It’s time to accept that nobody knows what to do about housing.
I’ve debated the debates so you don’t have to. Studied the studies. Briefed policy briefs. And nobody has a vaguely plausible argument about what local government can do to make enough housing affordable enough to restore economic diversity. Not the theorists who champion unfettered construction and unleashing the free market, and not so much my progressive peeps either.
When faced with the shortcomings of these arguments, my exasperated interlocutors storm off with a terse, “We have to start somewhere!”
The politically expedient, mind-bogglingly lucrative answer is the Bay Area has a gaping supply-and-demand hole that must be stuffed with large buildings. They argue CEQA and decades of limits on new building depressed our supply to create this mess.
This alleged analysis has problems its boosters dismiss without compelling answers.
How much new housing would need to be built to make San Francisco affordable? Twenty thousand new units are a rather different conversation than 200,000. If the former, it would be more politically viable to abolish private property by armed revolution.
Are there a maximum number of people who should live in a region vulnerable to sea level rise, earthquake and drought? At some point, we’re not satiating demand but merely furnishing the uninhabitable wasteland of Wall-E.
Leaving aside greed, are there policies other than trickle-down massive construction that could deliver more housing quicker to more people? I have yet to find an analysis of the relative efficacy of different options.
Why bother adding supply when units are taken off the market for Airbnbs and pied-a-terre faster than they’re built? If actual residents don’t occupy the units, pied-a-terre are less effective at lowering prices than coq a vin, or another French thing.
How much can local solutions solve when displacement and affordability crises afflict cities worldwide, when global elites invest in urban real estate and when Wall Street is increasingly the biggest landlord? The consequences are local, but supply and demand are now global.
How can we unleash the market to build housing without infrastructure? Fifty-year-old decisions about locations for subways and freeways still decide the future of our neighborhoods. Policymakers back then were dumb. They didn’t have Instagram or artisanal haberdasheries, so why do we still let them run urban planning?
If the supply-sider argument were correct — if enough housing were built that prices dropped — profits would also drop and developers would vanish long before new construction helped most people.
A recent hotly debated study from the California Legislative Analyst Office appears to bolster the claim that supply is our savior. Assuming arguendo that the LAO is right, its strongest policy implication is that if housing were completely deregulated and the market had its way with us, we would get affordable housing in 25 years. By which time, everyone currently in San Francisco will be dead, evicted or, worse, living in Modesto.
Housing is like climate change. Even if restrictive building policies going back decades did cause the current predicament, the solution may not be to do what should have been done 50 years ago. We have to solve the crisis before us.
On the other hand, progressives also have problems. Most of the policies we champion mitigate the worst ravages of the housing market without solving the problem. Some questions that perpetually confound us:
How could we stop displacement in a way that will survive in court?
What is a statewide strategy to amend Proposition 13, the Ellis Act, Costa-Hawkins and replace lost redevelopment funds?
How do we seek revenge on those suburbs that keep adding jobs without housing?
If we want to stop shaking down developers for measly set-asides on luxury projects, how would we fund large-scale housing for anyone earning less than $140,000?
I’m happy to start somewhere, but I’d prefer somewhere that’s not a dead end.
Nato Green is a San Francisco-based comedian and writer. Catch his new movie-riffing show at the Alamo Drafthouse on Tuesday, March 22, with Natasha Muse and Kaseem Bentley.