What if the housing crisis is caused by too much growth?

Supes hearing shows that affordable housing numbers are cooked, the crisis isn't getting better -- and part of the problem is too many tech offices

The Board of Supes Land Use Committee heard the latest on the housing crisis today, in the form of data showing how far out of whack the balance between market-rate and affordable housing is. And in the process, we learned a few things – and heard Sup. Sandra Lee Fewer make one of the most important comments I’ve heard out of City Hall in a while.

Sup. Sandra Lee Fewer made the key point about the housing crisis

Fewer dared to challenge the official planning orthodoxy of decades, and ask: Is it possible that we grew and are growing too fast?

But first, the numbers.

The Planning Department presented a series of slides (you can get more details here) showing that over the past decade, about 21 percent of the new housing that’s been built is affordable. That’s about what we are going to see going forward, the department said.

Now: 21 percent is way, way less than we need (the city’s own General Plan calls for closer to 60 percent to meet the real workforce housing needs). But it doesn’t sound so bad – as long as you don’t dig a lot deeper.

The total number includes the number of new affordable units, plus the number of units the city has bought or otherwise taken off the private market – minus the number of rent-controlled units lost to evictions and speculation.

The loss is a big number: 4,182 units, which is almost certainly an underestimate, since it doesn’t include apartments where tenants were bought out and those buyouts were never reported.

But included in the plus-side figure is some 3,483 units of public housing that have been renovated. Good thing that the city is fixing up public housing, but as Sup. Aaron Peskin pointed out, that’s not new affordable housing. That’s existing affordable housing that we have repaired.

Some of those units, the department said, were in such bad shape they weren’t habitable, and again, it’s great they’re fixed up. But those should have been added in the past to the minus side; at this point, they are not new affordable housing.

If you take those out, by my math the total percentage of affordable housing drops to about 13 percent.

So why are they even included in the first place? Sup. Jane Kim explained that the Mayor’s Office insisted on it as part of a compromise that allowed the supes to hold hearings on the housing balance in the first place. “It was a political deal,” she said. 

The mayor, I gather, didn’t want the numbers to look as bad as they are.

The Rent Board’s data shows that 497 apartments were taken out of the affordable housing stock in the past two years when landlords bought-out tenants instead of evicting them. That, of course, only includes the past two years; before that, buyouts weren’t recorded. And many still aren’t.

Then, housing activist Calvin Welch noted, you really have to consider the 10,000 apartments that have been turned into short-term rentals with Airbnb. Since the city counts about 8,816 affordable units added to the housing stock, the Airbnb figures put us way, way in the red.

This is clearly not a sustainable situation.

The planners pointed to a few factors that have created this situation – and, in a remarkable nod to economic reality, one of the slides showed that a big part of the problem is the demand side, not the supply side. The city, and the region, have seen a huge influx of people making very high salaries; in fact, while the price of housing rose 98 percent, the total income in the city rose about 90 percent.

But as Fewer notes, those pay hikes didn’t trickle down to most local workers. Cops, teachers, and other city workers – the people who make the city function every day – saw about two percent pay hikes. Most of the new income came, she said, from “imported workers.”

Sup. Jane Kim – again, moving away from modern market orthodoxy, promoted by the Mayor’s Office and City Planning Department, argued that housing should be “fully regulated” and not seen as a commodity that can generate great wealth. “If you want to make a ton of money, don’t go into housing,” she said.

That was refreshing.

Fewer was even more refreshing.

“I am looking at these charts and it looks like we are making the problem worse,” she said. “Not everyone in the city is making more money. We are importing people who are displacing people. If we continue to build office buildings we are always going to be here.

“I don’t know who is going to teach your children, who is going to protect our streets?”

She asked the Planning Department: Does planning even use the housing balance to approve or disapprove projects (short answer: No).

Then she asked the question that so many city officials never even discuss:

“What if we just stopped building office space to attract high-wage workers who are imported by companies that don’t hire San Franciscans?”

What if we really looked at the demand for housing as much as we look at the supply of housing? What if we said: The Twitter Tax Break, the ongoing approval of office buildings, the conversion of industrial space to tech offices … what if that was all a mistake? What if we need to slow down the job growth, since much of it doesn’t, and never did, benefit existing unemployed San Franciscans?

The question, of course, was never answered. The Mayor’s Office and the Planning Department define growth as the city’s top economic development goal.

But if you look around at the misery we heard over and over at the hearing, the endless stories of long-time San Franciscans who are getting evicted, tossed out of their communities, their lives destroyed by the greed that comes with uncontrolled growth … you could easily get the message that the Mayor’s Office and the Planning Department are badly, brutally, painfully wrong.