July 24, 2015

The Daily Durning: “What’s the Matter with San Francisco”

SPUR president Gabriel Metcalf stirs the pot on CityLab: “The city’s devastating affordability crisis has an unlikely villain—its famed progressive politics.”
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The quirky, counter-cultural San Francisco so many of us fell in love with is almost gone now, destroyed by high housing costs. We’ve lost not only the politics, but all kinds of cultural experimentation that just doesn’t thrive in places that are expensive.

… progressive San Francisco had a fatal, Shakespearean flaw that would prove to be its undoing: It decided early on to be against new buildings. It decided that new development, with the exception of publicly subsidized affordable housing, was not welcome. …

When more people want to live in a city, it drives up the cost of housing—unless a commensurate amount of places to live are added. By the early 1990s it was clear that San Francisco had a fateful choice to make: Reverse course on its development attitudes, or watch America’s rekindled desire for city life overwhelm the openness and diversity that had made the city so special.

sfWhen San Francisco should have been building at least 5,000 new housing units a year to deal with the growing demand to live here, it instead averaged only about 1,500 a year over the course of several decades. In a world where we have the ability to control the supply of housing locally, but people still have the freedom to move where they want, all of this has played out in predictable ways. …

Over time, many of Silicon Valley’s workers have come to call San Francisco home. Moreover, in contrast to New York, San Francisco does not have a massive network of regional public transit connecting hundreds of different high-density, walkable communities to the city. In fact, neighborhoods that foster urban life and convenience are tremendously scarce in the Bay Area. All of this means the pressure on San Francisco has proven to be even greater than other cities in the country. …

Instead of forming a pro-growth coalition with business and labor, most of the San Francisco Left made an enduring alliance with home-owning NIMBYs. It became one of the peculiar features of San Francisco that exclusionary housing politics got labeled “progressive.” …

As the city got more and more expensive, progressive housing policy shifted gradually to a sad, rearguard movement to protect the people already here from being displaced. No longer would San Francisco even try to remain open as a refuge for immigrants and radicals from around the world. The San Francisco Left could never come to terms with its central contradiction of being against the creation of more “places” that would give new people the chance to live in the city. Once San Francisco was no longer open to freaks and dissidents, immigrants and refugees, because it was deemed to be “full,” it could no longer fulfill its progressive values, could no longer do anything for the people who weren’t already here.

Let me say very clearly here that making it possible to add large amounts of housing supply in San Francisco would never have been enough by itself. A comprehensive agenda for affordability requires additional investments in subsidies for affordable housing. …  A regional solution, in which all cities do their part to accommodate regional population growth, would be far more effective than trying to solve our affordability problems inside the boundaries of a handful of cities. …

I still have a lot of sympathy for many of their aims. I don’t think it’s fair to accuse anti-growth politics in San Francisco of being just a screen for homeowner interests. (Although I have certainly had neighborhood activists proudly tell me they oppose development in order to maintain the high values of their homes). I think the progressive anti-growth sentiment is earnest; it’s people honestly trying to protect their city from unwanted change. It just happens to have backfired.

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Complete article here, with lots of comments.

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  1. In SF, they blame Silicon Valley. In Vancouver, we blame the Chinese. At least this article honestly identifies NIMBYism and entrenched interests as a major contributor to housing costs. I wonder when we’ll start being honest with ourselves here. Longer, I suppose. Foreigners are such plum targets.

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