Time to turn our housing policy upside down
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Allow me to postulate a few axioms that will help define the way we think about housing in San Francisco and put our cover story this week in context. Some of these laws are easily provable with existing data; the others, I admit, are loaded with political values. So be it.
Axiom number one: There are already too many rich people in San Francisco.
Socioeconomic diversity is essential to a healthy urban environment. Cities of the very rich (and typically, the very poor) are not good places to live; they become tourist destinations where a fake veneer of urbanism is pasted over a place with no real soul.
San Francisco is rapidly heading down that path and the first and by far most important reason is the cost of housing.
Axiom number two: Private for-profit developers can never build us out of this housing crisis.
The housing market in San Francisco does not behave according to any of the rational rules you learn in Economics 101. This is an international city, a place with a global housing constituency. Demand for high-end condos in San Francisco is, for all practical purposes, unlimited and insatiable. You could build 50,000, 100,000 high-rise apartments, and the prices still wouldn't come down to a level that would be affordable for most working-class San Franciscans.
Axiom number three: Any sane housing policy has to start with the acceptance of axiom number two.
Building more market-rate housing does nothing, nothing, nothing for the current crisis. There is no lack of housing options for the very rich in this town. The problem is housing for everyone else.
Axiom number four: When you have an irrational market for a basic necessity, the only way to make that market function is with strict regulation and aggressive government intervention.
Axiom number five: Increased density is not a positive environmental policy unless axiom number four is operative.
Building high-rises in which the housing is priced out of range of the people who actually work in San Francisco and doesn't offer the size and affordability the local workforce needs does nothing to fight sprawl or build community. It just creates tall rich ghettos. (See axiom number one.)
Axiom number six: This city is running out of time.
There are virtually zero affordable apartments in this city for the people who make up the heart of San Francisco. We're doing ecological damage by driving them out of town (and forcing them to drive back, in cars). We're doing social damage by shattering communities (through evictions and displacement). And all we're offering is modest tidbits of real planning (a few slightly more affordable units here and there for every 100 we give to the rich).
My conclusion, as we lay out in this week's cover story, is that San Francisco has to turn its planning and housing policy upside down, to start treating housing as a necessity (as we're doing with health care) and not something to be played with by speculators on the financial markets (look how well that worked with subprime mortgages) or an amenity for Silicon Valley commuters who would rather have a playground here than live closer to work.
Instead of zoning for developers, the city needs to do something really bold and say: This is the housing we want, the only housing we want and then find a way to build it, with or without the private sector. As the axiom slingers say, quod erat demonstrandum.*