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Blame Zoning, Not Tech, for San Francisco's Housing Crisis

Wealthy districts work hard to prevent new housing from being built in their neighborhoods.

Eric Risberg/AP

For San Francisco’s many discontents, tech is a boogeyman, an “inescapable” presence, per The New York Times. But the tech monster is only an agent of chaos. The real fright-feature is the lack of housing. And the nightmare behind it is other people.

Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan has a wake-up call for San Francisco: Responding to David Streitfeld’s story in the Times, Nolan says that tech isn’t the problem, at least not the way that the Times paints it. The problem is that San Francisco won’t build housing, and making matters worse, residents work tirelessly to prevent more housing from being built.

“Acting in a way that prevents everyone else from living in your pretty little city because you already have a place that you like does not make you a progressive,” he writes. “It makes you greedy.”

He’s got that right. While it’s by no means an article of faith, the lack of adequate housing supply is the consensus culprit in the housing crisis sweeping the country. A lack of new housing is tearing San Francisco apart in particular.

But Nolan misses one point by a wide mark.

Do you have to bulldoze all of the real pretty San Francisco neighborhoods and build awful glass cubes where beautiful Victorian homes once stood? No. You can build new things in other places.

His concession sounds reasonable: Of course we shouldn’t bulldoze San Francisco’s Painted Ladies. It’s a concession to an argument that no one is making—except for San Francisco residents who object to new development. “You can build new things in other places” is a refrain for this set.

(Jeff Chiu/AP)

The housing crisis is both a regional and local problem. Looking at it two ways leads to two different conclusions about gentrification and displacement. From a regional perspective, any and every city in a metro area could be building more. Any and every new housing unit adds to the supply and lets out some pressure.

But from a neighborhood perspective, the view is different. Neighborhoods that build less than others are sometimes given a pass, because they are beautiful or historic or wealthy or powerful (and often all of these things). The lack of new construction in wealthier neighborhoods puts pressure on less wealthy neighborhoods. (“You can build new things in other places.”) This pressure builds up until it explodes in distressed neighborhoods. (See: the Mission.)

First, let’s look at what San Francisco has in fact built. Not very much! Between 2005 and 2015, San Francisco (city/county) added 26,770 new units, according to housing permits data provided by Trulia. That’s one-quarter of the housing units built in the San Francisco metro area, one-half of what was built in the San Jose metro area, and just 17 percent of the total units across the entire Bay Area. Sad.

San Francisco isn’t completely out of step here. Atlanta and Boston each built just 16 percent of the total new housing units in those metro areas over the same span. Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., each contributed 14 and 12 percent of the housing units in their metro areas, respectively. At the other end of the spectrum, Seattle and Denver somehow managed to build 30 and 31 percent of the housing units in those respective metro areas.

(The comparisons don’t do the argument much justice: None of these cities has the same crushing demand as San Francisco.)

Here’s what it means at the neighborhood level that San Francisco has not built enough housing. As John Mangin explains in “The New Exclusionary Zoning,” gentrification is a spillover phenomenon:

[G]entrification and exclusion are intimately related at a neighborhood level. If a high-demand, high-cost neighborhood won’t build, developers and people looking for housing will be diverted to the nearest low-cost neighborhoods. That increases demand and development and leads to gentrification.

Since the residents of high-cost, high-demand neighborhoods tend to have mobility, money, and access to information and power, they are hugely successful in leveraging land-use policies to exclude newcomers. They protect what is theirs and shut the gate behind them. (Nolan gets that.) So the high-margin development that really should go into the high-end neighborhood winds up replacing cheaper, older, and abandoned housing in low-end neighborhoods.

As Rick Jacobus explains for Shelterforce, building new housing units anywhere—whether they’re set-aside affordable units or penthouse condos—goes in the win column from a regional perspective. But when new units mean penthouse condos in a low-end neighborhood, the region may prosper at the potential expense of the neighborhood.

What happened in South of Market and parts of Brooklyn and what people fear in the Mission (and the rest of Brooklyn!) is that high-rise luxury housing was dropped into otherwise distressed neighborhoods. These luxury projects dramatically changed the perception of these neighborhoods—they sent a clear signal to the market that these places were safe—both in the sense that they were safe for wealthier residents to live in and in the sense that they were safe for more investment in residential development.  However much these projects decreased rents regionally by increasing supply, they had a larger impact of increasing rents in the immediately surrounding neighborhoods by increasing demand.

Yet this signaling happens with or without the luxury condos. Prohibit new building in the high end, developers turn to the low end. Decline to build new luxury condos, buyers will turn to the existing housing stock. It is, as Jacobus describes, “the new planning dilemma: where to put the rich?”

The new wealthy are ruining everything because the old wealthy decided not to let them live anywhere near them.

The answer is to build. Build more fucking housing, just like Nolan says. But the answer is also to zone: To take away land-use decisions from neighborhoods and hand them over to cities. And for cities to act in concert with other cities toward regional goals for new market-rate and affordable units everywhere. Not just where developers can get away with it, but where incumbent residents have already soldered shut the gate behind them.

Solving this housing crisis means breaking up the cartelized wealthy districts that are able to decide that new housing is everybody else’s problem. Build the awful glass cubes there, if that’s what it takes.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.