Commodifying urban real estate hurts the culture of big cities

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From the NYT's "London's Great Exodus"
Ryan Chapman

When urban real estate is turned into merely a commodity — or just another safe place for the wealthy to park their cash in uncertain economic times, while also providing pied-a-terres in which to crash a few times a year — it tears at the social fabric of big cities such as San Francisco, New York City, and London.

That’s been the message in some excellent, widely circulated articles in the last week or so — including David Byrne’s Guardian article about New York City and “London’s Great Exodus” in Sunday’s NY Times — and it’s one that San Franciscans should be thinking about as we work through current eviction and gentrification battles and vote on the 8 Washington project through Props. B&C in a few weeks.

It’s also something that we’ll be discussing at Housing for Whom?, a free community forum that the Guardian is sponsoring on Oct. 23 from 6-8pm at the LGBT Center, 1800 Market Street, featuring opponents and proponents of those measures along with other activists and experts.

While both London and New York City may be ahead of the curve in letting capitalists and the real estate market drive away creative types and destroy what once made those cities great, San Francisco isn’t far behind, particularly given its current housing and economic development policies.

Another striking article on the issue comes from San Francisco Urban Research Association Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf, who wrote an article published in The Atlantic on Monday. It repeats his previous calls for San Francisco to build 5,000 new housing units per year and opens with a line many of us have uttered: “My friends keep moving to Oakland.”

But Metcalf (who hasn’t yet returned my calls for comment) also takes this familiar observation and his promotion of market rate housing a step further, basically calling for San Francisco and Oakland to start acting as one city: Rich people in SF, cool people and workers in Oakland, ala Brooklyn and Manhattan.

“If we were one city, San Francisco could spend some of its incredible wealth on the things Oakland needs, like hiring more cops and teachers, not to mention more transit connections between the two cities,” Metcalf writes. “This is not an argument for annexation but a call to think about the answers to our problems from a regional perspective. We can’t solve affordable housing or transit access within the limits of any one city.”

Actually, I’d argue that we can and should solve these problems within our borders rather than just ceding San Francisco to the wealthy. Yes, regional planning is good, and yes, there are things that San Francisco can do for Oakland (perhaps starting with not poaching it professional basketball team).

But regionalism isn’t the same thing as plutocracy — and San Francisco is still worth fighting for rather than just letting it go to the highest bidders.