Much like San Francisco today, rows and rows of temporary homes were erected around The City in the 1940s. Veterans were forced to live with their parents or exist in one-room “apartments.” Multiple families crowded together. Editorials in the San Francisco Examiner railed against a “housing shortage” and “outrageous” home prices.
“The down payments are even more than I, and many, many other veterans earn in one year’s time,” wrote R.E. Green of San Francisco in a letter to the Examiner’s editor on December 18, 1946. “San Francisco’s officials are certainly having a hard time deciding what to do with the Presidio. Why not allow a few acres for a veterans’ community and have a reasonable down payment and terms?”
Today, the Presidio offers supportive housing for veterans, as well as almost two dozen residential neighborhoods with apartments and homes for rent. But it’s not enough. San Francisco is once again facing a housing crisis that would have seemed familiar to Green. This time, however, the shortage can’t be blamed on 15 years of depression and war. Unfortunately, the environmental movement played a role.
New York Times reporter Conor Dougherty presents this nuanced history of our housing crisis in his new book, “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.”
“You see this cleave between the younger environmental activist where dense housing is the greenest thing, and the older environmentalist,” Doughtery told me. “But no one thinks we would have been better off if the original environmental movement hadn’t stopped a bunch of things.”
His book describes the response to the post-war housing shortage and the inequality and environmental destruction it caused. Redevelopment, for example, was a tool pushed by “progressives” who saw clearing “slums” and replacing them with new housing as a way to address overcrowding and dangerous living conditions. In practice, however, redevelopment demolished minority neighborhoods, like the predominantly black Fillmore District community.
Meanwhile, the region’s white, middle-class population was moving into suburban, single-family homes. While these homes were affordable, they also devoured open space and forced people into their gas-guzzling cars. To support the sprawl, the federal government called for more freeways. In San Francisco, seven crosstown freeways were proposed, including several through Golden Gate Park and a double-decker from the Embarcadero to the Golden Gate Bridge.
“San Franciscans started fighting,” wrote Dougherty. “This was a good fight.”
But it was only the beginning. From the backlash to breakneck building grew height and zoning restrictions to keep nature more accessible (typically, for higher income households) and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). I’ve seen the controversial law protect endangered species and open space from suburban sprawl, as well as construction workers and communities from contaminated, urban soil. Of course, CEQA is also a tool for neighborhood groups to delay or stop new development they fear may impact home values.
This is the reality in which San Francisco currently finds itself. Our housing crisis is happening at a time when a myriad of environmental crises are also making themselves apparent. City officials and groups must stop opposing common-sense housing proposals and bills. We must build in a way that’s equitable and sustainable in urban centers.
“The math of the situation and the climate challenges we’re facing pretty much dictate that we’re going to have to build more housing, and housing needs to be near transportation and where people already live and work,” Dougherty told me. “But I’m not an advocate. It’s my job to inform readers in a way that’s reflective of my analysis.”
His book does this job admirably. “Golden Gates” creates a fuller picture of today’s housing crisis and sparks the imagination. As someone who advocates for the environment, I found myself envisioning a future where the high-density housing we need not only protects nature, but compliments it. HafenCity in Hamburg, Germany, for example, incorporates a terraced design, instead of dikes, to protect residents from flooding and provide proximity to the water.
I highly encourage San Franciscans to check out Conor Doughtery’s, “Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.”
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com