“City Divided” is an oft-printed headline here in San Francisco, but how can a city with a reputation for being on the liberal vanguard be divided about anything? “What could all those communists have to argue about,” my curmudgeonly and Republican father asks. Well, as it turns out, quite a lot, but nothing more so that the cost of the price of housing.
In San Francisco, the cost of housing is the singular political issue around which all others revolve. At least it is today. When I first moved here, a simpler time, we worried about was whether or not we should eat foie gras or finally make our local nudists cover up, but not anymore. Now we have real problems.
Housing is the sun around which all other issues orbit these days… as it should. Shelter is pretty important. I can’t think of a society that manages without it. Quality of life in San Francisco is flagging because of a lack of it.
You’d think that the laser-like focus on housing would prompt action. That fact that it hasn’t, is an indictment of San Francisco’s political leadership (I mean “political leadership” to include our elected officials and our un-elected political activist groups). It’s also an indictment of ourselves as voters (probably more so). It’s our job to hold our government accountable, and given that we can’t manage to be less expensive than New York I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all failed at that job.
How is this a political problem? The environmental and historic factors that gave birth to San Francisco and have drawn (and continue to draw) so many people to the area are mostly out of our control; like the fantastic climate, strong institutions of higher education, a close proximity to agriculture, a great shipping port, low interest rates, foreign investment, the way the complete collapse of the world economy coincided with the dawn of mobile technology drawing disproportionate investment to the Bay Area, etc.. The list goes on and on, and I don’t expect the Mayor of San Francisco to be able stop those things from happening. I wouldn’t want him to. Most of those things are pretty awesome (not the economic collapse part).
However, I do expect our political leaders to identify those factors and respond accordingly. We know that hasn’t happened in San Francisco because, despite the nearly universal hysteria over the cost of housing, it continues to skyrocket.
Instead, we have an extremely divided board of supervisors; a mayor that everyone loves, but is also completely loathed; and an upcoming local election that’s being pitched as the next Godzilla vs. Mothra.
“Oh naive boy,” I can hear you say to yourself, “when isn’t politics like that?”
I know, I know. It isn’t surprising, but it is just so terribly unproductive. Again, I hear you’re collective “no duh”‘s.
If the strife among our political class seems bad, its only a minor tributary compared to the great river of discord down which the general public water tubes.
In the great housing war of 2015, two rival narratives have flourished; (1) a wave of unthinkably wealthy “techies” who, in the vein of Marie Antoinette, have thoughtlessly driven lower income families from their homes and into the streets;
and (2) the long-time residents, or old “lefties”, who have lived under the protection of rent control for years, are butthurt now that their discount rent-party is over. They want prices and neighborhood character to stay the same, and if that means building a wall around their neighborhood, then so be it. If only these sore losers would stop blocking development, we could put Econ 101 into action and build housing for everyone!
While there have been some prominent examples that have perpetuated these narratives, I think that they’re generally cartoonish and uncomplicated by reality. Anyone who rents (more than half the city), be they lefty or techie, is harmed by the high cost of housing.
Instead of one city filled with people on the verge of ruin because of runaway housing prices, we’ve turned our guns on each other. The price of housing has turned this city into the Lord of the Flies. While we’re screaming at each other, or screaming past each other, almost nothing affirmative has been done to make life better for anyone.
As I wrote earlier, we’re fighting with each other over increasingly small and expensive slices of the same pie. I have always advocated for a much larger pie, but we also need to make sure that translates to larger slices at every segment of the population. Right now, a pretty politically active segment of the population doesn’t see that happening, and therefore, has no incentive to fight on behalf of more development.
Acrimony over the role of development has corrupted every topic that relates to housing, and left us nipping at the heels of fringe issues.
We can’t agree on what to do about Airbnb, foreign investors and pieds-a-terre, or whether market rate housing is good or bad. As a result, we have a series of non-initiatives. We have a toothless approach to both AirBnb and real estate speculation, a development moratorium that failed, and development proposals that also fail. The only successes either side have involve defeating the proposals of the other.
I won’t say there hasn’t been any movement. Recently, Supervisors Wiener and Christensen have passed legislation allowing for the construction of in-law units in pre-existing housing, but that only applies to housing in their districts. Only when compared to all that we haven’t done could this be considered an accomplishment. But something is better than nothing, right?
We’re spending a lot of energy to accomplish very little, which brings me to the title of this post:
The Techie and the Lefty Should Be Friends. If you haven’t seen Oklahoma!, you should. Or at least you should just watch this youtube video of the Farmer and the Cowman.
The cowmen (lefties) who pioneered life in Oklahoma (San Francisco), and are upset at the recent arrival of the Farmers (Techies) who “come out west and made a lot of changes.” The Farmers, in turn, look down on the Cowmen and need to be encouraged not to “treat ’em like a louse, make ’em welcome in your house.”
Ultimately the Territory folk come together under one issue from which they all will benefit. In the case of Oklahoma!, it was statehood:
“When this territory is a state and joins the union just like all the others, the farmer and the cowman and the merchant, must all behave themselves and act like brothers.”
Should they remain divided, they won’t be able to successfully lobby for statehood and lose the associated benefits. Like the Territory Folk, unless we can all get behind a comprehensive series of housing policies, our inability to get along means we will surely all continue to suffer together.
What are those polices? I’m not really sure. Whatever they are they must be policies that both spread the love and share the pain. Easier said than done, I know. That means policies that increase the housing stock at all price levels, and does so in a way that is visible. Maybe its allowing developers to build taller buildings, but also require a higher percentage of affordable units, like Prop D.
Maybe it’s proposals like the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Density Bonus program seems like a good start. The more affordable housing you build, the more you get to build.
Personally, I would really like to see all the neighborhoods zoned exclusively for single-family homes (the RH-1 zones) expanded to allow multi-unit dwellings up to 40 ft (which allows for small apartment buildings), and the height limit of the pre-existing multi-unit zones increased to 65 ft.
Why do I like this kind proposal?
It allows for thousands of new housing units. I’ve got 99 problems and each of them is that we don’t have enough housing.
Preserves character, prevents “gentrification bombs.” Allowing a lot of small scale development would ensure that most neighborhoods continue to look like they currently do, which is something people really want. None of the developments would result in lots of additional “luxury condos.” Plus allowing a lot of this kind of construction happen at once means that we’ll have more small landlords competing with one another for tenants.
One of the biggest hurdles to development is the cost of land. Land is so expensive that developers want to build extremely large buildings to recoup cost/increase profitability. This proposal would mostly impact people who already own land. A lower cost of production means that rent on those units could be lower. Of course current landowners could sell their properties to developers, but those developers wouldn’t be able build extremely tall building, which means they wouldn’t want to pay very much for those lots.
It doesn’t benefit “greedy developers.” Large-scale development will and should continue to exist, but one of the major objections to new large-scale development is that they require “spot upzoning” that “unlocks new value” for developers by allowing them to take lots in low-rise neighborhoods and build much taller buildings. This proposal “unlocks” a little value for a lot of people, and “unlocking” for so many people all at once actually minimizes the value that they can extract.
It doesn’t favor one neighborhood over another. Huge swaths of land in the city would be slightly affected. It just raises the floor on minimum development standards slightly. Ideally this would result in small amounts development and construction all over the city and help minimize the psychological trauma (and opposition to development that comes with it) from the perception that any one neighborhood is under siege.
Is my idea DOA? Probably (especially considering the resistance to in-law units that came from residents of West of Twin Peaks), but I hope that we find a way to start crafting policies that are demonstrably beneficial in ways that we can easily articulate. Unless we call some sort of truce between the “techies” and the “lefties” there will be very little measurable progress toward reining in the cost of housing in San Francisco.