Sunday, January 17, 2021
Housing Homelessness The New York Times fails on equitable cities

The New York Times fails on equitable cities

A weak national forum with poorly chosen guests misses the entire point on urban equity. And it could have been so good.


The New York Times has been hyping its America We Need series of stories, editorials, and events on future public policy, and the latest one was this afternoon. It was called Creating More Equitable Cities, and with the right guests and the right moderation, this could have been a critical debate about the future of American urban policy. The Times, with its potential audience of millions, could have done a great public service during a critical election.

As I tuned in, I was all set to be furious.

The moderator was columnist Farhan Manjoo, who argues that the source of most urban problems in California is the lack of more density, especially in the suburbs. He supports Scott Wiener’s approach to allowing the private market more ability to construct housing with fewer regulations and is a fan of Yimby California.

Tenants organize to prevent evictions. A housing equity forum could have raised a lot of issues, but was just a weak Yimby rally.

Most recently he argued that the reason California is falling apart is that too few people are willing to sacrifice for the common good:

What is California’s fundamental trouble? Neither socialism nor Trumpian neglect and incompetence, but something more elemental to life in the Golden State: A refusal by many Californians to live sustainably and inclusively, to give up a little bit of their own convenience for the collective good.

And I totally agree. But he talks only about zoning and getting rid of single-family detached housing – and never about the billionaires, or even the multi-millionaires, giving up a little of their untenable wealth for the collective good, including paying for non-market housing. I emailed him to ask him about this – about what “the collective good” means to him beyond zoning, whether economic inequality is the driving force behind most of these issues, and who should pay for the changes we need — and he never responded. I didn’t think he would.

His guests: Harvard Economist Raj Chetty, who argues (with some great data) that social mobility is determined to a great extent by what zip code you lived in when you were born, Julian Castro, former HUD secretary, and Sonja Trauss, who of course is a founder of Yimby Law and who also believes that if we stop regulating the private market with zoning housing will soon become more affordable and plentiful for all.

I was expecting a full-on Yimby panel, with lots of policy proposals and discussion, lots for me to write about and respond to.

Instead, it was useless; no real arguments, no real policies, just 45 minutes of … nothing.

Nobody on the panel said a word about public spending on building affordable housing, although Castro said the feds should play a larger role in enforcing denser zoning. No one even remotely discussed the role of private investment capital in the housing market, not even Chetty, who is a Macarthur Genius Award winner and was the youngest tenured professor of economics in Harvard history.

Nobody even seemed to understand the concept of “equity,” which was the title of the talk. As Chetty’s Harvard colleague Susan Fainstein (who actually is an urban scholar) writes in The Just City, “equity is by definition redistributive.” Equity, she argues, means taking wealth from those who have too much and giving it to those who don’t have enough.

There was zero talk of anything redistributive at this session.

The only remotely interesting element happened very early on, when Mahjoo put up a poll for the people watching. I don’t know how many of us there were, but probably a lot.

The question:

“Do you think people should be able to live anywhere they want?”

An astonishing 85 percent said yes.

I am going to be graceful here and assume most of us weren’t thinking about it very clearly. Should the white Europeans have been able to displace and kill millions of Native Americans just because they “wanted to live” in the American West?

Should a wealthy white tech worker be able to displace a working-class Latino family because he “wanted to live” in the Mission?

The forum allowed us to submit questions for the panel so I posted one immediately:

“Should people have a fundamental right to stay where they are if they want to?”

It was never answered.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


  1. 41% of Sweden’s housing is owner occupied. 23% Co-ops, where you can sell your share when you move. For rentals it is 19% public rentals and 18% private rentals. In Stockholm it is 55% owner occupied.

  2. If housing were a legal right, the government would be required to provide it. The government could then assign you to housing and decide where you live and how much space you can have,. They may not assign you to San Francisco, or even build more housing in San Francisco.

    BTW the apartment vacancy rate was 6.2% in May. There are more housing unit than there are households.

  3. It is inaccurate to compare the United States of America, with its’ large population and cultural diversity, to Sweden, which has a population that is over 90% Swedish, and has less than 10% of our population. Might as well use Cuba.

  4. Oh and by the way: The private sector is just as corrupt, if not more so, than the government. And often just as incompetent. (Millennium Tower ring a bell?)

  5. Cuba is a bad example, since the US economic boycott has deeply devastated that country’s economy. Look at some of the European countries; in Stockholm, I believe, 80 percent of all housing is social housing (not market housing). People can move; the government doesn’t tell you where to live. But the allocation system is different from our price-based system. It’s another model; it isn’t perfect, but our current system is far from perfect.

  6. The problem is government is corrupt and incompetent. Does Mohammed Nuru, jar your memory? Do the many horrible housing projects that became so bad, they had to be torn down jar your memory? Pie in the sky sounds so easy, but reality is not so accommodating. For one thing, people value commodities and take care of them, housing that twas given to people in the past was often trashed and unappreciated. And the idea that people could move to where ever they want is impossible. In Cuba they can’t move anywhere, the government tells them where they have to live. It’s like the state of affordable housing is now. Hundreds of people apply for every single unit. No one has a “right” to something that does not exist in sufficient amounts . Once you take away the wealth building aspect of housing, no one will be interested in that major economic activity, as they can not profit from it and the economy crumbles just like Cuba. They have not built any new housing in Cuba for 60 years and the old housing stock is literally crumbling, because there is no economy to pay for it. Nothing that requires the labor of others should legitimately be considered a “human right”. You want to go out in drag? … sure. You want someone else to build you a house? …no.

  7. Forget who is buying and moving into areas like the Mission. Who do you think is selling out? YES, the Mexican and South and Central American resident/owners who have lived there for decades and are making huge profits on their investment. Or, don’t they deserve to make a capital gain?

  8. For the Yimby folks: My comment above should make clear that I am not against new building or density. I am against market-driven development that often leads to displacement.

  9. Let me make a suggestion that we can debate: Suppose we as society decided that housing was a human right and not a commodity. What if the public sector or community-based nonprofits using government money built enough social housing for everyone (a modest wealth tax on the very rich would provide more than enough money for this project). Housing payments would all be based on income — low-income people would pay ten percent of their income for housing, richer people up to 30 percent. Build enough so that there’s a 5-10 percent vacancy rate in most cities. Then anyone could move anywhere they want without displacing anyone else. If there’s a boom in some city and not enough housing, how would we allocate it? Maybe by considering the Bay Area as a region, and using either a lottery (now done for affordable housing in SF) or by some form of wait-list seniority. Neither of those is perfect. But maybe better than the current system where the only allocation method is price.

  10. Immigrants to the Unites States almost never displace anyone. Instead, in San Francisco, immigrants from other countries, particularly Mexico and South and Central America, are displaced by white people who have been here for generations. I have always favored oped borders, and that is not in the least bit inconsistent with my article here. All I’m saying is yes, people should have the right to move anywhere they want — as long as they don’t force out vulnerable communities who are already there and want to stay. I don’t see why this is so radical.

  11. I believe many of the Asian immigrants have higher educations and incomes than average. It is no longer only the poor that come to America. These educated Asians are apt to be displacing SF residents that are less educated. On average people migrating from other areas to SF have better educations, or incomes, than those leaving. That has been true for decades. Young people moving here since the 60’s tend to have better educations than the average SF residents who were here. Many of those residents may have wanted to stay but were eventually priced out by the more competitive young people. They were vulnerable. Unfortunately, there is not much that can be done about that. Not everyone who wants to live in the City is able to. However, since the City has stopped growing, it may be easier to remain If you want to.

  12. First of all, it’s not a moral test, it’s a policy test. I don’t want to blame or shame anyone for moving anywhere; I think policymakers should protect and stabilize vulnerable communities by, for example, banning non-fault evictions under most circumstances, enacting strict rent controls, and stopping predatory lending and foreclosures. For the record, the family who lived in the house where I now live voluntarily sold it to us because one of the parents got a better job in Seattle and decided to move there. Of course, we are all living on stolen land, in the case of San Franciscans, on land stolen from the Miwok and Ohlone People, and we all need to acknowledge that.

  13. Immigrants to the Unites States almost never displace anyone. Instead, in San Francisco, immigrants from other countries, particularly Mexico and South and Central America, are displaced by white people who have been here for generations. I have always favored oped borders, and that is not in the least bit inconsistent with my article here. All I’m saying is yes, people should have the right to move anywhere they want — as long as they don’t force out vulnerable communities who are already there and want to stay. I don’t see why this is so radical.

  14. “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.” (That was in 2016.)

    Who lived in Bernal heights before the first occupant of your house got there? Who was displaced to allow you the privilege of living there? How far down this causal chain do you want to go? Or is it only the latest generation of people who want to live in San Francisco who are subject to this moral test?

  15. I believe in American you can work and live anywhere you want. Of course, people want to live in the best place they can afford. I doubt the greater good is even a passing thought. How many people would say, I think I will buy that house for the greater good?
    How would the Federal government play a role in enforcing denser zoning. Most people don’t want more density. Will the government hold a gun to their head to force them to live in dense urban centers?

    Getting rid of single-family housing would also be a problem since that is what most people want. And since they are free to move where they want, they will move to find one they can afford.

  16. Maybe when people die, they should have the right to have their last residence turned into their mausoleum…..

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