The housing problem in San Francisco is very important, but the discourse around it has devolved into caricature and name-calling with the NIMBYs and the YIMBYs duking it out over San Francisco’s future.
The NIMBYs are generally described as hypocritical progressives, cloaked in a patina of tech money. They are portrayed as the 21st-century San Francisco equivalent to the liberals Phil Ochs sang about who “love Puerto Ricans and Negroes as long as they don’t move next door,” and who primarily are concerned with preserving their neighborhoods and property values. The YIMBYs, on the other hand, understand the need for more housing and are willing to see developments in their communities to get there.
The truth is a little more complicated.
There are, to be sure, thousands of San Franciscans, who do not want to see more housing or other developments, but they are not easily stereotyped. Some are indeed progressives who have been in San Francisco for many years and were fortunate enough to have bought property when it was affordable; others are newer residents who are wealthy tech workers. Others still are low-income people of color who want to keep developments for the wealthy out of their communities. There are also many middle class San Franciscans of various ethnic backgrounds whose political opinions are not far left at all, but who are indeed concerned about property values and their neighborhoods. Lastly, there are environmentalists who worry about the environmental impact of building more, as we accelerate toward more climate change-related crises.
Given the breadth of people who are sometimes referred to as NIMBYs, not all of them oppose every project. And the nature of the NIMBY movement changes depending upon the project in question. Nonetheless, the face of the NIMBYs remains the affluent, hypocritical progressive.
The righteousness of the YIMBYs is implicit. They want development — and in their own back yard to boot.
But that is not quite so simple either. There are very few projects and almost no housing developments, particularly affordable housing developments, that are broadly welcomed by the residing community.
In most cases, the people pushing hardest for the new projects, naturally, are the developers and they rarely live where the projects will be located. Frequently, they don’t live in San Francisco at all. Moreover, there is little reason to believe that these developers are advocating for affordable housing in their own communities. So, while the term NIMBY is too broad and misleading, the term YIMBY is just wrong. A better acronym might be YISBY — Yes in Somebody’s Back Yard.
An even better idea would be to stop calling each other names all together and to try to have an intelligent discussion about housing.
That discussion might begin by recognizing that San Francisco is part of a larger and very mobile economy that involves the region, the country and increasingly the whole globe. In part because the region is so desirable, the housing problem exists throughout the Bay Area — and San Francisco is doing better than the rest of the region in addressing that crisis. For example, between 2014 and 2018, 18,229 units were built in San Francisco, out of a total of 81,962 in the entire Bay Area. San Francisco has built 22.3% of the new housing in the nine county Bay Area but is home to fewer than 22.3% of Bay Area residents.
The housing crisis cannot be solved in San Francisco alone because it is not a San Francisco problem. If you are a San Franciscan and don’t recognize this, then you are shedding more heat than light onto a difficult conundrum. If you are outside The City and blaming only San Francisco, then you are being a bit of a bully.
Because new people can, and do, move into San Francisco all the time, the problem will not be solved by building more housing. The idea that you eliminate homelessness, or even meaningfully reduce rents, by building a lot of market-rate housing and a much smaller amount of affordable housing is very appealing — particularly to developers — but it isn’t true. One way to understand this is between 2011-2020, New York City added almost 193,000 new housing units, a number that sounds impressive to San Franciscans, but in that same period the city’s population increased by almost 630,000 and few believe that the housing increase addressed the challenges raised by homeless New Yorkers. Even if each of those new units housed three New Yorkers, that city would still have fallen further behind the housing puzzle.
But you don’t need to look all the way to New York City because the data in San Francisco is very similar.
According to the San Francisco Department of planning, between 2011-2019 there were just short of 27,000 units of housing built in The City, but the population grew during that period by about 66,500. If an average of 2.5 people live in each new unit, which is a reasonable estimate given the majority of these units were small apartments, those new units would not have meaningfully eased the housing crunch or the problems of unhoused San Franciscans.
There are no easy answers to the housing crisis, but it is useful to begin by recognizing some of the often contradictory realities surrounding the issue: a broad range of San Franciscans oppose building more housing in their neighborhoods and sometimes in other neighborhoods as well; there is a genuine need for more affordable housing in The City; constructing market-rate housing is likely to draw more people to The City, just as constructing highways tends to draw more motorists; most aspects of the homeless crisis will not be addressed simply through creating housing; an awful lot of middle class San Franciscans, from many different backgrounds, have most of their wealth tied up in their homes; and the absence of any meaningful coordination between Bay Area governments makes this problem considerably more acute.
This context does not lead to any easy answers and does not vindicate either side of the alleged NIMBY-YIMBY debate.
Also, while there may be many reasons to build market-rate housing in San Francisco and many potential beneficiaries of those kinds of projects, we are not going to address the problem of homelessness — or even of high rents — by building expensive developments of primarily market-rate housing. Nor are we going to solve a difficult problem that goes back decades by calling each other names.
Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.