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Density or displacement, for dummies

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Progressives protesting against building in the Mission are not protesting density. They’re protesting displacement. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

Proposition I, the temporary moratorium on berserker market-rate housing in the Mission, has inspired Holocaust-inflected hysteria from persecuted developers. One of the more bizarre arguments that gets recycled like your stepdad’s Rolling Rock bottles is that San Francisco progressives “caused” the housing crisis by opposing density to preserve neighborhood character and their view of other progressives on the facing hillside.

SPUR’s Gabriel Metcalf made the allegedly highbrow version of this argument in an online thinkpiece. (THINKPIECES
OVER EVERYTHING.) The argument’s lowbrow iteration is elucidated by people on the Internet who hate me. This thesis is stupid enough that Metcalf should be kept away from heavy machinery. It belies a superficial understanding of cities.
I will now speak for 100 percent of all San Francisco progressives ever, and no one can stop me: Progressives don’t oppose density. Progressives oppose displacement. There is no progressive stance on density, except that there is arguably an upper limit on the number of people who should live in a peninsular ecosystem vulnerable to earthquakes and rising seas.

Though I appreciate it, Metcalf’s argument gives us far too much credit. We’re not that effective. Progressives enjoyed a majority on the Board of Supervisors for maybe a decade in the 2000s. For the rest of known history, we were the loyal opposition, resisting valiantly but mostly losing. We did not author the planning code. You’re thinking of a different jerkface.

According to the new National Rent Report from Zumper, San Francisco is the worst city for renters, followed in order by New York, Boston, San Jose, D.C., Oakland, Chicago, Miami, L.A. and Seattle. Metcalf’s legion of libertarians can’t possibly claim that all these cities have been ruled by Stalinist historical preservationists for the last generation.

Progressives oppose specific bad projects because doing so is endemic to our bass-ackwards urban planning. It results from the collapse of federal housing funding and redevelopment and The City’s chronic abdication of leadership in planning. Instead, development is one project at a time.

Consequently, communities only get benefits by opposing projects until the developer negotiates for our support or neutrality. The available funding streams have, by design, created a transactional shakedown hustle. We’d prefer something different, but we didn’t write the rules.

Everyone knows that you get a better deal by opposing the project, how to calculate precisely how many benefits are winnable, the repercussions if the project died, and how to almost kill a project but not entirely. Smart developers will wheel and deal.

Progressives oppose bad projects and imperious developers. Progressives oppose housing for the rich that displaces the poor, which is what the free market does. Progressives don’t care about density, per se. Progressives don’t object to big buildings.

For proof of this, look no further than that line of condo towers cutting an AT&T wireless ad across SoMa. They all got approved when Supervisor Chris Daly represented the neighborhood. Daly, that menacing leftist Mau Mau chupacabra that Realtors invoke to frighten children, cut deals for big projects that his base supported.

Besides Rincon Hill and Trinity Plaza, there are the 30,000 units of affordable housing that progressives built against the wishes of NIMBYS. Progressives supported upzoning in the Eastern Neighborhood Plan and the Market-Octavia Plan, and Pier 70 and Mission Rock and all along Ocean Avenue.

When high-density projects don’t displace anyone, we don’t get involved. Our constituency doesn’t care if the Marina does Marina stuff (skin care and evil, mostly) until developers try to transplant the Marina to the Mission.
The people opposed to increasing density in their own neighborhoods don’t elect progressives. They happen to vote for politicians supported by developers. That’s why the neighborhoods with the least development vote the most conservative. Progressives didn’t zone the west side almost entirely for single-family homes.

If you want density, elect progressives. Or tell west-side Supervisors to grow a backbone and support density there, where it’s needed.

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