Most U.S. cities have only just begun to crawl out of the trenches of the Great Recession, but San Francisco has been charging back to the front lines.
Reverberations from the 2008 housing market collapse put a four-year hold on most local projects, creating a colossal backlog of stalled buildings and renovations. But looking at The City these days, signs of a sustained boom are on the horizon — quite literally.
Any clear view of the skyline is strewn with gangly construction cranes as developers scurry to build more housing and offices that can accommodate the labor needs of cash-heavy companies in San Francisco and Silicon Valley alike.
In less than four years, following the largest fiscal crisis since the Great Depression, San Francisco's downright depressing 10.1 percent unemployment rate in January 2010 has been nearly halved to 5.2 percent, according to November numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The City's impressive rebound outpaces the 8.3 percent jobless rate across California, the 8.5 percent level in New York City and the 9.4 percent of workers unemployed in Los Angeles.
Unsurprisingly, San Francisco's population has skyrocketed, especially for an already-dense 47-square-mile metropolis with little horizontal space left to grow. The City added 28,500 new residents between 2000 and 2010, for a grand total of 805,263. Then, in just the following two years alone, an additional 20,600 folks wedged themselves into The City's superlatively expensive living space.
And although the City by the Bay now appears poised to become an economic recovery model for the Western world, big questions remain on whether it can prove nimble enough for such rapid growth and ultimately avoid becoming a victim of its own success.
MARCH TO 1 MILLION
The population of roughly 825,000 in 2012 will have steadily increased to a milestone by 2032, when a projected 1 million people will make their home inside city limits, according to an upcoming report from the Association of Bay Area Governments. By 2040, the report speculates that the growth rate will begin to level out at 1,085,700.
Sounds crowded for just the upper tip of a narrow peninsula, right? If the sidewalks and buses seem busier even now, and it begins to feel like San Francisco just can't get any more crowded, doubters need look in only one direction — up.
“The future is tall,” said Richard DeLeon, a San Francisco State University political science professor and close observer of The City's “anti-Manhattanization” movement of the 1980s and '90s. “There has been a shift from the anti-high-rise movement. … These new progressive politicians, they have no problem with going tall and vertical.”
If the current population projections hold steady, The City will have grown in population by 35 percent between 2010 and 2040 — the fastest 30-year rate of increase in nearly a century. San Francisco has not seen droves like this since the post-agrarian period between 1920 and 1950, over which the population grew by 53 percent before abruptly losing tens of thousands of residents to the 1950s suburban boom.
The forthcoming population report also estimates that 190,000 more jobs will need to be created before 2040, when 759,500 people will work here. The projected population growth is assumed to be greatest in the denser eastern side of The City, where tech businesses continue to fill out former warehouses in South of Market and residential developments are being aggressively pitched — and combated — in the bustling and diverse Mission district.
The expansion — and its inevitable challenges — fill urban planners with nervous excitement.
“The Bay Area job creation engine is the envy of the entire world,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR, the region's most active urbanist think tank. “But it has created its own set of problems for us — problems that don't solve themselves. Still, it's better to have the problems we have than the problems of not enough jobs.”
Metcalf, and just about everyone else in town, can quickly identify the top conundrum: the cost of housing. It's an old and contentious discussion that rears its head with each boom time, and solutions to the hard facts of supply and demand aren't getting any easier.
Ellis Act evictions, which landlords can use to rid their units of tenants as long as the properties are taken out of the rental market, jumped by 170 percent between 2010 and 2013. Evictions overall are up 38 percent in that three-year period, according to recent city legislative reports.
The City's rent median — the midpoint on the spectrum of prices — outpaces all other U.S. cities at $1,463 per month, according to recent U.S. census figures. Currently, nearly 40 percent of San Francisco rental properties demand at least 35 percent of tenants' total income. At last glance on the Trulia real estate listings website, the median cost of buying a home was $850,000, nearly $200,000 more than it was five years ago and more than double what it was in 2000.
WHAT SAN FRANCISCO MAY NEED
Despite the cost of living's torrid upward pace, projections indicate people will come anyway. And all of this, no doubt, will lead to an increased burden on The City's aging transit system, as workers dash to tens of thousands more jobs that they will hold increasingly dear in order to pay the rent or mortgage.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has long identified a multibillion-dollar funding shortfall for capital improvements such as street fixes and hundreds of new vehicles over the coming decades. Mayor Ed Lee wants to patch a $6.3 billion funding hole with increases in vehicle license fees and by going to voters with general-obligation bonds, but an early sour response in a public poll suggests the effort will require politicos to restore faith in the much-maligned system's ability to improve.
One bright spot is that, by most accounts, officials believe The City's utility infrastructure can handle the increased burden. San Francisco runs California's most pristine water reservoir system, with its main source at Yosemite National Park. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is undertaking a strategy of water recycling, green building requirements and more efficient home fixtures that officials believe will actually keep water demands flat over the next 20 to 25 years.
But there's no dignified way to put it — more people means more sewage, and the current system will need a smattering of conservation efforts to deal with wastewater, which is periodically pumped into the Pacific Ocean. Parts of The City's 1,000-mile sewer system date back to the Gold Rush era of the mid-1800s, and the wastewater system as a whole is currently in need of $250 million in annual maintenance, according to SFPUC spokesman Tyrone Jue.
Jue said more green space needs to be created in order to capture heavy stormwater runoff. It shares the same effluent pipes as The City's treated sewage, and is therefore dumped into the ocean with all other wastewater when the system becomes overloaded. A new pilot project in the Sunset district is encouraging residents to replace impervious concrete surfaces with lawns.
“The idea is that the stormwater goes into the ground instead of down the streets,” Jue said. “That does benefit the overall system.”
While often billed as a childless city, the San Francisco Unified School District is still charged with educating 56,000 students. Estimates vary on what a major population increase will mean. With only 13.5 percent of the population under 18 years old, San Francisco has the fewest minors of any major city in the U.S. The SFUSD's statistics show that after more than two decades of declining school enrollment beginning in the late 1980s, The City will return to its 1985-level of approximately 65,000 students by about 2021. Anecdotally, private-school enrollments appear to be rising, most notably in the Mission district.
More people would also require more police on the streets, and that's exactly what Police Chief Greg Suhr said he would like to see happen. In 1979, The City set a minimum police force standard of 1,971 officers, which at the time was about one officer per 350 residents. To help keep up with the ratio, Suhr said he hopes have 2,300 to 2,500 cops on patrol by the time San Francisco reaches 1 million residents.
While homicides are down by 50 percent since 1993, The City has seen a recent troubling spike in property crimes — attributed mainly to thieves preying on pedestrians and transit commuters carrying expensive mobile devices. The Police Department's CompStat crime monitoring database shows that The City is on track to log more than 55,000 crimes in 2013 — a 22 percent increase from 2012. Nearly 40,000 of those are property crimes.
Despite shifts in trends, Suhr said a fully staffed police force should remain a constant.
“We always act around here like we're in the middle of a crime wave,” Suhr said. “Otherwise, you're tempting fate.”
WORK HARD, PAY HARD
No matter what the future holds, growth generally means two things for the budgets of The City and citizens alike — higher revenue and higher expenses. Despite a recent surge in property taxes, San Francisco has yet to keep its spending growth in line with increasing costs. The latest budget grew by more than $700 million since last year, for an annual $8 billion. That's more than the annual budgets of 12 U.S. states.
For a middle-class individual between jobs, that same scenario means life in the big city comes with little wiggle room. Metcalf, who moved to San Francisco in 1996, said some positive change has taken place since then. But he fears if the reaction to growth is slow, The City could set itself up for a “super-rich monoculture.”
“We have not been nimble enough,” he said. “We've done some things right in the last 20 years in terms of public space and bicycling. But economically, we've priced out regular people.
San Francisco at 1 million
The City is poised to hit the mark in less than two decades. This five-part series will explore the challenges San Francisco faces in handling this population milestone.
SUNDAY: What will San Francisco look like with 1 million residents?
MONDAY: Utility operators prepare for the population crush
TUESDAY: More people means more work for police and fire personnel
THURSDAY: Muni will need big changes to handle big boost in passengers
FRIDAY: Housing philosophy of “build more now” sure to be tested in the future