Curtis Aaron leaves his house at 9 a.m. and drives to work as a recreation center director for the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. He tries to leave enough time for the trip; he's expected on the job at noon.
Aaron lives in Stockton. He moved there with his wife and two kids three years ago because "there was no way I could buy a place in San Francisco, not even close." His commute takes three hours one way when traffic is bad. He drives by himself in a Honda Accord and spends $400 a month on gas.
Peter works for the city as a programmer and lives in Suisun City, where he moved to buy a house and start a family. Born and raised in San Francisco, he is now single again, with grown-up children and a commute that takes a little more than an hour on a good day.
"I'd love to move back. I love city life, but I want to be a homeowner, and I can't afford that in the city," Peter, who asked us not to use his last name, explained. "I work two blocks from where I grew up and my mom's place, which she sold 20 years ago. Her house is nothing fancy, but it's going for $1.2 million. There's no way in hell I could buy that."
Aaron and Peter aren't paupers; they have good, unionized city jobs. They're people who by any normal standard would be considered middle-class — except that they simply can't afford to live in the city where they work. So they drive long distances every day, burning fossil fuels and wasting thousands of productive hours each year.
Their stories are hardly unique or new; they represent part of the core of the city's most pressing problem: a lack of affordable housing.
Just about everyone on all sides of the political debate agrees that people like Aaron and Peter ought to be able to live in San Francisco. Keeping people who work here close to their jobs is good for the environment, good for the community, and good for the workers.
"A lack of affordable housing is one of the city's greatest challenges," Mayor Gavin Newsom acknowledged in his 2007–08 draft budget.
The mayor's answer — which at times has the support of environmentalists — is in part to allow private developers to build dense, high-rise condominiums, sold at whatever price the market will bear, with a small percentage set aside for people who are slightly less well-off.
The idea is that downtown housing will appeal to people who work in town, keeping them out of their cars and fighting sprawl. And it assumes that if enough market-rate housing is built, eventually the price will come down. In the meantime, demanding that developers make somewhere around 15 percent of their units available at below-market rates should help people like Aaron and Peter — as well as the people who make far less money, who can never buy even a moderately priced unit, and who are being displaced from this city at an alarming rate. And a modest amount of public money, combined with existing state and federal funding, will make affordable housing available to people at all income levels.
But the facts are clear: this strategy isn't working — and it never will. If San Francisco has any hope of remaining a city with economic diversity, a city that has artists and writers and families and blue-collar workers and young people and students and so many of those who have made this one of the world's great cities, we need to completely change how we approach the housing issue.