San Francisco’s working-class Latinos have a veritable catch 22 before them: Do they want to continue to be pawns of white NIMBY homeowners or instead become pawns of white real estate developers?
The question resurfaced last week because of a mangled Milton Friedman fan fiction in The Atlantic about housing in San Francisco by a Venice Beach writer, upset about “… property owners gleefully watching the value of their biggest assets skyrocket as they aggressively blocked high-density development. Their success has caused much misery … They’d prevail by tricking economically illiterate activists into allying with them after sneakily tearing the supply-and-demand chapters from their econ textbooks.”
(Disclosure: I am a property owner, although I’ve never been called gleeful.)
So property owners, like me, tricked blue-collar saps into trying to slow displacement by opposing high-density development, restricting supply and increasing our property values. It’s the simplest diabolical scheme of all time. According to the writer, unchecked high-density development is the “only viable policy fix” for housing. If Latino “illiterates” of the Mission weren’t tricked, they would support developments like the Monster in the Mission instead of opposing them. Homeowners, like me, excel at trickery.
Some version of this same argument is routinely made in the press, in neoliberal thinkpieces, at hearings, by callers to Michael Krasny and on Twitter. It’s popular among people who support more development. It’s also racist.
It’s racist because it implies that white homeowners are rational political actors pursuing their self-interest and renters of color are not. The fabled middle- and upper-class white NIMBYs who allegedly control land use across the Bay Area, in this narrative, have rational priorities: property values, views, traffic, parking, and “neighborhood character,” which is a thing, and subjective.
Politicians pander to such voters and fear their backlash, although they occasionally frustrate deep-pocketed donors. This is why I support high-density housing in Saint Francis Woods. It would be walking distance to Muni metro lines and to Google bus stops on 19th Avenue. Yet, despite being perfect, the notion is so far out of the question politically — because that neighborhood would not tolerate it — that it is not even imagined let alone proposed or attempted.
On the other hand, we have seen how swiftly a consensus congeals from City Hall to my favorite source of scratch-n-sniff journalism, the Chronicle, to construction unions and astrotuf groups, in support of proposals in less affluent neighborhoods to build stuff local residents don’t want. And when the Mission resists luxury condos, the argument goes, it’s not because of self-interest but because they’re causing their own misery and don’t understand economics — and the Mission is already dead, anyway.
Instead of being pawns of homeowners, they should submit to being pawns of real estate developers to build more market-rate housing.
The possibility that working-class Latinos are not stupid does not enter these discussions. The people telling San Francisco’s remaining poor communities that they’ve been tricked are effectively telling them they’re stupid and should yield to benevolent white men in suits.
It is possible that struggling renters have not been tricked, but may have cause to doubt their interests are aligned with luxury condo developers. Or don’t believe they will ever get to live in those condos. Or suspect that developers build when it is profitable and would stop building long before low-income people get relief.
The poor are never as profitable as the rich.
Or believe that dropping a lot of rich people into a poor neighborhood never works out well for the poor people. There is a long history in the Americas of white newcomers promising the natives riches and delivering destruction instead. I’m not saying high-density proponents are conquistadores with tablets. I’m not not saying that. I am definitely saying no one who builds a political argument around the premise that low-income people cannot understand the world they live in should be taken seriously.
Nato Green is a San Francisco-based comedian who will host Iron Comic at SF Sketchfest on Jan. 24 at Cobb’s with Moshe Kasher, Janeane Garofalo, Dana Gould, Greg Behrendt, Guy Branum and Brandon Wardell. Holler @natogreen.