Monday, August 3, 2015

How Do You Solve A Problem Like San Francisco?

Golden Gate Bridge
San Francisco, California
Hello Everyone:

It is the start of a new week, which means fresh ideas to think about.  Today we consider "What's the Matter With San Francisco?"  Well maybe not because that would require thinking well above and beyond blogger's pay grade. Actually, that is the title of Gabriel Metcalf's article for CityLab, which looks at how the city's progressive politics created a housing affordability gap.  San Francisco is gorgeous city with many fine cultural and recreational attractions but living within the fabled "City by The Bay" has exceeded the realm of realistic possibility.  Whatever remnants of its historic eccentric counter-culture that make San Francisco so appealing are gone in a puff of cannabis smoke.  That and the types of cultural tinkering that does not work in places that are just too expensive.  It sad to see much of what makes this beautiful city disappear under the crush of luxury housing units.  It has gotten to the point where a decent and affordable place is out of reach for teachers, writers, artists, organizers.  It seems that unless something has money making potential, it  is not worth trying at all.  How did come to this point?

Downtown San Francisco
Gabriel Metcalf writes, "There are lots of reasons San Francisco became so progressive in the first place.  The city had a radical labor movement going back to the 19th century.  It nurtured a literary and artistic bohemia..."  San Francisco became a haven of ethnic and racial harmony as well as every sort of eccentric person.  By the seventies, its embrace of identity politics included gays and lesbians. San Francisco reveled in its diversity, with each group claiming its unique neighborhood as a modern version of the traditional ethnic enclave.

At the apex of all this peace, love, and togetherness, San Francisco accomplished some truly wonderful things.  Mr. Metcalf writes, "It invented new models of delivering affordable housing and health care, it invested deeply in public spaces, from parks to bike lanes.  It adopted a transit-first policy...It did its best to create a high-tax, high-service public sector that could generate the funds to provide a more generous social safety network at a time when the national government was moving in the other direction..."  San Francisco became a place of refuge for people from Central America and South America, Asia, gays and lesbians from all over the United States searching for a better life.  In short, San Francisco proved that a European-style economic model could thrive on American soil.

Pedicab driver with passengers
San Francisco, California
However progressive San Francisco touted itself to be, it had one fatal flaw that would prove to be its downfall-it decided early on to stand against any new construction and development with the exception of publicly subsidized affordable residential units.  Let us put this into some historical context.

In the late sixties, this anti-new construction and development stance made sense as reaction to the urban renewal madness of the previous era.  Let us be honest, in the extremely tone deaf, misguided efforts to re-make post World War II cities, urban planners and civic officials destroyed historically racial and ethnic neighborhoods, jammed freeways through cities and worst of all, built foreboding aesthetic eyesore public housing towers.  The response to this mindless urban development activity was for urban planning to take on a more preservationist outlook.  The logic was, "Since the bad guys were trying to destroy the city, the good guys needed to defend it from change."

Masonic and Haight Streets in San Francisco

Somewhere between 1970 and 2000, the historical context changed.  In fact, as Mr. Metcalf observed, "It was, of the most profound cultural and demographic shifts in American history: after years of suburban migration, people started moving to cities again."  You can begin to see which direction this is headed in.  The return to the cities reversed the post-War trend, where virtually every major American city lost people to the suburbs for all the usual reasons: racism and white flight, an effort to flee from organized labor's influence, the need for more space, and the attraction of single-family home ownership. The jobs also moved to where the people were.  Urban divestment was the defining issue that vexed activists and politicians.

Change in city population relative to base year 1940
Source: SPUR analysis drawn from U.S, Census data 

Around 1980, the populations of cities such as New York and San Francisco began to grow again.  This took many urban theorist, at the time, by surprise.  It was a dramatic continuous growth.  For example, Mr. Metcalf writes, "Between 1980 and 2014, Boston grew by 16 percent, New York by  20 percent, San Francisco by 23 percent and Seattle by 35 percent..."  Despite these numbers, not all cities experienced a reversal of population loss. Many of the "Rust Belt" cities (eg. Detroit) have continued to see their populations shrink. Nevertheless, for a city like San Francisco with 35 years of growth under their belt, contemporary urban problems are completely different from what they were in previous generations.  Instead of dealing with
Changes in city population ("Rust Belt") relative to base year 1940
Source: SPUR analysis drawn from U.S, Census data 
divestment, blight, and stagnation, San Franciscans are dealing with the problems of rapid change and growth stress-congestion and, in particular, the high cost of housing.

Conventional thinking, "When more people want to live in a city, it drives up the cost of housing, unless a commensurate amount of places to live are added."  Makes perfect sense, right?  In the case of San Francisco, by the 1990s, it was obvious that it had a choice to make: "Reverse course on its development attitudes, or watch America's rekindled desire for city life overwhelm the openness and diversity that had made the city so special."  Care to guess which choice San Francisco made?

San Francisco Examiner headlines
Instead of adding at least 5,000 new housing units a year to deal with the upswing in demand, San Francisco only built a paltry 1,500 new residential units over the course of several decades.  Gabriel Metcalf observes, "In a world where we have the ability to control the supply of housing locally, but people still have the freedom to move where they want, all of this has played out in predictable ways."  Other cities faced the same dilemmas but San Francisco's challenge was more daunting because of its strong regional economy.  Regardless of what goes on within the city limits, the main job creation server is in Silicon Valley, just south of the city.  Over time, San Francisco became home to those employed by the tech-industry.  Unlike New York, San Francisco does not have a large network of "...regional public transit connecting hundreds of different high-density, walkable communities to the city."  Further, "In fact, neighborhoods that foster urban life and convenience are tremendously scarce in the Bay Area.  All of this means the pressure on San Francisco has proven to be even greater than other cities in the country."

House for sale in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood
REUTERS/Robert Galbraith
Ignoring the reality of the situation, San Francisco progressives hewed to their familiar anti-development stance, priding themselves as "defenders of the city's physical character."  In fact, rather than joining business and labor to create a pro-growth coalition, the San Francisco Left linked arms with the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) homeowners.  This became an odd character of San Francisco, exclusionary housing politics was called "progressive."  Sounds a little strange?  Even odder is that the anti-development stance has translated into restrictive zoning codes and the most burdensome planning and building permit process in the United States with the types of ordinances that make adding housing in the city expensive and not worth the effort.  Organized labor has allied itself with both pro- and anti-growth movements, depending on its interests.

View from Broadway Street towards the Bay Bridge
This is the West Coast edition of the 2005 book What's the Matter with Kansas by Thomas Frank.  In this tome, Mr. Frank attempts to explain "how working-class Americans came to vote for right wing politicians against their economic self-interest."  In the Bay Area's case, the anti-development, anti-new construction stance is, in essence, the equivalent of cutting off one's nose to spite yourself.  While San Francisco voters may feel a sense of disdain for monied interests, however, the end results of dogmatic adherence to this philosophy is higher rents.

Therefore, the city has gotten a reputation for astronomical rents and the once hallowed progressive housing policy has shifted to protecting long-term residents from being displaced.  The city could no longer be a refuge from immigrants or radicals across the globe.  The progressives are unable to come to grips with their central contradiction "...of being against the creation of more 'places' that would give people the chance to live in the city."  Once San Francisco closed its paisley and patchouli doors to the eccentrics, it could no longer live up to its progressive values nor do anything for the people who did already live there.

San Francisco truism
Dan Parham (@DanParham)
San Francisco, like other wealth cities around the United States will most likely stay liberal. The tolerant culture of urban life is more at home within the Democratic Party than the Republican Party.  However, once upon a time, the city had ambition to be more that what it is. Mr. Metcalf writes, "It wanted to push the envelope beyond anything that had been achieved in this country, to embrace ideas that would be politically impossible anywhere else. The insane part about it is best summed up in the above truism, "No one made San Francisco the most expensive place in the country on purpose.  That's the tragedy."  This truism was made possible by unintended consequences-high demand of people wanting to live there together with local policies that made it impossible for new housing to keep up with said demand.

Aerial view of Market Street
San Francisco, California
Hindsight is always twenty-twenty.  Who knows how things would have played out had San Franciscans acted in the eighties, nineties, or oughts to change course-had anyone realized that the land-use policies of the 1970s was turning the city into a gated community.  Gabriel Metcalf makes this point, "Let me say very clearly here that making it possible to add large amounts of housing supply in San Francisco would never have been enough by itself.  A comprehensive agenda for affordability requires additional investments in subsidies for affordable housing..."

San Francisco is not the only bad housing and land-use policy Bay Area culprit.  Thus, a more comprehensive regional strategy is required, where all cities would do their share to accommodate regional population growth instead of trying to resolve the matter within city boundaries.  San Francisco has also been part of the problem, when it could have been part of the solution.  Its suburban communities do not share the city's progressive politics, not wanting to be a refuge for people from all over the world seeking a better life and opportunities.

San Francisco is a city built on ambition and ideal.  This ambition and ideal are carried forward into this generation and the culture they are creating is going to be absolutely amazing.  However, this bright future must be tempered with policies that deal with realities of right now.  This means long-term investment in public transit to make up for the lack of investment in regional mobility, more access to economic advancement, and most important way to embrace new development without destroying San Francisco's glorious heritage.

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