Letting the free market set housing policy is like entrusting Michelle Bachman with school curricula.
White Guys in Suits diagnose pricey San Francisco housing as an affliction of supply and demand, which they gleaned from Adam Smith Cliff’s Notes in undergrad. Pro tip: when White Guys in Suits quote numbers, brandish studies or say “You do the math,” hold your children and brace for a bamboozling. ALWAYS DO THE MATH. As Supervisor Scott Wiener intoned in the Chronicle: “Over the last ten years, our population has grown by 75,000 while we’ve added 17,000 units of housing. You do the math.”
Presumably doing the math reveals that progressives caused the housing crisis by erecting obstacles to building instead of buildings. (Funny how the densest neighborhoods vote progressive. Since moderates so adore density, we should build more high-rises in St. Francis Wood.) If we cleared away all those asinine, Not In My Backyard zoning restrictions, then the magic of the market would expelliarmus our housing costs.
The market sounds so democratic. The market is all of us. It’s cruel for the big dumb government to make the market do what it doesn’t want to do.
Back to doing the math: median home price is $1 million. That’s the “market rate.” Fifteen percent of San Francisco residents can afford a home at this price. The mortgage on a $1 million home would require a household income around $136,800. Meanwhile, the median income in San Francisco is $75,604, or half of what it takes to afford the median home.
The market, in its wisdom, has created a yawning gap between what we earn and what we need to live. My daughter’s best friend just moved away because her family couldn’t afford to stay. The market also thinks only rich kids deserve friends. The market is dumb.
We have let the 15 percent who can afford the median home have their way on the other 85 percent of us. The 15 percent define market rate while we need laws to protect us from them. Most of the time, nobody listens to the 15 percent.
For example, 15 percent of the population believes our government was behind 9/11, that Obama is the antichrist, that the world will end in their lifetime and that bisexuality is not real. Fifteen percent would support any imbecilic notion. Even Congress and the tea party have 15 percent approval. Fifteen percent did not understand the question. It only takes 10 percent to win a revolution.
San Francisco is 15 percent Latino and 15 percent gay or lesbian. If San Francisco’s demographics were housing, The City would be all gay Latinos. It’s a city of David Camposes and Marga Gomezes, aka my idea of a good time.
It is no accident that “build baby build” is trendy — there’s a fortune to be made in it. But supply and demand does not apply to housing. Wiener was clearly high when he asked for math: It is not merely adding 75,000 bodies with only 17,000 units, it’s who those units and bodies are. If we had welcomed 75,000 Honduran migrants, we would not be talking about more $1 million condos. Dishwashers are not allowed to live downstairs from Willie Brown at the St. Regis no matter what the supply.
The theory of supply and demand is pretty rational, for a theory. Housing is as irrational as the number pi. How many “market rate” $1 million homes get more units under $500,000? If the market is rational, why are there 24 empty homes for every homeless person in America?
When The City gets around to dealing with housing costs, whether in legislation or the approval of specific projects, let’s not let the Branch Davidian lunatic fringe 15 percent market-rate hucksters define our reality.
Throwdown: I believe in evidence, which apparently makes me a communist. I’ll buy a drink for whomever sends credible evidence and analysis (like, not a whimsical tale) showing which local policies provide housing that is affordable across income levels. I predict I buy no drinks.
Nato Green can’t be bothered with fact-checking, because he’s a comedian and all art distorts literal truth to get to deeper truth. You can hear his podcast The Nato Sessions or see him do standup with The Business every Friday at Hemlock Tavern.
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