Community agriculture can improve vacant lots—and it won’t stop anyone from building housing.
In a recent Atlantic article, “How Urban Farming Is Making San Francisco's Housing Crisis Worse,” Conor Friedersdorf argues that San Francisco’s new urban-agriculture property tax incentive will only exacerbate the problem of the limited housing supply in the area's already overheated market. I share his concern about housing affordability, but his critique of this policy misses the mark.
The law does not discourage anyone who wants to build from building. Instead, San Francisco’s urban-agriculture incentive zone program targets land that is unlikely to be developed in the near future. This includes sites that are oddly shaped, not well-suited for development, or where the owner (for personal or business reasons) does not intend to put up a building anytime soon. If a property owner wants to build housing or an office building on their vacant lot, they’ll make far more money developing the land then they would from the property tax savings they would receive for committing it to urban agricultural use for five years.
What the law does do is give landowners who can’t or don’t want to develop a reason to consider making something more of their land than an unused, weedy eyesore. We’re talking about properties like the 15,000 square feet next to a billboard that now houses a small bee garden, mentioned in the Chronicle article that inspired Mr. Friedersdof’s piece. Or the property—nearly an acre—in the Mission Terrace neighborhood that sat vacant and blighted for decades and now houses a commercial urban farm.
Urban farms and gardens offer more than just aesthetic appeal. They provide numerous public benefits, including vibrant green spaces and recreation, education about fresh food and the effort it takes to produce it, ecological benefits for the city, and sites that help build community. Not every vacant private lot is suitable for housing (or zoned for it). And where housing is not in the cards, I’d surely support a garden or small farm that provides benefits to the neighborhood over an untended patch of dirt.
The housing affordability crisis in the Bay Area is an enormous problem, and the organization I work for, SPUR, has long advocated for increasing the supply of housing. Most recently, SPUR recommended eight practical, constructive strategies to address the ever-increasing cost of rent and home ownership. SPUR also supports urban-agriculture incentive zones—because they don’t undercut efforts to make housing more affordable.