Friday, May 20, 2016

What we talk about when we talk about San Francisco

For a hint of what conversations are like in San Francisco these days — amidst the housing crisis, homelessness problem, and gentrification wars — I present a recent verbatim email exchange among four longtime residents. Names have been changed to Oscar, Felix, Murray, and Roy

On Thu, May 19, 2016 at 10:11 AM Oscar wrote:
My position on housing in SF as fantastically articulated by Sonja Trauss, a "deeply eccentric city-government nerd" and housing activist in SF. Interestingly, I read about her in The Stranger, a Seattle paper. It may have something to do with the fact that here in SF, at least in the Mission, pictures of her with dollar signs for eyes have been taped to telephone polls. Here's her evil plot:

"We need more housing units, and the market-rate units we build now will become tomorrow’s middle-income apartments. Her theory is based on her experience working for a neighborhood advisory committee in a rapidly gentrifying part of Philadelphia right before the mid-2000s housing bubble burst. “When the market crashed,” Trauss told me, “all those projects we had approved went on sale for a third of the price they would have, while all the projects we gummed up were never built. We lost the opportunity to create more units.”

Lest you think she is in the pocket of the developers, like a lot of Missionites apparently do, she is also a member of an organization that is trying to sue Bay Area suburbs for their restrictive building policies, i.e. they're trying to force suburbs to build more housing, too.

I like her position because it's considers the long view. We don't want to be the people in the 60's and 70's who fought BART expansion because it seemed like too much change. And it would have definitely changed neighborhoods then, maybe even for the worse (16th and 18th BART weren't nice 'hoods for a long time) but obviously we could really use those proposed BART stops now, 40 years later.

It's the same with housing. Market rate stuff today might become middle class housing later, but you have to build it while there's demand or it might not ever get done. Look how hard it is to find developers now to build affordable housing; wouldn't it be great if 40 years ago more stuff had been built? We will likely be thinking the same thing 40 years from now.

And if you don't build market rate stuff now, it puts enormous pressure on the existing housing stock. There have been 5 homes that have sold on my block in the past year, 4 of which were 2 million dollars, and 1 of which was 1 million that's going to be flipped for at least twice that. These were middle class and lower class homes just 10-20 years ago. There is no way I could afford my neighborhood now, and I bought just 5 years ago. Only rich people can move in now.

So when I hear "oh great, a new building is going up for rich people," it seems to me that rich people are moving here whether we build stuff or not, so do you want them buying up all the existing houses/condos in formerly poor and middle class neighborhoods, putting enormous pressure on landlords to sell, or do you want them in new buildings? Because they're coming here either way. It doesn't mean we have to do it carte blanche, we can still have robust planning and zoning and affordable housing requirements for new apartment buildings. But we have to build.

Sorry for the longness. I think I really need a job.

On Thu, May 19, 2016 at 10:53 AM Felix wrote:
Yes, we need rigorous zoning so that we build in order to satisfy demand while not destroying the character of the city. Of course it's going to change, but we need to guide that change in order to maintain the things we cherish in the city and the things that people move here for. 

But we also need to find a way to build affordable housing. Market rate housing just doesn't work in places like San Francisco that are geographically limited. It's simply impossible and keeps getting demonstrated in any other development area where geography is a key factor like Manhattan, London, or Hong Kong. 

And that leads to the larger issues here. The entire Bay Area needs to develop together which requires more pockets of urban density, a very robust transit system area wide, and a more united local government because the administration of growth has been lacking. I'll leave the larger area governance question for later but here in San Francisco we have a local government that struggles to play an effective role in all of these questions. Part of that is simple leadership in that Ed Lee clearly is not the person to lead a discussion nor find the programs nor hire the people to make the changes. Part is structural in that the city has to live within a legislative structure erected over 150 years. Part is due the depressingly normal state of political anomie by our citizens.

On Thu, May 19, 2016 at 11:21 AM Oscar wrote:
But what if we can't figure out a way to build affordable housing? Because my guess is we won't (we never have). What if we don't get a dynamic leader to help the entire Bay Area develop in concert? Don't hold your breath (since I've been here we've had Brown, Newsom, and Lee). The argument seems to be if we can't build perfectly, we shouldn't build at all. And that leaves us in our current situation, with way more demand than supply, and the things we cherish get changed anyway because the rich keep moving here. It's the classic situation of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

I'm curious about your contention that market rate housing just doesn't work in SF. What proof is there of that? There is evidence that rents started really going up in 50's, which is when a most of SF land was built on. Since then, there just hasn't been an ability to easily build out, we can just build up. And most of SF has been against building up since then, and continues to be. I'm not sure you can say that something doesn't work if it hasn't really been tried.

And as for keeping the character of SF intact, that doesn't seem possible. I've been here since '97 and it's now a totally different city, and in '97 it was a totally different city than it was in '77. I'm not even sure what SF's character is right now, or if anybody comes here because of it. I think people come here because of the economy, and they want to live in SF because it's a fun city with a lot of bars and restaurants. No one's coming here because it's a cool art scene, or because it's so bohemian. That era is long gone, probably before any of us even moved here.

On Thu, May 19, 2016 at 2:06 PM Murray wrote:
Frighteningly, I'm not sure we are not all right at the same time. Which seems like a bad sign.

Some timely reading from my favorite mayoral candidate:

A favorite quote from one of my favorite union leaders:
"Change is inevitable; progress is not."

On Thu, May 19, 2016 at 3:50 PM Felix wrote:
Nah, I want to avoid the perfect/good dichotomy. If we do nothing we get what we have now, rampant traffic and development that doesn't fit together. It'll hit a wall soon, there will be another election battle over growth, but good policy probably won't win out. 

The thing is that we know how to build affordable housing but it takes lots of planning, lots of collaboration with developers, and more of a region wide solution. We're doing it all over SOMA, in the Castro, Bay View, and in Oakland. Most notably we are not doing it in Marin, and the vast majority of the peninsula where there is tons of land. And we're not developing the transportation network that we need to get people from affordable areas on the periphery of Alameda to the jobs everywhere else. One of the big problems here is that we haven't been doing it for decades so there's pent up demand. 

Everything I've read about development policy in NY says that the city explicitly embraced market rate housing growth as the solution to cost from the 90's through the Bloomberg administration. They built hundreds of thousands of units and the cost of housing only increased while affordable housing decreased. I remember reading that Bloomberg's own housing czar admitted that market rate housing solutions didn't work but can't dig up that piece. I've read the same for cities with constrained space, high foreign capital flows, which are also perceived as very desirable. Here's one piece that is a summation of Bloomberg's housing policies but keep in mind that he was just continuing the Giuliani administration's policies so that's 20 years of aggressive development that continues to this day. 

Sure, the city has changed dramatically since I moved here and I don't know if I can define the character of it either but you sound like the worst crotchety old man by saying it's not cool any more. It's definitely a different sort of cool, there is all sorts of crazy innovative stuff happening here that may not be traditional art but it's pretty amazing. I'll skip technology altogether. Look at the culinary world alone where SF is in the white hot center of the coffee/brewing/chocolate/sustainable food/and many other movements. The high culture scene is insane with the new SFMOMA being just the latest addition. Sports culture is everywhere from our professional teams to all the amateur soccer action, climbing gyms, the surfing at Ocean Beach, bicyclists, you name it. Take two small examples of literary culture, LitQuake and 826 as examples of that scene. And that's just what I know about. God knows what the literal kids are doing today. 

But back to solutions. Everyone agrees that we need housing, and that we need affordable housing so let's figure out how to build it so that everyone wins. The same goes for business regulations, transportation, schools, homelessness, and the other big issues facing the city and region. We need to carve a way out of this stasis because that's where we've been for far too long. Everyone is frustrated to point of giving up which is incredibly dangerous. I see that frequently in my own little corner of volunteer activism at Mila's school. It's really easy to burn out and give up because the process it so difficult to deal with. But everything is going to keep turning so if you can stay engaged then your voice is going to be heard more than anyone else's. With that somewhat minor observation I have to stop because I actually have work to do today, or perhaps I should start viewing this as my true work.

On Thu, May 19, 2016 at 4:32 PM Oscar wrote:
I think we just like different things. Most of the cool stuff you mention about SF is due to it being a city full of well-off and rich people (the rest is due to it being in a naturally beautiful region). All that coffee/food/sustainability stuff really took off in the 90's and 00's after the tech booms, though I grant you that the seeds of some of it was already here. But it takes money to support $4 cups of coffee, $8 beer pints, and $25/pound sustainably caught salmon at Avedanos. So it seems like if the city becomes even wealthier, you'll just get more of what you like. It's not like New York or London lack that stuff, even if they're not on the forefront of it, they're adopting it. It seems to me the culture you want to keep is just upper-middle class culture. Which is nice, don't get me wrong, but I wouldn't describe it as especially cool, to my taste anyway. And I certainly don't see it going away, it just seems to get stronger. And it's funny speculating what the kids are doing here, because there are fewer literal kids in SF than any comparable city in the US.

But my point was really that people aren't moving here for the culture. They're moving here to get jobs, because this is where a huge new economy is growing. That's going to make it more expensive, no matter how many places we build. But if we don't build anything, then it's going to be more expensive than if we build nothing. And we have to give people who move here for jobs someplace to live. Nowhere in the article on NYC did it say how many units Bloomberg built, and it doesn't give any info on how expensive it might be if they hadn't been built, nor does it talk about how many people would be living outside NYC and commuting there. I'm sure there are some economists who have an opinion on all that. Building housing might not make things cheaper immediately, but it sure doesn't make things more expensive.

But I do agree that we need better planning and zoning of all sorts. We just can't, for instance, not build anything in the Mission for 2 years while we get things just right, because if our history with BART or MUNI is any indication, we'll never get it exactly right. And we need to get more housing in the Peninsula, but again, we can't say we won't build stuff here until that happens. All the stuff you want is great but should have been done decades ago, and now we don't have the luxury of waiting for it.

On Thu, May 19, 2016 at 4:45 PM Felix wrote:
Sorry, I'll respond to everything else later but the figures I've seen for the Bloomberg administration alone are 160,000 units to house more than 300,000 people. There's lots written about it, take a look. 

And it's not like we're not building here. We've been building at a torrid pace of at least 3,500 units/year going back at least a few years and permits for building are almost quadruple that last year. 

On Thu, May 19, 2016 at 4:50 PM Oscar wrote:
We might be building at a torrid pace for SF, but we could build a lot more than 3,500 a year if we wanted. And I'm talking about density, tall shit, in neighborhoods with existing transit.

Anyway, we should clearly talk about this more offline but I'm just curious--are you saying that NYC shouldn't have built those 160,000 housing units because they caused housing in NYC to become more expensive?

On Thu, May 19, 2016 at 5:02 PM Roy wrote:
I haven't had time to ready your back and forth, but I hope you all read this: 

This is all new. I'd be curious to see this done with data from other cities to see if it holds. If so, there appear to be implications for understanding what impacts housing affordability and, more specifically, how you can forecast and plan to address it.

And here's a follow-up that says SF is screwed but other cities have a chance not to be screwed. 

On Fri, May 20, 2016 at 8:56 AM Felix wrote:
In the urban future all cities are going to face this challenge so maintaining a unique sense of place, diversity, and affordability are all the major concerns for urbanists these days. 

WRT NY's development, I'm just saying that they built aggressively and housing only got more expensive so simply building doesn't do anything for affordability, it just creates more housing for the affluent, lots of it as parking lots for international cash. You really have to manage it otherwise you run into the same problem. All things considered SF may not be doing that badly simply because it has so many requirement for affordable housing but there is a lot of room for improvement. 

As for what we're doing, yes, density is great. We're doing tons of that. Look at Rincon where massive condo developments have been built for the past ten years. There's plenty more to come because that's the long term plan for the city, ie develop density along transport corridors. There are even bright spots elsewhere, there's this huge project to build densely all along El Camino Real which is a real change. 


  1. I am tired of this blog, for putting down Flint and making a hellhole like San Francisco look good. I am tired of your politics, especially about the obvious attempt to embarrass Donald Trump at Central Methodist Church by whatever name.

    1. Hey, sorry you feel that way, but the great thing about blogs is that you have a simple and easy way to solve this problem...simply stop reading the blog. Good luck in the future. Wish you the best. God bless.

    2. If you think this post is an attempt to make SF look good, you should consider some reading comprehension classes.


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at