By Lisa Zahner
San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston recently declared vacant apartments “the single biggest source of potential housing in San Francisco” and noted that “We’ve seen a cooling of the rental market for the first time in a generation” because the pandemic had driven renters to leave SF in search of lower housing costs.
While I commend Supervisor Preston for acknowledging that the laws of supply and demand apply to San Francisco’s housing market and agree that vacant apartments should (of course) be filled with residents in need of housing, his math does not come remotely close to solving our city’s decades-long housing shortage, displacement, and affordability crisis.
That’s because Supervisor Preston also characterized calls for building more housing to address SF’s housing shortage as “tired talking points” and seemed to dismiss the notion that building more housing is a reasonable way to address a housing shortage. By his own conclusion, adding additional supply from vacant units will help address the cost of housing. So why not combine filling vacant apartments with building more homes to increase the overall supply (and therefore lower the price) of housing?
Having worked in real estate and community development for the past two decades, I’ve never heard anyone seriously suggest that only one or two strategies will solve SF’s housing headaches. Today’s displacement and affordability crisis is the direct result of over 20 years of inefficiency, NIMBYism, and exclusionary zoning that has prohibited more housing from being built to keep up with demand. We need a multifaceted approach that includes boosting housing production, reforming zoning laws, and streamlining the permitting process to make it possible for San Francisco to add the 5,000 new homes per year that we should have been adding for the past 20 years to avoid the crisis we are in today.
According to the City’s chief economist, Ted Egan, we would need to add 100,000 new homes over the next 20 years just to keep home prices rising at the same rate as inflation. That won’t happen by merely filling currently vacant apartments. We need more. When we have city leaders who accept the reality that the biggest single source of potential housing in San Francisco is building new homes at all levels of affordability, we can finally address our housing crisis with the urgency it deserves.
Lisa Zahner is a San Francisco realtor with a background in community development and a board member of the Housing Action Coalition and Alamo Square Neighborhood Association.