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News + PoliticsCOVIDDensity, neoliberalism, and COVID

Density, neoliberalism, and COVID

SF has allowed developers to build housing and offices for more and more people -- without paying for the infrastructure that we need to take care of them.


“There is a density level in NYC that is destructive. It has to stop and it has to stop now. NYC must develop an immediate plan to reduce density.” @NYGovCuomo8:36 AM · Mar 22, 2020·

The COVID pandemic seems to offer one surprise after another, as state and local governments scramble to fill the void created by President Trump’s daily narcissistic meanderings in cobbling together rational and effective programs to address the new reality confronting them. This is especially true in major urban areas all of which, across the world, have embraced neo-liberal policies that resulted in dramatic increases in density that clearly out-stripped the fragile urban infrastructure (including health care) needed to deal with massive viral infections now literally plaguing them.

SF is happy to let developers build more and denser buildings, but the city doesn’t charge them for the infrastructure costs of density.

Cuomo’s tweet was followed up by a New York Times piece by metro reporter Brian Rosenthal with the catchy title “Density Is New York City’s Big ‘Enemy’ in the Coronavirus Fight,” a point of view not often seen in the “new-urbanism” besotted Grey Lady. Rosenthal cited  New York’s “cheek-by-jowl density” as a “distinct obstacle in trying to stem new cases.” He went on to write that “public health experts said that density was likely the biggest reason for why the virus has torn through New York City and not yet hit to the same degree elsewhere. They urged other cities and towns around the country to pay attention.”

Much like Trump’s fact-free flights into optimism about the end of the crisis, the Times published an attempted corrective by Emily Badger, an urban policy reporter, titled “Density is Normally Good for Us. That Will Be True After Coronavirus, Too.” Badger’s argument is that density “enables the kind of redundancies that make communities more resilient during disasters” while failing to list them. Instead Badger lists the “urban perks” brought to us by density: “diverse restaurants, rich cultural institutions, new business ideas” which she admits “we can’t enjoy right now” [!].

Badger goes on to assert “…even more…density, in the right conditions…protects against other kind of calamities” again listing none. She concludes with what can only be called the “wish list” of new urbanism rarely if ever actually achieved and often, as here, simply factually incorrect:

Density makes mass transit possible. It allows for more affordable housing. It creates environments where people can walk and where children can find playgrounds. It enables is to pool our risks. It supports big public hospitals and stronger safety nets. It allows us to curb climate emissions, which present a public health problem of an entirely different kind.

This essentially faith-based assertion of the benefits of urban density is factually incorrect in all of the specifics cited.

Urban density did not make transit possible in New York or San Francisco. It was the other way around. Public investment in transit made dense development profitable. Today, ride-hailing services meet the transit needs of wealthy highrise dwellers, pulling them off public transit and thus weakening it. (This, it turns out, was Uber’s plan all along.)

In San Francisco, after decades of dense development, there’s a $23 billion shortfall in the capital budget of Muni and no proposed funding source even being actively considered. New York’s subway is about to collapse due to overuse, under-maintenance and chronic under-funding. Indeed, the poster boy for high-density development, Sen. Scott Wiener, pointedly refused to require funding of public transit as a requirement for getting density bonuses in his SB50, thus assuring a reduction in transit service if his measure, thankfully defeated, had passed.

Open space development has not kept pace with dense urban development, not in Soma, the Mission, or Bayview, and playgrounds are increasingly handed over to “public-private partnerships” in both New York and San Francisco.

Safety-net services were reduced dramatically after 2008 and never re-funded and high-density residential developers in both New York and San Francisco make no specific payments to build or strengthen them. As far as public hospitals are concerned, at least in San Francisco, they are financed with bonds that are paid off with primarily property taxes that rely on  existing mid-density property. In California, Proposition 13 caps property tax on both residential and commercial property making certain that density is completely removed from infrastructure financing though bonds.

And perhaps the biggest howler in Badgers list is how high-density development REDUCES “climate emissions.” Assuming that means greenhouse gas emissions , Badger is wrong again. Significant greenhouse gases produced in the construction but also the operation of highrise luxury residential towers and office buildings. But the obvious preference for residents and occupants of both for ride-hailing cars actually increases greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, ozone levels, even in “air conditioned” San Francisco with its prevailing offshore winds and resultant healthy air, rose during the current density boom – it didn’t decline as Badger implies. What made emission levels drop was the current “shelter-in-place” orders— which indicates that the best way to reduce climate emissions is not through increased density but having dramatically fewer people driving cars AND taking public transit.

Ignored in the new urbanists’ pro-density promotion is the relationship between urban density and income inequality.

It isn’t that density itself produces income inequality, but that the two occur in the same place. The new urban dwellers have higher incomes than existing residents. Displacement is associated with high density residential development as newer, wealthier people move back to central city neighborhoods. They are the “market” that determines new housing production.

It’s very  profitable for developers to build high-density developments that can be sold, at top dollar, to new, higher income buyers This market-rate high density development pushes out not only lower density housing, displacing its residents, but also businesses that employ and serve lower wage residents.

The end result is that cities like San Francisco and New York end up with a large number of new wealthy people and a large but decreasing population of lower income remaining residents, with huge gaps in income between the two broad groups.

Again, it’s not that density itself creates the income disparity — but that both high-density market rate development AND increasing income disparity occur in the same physical space. It is this place-based reality that is denied by density boosters but creates an urban reality that in times of stress, like now, create serious.

Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, not to mention China itself, countries far more dense than either San Francisco or New York, did well so far in containing and treating the pandemic.

But all are far more authoritarian governments than either New York or California or anywhere else in the US. In Singapore, social distancing is enforced with a $7,000 fine. Wuhan has only recently been opened for travel. Hong Kong stopped all travel weeks ago and still has not opened up. Taiwan undertakes a level of personal surveillance that the ACLU would (properly) take to court in the US.

Only the good old USA wants density and no regulation on private property and personal freedom — which turns out to be a potentially deadly combination in the current crisis. Chances are the COVID 19 virus will infect and kill more here than anywhere in the world. We will be Number One.

The faith-based and factually challenged assertions of the benefits or urban density has at its core a belief that un-regulated markets should be allowed to define every aspect of urban life. The primary task of all government, neo-liberals argue, is to facilitate the development of the un-hindered market by reducing “red-tape” and cutting government regulations in every sphere of life.

Chartered schools, public-private partnerships, automatically approved development permits and free density bonuses, business improvement districts, unregulated ride hailing services, short term residential rentals, acceptance of “disruptive new technologies,” direct and indirect public subsidies to for-profit enterprises are all the hall marks of neo-liberal urban policy and now dominate American urban life.

Neo-liberalism is closely embraced, of course, by the masters of the tech sector. But far more importantly it  is the dominate governing philosophy of both national political parties. New York and San Francisco have neo-liberal mayors and New York and California have neo-liberal governors. One can be “progressive,” pro tech  and neo-liberal all at the same time — which makes it political catnip for coastal  moderate Democrats.  All four are now seriously challenged by the COVID outbreak. In an essential way the pandemic may well define the future of neo-liberalism.

The market simply cannot address this crisis, rendering the neo-liberal play book irrelevant. And the dense populations and thin urban infrastructure created by both national and local neo-liberal urban policies have brought cities to a profound crisis.

Climate change, another place based reality that neo-liberal policies also ignore, has created the very real possibility that over the next three or four months, as hurricane season approaches New York and fire season approaches San Francisco, both could be hit in a double whammy. Maxing out cities with dense development and its attendant populations and then  failing to address and fund the necessary urban infrastructure needed to make it all work has brought the nations urban life to a critical juncture. Cutting regulations, shrinking the public sector and handing more critical urban functions over to market based “disruptive innovators” got us into more trouble than such policies can get us out of.

Heather Knight, the Chronicle’s urban gadfly,  recently produced a breathtaking example of neo-liberal “analysis.” In a piece, amazingly  titled “How S.F. stayed ahead of coronavirus curve: slashing red tape, shedding bureaucracy,” the bold argument is advanced that San Francisco is “better positioned to weather this misery than any other city in the country” Why is this the case: “In large part …because Mayor London Breed’s declaration of an emergency Feb. 25 allowed city government to toss much of its red tape and mind-numbing dumb rules and actually get things done,” Such as Knight reporting on  Breed “asking the state and federal government for 5,000 more hospital beds.” Oh, good thing we got rid of those  “dumb rules” barring the city from asking for aid from other governments!

An  example of “shedding bureaucracy” featured by Knight is the Health Department creating “an emergency operations center at the Department of Emergency Management headquarters on Turk Street.” That is, two bureaucracies working together. as assumed in the city bureaucratically produced disaster plan.

In short, what Knight described was not the shedding of bureaucracy but the rather smooth functioning of the public sector in a public emergency — something that the Chronicle headline writers simply could not bring themselves to admit.  Thus a neo-liberal paper, pumping a neo-liberal mayor it endorsed for simply allowing the public sector to do what is can do better than any private sector actor.

But Knight did report on an issue that has yet to fully play itself out and that may well prove her rather bold assertion of San Francisco’s actions are “better positioned to weather this misery than any city in the country” tragically false.

Like this sign, the city numbers on housing vulnerable San Franciscans at-risk of COVID-19 simply don’t add up (If the diagonal distance between the four figures is 6 feet then the distance between the figures in only 4 feet.)

Knight  spends a good deal of space on the opening, a full month after the declaration of an emergency (which she fails to point out), of a portion of the vacant Moscone Convention center complex (Moscone West)  for “six hundred homeless people…with medical care for drug addiction, mental health issues and physical health issues any day now[ emphasis added]“. Knight implies that this effort is an impressive example of meeting the needs of homeless San Franciscans. But that not what Mayor Breed says about Moscone West.

The mayor’s press release states that Moscone West will provide space to “relocate some people who are currently in shelters and navigation centers where they will continue to have access to meals, showers and hygiene products and case management…” No mention is made by the mayor to the number 600 or medical care for drug treatment, mental or physical health issues as quoted by Knight. One wonders just what facility she was talking about.

What is clear is that Knight missed the “larger effort”  that was the subject of the press release: “Opening Moscone West …is part of a larger effort underway …to provide temporary housing for health care workers, first responders … vulnerable populations … residents who are under a medical directive to self-quarantine … includ[ing] people in congregate settings such as single room occupancy hotels, supportive housing with shared kitchens and bathrooms and shelters and Navigation Centers” That is a huge population, that is a huge story and Knight missed it all.

But notice who was not mentioned in the mayor’s statement. There is no mention of any city efforts to get vacant hotel rooms to house the 5,000 or so un-housed homeless San Franciscans. So let’s do the numbers that the mayor has laid out and that Knight missed.

First, there are about 3,000 cops and firefighters;  about 3,000 folks in shelters and Nav centers; there are 19,000 SRO rooms and assuming one person per room that’s 19,000 folks  (a low estimate as many residential hotel room house entire families). There are about 8,000 supportive housing units with an unknown number having shared kitchens and bathrooms. These total about 33,000 folks, as a very conservative estimate.

It’s the number of health-care workers that  is truly staggering. It’s a little acknowledged fact that the health-care sector, both private and public, is the single largest employer in the city, dwarfing hospitality and tech.  According to the Hospital Council, in a 2014 report, there were a total of 120,000 jobs in health care in San Francisco. Not all, of course, are in direct patient care.  Some 40,000 workers work in private hospitals, nursing, and residential care and home health care services. UCSF has another 10,000 or so employees. SF General has some 5,000, including 1,500 from UCSF. That’s about 60,000 workers — again not all in direct contact with patients.

The 2018 American Community Survey of the Census Bureau reported that there are 190,000 San Franciscans over 60 years old. In 2015, according to the department of Aging, 27,000 seniors were receiving public assistance.

So we are talking about a universe of some 280,000 in total for which Mayor Breed says the city is seeking temporary shelter.  Of course, not all will present with COVID, but it is a fair guess that many if not most of the 3,000 folks that have been in shelters or Nav centers for the last month have been exposed and will need isolation after treatment that will require moving them from the shelters. It is equally reasonable to assume that at least the 27,000 seniors getting public assistance will also need temporary housing. Add to that the unknown number, but given the size of that population no In any case we are talking about a huge potential number

And then there is the population the mayor did not mention — homeless folks on the street. The 2019 Point -in-Time count put that at about 5,000. They have been on the street, unable to shelter in place, for the simple reason they have no place to go during the entire course of this crisis. It is reasonable to assume that a significant number may have the virus and the city has, as of this date, no plans for them.

In other words, it is reasonable to assume that a large portion  of homeless San Franciscans will come down with the virus and that the city has few if any plans up and running to house them some 31 days after declaring an emergency.

That’s 8,000 folks exposed to the virus with no ability to either “shelter in place” to minimize infection or “self-isolate” after treatment. In short, the city’s failure to address the poorest of the poor undermines public health.

For the Mayor to lease only 3,300 hotel rooms falls far short of the need.

There are 33,000 hotel rooms in San Francisco, with the vast majority now vacant. The mayor announced in her March 27 press release plans to lease 3,300 of them by “next week” The Hotel Council has offered 11,000. Even if all were used for this purpose it still falls far short. A significant portion, if not all, of the 33,000 need to be on the table.

Both the Charter and Administrative Code give the mayor direct power, once an emergency is declared and the supervisors approve it, as was done last month, to “do whatever else the Mayor may deem necessary” including “commandeer …for public use …properties …needed for the protection of life…” ( see Section 3.100 (14) of the Charter and Section 7.6 (b) (2) of the Administrative Code here).

Mayor Breed needs to be complemented on her focus and early mobilization on this issue. But far more must be done, now. She needs to act now do take as many hotel rooms as is necessary to provide homeless San Franciscans the ability to “shelter-in-place” like any other San Franciscan. For the Knight and the Chronicle to continue to throw shade on New York over this crisis is a bit premature because it appears that we haven’t seen nothing yet.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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