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Home News + Politics The problem with “smart growth”

The problem with “smart growth”

In San Francisco today, It amounts to ethnic and class cleansing, whatever the rationalization

I think we can all stipulate that in general “Smart Growth” — environmentally-responsible urban development — is good. And in general more housing to meet population growth is needed.

But cities and communities don’t evolve, exist, and develop “in general.”


This comes to mind reading today’s commentary by a prolific local blogger complimenting the current national “Yimby” organizing as fundamentally well-intentioned in urging both.

Perhaps. but the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s new draft “Plan Bay Area 2040,” for example, which proposes providing that new housing by transforming inner city neighborhoods into such high-density Smart Growth districts, comes with a horrendous human cost: the near-complete displacement of those existing communities’ current black and brown lower-income residents and the destruction of their precious accumulated “social capital.”

Let me be blunt: the MTC proposes the conquest and destruction of long-time Central City Latino and African-American neighborhoods, to be transformed into new bourgeois neighborhoods for a mostly professional White and Asian gentry. and the displaced are literally offered NOWHERE else to go.

This IS Ethnic/Class Cleansing, whatever the rationalization.

The San Francisco exemplar is of course the fierce battle over the future of the Mission District today. The social capital of its vibrant Latino Community, built-up by four generations in the decades since WWII, is unquestionably irreplaceable and without any conceivable alternative new location in the Bay Area — even assuming its Latino residents had affordable housing options not far away, which they actually don’t.

it doesn’t matter this will be accomplished by 21st Century “market forces” facilitated by housing-development-friendly zoning regulations, instead of the redevelopment bulldozers of the 20th Century. The result IS the same. and actually, by its end redevelopment law included strong legal requirements to provide new replacement affordable housing for such displaced communities (maybe THAT is really why Gov. Brown killed redevelopment outright in 2011). Today’s zoning rules do not. The MTC Plan does not.

And the Yimbys actually oppose any such protections for the existing communities. They oppose increasing the requirements for affordable housing in private development too. They claim because any such rules might result in less new (market rate) housing being built overall they must be opposed. For example, the Yimbys oppose the pending AB915 State legislation that would ensure any project getting up to 35% more “bonus” market rate units thanks to State law has to fully comply with local Inclusionary Affordable Housing regulations.

The Smart Growth that DOES achieve the goal of providing more housing WITHOUT the conquest, destruction, and Ethnic/Class Cleansing of lower-income communities is the transformation of former military bases/industrial districts into all-new neighborhoods. In San Francisco, the Shipyard/Candlestick and Treasure Island projects alone will add 20,000 new housing units, 30% of which will be affordable. and Mission Bay, the first such project with 8,000 new units, is now nearing completion.

The problem is, due to their enormous up-front infrastructure and clean-up costs, and pay-as-you-go financing plans, it takes 30 years to complete these mega projects. Why don’t we solve that problem and build them in 15 years instead?

And also instead, rigorously protect our precious vulnerable communities and their residents, starting with the Mission District (and next, the Tenderloin), rather than allow them to be destroyed by “market forces?”


  1. Do you have any idea what you are saying? So let us say that you place an apartment building in a single family neighborhood and the neighbor nextdoor decides to build a carwash and across the street a person wants to build an auto body and paint shop. Do you think your investment would suffer from the lack of consistent zoning? How does this “protect” you as an owner? Infill lots are largely fools gold. A surprising number of them are brownfield sites with unmitigated toxic waste still lurking beneath the soil. I laugh when I hear YIMBYs outraged that the Sierra Club has come out against building housing on top of an old automotive facility. Those sites usually are contaminated by PCE, PCB and Poly Vinyl Chloride and other carcinogens.

  2. How is giving landowners the right to build as many homes as they want on their property and example of “property rights being stripped by the government”? Smart growth is about reducing restrictions on property rights on infill lots.

  3. This may be true. The only thing that potentially saves renters is acquiring a property. This is why everyone should be DOUBLE concerned when property rights are being stripped by government and crony developers.

  4. You get that even if absolutely no new homes get built in SF, the Ellis Act and OMI evictions will still exist, right? Blocking development does nothing to protect tenants.

  5. That is true people with high paying jobs want to live here and will gentrify the Mission even if there is no new development.

    Traditionally, talented young people came to SF for the lifestyle. Employers with higher paying jobs came for the talent pool. Of steadily employed workers that live in SF, the percent that leave the City to get to work is increasing. It is over 40%. 80% of the Bay Area jobs are not in SF. In my neighborhood nearly half don’t work in SF but reverse commute.

  6. Around 2% of those evicted end up “homeless” but they are not the chronically homeless; most are temporarily homeless. High rents are not the cause of vagrancy, mental illness or substance abuse. There are homeless in cities where rents are lower.

  7. I believe the eastside development does not require zoning changes, or it where housing is replacing industrial use. I would support you if you didn’t want development in your neighborhood that had a negative impact on the quality of your life. I would also support you if you wanted development where you live. Where do you live and why do you want to see development where you live?

    It was smart of you to become an owner. That is the only way one can be assured of being able to stay in the City. I learned my lesson many years ago after being OMI evicted.

  8. Then you should support preservation of lower density, owner-occupied, single-family, child friendly neighborhoods.

    Actually, development on the eastside that provides units for young singles may be a good thing. It takes pressure off other neighborhoods.

  9. You are more than welcome to stay if you can afford to. If you cannot, that is regrettable. Maybe you should have made other choices. What ever bad choices you made in life, don’t blame me. Why did you come here in the first place? You didn’t know it was a high cost city?

  10. I live here and own my home. I don’t want Frisco to become a city of geriatrics, that’s all.

  11. I am sorry if you can’t afford to live in the City. But there are many other nice places to live that maybe you can afford. Where did you come from?

  12. Specifically, single-family owner-occupied child friendly lower density neighborhoods. Neighborhoods for families with school-age children.

    Single family homes are in limited supply and prices have soared. Re-zone single-family neighborhoods and the supply will be even less and the prices even higher.

    In my neighborhood, as the middle-class occupants died or moved because their jobs moved, they have been replaced by upper middle-class families with school-age children. That is not a bad thing. They take good care of their homes and have improved the neighborhood. I don’t have anything against people who have more money than me. They are just as nice as anyone else.

    I am not necessarily opposed to change, I agree that some of it is good. From what I gather, most people move to SF for the lifestyle. I am not clear on the attraction since I am SF born and bred and didn’t move here. Growing up in the Inner Richmond fog belt, I thought the City was a drag, and took every opportunity to leave. It was not until I was away for three years in the military that I appreciated the City’s beauty and climate.

  13. “We do understand that people need a place to live.” Well, I understand that at least. California is suffering from an acute housing shortage. And the only solution is to build, build, build.

  14. That’s not “name calling.” No dirty words or insults spoken. What “community” are you speaking about? Certainly not the large share of Californians who are paying up to 50% of their wages for rent because of the housing shortage everywhere.

  15. Yes, you’ve said that many times. Your meditation mantra, in your hilltop home. Commoners be warned.

  16. You aren’t serious then. I won’t be either. Of course I think there should be more homeless everywhere in San Francisco. Enough to make Charles Dickens blush. Encampments everywhere. Of course, since it costs $40k per homeless person for the bureaucracy to care for them, it will quickly make San Francisco broke. But at last heartless, NIMBYs from the suburbs will have their Revenge. (sarcasm off)

  17. You didn’t answer the question. Do you think there should be more homeless people in San Francisco?

  18. You are correct about private property but not about “the commons” ( or what environmentalists call “externalities”) Neighborhoods are the broad quality of life features that make a place special. (schools, crime, parks, etc) Zoning was created to make certain that incompatible uses do not infringe on the “commons”. Zoning is the reason that you won’t find a carwash in a residential neighborhood. When housing activists argue for looser zoning, they are seeking a lower economic barrier to entry to a neighborhood. But if the neighborhood is not maintained, then all of its occupants lose. A better way of zoning is private developments with explicit land use restrictions. It is good citizenship to care about your neighborhood.

  19. Why? What is it you’re trying to preserve specifically?

    People do not move here for what it’s like now. And they wont stop moving here because there are too many people. This “golden goose” you speak of is a fallacy. People move here because of THE PEOPLE.

    You don’t want people to come, so you suffocate the housing stock. Well, now all you’ve done is made it a haven for the wealthy. People are coming whether you like it not, and all you’re doing is assisting the displacement of your neighbors who can’t compete with wealthy who want a place to live.

    Change brings new friends, interesting people, and brilliant mixing of ideas

    Change gets us new and exciting culture: restaurants, bars, music, theater, art

    Change gets us the removal of lead and asbestos.

    Change gets us cleaner air and more efficient energy.

    Change allow us to better understand our mortality and improve the conditions of our lives.

    Change will see us realizing our fantastic dreams for the future.

  20. So what? Who cares what Tim Redmond has? Can’t you engage in civil conversation about housing policy?

  21. You don’t own your neighborhood.

    You can own your house.

    You can own your car.

    But that parking lot across from CCSF? That garage on Divisadero? You don’t own those things. And you don’t reserve the right to prevent the owner of those things from developing housing on those sites.

    Housing that would alleviate the displacement this author insensitively refers to as “cleansing”.

    People come here for the high-paying jobs in a booming West Coast economy. More Jobs. More People. More Need for Housing.

    Those people who are drawn here for the economic opportunity are are going to find a place to live, even if it strains them. BECAUSE THEY CAN AFFORD IT.

    So if you clan-up with your neighbors to say “Not In My Backyard with that new condo”, you are directly responsible for the displacement of your neighbors when the people who can afford to are now competing with your neighbors for housing — when really, they would have payed the same or more for the new construction.

  22. From this Medium post: https://medium.com/@fonssagrives/tim-redmond-and-the-selfishness-of-the-old-and-rich-2e938e13ba01

    >Redmond believes that the debate over housing has taken San Francisco away from its foundational progressive idealism, asking what happened to taxing the rich and redistribution in the midst of all this rampant capitalism:

    >>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.

    >This is really interesting to me because, by any reasonable standard, Tim Redmond is rich. According to public records, Redmond owns a three-bedroom house on the west slope of Bernal Hill. Last sold in 1999 for $352,000, Trulia puts its market value at $1.4 million. If you own a $1.4 million-dollar house which has quadrupled in value since you bought it, I think it’s fair to say you are rich. How much do you think Tim Redmond — he of progressive taxation and income redistribution — pays in property tax on this $1.4 million house?

    >Trulia supplied me with that number. It’s $5,669. Better stated, that’s 0.4% of the house’s market value.

    >It’s bizarre that Redmond can write nearly 2,000 words criticising housing advocates for failing to ‘understand the basic facts, which are not that complicated’ without seeing fit to mention how he benefits from Prop 13, the California law that holds down property tax regardless of actual market value.
    He calls for income redistribution and progressive taxation, yet overlooks a system that allows him to pay a negligible amount in tax on an asset which has quadrupled in value in under twenty years. This means less money for California to spend on schools, state parks, and, yes, affordable housing. And it means that Redmond directly benefits from San Francisco’s high-and-ever-rising property values, **because so long as supply is restricted the value of his house will continue to increase with only the tiniest of corresponding increases in his tax liability.**

  23. I seen a lot of change in my 75 years, some good some bad; you can’t go home again. Too think we can stop change is delusional. But I would like to slow it down if I could; at least in my neighborhood while I am still alive.

  24. I agree that not all change is “good” or “bad”, my point is that the change should be initiated by the primary parties of the change and government should not play a role of favoring one party over another.

  25. “I don’t favor a recession, but it would be good”

    “Nothing should ever change even though everything has changed since the city’s founding and now that it has reached peak-SFness, it is done changing forever.”

  26. I am a proud self-interested NIMBY. Is there anyone who is not self-interested?

    Interesting article you provided by a gentrifier who came to SF 20 years ago.

    Young people who moved to SF for the lifestyle, politics, tolerance, etc. were generally above average and better able to compete for jobs and housing than those who were here. That talent pool attracted employers who needed higher skilled workers. Those higher skilled jobs were higher paid. So those who came here from someplace else started gentrification. Now it seems the gentifiers are themselves being gentrified.

    Regarding the trend of moving to the cities, that may a changing as Millennials age and have children. They are looking for 3 bedrooms and a yard not affordable in the City. They are moving to the suburbs. This is not yet apparent in the Bay Area but is in LA and other areas. The supply of family friendly housing in family friendly neighborhoods in SF is limited.

  27. People are coming to live in the city because the city is where the jobs are. People who have high-paying jobs can afford to live where they want to live, and since NIMBYism has decided they’re not allowed to build new luxury condos, they are ABSOLUTELY going to compete with locals for housing.

    Supply and demand is very simple.

  28. Need to be a bit more curious. I am talking about community as defined by its social and political institutions. The Mission for example does not only mean Latinos, it means the entire neighborhood. Rising rents are one thing that force people out. It is a natural effect of supply and demand. It is quite a different thing when a developer gets to demolish a building due to special considerations given to him by city hall. I say that the people of the neighborhood should decide. There IS an economic reason for change, there just shouldn’t be the unfair help of big daddy government stripping neighborhoods of local control.

  29. The reasons many give for moving are better weather, newer bigger better housing, more space, nicer surroundings, better schools, and less crime. Crime in the BVHP was probably a bigger factor than usual.

  30. And thats not to say I view all change as ‘good’. But change is inevitable; and the aggregate is generally viewed as “good” or “bad”. Sorry.

  31. I’m not sure of your definition of “community”. Is it “my people” (Black. latino, Asian, gay, Irish?) Or is it “I’ve live here since 19xx” and I want to stay”; or maybe a corollary of “… and I want to move back in”?

    It sounds like you are trying to aggregate a lot of somewhat different individual decisions based soley on a single factor like race or maybe class or ethnicity or even religion.

    It sounds like you are complaining about ‘change’.

  32. You’re not being “pushed out” if you’re not already there and just can’t get “in”.

  33. So not being able to afford an apartment in the neighborhood where you want is no being called, “pushed out”?

  34. In addition, the editor of this site should consider disclosing the author’s affiliations rather than blind by-lines. This is an opinion piece by someone who has donated significant money to ballot measures. Transparency demands more disclosure by 48 Hills and Mr. Redmond.

  35. Well, but, there was the whole ‘crack epidemic’ and waves of crime and murder that didn’t otherwise occur in other “communities”. Thats what caused a lot of middle class Blacks to move (don’t blame them).

  36. The only thing worse than the class-baiting author of this post is the editor who thought it worthy of inclusion, using alarmist phrases like “ethnic cleansing” and “conquest and destruction.” Pretty rich rhetoric coming from a successful white developer. What a load of shit.

  37. Yonathan,

    As always your analysis is spot on.

    Small revision, however — your link to AB915 is mistakenly a previous bill from 2015.
    The current (reactionary) AB915 is as follows:


    It unfortunately passed the Assembly (but far from a vet-proof 2/3 majority) — hopefully it fails in the more reasonable Senate (I’m sure Scott Wiener is doing everything he can to kill it.)

    On the chance it somehow passes the Senate, Jerry Brown will no doubt sensibly veto it.

  38. If inclusionary polices slow growth then the higher the percent to better; if one wants to see less development.

  39. How do you define communities? Few are pushed out. Most choose to leave for a variety of reasons. Economics is one factor. As the prices rise people from all communities choose to leave for something better. Those who desire three bedrooms and a yard may find they can’t afford what they desire in the City, and choose to leave if can find it someplace else.

    In San Francisco talented young people have been moving in for decades. Planners didn’t have much to do with it. The talent pool attracted employers with higher-skilled jobs. As those employers moved in, employers with lower-skilled jobs moved out. Lower skilled workers followed. I am not sure much can be done about that trend.

    I agree when it comes to zoning locals should have the say. I don’t want to see my single-family owner-occupied neighborhood rezoned for more density. I can appreciate those in the Mission not wanting to see more density. However, I doubt preventing new development will stop the community from changing in terms of ethnic groups. The changing community is causing development, not the other way around. Gentrification came first.

    In my neighborhood there has been an increase in Hispanics, some of them from the Mission. They came for more space and better schools as their families and incomes grew. Ironically, one of my neighbors from the Mission could not get his children into a popular local school nearby. If he had applied from his old neighborhood, his children would have been given a higher priority.

  40. People are being “pushed out” due the “no-growth”/anti-housing policies advocated by NIMBY’s and so-called “progressives” over the past 40 years.

  41. Smart Growth is a plan for an elite few to make BILLIONS and to concentrate political power in a single authority. Here is the new CEO of CASA, (an MTC JPA) rally support from our politicians for his plans to build massive developments in the San Francisco Bay AREA. His company The TMG Group is one of San Francisco’s largest developers and he is also the CEO of the Bay Area Council. Clearly there is a MASSIVE conflict of interest. Why is a developer in charge of setting development policies with access to millions of dollars of taxpayer funds? He is urging politicians to ignore their constituents and to evade CEQA laws so developers can build more housing.
    Something is very rotten at the MTC and it is going to get worse with new redevelopment laws. https://youtu.be/6LX7FZj41a0

  42. What a bunch of bull. You are simply using the power of government to get what you cannot get through the free market and local democracy.

  43. I don’t like to focus on race. I think the term “communities” is more accurate when describing a place. The real issue for me is that this community was pushed out, just like other communities before them by overzealous planners that promised to “improve” the neighborhood. All they did was shove out one community and replace it with a new one. I believe that communities should ALWAYS come first.

  44. I don’t favor a recession, but it would bring down housing prices. Slowing growth does not equal a recession. According to the State, housing prices are preventing the State from reaching its full potential. I could live with that. What attracts people to the Bay Area? People move here for what it is like now. If we allow overdevelopment it could kill the golden goose.

  45. There is no fighting assimilation unless you promote discrimination. Housing discrimination slowed the movement of Blacks out of Black enclaves. The first step is often moving to another smaller enclave in a better neighborhood, but from there into the general population. People move away because they choose to and are able to. Of course as prices rise fewer can afford to move in.

  46. Middle-class Blacks moved out of the City for the same reasons middle-class White did. Retiring Black homeowners who were willing to move made out like bandits.

  47. In 1940 the Blacks were less than 1% of SF’s population. The increase and decrease in the Black population was part of a national trend, The Second Great Migration. It had little to do with urban renewal.

    Urban renewal displaced Blacks in the renewal area, but the total SF Black population increased during urban renewal. After 1970 the Black population declined in areas that were not part of urban renewal. As the Black population declined in SF starting in 1970, it increased in formerly White Bay Area suburban cities. And even as the Bay Area Black population started to decline in 1990, these cities are still seeing an increase.

    In areas that are being gentrified, Blacks have less mobility, they stay longer in the neighborhood, compared to neighborhoods not being gentrified. Gentrification creates more retail and food service jobs, and people are willing to pay more to stay longer in a neighborhood that is improving.

    It is interesting that upper middle-class Blacks are part of the gentrification of the Mission. Their numbers have increased. Upper middle-class Blacks also move back to Black neighborhoods have been gentrified.

  48. You just strung together a bunch of trite phrases and used them as a non-answer. What we have in California and the US, around housing and other issues, is a vetocracy – nothing ambitious can succeed in this country anymore because every single decision point is subject to veto by literally tens of different interest groups including neighbors, farmers, builders, environmentalists etc… That needs to end.

  49. If you can raise yourself beyond name calling, you will learn there are legitimate reasons to oppose development in favor of community.

  50. That is not the reality. Special favors for developers is not the free market. It is favoritism-crony development. Communities should control their own destiny. If the community wants to “sell out” then it should be their decision alone.

  51. With regard to inclusionary zoning requirements, Elberling prefers policies that err on the side of reducing the rate of market-rate development, whereas SFYIMBY has supported policies that err on the side of greater housing production, such as the optional HOME-SF inclusionary housing density bonus. Elberling’s PAC promoted Proposition C of June 2016 that raised the mandatory inclusionary percentage to a level that reduces housing production. Then, on the TAC he demanded to set the inclusionary rate so high that it would make non-density bonus projects infeasible and take the “bonus” out of the state density bonus. These are policy differences that are not as black-and-white as Elberling implies. Elberling supports setting the inclusionary mandate as high as the prototypes predict are feasible on the theory that landowners always pocket the gains from any upzoning, whereas others such as Scott Wiener believe that there is a role for both mandates and optional incentives.

    Specifically regarding AB-915, it is actually not a necessary change for San Francisco’s inclusionary housing bill that takes the bonus out of the density bonus to go into effect—as long as you think that the Residential Nexus Analysis which justifies the fee on density bonus units will hold up in court. I happen to think that the Residential Nexus Analysis is so indefensible that deserves to be struck down in court. AB-915 would side-step this question and allow San Francisco to legislate away the state density bonus without any logical justification under the Mitigation Fee Act.

  52. African-Americans, many of whom (particularly in the Bayview) owned their homes before Prop 13 passed, have benefited hugely from the rise in property values in coastal California. No one is forced to sell their home in California because their property taxes become too high to pay, Prop 13 ensures that. So when you see people wailing and screeching about displacement because homeowners are selling and moving, they’re doing so because they want too, not because they’re being ethnically cleansed.

  53. Pretty much every low income ethnic group is being pushed aside for development. African Americans are down to 5% of the population from 15%. Urban renewal is once again “negro removal” like happened in the vibrant Fillmore district. All the new young tech bros will never equal the generations deep communities that give San Francisco its character.

  54. People are now living somewhere to get to their Bay Area jobs. Maybe if we can slow development it will slow the job and population growth and help save the environment.

  55. Actually, we do understand that people need a place to live. You fail to recognize that your need does not automatically translate into a “right” to force development on someone else’s neighborhood. What we are seeing is a clash of cultures, political classes and economics.

  56. While the hyperbole may be over the top, the reality is that entire communities are being pushed out by Smart Growth.

  57. Opponents of housing in Bay Area cities like Marin, San Francisco and Berkeley only see what is happening in their block or neighborhood.. They do not care that population in the area is rising and that people have to live somewhere to get to their Bay Area jobs. They are the reason that rents and housing prices are astronomical.
    VIVA in-fill! VIVA YIMBYismo! VIVA la revolucion!

  58. I don’t see YIMBYs mentioned anywhere in the linked article. Please explain how YIMBYs are in any way connected to the changes in Golden Gate Park.

  59. Sorry, I meant Manhattan. That island is 22.82 mi². SF is 7×7 or 49 mi² so it is ove twice as big as than Manhattan.

  60. It is EXTREMELY offensive to use “ethnic cleansing” in this context. It’s both offensive and insensitive to those who were driven out of places like Turkey, Bosnia and Iraq at the end of the gun and their families suffering unspeakable tragedies, with people choosing to move to new neighborhoods. Gutter, bottom-of-the-barrel writing.

  61. San Francisco is twice as large as New York City, so we can have twice the crime, corruption and problems.

    Just as an FYI, on planet earth San Francisco is 15% of New York City in terms of square miles and 10% in terms of population.

  62. Anyone who doubts the intentions of the political leaders who support the 2040 Plan Bay Area should take note of the fact that the plan anticipates the loss of 40% of the middle class in the Bay Area.

    Be careful what you wish for. Tech companies were told to build housing for their employees. Now they are diversifying by becoming community developers, turning all that VC money into shiny new properties. The unicorns that would normally die off as their products fail can survive and keep their investors happy by living off their real estate holdings. This is the future of silicon valley as it turns to building job-killing robots.

  63. San Francisco is being overrun by land-hungry out-of-town carpet-baggers who want to cut and paste New York City onto a 49 square mile peninsula so they can make a killing on real estate before it sinks into the sea. San Francisco is twice as large as New York City, so we can have twice the crime, corruption and problems. We have none of New York’s rich political and cultural history or wisdom that grows with age. Growing too fast too soon is a guarantee for failure. The slash and burn effects of smart growth and the constant state of change is driving people mad, turning up the fight or flight instincts.

  64. It all started with the BVHP lennar and Parkmerced projects west and east sides of SF and the largest apartment complexes being sold off to SFSU (Stonestown apartments and parts of Parkmerced) to predatory equity investment since early 2000-2007 there has been zero conversation on how to create larger scaled essential affordable rental housing in SF and outside in suburb and outlying districts. This is the problem nobody is addressing….meanwhile the 19th ace transit proposal is lagging any serious movement, Parkmerced just cuts down trees and evicted more renters from rent controlled units, and SFSU does nothing to address prior wrongs in eliminating senior and family housing in UPN and UPS…. Institutional growth….

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