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Housing debates are dumb

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Displacement and affordability crises, including continued housing development in the Mission, afflict cities worldwide. (Eric Risberg/AP)


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.

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  • HappyHighwayman

    “How do we seek revenge on those suburbs that keep adding jobs without housing?” Revenge, eh? Great policy of friendliness.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    Yeah… Let’s blame others for our problems. That solves everything. They added jobs but not housing… Just like SF. But it’s their fault, not our own. Brilliant.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    The problem is our wacky rent control scheme. We need another approach that is based on need rather than the date someone first moved to the city. This is why so many units end up on AirBnB–landlords are looking to maximize the value of their property and rent controlled units create major resale issues. We can start by only giving rent assistance to people who qualify for it based on income rather than the age of the building and move-in date. I know people making plenty of money who still pay 1990’s rent. Then you pay for this rent assistance by taxing rental income in excess of a median standard. You include AirBnB type rentals in the formula. And, you let developers build and collect property taxes to fund infrastructure.

    It took decades of mismanagement, filled with good intentions, to create this mess. It’s going to take decades more to pull us out of it. Not every problem can be fixed overnight; dismissing valid solutions because they aren’t quick enough and seeking out easy legislative answers (amend the Ellis act!) is what got is into this mess in the first place.

  • seansd

    Have the city buy or build the affordable housing units. Then set the rent according to a percentage of income. Those that are the most successful will automatically be encouraged to move out and free up the space for the next tenants.
    Plus, you avoid forcing one group to subsidize the living expenses of another group for what is a city’s problem.

  • Markjf07@gmail.com

    Well said

  • mossy buddha

    1. Protect tenants
    2. Take homes out of the spec market
    3. Build affordable social housing
    4. Just build

  • North Beach Phil

    Rent control has nothing to do with this situation. We are hitting a 100 year spike in housing demand. How come developers didn’t anticipate the 2012-15 spike (there were no upticks in their applications so you can’t blame NIMBY’s)? You blame people in previous decades for not foreseeing this current spike? Now, how exactly were they supposed to anticipate this demand ? What is “stupid” about this discussion it is this notion that this is unique to SF and that someone in SF screwed up or purposely caused this problem (although Lee screwed up for his general discrimination against most middle and lower income groups). The problem is a statewide problem where high wage earners are moving in and bidding up rents while driving out middle and lower income jobs. This has made CA into an area with some of the highest poverty rates in the U.S. Low unemployment but high poverty. And this isn’t my personal theory, the Federal Reserve Bank of SF has written several research reports on high wage jobs and what they have done to the CA economy–including housing demand/prices.

  • North Beach Phil

    Actually, that is a good point and I was just thinking about it yesterday. There is something called RHNA (Regional Housing Needs Allocation) where each city in CA is allocated a certain amount of housing in certain price levels. This is a legal process and is done with the local council of governments and the state department of housing and community development. Suburban cities should be sued for refusing to build the units that have been allocated to them. For instance, there is a huge demand fo housing in Mt View but the city has been refusing to approve new projects. The result, new hires move to SF and Google et al drive them from SF to MTV. So, it has nothing to do with friendliness. Other cities in the region have worked to meet their RHNA and others refuse to do so. The old free rider problem. Screw ’em, make them pony up their allocated housing.

  • poetinsf

    People come here because jobs are plentiful. And companies come because skiled people are plentiful. We must get to the source of this vicious cycle to put an end to the housing crisis. Lets relocate Stanford and Berkerley to Fresno.

  • RealFakeSanFranciscan

    The fairer way to phrase it would’ve been “How do we ensure that every city/county in the region does its share to build the infrastructure that regional growth requires?” SF isn’t so great at that either – even if they’re less worse than Palo Alto.

  • sffoghorn

    Permits for market rate housing should be put on hold until the structural debt of the transit system is paid down and plans for expansion to accommodate new residents is funded and under construction. When you say “we need to build build build,” that ends up swapping false claims for affordability with increasing transit delays due to overcrowding and crumbling infrastructure.

    We all know that Calvin Welch would only permit “affordable” housing to address incomes > 100AMI over his cold dead political body. Allowing Calvin Welch, Fernando Marti and Peter Cohen who run the Council of Community Housing Organizations secretive cartel to set the alternative housing policy to that of the developers means that the affordability problem will never get solved.

    The only goal of CCHO is to feed the budgets of their constituent agencies rather than actually make measurable headway on their policy goals. CCHO gets paid whether they succeed or not and that must be stopped if San Franciscans want to escape from this downward spiral.

    Taking advice from SEIU “consultant” Nato Green on housing will mean that housing sees similar “successes” as SEIU. And that ain’t funny, funnyman.

  • North Beach Phil

    Nato, I know what you are saying and I feel that way too sometimes. But you may be confusing the debate over housing prices with the debate on how housing should be built. The SF “housing” discussion seems to be about the real estate industry–how much housing should be built, who should build it, where should it be built, etc. Those are important discussions but I don’t believe that is what is causing the housing price problem. The housing price problem is caused by statewide macroeconomic trends whereby high wager earners are moving into the state in large numbers and bidding up the price of housing and low and middle income people are forced out (hence the state’s very high poverty rate). Even reading the technical appendix of the Legislative Analysts Office report that you cite they say that their statistical research shows that in a county if housing prices go up 10% then their is an 8% drop in housing demand. Really? Not in SF ! The current housing situation is like a 100 year flood and was anticipated by no one. Developers weren’t applying for permits in 2007-2010 in anticipation of the 100 year housing flood. Why not? Because they didn’t know either. And all this blame for progressives for causing the housing spike. How could anyone in 1980, 1990, etc have anticipated this housing spike? When one looks at rents in SF compared to the CPI the rents track it closely. Since 1979 there wasn’t a time (except the dot com boom) where housing prices spiked away from the CPI. It is doing it now but it is doing it because the city is giving tax breaks to encourage high wager earners to move here and the city is not looking out for low and middle income jobs. This exact same price spike would happen in Kansas City if there was a call for as many high wage earner jobs as SF has called for. Ed Lee seems to actively discriminate against certain income classes and by doing so he hurts the entire community. We need leaders who understand what is going on in the state and leaders who will monitor what their economic policies are actually doing to their city. That is the real issue and “housing” issue in SF and for most of coastal CA.

  • Stupendous Bob

    Funny that libtards are always saying how government is our best protector, and Californians swear to the god Democrat so it’s the controlling party in California, yet when the CA Legislature’s policy analyst says that opening up the market is the best solution to rising prices, the classic libtard writer resorts to sophomoric sarcasm that we’ll all be dead in 25 years.

    By the libtard reckoning, the only ways to stop rising housing costs (which is the direct result of population increase in the Bay Area and governments’ restrictive development rules) are to either completely eliminate immigration or be like China and only allow 1 child per family. Does that sound like an open and welcoming society? No? Then the only real solution is to build more housing and more transportation to accommodate the ever increasing tide of people.

    How much vacant land and how many run down buildings does the City of San Francisco own? Why don’t the Dumbocrats and Regressives who run the City want to divest it of evil private property and turn that over free of charge to the indigent teachers and bums living in the streets? Maybe because they are hypocrites who just want to control eveyone else’s personal lives.

  • Seems like it should be possible to build better debates if we want. Perhaps you could help it by describing, and asking your readers to describe, what more helpful debates/resources look like, or what forums, sites, etc out there are relatively good?

    There are many projects and models out there aiming to create more substantive, engaged, and/or solution-oriented discussions. For example, Solutions Journalism Network, a national org with an active local chapter, is eager to help on this. Or News Deeply, a NY/SF-based org that develops deep-dive topical news sites like Syria Deeply. How about helping to pitch & develop a #HousingDeeply ?

    Tim McCormick
    Houslets, Possibilist projects
    San Francisco & Portland
    @tmccormick @houslets

  • J_12

    Here is a plan to ease the housing crisis.

    1. start with an estimate of how much new housing is required over a given time span, say 10 years, in order to bring supply and demand back into equilibrium.
    2. upzone ALL residential buildings to allow enough increase in density to meet this need.
    3. Impose a property tax increase or surcharge on all residential properties that will be offset by a credit for adding residential units (building to max allowed by zoning = full offset.)
    4. make both the air rights for new residential construction and the tax credits transferable so they can be traded in a secondary market (within existing safety constraints.)
    5. Get out of the way and let individuals and corporations decide how much new housing to build, where to build it, and how much to charge for it.

    This does not address infrastructure issues such as how much capacity exists for water, sewer, power, and transportation. That information is not easily available to the public and is needed in order to consider whether it imposes a constraint.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    Our existing rent control scheme artificially reduces supply because it creates a price ceiling. This is economics 101. Reducing profit creates disincentives for developers to respond to market demands.

    I blame people for creating a rent control scheme that has some pretty terrible unintended consequences that were known more than a decade ago but ignored because it is a political hot-potato.

    San Francisco’s rent/buy ratio is dramatically skewed towards renters, moreso than the rest of the state and the rest of the country on average. When you create artificial price ceilings on rents, who has incentive to buy?

  • HappyHighwayman

    I’m for that. I honestly think the region especially SF is screwed in the next 5-10 years unless they magically deregulate.

  • wrenriver

    A good start would be to find out how many rent controlled apartments in San Francisco are still actually being rented to long term tenants.
    Between AirBnB, Corporate rentals, Short term rentals of more than 30 days but less than a year, Academy of Art conversions to dormitories, units being taken off the market by owners, etc., rent controlled apartments are disappearing at a fast rate.
    Just Google “San Francisco Short Term Housing” or “San Francisco Corporate Apartments” to see how many large rent controlled buildings are now being used for non-long-term-residential housing.

  • sojourner_7

    Total bull crap. Just because Plan Bay Area thinks it has the right to dictate housing allotments, doesn’t make it correct, and there isn’t any legal foundation for enforcement. PBA was roundly rejected at all public outreach meetings where it was introduced, and they “approved themselves” anyway. Totally illegitimate. In addition, the whole notion of the various RHNA allocations was that nobody was required to build anything. Sacramento wanted to have some “plan” for “Regions”. The cities just needed to provide zoning, nothing more. Who the F thinks it has authority to sue cities for not building housing? Cities don’t build housing, private developers build housing. Jim Wunderman from Bay Area Council is another wolf in sheeps clothing, pretending to be a quasi government entity when in fact they are a business advocacy group with an selfish agenda… wanting a super-regional government zone incompassing Sacramento into the Bay Area. Where do they find all these kooks?

  • Markjf07@gmail.com

    Correct. there are a ton of renters who could have afforded to buy 15 years ago but because they were seduced by rent control, totally missed it and now can’t afford. So they hang on to their rent control apartment because in their mind it’s all they have. Very sad.

  • shawn_non_anonymous

    At this point, for many of them, it is now all they can afford in the city. Had they bought 15 years ago when rent and prices were more affordable, they’d not have to worry about the Ellis act and the impact of the tech workers on their cost of housing. Home ownership is the biggest protection against price spikes in housing and evictions for renters.

  • Jill

    I’m pretty sure at some point we are going to have to get serious about the root problem. All of us are born onto land, thus need the land to survive, but the private ownership of land by corporations and not by the community of people that live in a city, will always lead to unsustainable prices in housing. Along with private property laws in the U.S. and the ability of billion dollar global corporations to “own” the land we live on, we as individuals don’t stand a chance of affordable housing – ever again. It’s a global market nowfolks. We are peasants…plain and simple. We must revolutionize the way we charge corporations for the use of the land they occupy and profit from.