photo: Cranes on the skyline in Oakland, California
Cranes on the skyline in Oakland, California, where efforts to build more new housing have been more successful than in neighboring San Francisco. Michael Short/Bloomberg

The new book Golden Gates details how California set itself up for its current affordability crunch—and how it can now help build a nationwide housing movement.

For most of American history, cities grew along a familiar pattern. Once a suburban community grew large enough, the neighboring big city would loosen its borders and swallow it up through annexation. Then in the 1950s, the developers of Lakewood, California—sometimes described as the “Levittown of the West Coast”—invented a new “municipal technology” to avoid this fate.

By contracting out vital municipal services like police, fire and sanitation to the county or private entities, the 17,500-home subdivision just outside of Long Beach was able to incorporate as a city at a significantly lower population than it otherwise would have needed. Copycat contract cities became hugely popular in the ensuing decades, forming concentric circles around old urban centers and providing suburban homeowners with the solace that, safely within their incorporated entities, they would be protected from what might euphemistically be called big-city ills.

Contract cities aren’t the first thing that come to mind for most people when they think of the affordable housing crisis that many American cities now face—these suburban communities tend not to have many homeless people or renters at risk of eviction. But in desirable regions like coastal California, contract cities have played a huge role in exacerbating housing problems outside their borders. For over half a century, they’ve been all too successful at implementing their founding mandates: preserving their physical and demographic character, and delivering consistently rising home values to homeowners.

“One of the main reasons it worked was that these cities effectively opted out of paying for expensive social services by zoning out poorer people,” New York Times economics reporter Conor Dougherty writes in Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in America.

Dougherty’s new book provides a comprehensive account of the origins of California’s housing crisis, illuminating the many places where it hides in plain sight—in contract cities, in tax law, in shifting cultural trends, in structural economic transformations, as well as in the annals of policy and planning. Dougherty applies a similarly wide lens to the diverse activists who have emerged to challenge the housing status quo, leaving readers hopeful for the future of a broader housing movement—if perhaps also a bit overwhelmed by it. “There’s a lot layered on to this that has nothing to do with housing, but it’s manifesting in housing fights because of the seriousness of this issue,” he tells CityLab in a phone interview.

Golden Gates is at its best as a history, whose breadth demonstrates the impossibility of silver-bullet housing solutions. One of many counterintuitive origin points for California’s current crisis was San Francisco’s freeway revolts that began in the 1950s, when grassroots neighborhood activists successfully prevented highways from being constructed throughout most (but not all) of the city. The revolts marked the beginning of the state’s anti-growth movement, which challenged California’s longstanding growth-for-growth’s sake philosophy. That doctrine had brought “urban renewal” projects that transformed minority neighborhoods into bombed-out shells of their former selves and inspired proposals to fill in nearly the entire San Francisco Bay.

Anti-growth activism began as a close cousin of the state’s environmentalism, but as time went on, “the good intention of stopping sprawl soon became cover for stopping everything,” Dougherty writes. The broad language of the California Environmental Quality Act enabled this conceptual fudging, granting ordinary citizens the power to halt coastal subdivisions and green urban infill projects alike. As land use and planning power devolved to neighborhood groups, city governments followed their lead by “downzoning” large swaths of their land to preserve the existing urban landscape, as if it were a pristine old-growth forest.

The infamous Proposition 13, a 1978 ballot initiative that capped property taxes, meant that new housing could cost cities more in services than it would bring in through taxes. In response, cities privileged much more lucrative commercial development—setting the stage for the state’s severe jobs/housing imbalance—and tacked hefty fees on new housing construction. Combine that with flatlining productivity in the construction industry and a persistent labor shortage following the Great Recession and you get construction costs that ensure new housing is by definition luxury housing.

Meanwhile, in the depths of the 2008 foreclosure crisis, giant private equity firms snapped up tens of thousands of homes, creating a new category of renter households living month-to-month at the whim of Wall Street bottom lines. By that point, California’s once-robust tenant movement was already hobbled by laws from the 1980s and ’90s that severely limited rent control and expanded landlords’ power to evict tenants.  

These historical factors, and many more, bore down on the Bay Area right as it became the “burning-hot nucleus of some of the most epochal forces in human history” during the recent tech boom. San Francisco has gone from having a housing crisis to being a housing-crisis meme: the supercommuters, the homeless teachers, the poop on the sidewalk, not to mention the proxy housing battles over shadows, office construction, and gentrifier watering holes.

This is where Dougherty’s history crashes into the lived realities of contemporary Californians, and their fight for a better housing future. Each character or group of characters Dougherty introduces represents a possible solution to the multifaceted crisis he has laid out. Among them is Stephanie Gutierrez, a 15-year-old from Redwood City who organizes her building against a 50% rent hike. The strikers win some significant concessions, but Gutierrez and her family are ultimately forced to leave anyway, leading her into a serious bout of depression. Multiply Gutierrez’s experience by a million and you have an entire generation of Californians whose childhoods have been shaped by housing insecurity.

If Gutierrez represents tenant power—and tenant despair—Sister Christina Heltsley, whose community land trust buys market-rate housing and keeps it permanently affordable, represents the movement to get housing off of the private market. Rick Holliday, a developer who hopes to make construction more affordable by building apartments in a factory and stacking them together on site, embodies yet another solution.  

And then there are the YIMBYs, the “Yes In My Backyard” activists fighting to lower zoning and regulatory barriers to all kinds of housing—“so long as it was built tall and fast and had people living in it.” This group emerged in San Francisco in 2014, when an economics Ph.D. dropout named Sonja Trauss formed the San Francisco Bay Area Renter’s Federation (SFBARF). Using a combination of performance art-style provocations and Twitter activism, she brought legions of young, nerdy, white-collar San Franciscans to testify in favor of new housing at bone-dry planning meetings. In just a few years, the YIMBYs grew to be a powerful political movement, led by San Francisco’s state senator, Scott Wiener, who has thrice tried (and failed) to pass comprehensive statewide zoning reform.

What’s unprecedented about the YIMBYs is not their ideology, but their political power. As early as the 1970s, MIT urban planning professor Bernard Frieden made the argument that California’s growth controls, applied to wildlands and existing neighborhoods alike, would only make housing progressively more expensive. In more recent years, economist Edward Glaeser, journalist Matthew Yglesias, and others took up these ideas in light of the 21st century “urban revival,” which saw big coastal cities boom without adding commensurate housing, thus locking people out of America’s greatest engines of opportunity.

“What was interesting to me was that they were trying to create some kind of constituency around this,” Dougherty says of the YIMBYs. They upended Frieden’s notion that, unlike tenants or homeowners, the people zoned out of the housing market were “unorganized and probably unorganizable.”

Close observers of the YIMBY movement will find plenty of gossipy tidbits in Golden Gates, like the fact that Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman reached out to then-journalist Kim-Mai Cutler about starting a pro-housing political organization after reading her legendary TechCrunch manifesto, “How Burrowing Owls Lead to Vomiting Anarchists.” Cutler refused, so Stoppelman ended up giving Trauss $10,000 to “keep doing what she was doing”—seeding the YIMBY movement with capital in much the same manner that he once received his first venture funding.

The YIMBY movement’s rapid rise an ability to gain lucrative institutional backing—especially from the tech industry—has turned out to be its biggest political liability. “Encoded in that ascent was an age-old American message, which was that problems are only problems when they affect white people,” Dougherty writes. This perception issue was on vivid display when the Moms for Housing activists, a group of African-American women who drew national media attention for their occupation of a vacant home in Oakland, showed up to protest the unveiling of the latest version of SB50, Wiener’s unsuccessful zoning reform bill.

A great deal of Golden Gates is spent parsing the divide between the YIMBYs and more traditional tenant activists. It’s a divide that plays out in dramatic fashion on Twitter, and, more substantively, helps illustrate the differing priorities of people in need of immediate relief from skyrocketing rents and those fighting to address California’s extreme housing shortage. Even for those versed in the minutia of housing Twitter, it can be difficult to follow the contours of this debate across the book’s many characters and scenes. And Golden Gates’s focus on YIMBY drama takes oxygen away from other types of housing activists, namely environmentalists and urban planners, who think about housing in the context of reducing carbon emissions and congestion, protecting open space from sprawl, and redressing historic inequities between neighborhoods.

But Dougherty sees the thrust and parry of the Bay Area housing debate as the best way to dramatize a problem that resists straightforward fixes. “I thought the YIMBY movement and all the problems they were encountering—that complexity is the issue, that’s the story,” he says. Dougherty also sees a broader housing movement coalescing out of this scrum, offering “mixed solutions” that take pieces from both sides.

“Building more housing does nothing for renters being evicted today. Rent control does,” Dougherty writes. “Capping rent prices does nothing to solve the underlying problem of a housing shortage that is the root cause of displacement. Building housing does.” Dougherty sees this logic reflected in the mixed housing solutions offered by nearly all the Democratic presidential candidates, as well as recent zoning reform victories in Oregon and Minneapolis, and new rent caps in California and New York.

Even as housing becomes a more prominent national issue, and more cities across the country start encountering California-style housing problems, the Golden State is sure to remain the epicenter of the housing movement. The next few years are likely to contain enough drama for Dougherty to write a sequel. Some of the activists he follows are beginning to chip away at Prop 13 and California’s longstanding rent control restrictions. And as for those contract cities and other exclusive suburbs, Scott Wiener and his army of YIMBY activists are gearing up for round four.

“This is ultimately a book about people who show up,” Dougherty said. “Apathy is a bigger problem than somebody trying to propose a solution, getting some blowback, and altering their platform. Maybe that’s the process working.”

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