I had lunch with a friend near South Park the other day, and we got to chatting about the condo boom in the area — building after building after ugly high rise after boxy dorm. This stuff doesn't look like luxury housing; it looks like modern urban junk.
Anyway, my friend is a smart, thoughtful person, and her first instinct was to say that more downtown housing is a good thing. Me, I get a headache whenever I try to be thoughtful about San Francisco housing policy these days, so I wasn't thoughtful at all. I hate it all, I told her.
She asked why and I answered honestly. "There are already too many goddamn rich people in this city," I said. "What we need is more poor people."
Actually, that's wrong: what we need are more middle-class people.
My friend is one of the few people in the world who make a decent living as a freelance writer. But she can't buy a house here. If she didn't have a rent-controlled apartment where she's lived for about 20 years now, she couldn't afford to live in San Francisco at all.
This is nothing new. What's interesting is that it's getting (some) national attention. The New York Times weighed in July 23 with an article citing San Francisco as an example of how US cities are becoming places for the rich and the poor with nobody in between. Again, no big news — but the Times had a twist on it. The writer, Janny Scott, asked: is that such a bad thing?
After all, cities like San Francisco are thriving. Property values are soaring. Everyone wants to live here. Some economists, Scott wrote, now refer to places like San Francisco, New York, and Boston as "superstar cities."
From a strictly economic point of view, some of Scott's sources argued that there's nothing wrong with rich people driving the middle class out of cities. "There's a whole lot of America that does a very good job of taking care of the middle class," Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser insisted.
Now here's the quote I love:
"But sociologists and many economists believe there can be non-economic consequences for cities that lose a lot of middle-income residents."
Here's the point: if you measure everything the way a lot of economists (and a lot of San Francisco business leaders) do, the city's cooking along just fine. People who want to live here will pay the price; the free market will eventually make it all work out.
And maybe so — after a while San Francisco will be such a hellhole of a precious bedroom community for Silicon Valley workers and a faux city for tourists that nobody like me or my friends will want to be here anymore. The free market will do its job — by ruining one of the world's great cities. By destroying a community.
And what I want to leave you with is this: the only way to stop that from happening — the only way — is with active, strong public-sector (yes, that's government) intervention. Some people (developers, speculators, and landlords) will have to make less money so the rest of us can keep San Francisco alive. The supervisors are doing that on many levels; the mayor still doesn't seem to get it.
But we're running out of time. SFBG
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