any particular harm. The change has bee both good and bad.

  33. YIMBY methodology is to distort to discredit any counter-argument, and to distort history. No one has to distort their message, however, as it is already foolhardy. Unfortunately it is also dangerous because it fits so nicely into the desires of the ruling class and, for that reason alone, it gets promoted in the main stream press.

  34. If you look at my “track record” you will find that most of the policy suggestions I’ve made in my 35 years in this biz have been ignored by politicians who are much more interested in developer money than in listening to a left-wing journalist.

    This is also very much in dispute, despite your claim that the efficacy of building market-rate housing is “the [whole] dispute.” Of course you didn’t get 100% of what you wanted. Nobody ever does. But over the past 35 years, have city policies been more like what you support or more like what Trauss and the YIMBYs support? More like what you support by an overwhelming margin.

    How do we reach this conclusion? I suggest, as a starting point, a comparison of SF to other major cities. Recycling one of my previous comments:

    If we put every city or county in America on one big Left-Right spectrum with regard to housing policy (with what you call progressive on the left) San Francisco might be the leftmost city/county on the whole thing (unless you put Berkeley or Oakland a little further left). At a minimum it’s in the left-most 5%. It’s insane to pretend San Francisco is the way it is because of some sort of libertarian idealists run amok with Ayn Rand as mayor. San Francisco isn’t and hasn’t been that. It’s not Houston. By most any measure, it’s not even as capitalist or market-run or libertarian as the average American city.

    It’s telling that you point to German policy as an exemplar of what you want that doesn’t exist here. Because you can’t point to any major U.S. city and say, “if only we had left/progressive policy like that, things would be better.”

    And it’s fine — or at least, it’s not intellectually inconsistent — to look at SF at the left-most edge of our U.S. policy spectrum, and still earnestly say, “yes but we should go further left, like in Germany.” But that’s why your critics say your ideas are fantasy: most of what you propose is entirely untethered from the country and legal system and economic system in which the city exists.

  35. Ok, let’s do it. Get the funding for 100 stories of affordable housing at 8 Washington. I’m sure Peskin and his folks would be down.

    Hmm, what was the original 8 Washington plan displacing again? Oh right…

  36. Yes of course. The only problem with Redmondism is that it hasn’t really been tried

    Actually, it has.

    There are only two people who fervently long for the days of the Soviet system to return.

    Vladimir Putin is the other.

  37. Lovely sentiment. Go to war with the majority of residents in the Bay Area. How is your position any different from naked warriors on a hillside invading another tribe for their resources? We have democracy and property rights to save us from the anarchy that you advocate. Grow up. You are not entitled to everything you want. You have to earn your way into the market just like everyone else did or move elsewhere.

  38. All that needs to happen to have adequate housing for Google employees in the South Bay is an end to restrictive zoning. Where are you going to get the money for affordable housing growth, and where will you put it when market rate hasn’t kept up with demand and you’ve ruled out destroying existing single family homes or building in existing commercial areas?

  39. LOL. If only all of my illegal, unconstitutional, unfunded, politically impossible, economically impossible “strategy” was implemented, we wouldn’t be in this mess! Don’t blame me!

  40. “Our difference with the Yimbys is that we don’t want all that housing to go to rich people.”

    YIMBYs don’t want that either, Tim.

    “And we don’t want the private market to decide who lives here.”

    OK, but, it does. So now what? People can’t live inside a revolutionary daydream.

    “But beyond that, I would love to see the city build 200,000 units of new housing — affordable, social housing”

    Great. Let’s do it. How do we pay for it?

    “[Housing aimed] not just at the tech industry […] Housing for people fleeing oppression and wars. Housing for people who see San Francisco as a haven for the LGBT community, for immigrants, for artists and writers and the truly weird who feel out of place in other parts of the world.”

    Please stop erasing the contributions of immigrants, weirdos, and the LGBT community in the tech industry.

    “It also shows that, contrary to the Yimby narrative, the Bay Area (and San Francisco) have been building a lot of housing – in fact, we’ve been building 99 percent of the market-rate housing we need.”

    What we “need” according to the RHNA goals, which were set before the great recession and subsequent tech boom 2.0. Stop clinging to those stale numbers as evidence. As I’ve written here before, from 2009-2015 San Francisco added 123,000 jobs, 50,000 residents, and 12,000 housing units. What did you think was going to happen?

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