Editor's Notes

Luxury condos in this city are like jails and freeways: you build them, they fill up
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tredmond@sfbg.com

I've been talking to the folks at the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association about housing. It's been an interesting conversation — SPUR has been known largely as an advocate for downtown development and rarely as a beacon of progressive wisdom.

But these days there are people on staff who really care about urban issues, and they aren't always wrong. So when Dave Snyder, SPUR's transportation person, who was formerly the director of the SF Bicycle Coalition, phoned and asked me to come by and discuss the Guardian's call for a new housing policy, I was happy to pay a visit.

And after talking to SPUR's executive director, Gabriel Metcalf, and policy director, Sarah Karlinsky, I realized that we agree on a basic frame of reference.

San Francisco is in a state of crisis that threatens the future of the city. Housing isn't just another policy issue to debate; it's the central factor shaping the future of the city. If we do nothing — in fact, if we go along as we have been doing, building a few thousand units of market-rate housing and some affordable units on the side — we're heading for disaster. This will become a city where only rich people can live, where a few working-class and poor folks are tolerated but the majority sentiment favors the very wealthy. It will be a city unlike the one so many of us love. The politics will be much more financially conservative. Social liberals like Gavin Newsom will be fine, but anyone who dares talk about business paying for health care or taxes supporting social programs will be irrelevant to electoral politics. As Calvin Welch likes to say, who lives here votes here.

The SPUR board has a lot of downtown types and developers, and some of them probably think it would be a fine thing if San Francisco became a city of wealthier homeowners. I don't think the staff are of the same view. Snyder, Metcalf, Karlinsky, and I all agree: what's happening now is simply unacceptable.

We part, sharply, when we talk about solutions. Metcalf argues that building lots and lots of housing, of all kinds — tens of thousands of units a year, bringing San Francisco to the density of Paris — will eventually bring down costs and make the city affordable again. And failing to build enough market-rate housing will just put more pressure on the existing housing stock, driving up prices even more.

That position requires a certain faith in market-based solutions, and I've always argued that the economics of San Francisco housing are too unusual for traditional thinking. Luxury condos in this city are like jails and freeways: you build them, they fill up, and the problem you set out to solve is still there. The new housing downtown isn't keeping down prices (or demand) in the neighborhoods; it's creating its own new demand.

When I suggested that we stop building new housing for the rich until we have, say, 40,000 new units for low-income and middle-class San Franciscans, Snyder jotted down some figures and told me the price tag for that much affordable housing would be $8 billion. Actually, if some of the housing is put into land trusts and is available for purchase by middle-income people, that number drops a bit, and if you leverage state and federal money, the amount San Francisco has to raise drops again, maybe to $2 billion or so. Still, it's a very big number.

And it's a very big problem. And in one sense, if we don't solve it, nothing else really matters.