Golf courses are an inefficient use of land and money that could be better used for housing.
On Monday, in what may be a positive step towards recovery, golf courses will be reopening for business as usual.
Unfortunately, for the majority of the population that doesn’t golf, this will mean the closure of public space. For the first time in years, during quarantine, the Presidio Golf Course opened to the public for lounging and recreation. The Presidio Golf Course is one of The City’s six public golf courses, and with 150 acres, it’s ideal for social distancing.
Yes, you read that correctly. According to the Recreation and Parks Department website, The City of San Francisco owns not one, not two, but six public golf courses.
If you’re like me, you might have assumed that the priority of the parks department would be to operate free parks that are open to all members of the public. But apparently the department also operates golf courses.
The courses are expensive. On an off season weekday, a game at the Presidio Golf Course costs $38. During the summer, prices climb as high as $150 per person for non-residents. Golf courses are also low density. The Presidio Golf Course accommodates just 1,200 visitors per acre, per year compared to Golden Gate Park’s 24,000 visitors, according to back-of-the- envelope calculations by public space advocate Matt Brezina.
There’s no two ways about it. Golf courses do not serve the majority of San Franciscans.
Now this is a housing column. What do golf courses have to do with housing? The answer has to do with both land use and financing.
At approximately 200 acres per course, San Francisco’s nine golf courses (public and private) account for over 5 percent of The City’s land mass. This is a large amount of land to be used by such a small amount of people. And in the middle of a housing shortage, there’s an argument to be made that a higher use for this land could be housing.
Over the past few years, golf courses have become a target of affordable housing advocates. Last year in Seattle, socialist candidate for City Council Shaun Scott ran on a platform of redeveloping golf courses for public housing. Ed McMahon, a research fellow at the Urban Land Institute, has also cited golf courses as an “opportunity” for redevelopment.
Several U.S. cities are making strides towards this end. In Kent, Wash., a former golf course is being redeveloped into a mixed-use apartment complex. Hines development firm in San Diego is working on a proposal that would transform a former golf course into a 100-acre public park and over 4,000 new homes. In Washington, Wisconsin and Florida, golf courses have been redeveloped into public wildlife preserves.
With recent efforts to prioritize public land for affordable housing, there’s no reason San Francisco couldn’t consider at least one of our public golf courses for this use.
Meanwhile, in addition to being an inefficient use of public space, California’s private golf courses detract millions of dollars annually from public services. A ballot measure passed in the 1960s enshrined a property tax break for golf courses into the California state constitution. This tax break is on top of the state’s infamous Proposition 13, which golf courses are also entitled to.
The net result is staggering. Malcolm Gladwell calculates on his podcast Revisionist History that a single golf course in Los Angeles skirts almost $90 million per year due to these tax breaks. At an average subsidy of $200,000 per unit, $90 million could finance 450 units of affordable housing. And again, that’s lost revenue from just one golf course. For one year.
Because they’re written into our constitution, repealing tax breaks for golf courses will be challenging. Supporters can start by voting for the Schools and Communities First initiative in November, which would repeal Prop. 13 for businesses. We can also think about whether or not public or private golf courses deserve space in our cities at all.
As we begin to lift shelter in place restrictions, let’s consider what’s important to us. What services are really essential? Is setting aside 5 percent of The City’s surface area for golfing a good use of our public space, or our public funds? And if not, how can we redesign our city for use by the many and not the few?
Sasha Perigo is a data scientist and fair housing advocate writing about the San Francisco housing crisis. You can follow her on Twitter at @sashaperigo. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.