SPUR’s President Gabriel Metcalf penned an opinion piece for popular urban planning site CityLab titled “What’s the Matter With San Francisco? The City’s devastating affordability crisis has an unlikely villain — its famed progressive politics.” It goes into depth about how policies in San Francisco have led to the current situation where unremarkable one bedroom apartments that rent for $82,000 per year can be found on Craigslist. Yes, policies in San Francisco and the surrounding area have led to very high housing prices. Who is to blame? I have a hard time blaming progressives.
In the Bay Area, generally moderatevoting homeowners and their representatives have had far more sway on maintaining exclusionary zoning and blocking new housing than San Francisco’s progressives.
Land prices are sky high, thanks to an artificial shortage (created by zoning) of developable sites clustered in the densest part of San Francisco. Outside of the core that burned in the 1906 fire and was rebuilt prior to density regulations, most of the rest of The City is reserved for suburban-style one- and two-family homes. You can’t even build a legal inlaw unit in most of the west or south side.
The CityLab mentions the role other regional cities have played in creating too few housing units to accommodate job growth, but downplays it. Yes, we don’t have the transit system of New York, but BART and Caltrain aren’t nothing and stations on the Peninsula are surrounded by one and two story buildings and detached homes. Atherton, the most Republican town in San Mateo County, has exactly zero apartment buildings. If more tech bus-riding Silicon Valley workers wanted to live closer to work, there isn’t rental housing there to accommodate them.
If we specifically focus on the actions of “progressive” San Francisco politicians, former Supervisor Chris Daly paved the way for a massive number of new units in SoMa by brokering a community impact deal in 2005. The Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, which upzoned large areas on the east side of The City, was approved by a progressive majority Board of Supervisors. The new units in these historically progressive-voting areas represent the majority of the housing that has been created in The City the last 10 years.
Looking back, nobody in the early ’90s would have predicted the level of immigration and income inequality we have now. Metcalf points out that we should have been building 5,000 units of housing yearly since then, but this is unlikely considering the realities of development in a cyclical regional economy and it would have seemed high prior to the first dot-com boom. Far more units have been permitted since then, but only a fraction of them have been built and this has more to do with economics than obstructionism.
Progressive politicians do need to rethink the alliance that Metcalf points out between their supporters and people who seek to block all development (often referred to as NIMBYs).
Halting projects like 8 Washington at the ballot box doesn’t help the larger progressive cause, and it detracts attention away from more important issues like stopping Ellis Act evictions and finding permanent sources of funding for affordable housing. It is important to remember that the “No Wall on the Waterfront” campaign was funded by wealthy property owners concerned about views.
San Franciscans can make a difference by voting “yes” on the housing bond slated to appear on the November ballot, which will fund a variety of programs designed to create and maintain The City’s affordable housing. There is no one solution to solve a crisis that has been in the making for many years, but progressives and moderates need to work together to do it.
Mark Hogan is an architect and principal at OpenScope Studio in San Francisco.