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City HallThe AgendaNational magazine takes on the case against Yimby housing policies

National magazine takes on the case against Yimby housing policies

Plus: Nurses demand answers to questions about UCSF takeover of St. Mary's and St. Francis Hospitals. That's The Agenda for March 17-24.

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It’s rare to see national publications, particularly magazines that are not known as left-wing outlets, to do a serious look at whether the Yimby agenda that includes dramatic upzoning in cities actually leads to lower housing prices.

But that’s what The New Republic just did, and the article, which you can read here, is fascinating.

What if the Yimbys used as much of their funding, organizing, and energy to repeal bad tenant laws and demand more state and federal money for affordable housing as they did on promoting market-rate housing?

The reporter, Michael Friedrich, quoted Sonja Trauss at the most recent Yimbytown conference, and spoke about the politics of the movement:

The policy that unites YIMBYs—from orthodox free-marketeers to grassroots social housing boosters—is “upzoning,” in which cities reform local land-use policy to allow for more, and bigger, development. This change, YIMBYs argue, drives developers to fill cities with “abundant housing,” spurring competition and putting “downward pressure” on prices. The appeal is obvious: a “one weird trick” to solve the housing crisis—without upsetting the market.

If only it worked. A decade since the YIMBY movement launched, there’s little serious evidence that its policies are the magic supply-increasing bullet that proponents claim, nor that they meaningfully decrease rents for working families. The YIMBY agenda can’t solve the housing crisis. But there are solutions: ones that provide the homes we need without ceding power to the profiteers who rigged the system.

What’s certain is that YIMBY policies satisfied elite consensus, promising workforce housing for tech-sector donors while scratching a deregulatory itch that libertarians had long been trying to reach.

He points out what I have always found most disturbing about the market-based approach:

But evidence undermines this simple story, as even the sunniest supply-side forecasts show very modest impacts. One 2019 study of New York City found that every 10 percent increase in housing stock yields a 1 percent decrease in rents nearby. For YIMBYs like Trauss and Resnikoff, such research presents important proof that, on the margins, building moves rents in the right direction. (“Adding more reduces prices,” Trauss told me, “so adding even more reduces prices more.”) But as a practical matter, marginal changes don’t add up to affordability for most. Even if developers somehow built 50 percent more housing in New York City, the median one-bedroom unit would still rent for $3,548 per month (if applying the study’s findings to today’s market).

Reducing rents by one percent, or even 10 percent, or 20 percent, in cities like San Francisco is nowhere near enough. Rents, and purchase prices, need to be half of what they are today for the current workforce to afford to live here. (And housing the existing workforce is the critical need: I agree with the Yimbys that it’s bad for the environment, and for society, if people have to commute two hours or more just to get to work.)

The largest employment sectors in San Francisco right now are government, hospitality, and health care. Some of those jobs pay a decent, union wage. Many of them still don’t pay enough for the workers to afford to live in this city, in adequate housing, and pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent.

Remember, in the post-War era, when working-class people could still buy a house, it was in large part because of federal subsidies. Veterans Administration low-interest loans, the mortgage-interest tax break, and in the case of urban housing, direct federal money, played a huge role.

So did a lack of the sort of economic inequality we see today, which is the major reason for the housing crisis.:

An increase in market-rate housing in San Francisco might make things a little easier for young professionals with relatively high incomes who now have to compete for rentals. There might be more choice for those folks. But that, the evidence shows, won’t cause prices to drop enough to make existing housing sufficiently affordable.

In the end:

YIMBYism was always “a promise that we didn’t need to redistribute anything,” said Alexander Ferrer, a planner and researcher at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, a Los Angeles tenant advocacy organization. “We could just make more property.”

That’s just it. Any solution to this, and most other social problems, requires the rich to accept, or be forced to accept, that they will have to give up some of their income and wealth. As I have said repeatedly, if we as a society can’t solve that, we can’t solve anything.

Many of the San Francisco Yimbys support affordable housing. They worked to pass Prop. A. They like to say “both/and,” meaning let’s have lots of affordable housing and market-rate housing too.

But the majority of their their efforts so far have been to push upzoning and limits on reviews and CEQA and mandates for more market-rate housing, which has translated into legislation by Yimby hero state Sen. Scott Wiener.

I wonder what would have happened if all of that time, money, and organizing effort went instead to demanding that Rep. Nancy Pelosi bring SF the kind of billions for housing that she got us for the Central Subway, which is at best a modest improvement in local transportation. I wonder what would have happened if Gov. Gavin Newson, Wiener and their allies put as much focus on getting state money for affordable housing as they did on upzoning and “constraint reduction” for the private market.

What if they worked as hard on repealing the Ellis Act and Costa Hawkins as they did on higher RHNA goals?

I have a feeling that would have done, and would continue to do, a lot more for real affordability.

The Board of Supes Rules Committee will hold a hearing Monday/18 on UCSF’s recent takeover of St. Mary’s Medical Center and St. Francis Memorial Hospital.

The California Nurses Association has serious concerns about the deal—in part, the union says, because:

UCSF Medical Center acquired Children’s Hospital Oakland in 2014, and nurses at both facilities say many services at the Oakland facility have, disturbingly, been eliminated or consolidated across the Bay Area, making care much less accessible for Children’s Hospital patients, especially those from lower-income families who rely on public insurance and public transportation. 

The concern is that the giant research institution will cut some services at St. Mary’s, which serves the Western Addition, and St. Francis, which serves the Tenderloin area, and consolidate them with the UC campus in Parnassus Heights, which is planning for a major expansion:

These two hospitals are critical institutions within the city’s health care infrastructure and currently provide a significant portion of needed services to the city’s most vulnerable patients, including unhoused, psychiatric, rehab, intensive care unit, burn, emergency services, and low-income patients. CNA represents nurses at all these facilities.   

“So far UCSF has refused to reply to our requests for information regarding the acquisition of Saint Francis and St. Mary’s,” said Amy Preble, RN and chief nurse representative at St. Mary’s.  “We’re very concerned about the lack of transparency regarding the safety and care of our patients, coworkers, and community. UCSF needs to step up and take accountability for this acquisition. They need to talk to us and hear us.”

That hearing starts at 10am. The nurses will rally on the steps of City Hall starting at 9am.

From the press release:

“We are here to hold UCSF accountable,” said Shelley Pepper, a UCSF registered nurse. “We know that all of our facilities are key players in the entire San Francisco hospital network to serve the people of San Francisco and the entire Bay Area. We cannot let UCSF wreak havoc on that in pursuit of market share, power, and revenue. We want UC to know that we are watching and we will fight back.”

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

Tim Redmond
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.

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